The Taj Mahal may get all of the glory, but it’s India’s ancient Ellora and Ajanta caves – designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, dating back some two millennia – that are the country’s true star attractions. These underrated archaeological wonders are brilliant examples of cave temple architecture, showcasing an artistic and architectural legacy brimming with exquisitely carved sculptures, magnificently detailed wall paintings, and ornately fashioned chambers, pillars, and facades, all painstakingly carved into cliff faces by devout ancient Indian craftsmen.
The caves have remained relatively undiscovered and under-promoted to foreign travelers (though the word is widely out to local Indian tourists, who swarm the place on weekends and holidays), but those willing to make the effort to access the far-flung site, set outside of the city of Aurangabad (a one-hour flight from Mumbai), can tap into their inner Indiana Jones at India’s best-kept secret.
Ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain Faiths Unite at the Ellora Caves
This complex of 34 cave temples and monasteries comes carved side-by-side into an escarpment, with sections dedicated to the three main religions of ancient India: the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain faiths. These awe-inspiring sanctuaries, dating back to a period spanning the 5th to 11th centuries, are the hammer-and-chisel handiwork of the pious, and a testament to ancient India’s historic spirit of tolerance. Within each cave site, an inspiring mix of artistic expression and surprising technological knowhow prevail; expect dazzling sculptures, detailed bas-reliefs, and soaring vaulted ceilings. Don’t miss the Buddhist temple in Cave 10, with its semi-circular ribbed architectural chamber, Buddha stupa, and ornamental facade; the colossal Kailasa Hindu temple in Cave 16, rich in intricately carved sculpture and architectural detail (it’s billed as the largest cave temple in the world); and the Jain-inspired Cave 32, an open court with colossal sculptures and a monolithic shrine. Admission $5; closed Tuesdays.
Ajanta Reveals India’s Most Remarkable Cave Paintings
The caves at Ajanta date back to the 2nd century BC, established by a group of nomadic Buddhist monks seeking refuge during the monsoon season – they carved temples and monasteries deep into the rock face, and adorned them with Buddha-themed wall paintings and sculptures. The horseshoe-shaped site, pocked by a stream-carved, forested gorge, is idyllic indeed, and home to masterpieces that are widely heralded as the beginning of classical Indian art. Of the 29 caves, highlights include Cave 1, with its brilliant depiction of Bodhisattva Padmapani (one of Ajanta’s most famous images), and Cave 26, showcasing a massive reclining Buddha, detailed sculpture panels, and a well-decorated stupa. Admission $5, closed Mondays.
Making it Happen
Bunk down at the lodge-style, 36-room Hotel Kailas, a well-oiled and long-established operation (open since 1970), set just a stone’s throw from the Ellora Caves on pleasantly manicured grounds. It’s your best lodging bet for getting first dibs on access to the site in the morning (or on being the last to leave). The ecofriendly property is partially powered by solar energy and offers clean and spacious no-frills units; upgrade to a cottage for the most charm and best cave views. A well-run café, though a bit pricey, offers a variety of dishes; dine in the pleasant garden terrace and ogle the caves in the distance. Standard rooms start from $27/night; cave-view cottages from $55/night.
Located in India’s Maharashtra state, the Hotel Kailas and Ellora Caves are set about 20 miles from the airport in Aurangabad; the Ajanta Caves are situated some 60 miles from Aurangabad (and are about the same distance from the Ellora site). Flights to Aurangabad from Mumbai and Delhi are available daily on carriers like Jet Airways, SpiceJet, and Air India.
Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!