November 29 – December 3: Omkareshwar, Ajanta, Ellora & Mumbai
When I got up around 6:30am, I took a look outside to check whether the sun had risen. Wow, I saw a beautiful golden reddish sun rising above the river. Siu Mui did not want to venture outside. So I went out on my own walking along the river. The air was fresh and cool. I was moved when seeing the vapour rising from the river lit up by silky morning rays. A lady was washing clothes and a man was heading to a temple. Though I originally planned to go to the riverbank below the hotel, I ended up walking the whole way to the Maheshwar Fort and the ghat. I took a photo of the steps leading to the fort without a person. Unbelievable! The sight and experience are soothing and beautiful. I would like to return and spend a few days here one day.
It was around 11am when we arrived in the village of Omkareshwar. There are two main temples of Lord Shiva here,one to Omkareshwar (or the Lord of the OmSound”) located in the Mandhata (or Shivapuri) island in Narmada River and one to Amareshwar (whose name means “Immortal lord”) located on the south bank of Narmada River on the mainland. The shape of the island is said to be like the Hindu symbol. The Omkareshwar Temple is one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines.
We crossed an iron bridge to reach the island and were thrilled to see a wedding procession. The groom and his party were dancing in the street. We watched them performing some sort of rituals and dancing for almost half an hour.
We then climbed several flights of staircases before joining the crowd to go into a tiny passpage to the sanctum enshrining the sacred Mamleshwar Jyotirlinga. The narrow passage is crowded, stuffy and smelly. I have high blood pressure and need fresh air. The fear of stampede and heart attach always haunt me. I therefore pushed through the crowd and was relieved when I was out in the open.
Mukesh took us up to the Mamleshwar Temple above the sanctum. We had fabulous panoramic views of the river, the Omkareshwar Palace (which is now a boutique hotel), the island and the mainland. Before leaving, we went to the hall where devotees made offerings.
We took the other bridge to go back to the mainland. We walked past the Gomukh Ghat which affords full views of the Omkareshwar Temple and Palace.
It was after 1:30pm when we hit the road again and did not reach Burhanpur till 4pm. Mukesh took us to Hotel Ambar for lunch. The owner is a Parsee who spares no effort in promoting the city which heritage and attractions in his views have been overlooked by tourists. He mentioned five outstanding monuments of note including the Jama Masjid constructed in black stone, which is the only mosque with script in Sanscrit, Arabic and Farsi, Mogalbag Palace which was a source of inspiration for Taj Mahal and Kundi Bhadara an unique working water system designed and constructed in 1615 during the reign of Jahangir. From almost 30m deep water comes on ground level after travelling 3km.
We decided to visit the Jama Masjid though we were in a hurry. We were received by an elderly carer of the mosque. He showed us the inscriptions in three languages and a string with 1008 enormous prayer beads.
At 5:30pm we were on our way to Jalgaog which is close to Ajanta Caves. Mukesh expected the journey to take two and a half hours. He was wrong: we took four and a half hours to cover 95km. First, we spent over half an hour at the state border between the MP and Maharshtra. Mukesh had to pay the Maharshtra a car tax of about 6000 rupees for the month of November (as the vehicle has a MP car plate). But he had to pay another 6000 rupees when the vehicle left Maharshtra on December 1. Second, the road after leaving MP was bad! Maharshtra is a rich state but the road conditions are appalling. Third, there were too many heavy vehicles on the narrow two-way lanes. India is notorious of car accidents owing to bad roads, poor and reckless driving and poorly maintained vehicles. We were scared and were relieved when we arrived in Jalgaon at our destination at 9pm.
We stayed in Hotel Mahendra which is shabby, smelly and dirty by our modest standards. I immediately checked the internet rate which was only USD28 for a twin room that day. We were upset and felt cheated by the travel agent as we had paid extra for a luxurious package. The restaurant was equally appalling. There was no hot water and the bedding looked dirty. But it was too late to move to another hotel. I did not take a shower and had to use my own sleeping sheet. As a result of our complaint, the travel agent provided us a free buffet dinner in Mumbai on December 2. But it could not compensate what we had to put up!
Day 13 November 30 Thursday: Jalgaon – Ajanata 70km – Aurangabad 100km
We set off at 8:30am as Mukesh said the Ajanta Caves would open at 10pm. But the caves open at 9am. By the time we arrived, loads of buses had already arrived. We had to take a bus at the entrance and then walked uphill to the entrance. As our guide was not available till 11am, we wandered around in the first few caves for some 20 minutes.
Ajanta Caves constituting a total of five chaitya-grihas (sanctuary and worship hall) and some 25 vihãras (monastery) excavated in a semi-circular scarp of a steep rock, about 76 metres high, overlooking a narrow sinuous gorge. Excavation was done between the second century BC to seventh century AD and the caves served as sanctuaries for Buddhist monks during the monsoons. They were accidentally discovered in 1819 by British soldiers on a tiger hunting party in the jungle.
The caves are world famous for their architectural qualities, graceful elegance and serenity sculptures and the outstanding mural paintings which . present emotion through gesture, pose and form. These are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art that influence India art that followed. The paintings and rock-cut sculptures are among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art (Most of materials on this World Heritage Site were extracts from a booklet published by the Archaeological Survey Of India).
First Phase of Excavation (around the 2nd century BCE)
Caves 2, 9 and 10 are chaitya-grihas characterised by a vaulted ceiling, the exterior facade being dominated by a huge horse-shaped window over the doorway. Internally they are divided by colonnades into a central nave, an apse and side-aisles. During that time, figures of Buddha are absent. At the centre of the apse stands the object of worship in the form of a chaitya or stupa. The rock structure imitates wooden construction.
Caves 4, 8, 12, 13 and 15A are monasteries. The plan consists of an astylar hall meant for congregation, with a range of cells on three sides, serving as the dwelling-apartments for monks.
Second Phase of Excavation (around 400-650 CE or 460-480 CE according to another scholar).
Excavations during this phase were carried out on a much more ambitious scale under the Vãkãtakas, contemporaries of the Imperial Guptas of north India. The most vigorous period of architectural and artistic activity seems to have coincided with the second half of the 5th century and the first half of the 6th century AD.
Caves 16, 26 and 29 (unfinished) are chaitya-grihas. The interior shows luxuriant carvings and the figure of Buddha appears on the central stupa.
During this phase, the general layout of monasteries was standardised though each presents some interesting and individual features. A shrine-chamber is present containing a colossal image of Buddha in the back wall opposite the doorway. It shows that monasteries were serving the dual purpose of monastic dwelling and sanctuary.
Paintings of this period show the highest standard of mural paintings in terms of their rich beauty, superb expressiveness, colour-scheme, balanced and effective composition, fine shading and highlight. The theme on the walls is intensely religious in tone and most centres round Buddha, Bodhisattvas, incidents from the life of Buddha and the Jãtakas presenting tales of the previous births of Gautama Buddha. These paintings reflect contemporary life in palace, court, town, village, hamlet and hermitage. They serve as illuminating documentary on the belief and usages, dress, ornaments, musical instruments, utensils and weapons.
The paintings on the ceiling are essentially decorative deploying endless patterns woven with flowers, plants, fruits, birds, beasts, human and semi-divine beings. Caves 1, 2 16 and 17 form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall-painting.
We had an elderly guide today. He is knowledgeable and speaks at the right speed. We could have spent the whole day in Ajanta and wished we had arrived at the site at 9am. As Mukesh suggested we leave around 2pm, we had only three hours in hand. As a result, our guide focused on the important ones namely Cave 1, 2, 4, 9,10 (the first one discovered in 1819), 16, 17, 19 (the largest vihãra) 23 (good acoustic), 24 (unfinished cave) and 26.
If I were on my own, I would even skip lunch so that I could spend at least another hours at the caves or walk up to the lookout point for a panoramic view of the gorge and caves. Anyway, such behavior would be seen as anti-social!
We were back on the road after 3pm and arrived in Aurangabad after sunset. The city founded in 1610 by Malik Amber, is a tourist hub owing to its proximity to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. Mukesh took us to visit the Bibi Ka Maqbara, burial place of Aurangzeb’s wife Rabi -ud-Durrani, which is considered a poor imitation of Taj Mahal.
We stayed at the Lemon Tree Hotel which is comfortable with good service. We had dinner in the hotel as it was late. I had a good sleep after spending a night in the worst hotel of my entire India trip.
Day 14 December 1 Friday: Aurangabad – Ellora – Aurangabad (60km) – Mumbai by train
We set off early in order to be able to spend three hours at the world famous Ellora Caves, one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple complexes in the world with over 100 caves excavated from the basalt cliffs in the Charanadri Hills. Thirty-four caves are now open to public consisting of 12 Buddhist caves (1-12), 17 Hindu caves (13-29) and five Jain caves (30-34).
Funding of the caves dating from the 600-1000 CE period was provided by royals, traders and the rich. Each group of caves shows deities and mythologies that were prevalent in the first millennium CE. They were built in proximity to one another illustrating the religious harmony that existed in ancient India. These caves had served as monasteries, temples and a rest stop for pilgrims.
We began at the Jain caves belonging to the Digambara sect first. Excavated in the ninth and early tenth centuries, they are smaller than the Hindu and Buddhist caves. But they are impressive and well-preserved featuring highly detailed carvings depicting the 24 Jinas, yaksa (male nature deity), yaksi (female nature deity) and human devotees prevalent in Jaina mythology of first millennium CE. Cave 22 is the largest and most impressive from this group.
We took a ride back to the entrance in front of the Hindu caves whichwere excavated during the Kalachuris period from the mid sixth century to the end of the eighth century (13 caves in total) and the Rashtrakuta period (reign 756- 773) from the eighth to the tenth centuries (Caves 14-16).
Our guide showed us only Cave 16, the icon of Ellora. Known as the Kailasha temple inspired by Mount Kailash in Tibet, this chariot shaped monument dedicated to Shiva, is the world’s largest single monolith rock excavation. The temple, a free standing structure, is modelled along similar lines to other Hindu temples with a gateway, an assembly hall, a multi-storey main temple surrounded by numerous shrines laid out according to the square principle, an integrated space for circumambulation, a sanctum sanctorum wherein resides the lingam, and a spire shaped like Mount Kailash. It is estimated that some three million cubic feet of stone weighing approximately 200,000 tonnes were removed to excavate this colossal temple twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens. Two of the walls in the main temple in the centre of the courtyard house rows of carvings depicting the Mahabharata, along the north side, and the Ramayana, on the south side.
Other shrines carved from the same rock are dedicated to the three river goddesses Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Three sides of the cave are lined with amazing carvings showing the ten avatars of Vishnu, Vedic gods and goddesses including Indra, Agni, Surya and Usha as well as non-Vedic deities like Ganesha, Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati), Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu), Annapurna, Durga and others. The visit provides a quick introduction to or revision of Hinduism and mythologies found in Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism.
We had a short walk to the Buddhist group of caves built either between 630-700 CE or 600-730 CE. The earliest cave is Cave 6 and Caves 11-12 are the last ones. Eleven out of the twelve caves consists of vihãras (monasteries)withprayer halls: large, multi-storeyed buildings carved into the mountain face including living quarters, sleeping quarters, kitchens, and other rooms. The caves have shrines including carvings of Buddha, bodhisattvas and saints.
Caves 5,10, 11 and 12 are architecturally important caves. Cave 5 was designed as a hall with a pair of parallel refectory benches in the centre and a Buddha statue in the rear. Our guide did not take us to see this one. But I saw Cave 11 in the Kanheri Caves: these are the only two caves in India with such layout.
Cave 10 (the Vīśvakarmā Cave), is the onlychaitya-griha (worship and prayer hall) built around 650 CE. It has a multi-storeyed entry, a cathedral-like stupa hall with eight subsidiary-cells, and a portico in the front.
The main hall is divided into a central nave and side aisles by 28 octagonal columns with plain bracket capitals. In the apsidal end of the chaitya hall is a stupa on the face of which a colossal 5-metre statue of seated Buddha in vyakhyana mudra (teaching posture). A large Bodhi tree is carved at his back. The hall has a vaulted roof with ribs carved in the rock imitating the wooden ones. Hence, it is also known as the “Carpenter Cave”. The friezes above the pillars are Naga queens, and the extensive relief artwork shows entertainers, dancers and musicians.
The front of the chaitya-grihais impressive with a rock-cut court entered via a flight of steps. The entrance has a carved facade decorated with numerous Indian motifs. Thecarved idols of male and female deities show influences from South and North India as well as the Pala dynasty style in the eastern region of India.
Caves 11 and 12 are three-storeyed Mahayana monastery caves with idols, mandalas carved into the walls and numerous goddesses, and Bodhisattva-related iconography, belonging to Vajrayana Buddhism. These are evidence to suggest that Vajrayana and Tantra ideas of Buddhism were well established in South Asia by the 8th century.
We left at 12:30pm to return to Aurangabad to catch our train to Mumbai. We invited Mukesh, Raja and Raju to join us for lunch in a restaurant close to the train station. Mukesh made sure we got on the right train and found our seats before leaving us. His eyes were moist when he stepped off the train. Our Indian friends would take two days to drive back to Khajuraho.
The train was again delayed for 20 minutes: we were relieved when it started to move at 3pm. This train was slightly better than the one we took in Agra. The 253km-long train journey took seven and a half hours. In China, the same journey on similar fairly terrain can now be made in an hour. It was 10:30pm when we finally arrived at the Mumbai train station.
It’s my first time in Mumbai’s train station. I cannot believe how smelly, dirty and messy the station is. People are lying around or sitting everywhere; the awful smell of urine and food waste permeate the station. We were received by a representative of the tour company who accompanied us to Fariyas Hotel located between Colaba Causeway and the Gateway of India.
Day 15 December 2 Saturday: Elephanta Caves and City Tour
Mumbai the capital city of the state of Maharashtra with a population of over 22 million, is the commercial, financial and entertainment capital of India. I was in Mumbai briefly thirty years ago and am ready to check out the city which has the highest number of millionaires and billionaires in the country.
By 9am, we were at the Gateway of India, the emblematic landmark of both Mumbai and the country. This yellow basalt stone monument constructed to memorializing King George V and Queen Mary’s visit to India in 1911, was inaugurated in 1924. I recalled walking around the monument on my last visit. But today, the area is condoned off and the monument seems to be under repair.
We boarded a sort of ferry filled with tourists. The wooden boat looks flimsy and dirty. Elephanta Island is 10km to the east of the city and an hour’s ride across the Mumbai harbour. The Gateway of India did not stand out as it’s hazy (possibly owing to pollution and smog). Upon arrival on the island, we had a short ride on a toy train before walking 120 steps to reach the Elephanta Caves complex consisting of five caves. There are speculations over the origins and date of construction of the caves. The more common view is that they were built between the fifth and seventh centuries.
The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. The main cave (Cave 1 or the Great Cave) dedicated to Shiva, contains rock cut stones sculptures that show synergism of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and iconography. The panels on the cave walls depict episodes in his life. On the far left is the “wedding on Shiva”. The colossal sculpture in the middle is Trimurti Sadashiva (three-faced Shiva) carved on a monolithic 6.1 metres in height is most beautiful and perfect. The sculptures of Ardhanarishvara on the right and Gangadhara on the left are also impressive.Two shrines are found on each side of the temple.
We had free time for 30 minutes. I wandered around to take a look at the remaining four caves. All are unfinished.
We took the ferry at noon and were back at the Gateway of India at 1pm. On arrival, we were met by Tasneem, our new guide in Mumbai. She is pleasant and speaks good English.
Tasneem took us to a decent local eatery near the hotel for lunch. Then we went to a spicy stall to buy cinnamon, cloves, saffron, lemon grass and other spices. We then spent two hours in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum) which foundation stone was laid in 1905 by the Prince of Wales and was opened in 1922. It was renamed after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha Empire in the late 20th century.
The museum built in brilliant Indo-Saracenic architectural style, contains a voluminous collection of artifacts. We had time only to see a few sections containing ancient sculptures, Indian miniature paintings, porcelain and ivories from China and Japan and textile.
Next, we went to Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, the place where Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – the Father of the Nation, had stayed in Mumbai and initiated various non-violent movements against the British Government. In 1955 the building was dedicated as a lasting memorial to Gandhi and his revolutionary activities. It is a two-storey small building. In the ‘Gandhi Room’ is a spinning wheel, rope bed and books. I saw some interesting old photographs, documents and framed letters including one addressed to Hitler.
Then we drove along the famous 3km-long Marine Drive along the coast of the Arabian Sea (a stretching from Nariman Point to Malabar Hills). The sun was setting and the Chowpatty Beach was full of locals watching sunset. This area is known for its Art Deco buildings built by wealthy Parsis during the early 20th century. This is the best rich residential area in Mumbai.
We had a short walk at the Hanging Gardens before having a photo stop outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (previously known as Victoria Terminus), Built in 1887 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, it was renamed in 1996 and has been inscribed on the World Heritage List as an outstanding example of Victorian-Gothic architectural style with an impressive facade, a striking stone domes, pointed arches, beautiful turrets and stain-glass windows.
I cannot believe the unbelievably filthy and horrible train station I arrived the night before is part of the World Heritage property. I must go in from the grand entrance to look at the interior on my next visit to Mumbai. We were back in the hotel after 8pm and had a free buffet dinner.
Day 16 December 3 Sunday: Kanheri Caves & End of Tour
Our Indian trip would end after Kanheri Caves. Siu Mui and I got up early, walked to the Gateway of India to watch the rising sun over the horizon. We also walked into Mumbai’s most famous Taj Mahal Palace next to the Gateway of India. I saw many migrant workers sleeping along the waterfront. The nearby quarter with a fishing community looks like a slum with rubbish covering the coast. I also saw men and children treating the sea as their toilet. No doubt, the area is filthy and smelly.
At 9am, we set off heading off to the famous laundry at Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat built during the British Raj in 1890 next to a railway station. It is essentially an open air laundromat where workmen wash by hand clothes and linens from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. There are rows of open-air concrete wash pens, each fitted with its own flogging stone. The occupation is passed down from one generation to the next. About 200 families live and work here.
The traffic was smooth on a Sunday morning. We drove through the eight-lane cable-stayed bridge –Rajiv Gandhi SeaLink – which was opened in 2009. This is the first and only major infrastructure project of note that I have seen during my month-long visit. We arrived at the Kanheri Caves around 11am.
Kanheri was an important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast by the third century CE. The Kanheri Caves complex comprises 109 caves cut into a massive basalt outcrop in the forests of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. These caves and rock-cut monuments dated from the first century BCE to the tenth century CE. Some 51 legible inscriptions and 26 epigraphs are found here.
Most of the caves are small in size. The oldest caves are relatively plain and unadorned. Each cave has a stone plinth that functioned as a bed. A congregation hall with huge stone pillars contains a stupa. Rock-cut channels above the caves fed rainwater into cisterns. Once the caves were converted to permanent monasteries, their walls were carved with intricate reliefs of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Similar to caves in Ajanta and Ellora, most of the caves were vihãras while the larger caves were chaityaswhich are lined with intricately carved Buddhist sculptures, reliefs, pillars and rock-stupas. Avalokiteshwara is the most distinctive figure.
Tasneem said most visitors stayed here for an hour and a half and would only see the ones located close to the entrance. We ended up spending three hours and followed a steep and narrow path to caves near the top of the rocky outcrop.We have seen over a dozen of caves, many of which are small and unfinished. The few caves of note are set out below.
Near the entrance is a group of four caves which are the most visited caves in Karheri. The most impressive one in the whole complex is Cave 3 – the Great Chaitya, measuring 26.3 metres long and 12 metres wide with 34 pillars around the nave and the dagoba. Half of the pillars have bases and capitals with patterns. On the jamb of the entrance to the veranda is an inscription of Yajna Sri Satakarni (c 170 CE). At the end of the veranda are two colossal figures of Buddha, about 7 metres high.
Cave 1 is an unfinishedvihãra which entrance is framed by two large pillars and has two levels. Cave 2 is a big cave but void of anything of note. Cave 4 is interesting: a small circular cell containing a solid dagoba.
To the north-east of the first four caves, is the Darbar Cave(Cave 11) in a gully formed by a torrent. It is the largest hall which served as a Dharmasala or place of assembly.
Cave 41 is a vihãra with a large advanced porch supported by pillars of the Elephanta type in front and by square ones behind of the pattern occurring in Cave 15 in Ajanta. The hall door is surrounded by mouldings and on the back wall are the remains of painting, consisting of Buddhas. In the shrine is an image, and small ones are cut in the side walls. In the large recess to the right of the porch is a seated figure of Buddha. On his left is Padmapani with ten additional heads piled up over his own.
If I were on my own, I would have walked all the way to the top of the ridge which affords superb panoramic views of the complex. We left the caves at 2pm and arrived at the airport at 2:30pm. I said good-bye to Tasneem and my Hong Kong friends whose flight to Hong Kong would be leaving at 2am. By 3pm, I had already checked in and went to the departure hall planning to spend time leisurely at the lounge. Unfortunately, though the new Mumbai Airport looks modern and impressive with lots of shops, there is no lounge for paid customers in the domestic airport. The waiting area is stuffy and crowded. Luckily my flight for Thiruvanthapuram departedon time after 5pm.
END of PART 2 of MY INDIA JOURNEY.