Some travels are utopian. From brilliant guides to a lack of raucous crowds. From welcoming hotels to incident-free rides. From one-in-a-million experiences to unforgettable random moments. My 5-day solo exploration of Aurangabad and its environs in the month of March this year was one such. Unmarred at every level.
This post is about paying it forward. It is my way of passing on all the wonderful things that made my trip memorable. Perhaps some of these tips and insights could make your journey to Aurangabad just as special as they had made mine.
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Aurangabad is no stranger to travellers. It is the springboard for excursions to the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ajanta and Ellora. It is from here that one usually sets off to explore the one-of-its-kind Lonar Crater Lake, a National Geo-Heritage Monument. Within the city itself are numerous edifices which bookmark key characters and events in India’s colourful history.
Yet, the sleepy town in the heart of the Indian state of Maharashtra seems unmoved by its role in the global tourism arena. Its traffic-free streets breathe at a leisurely pace. Its quiet neighbourhoods hum to a small-town rhythm reminiscent of the time when it was a village that went by the name Khadki.
With 52 gates built during the Mughal era scattered over its expanse, Aurangabad is often referred to by its moniker “City of Gates.” Its official name was coined by the 6th Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1653. He was the Viceroy of the Deccan back then and Aurangabad was his capital.
One of the major attractions Aurangabad offers is rock-cut architecture, also known as excavated caves. There are over 1,500 such caves in India, of which the largest number are in Maharashtra; most are Buddhist. The finest of the entire lot, the creme de la creme, are around Aurangabad.
No travel to India is complete without a visit to this city and its varied charms. What are the unique experiences to be had here? Read on to find out. ❤
[Note: Top image: Close-up of canon at Daulatabad Fort.]
1. Discover ancient stories in the painted caves of Ajanta
First to be granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in India , the Ajanta caves stand firmly in the country’s list of top attractions. Its dry fresco paintings, the largest collection of surviving examples of ancient Buddhist paintings in India, have lured many a traveller from across the world.
Painted inside the deep innards of 30 caves carved into a horseshoe-shaped cliff, the site served as a place of refuge for monks, pilgrims, and travellers in the Indian monsoon months from 2,200 to 1,500 years ago. In these walls the spiritual met the secular, the ordinary with the sublime. The result is a detailed depiction of everyday life in 5th Century AD India revealed through painted scenes of Jataka tales and Buddha’s life. Don’t miss Caves 1, 2, 10, and 26.
You may also like to read: The Painted and Sculpted Caves of Ajanta.
Travel tips: 1) Timings: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Mondays closed. 2) Ticket: Rs. 40 for Indians, Rs. 600 for foreigners. 3) MTDC guide: Syed A Hussain, cell no. +91 99 2375 9124. 4) Stay the previous night at MTDC Fardapur to have a whole day at Ajanta.
2. Marvel at the Classical architectural wonders of Ellora Caves
Often referred to in one breath with its counterpart and predecessor, Ajanta, the incredible Ellora caves, in fact, lie at a distance of 104 kilometres away from it.
Three peculiarities characterise the 34 excavated caves which date back to 550 – 950 AD. It is where three ancient indigenous Indian religions—Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism—meet. Where painting, sculpture, and architecture converge. And where monolithic art and architecture were carved out of living rock with chisel and hammer over a millennium ago. Don’t miss Caves 10 and 12 in the Buddhist series, 16 and 29 in the Hindu series, and 32 and 33 in the Jain series. The largest monolithic structure in the world, Cave 16 also known as the Kailasha Temple, is its magnum opus.
You may also like to read: India’s Classical Masterpiece: The Ellora Caves.
Travel tips: 1) Timings: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm, Tuesdays closed. 2) Ticket: Rs. 40 for Indians, Rs. 600 for foreigners. 3) 45-minute drive from Aurangabad. 4) MTDC guide: Bharat Joshi, cell no. +91 90 9688 7878. 5) Keep a full day for your Ellora visit.
3. Explore the deserted 8th Century Buddhist Aurangabad Caves
Compared to Ajanta and Ellora, you may well feel disappointed with the Aurangabad Caves. There are no architectural and artistic feats associated with it. Neither are there any exquisite paintings covering its surfaces. Then why do I have it here? Because no visit to Aurangabad can be complete without them.
If you were to visit them before the two UNESCO World Heritage sites, it would give you the opportunity to better understand the concept of excavated [rock-cut] caves in a natural setting. If after, it would be for their striking location. Deserted and untouristy, the 12 Buddhist caves divided into two groups, a kilometre apart, and dating back to the 6th and 7th Century AD are a breath of fresh air.
Travel tips: 1) Timings: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Open every day. 2) Tickets: Rs. 25 for Indians, Rs. 300 for foreigners. 3) Near Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad city.
4. Climb up one of India’s most impregnable forts at Daulatabad
Ever wanted to feel the thrill of conquering the invincible? Perched atop a 200-metre-high conical peak, Daulatabad Fort is one of India’s most impregnable forts—subsequent rulers were only able to win it by deceit. Founded by the Yadava kings in 1187 AD who named it Devgiri, it was taken over by the Khiljis [1296 AD], followed by the Tughlaks [1327 AD], and the Mughals [1633 AD]. The Tughlaks moved their capital here briefly, renaming it Daulatabad “Abode of Wealth.” The name has stuck since.
Steep steps wind their way around the hill to the summit, passing an uncommon combination of mazes, deep rock-cut moats, and triple fortified walls on its way. Guaranteed to make your knees all wobbly. Three edifices decorate the fort: Chand Minar, a lovely pink “tower of the moon,” Baradari, the favourite summer residence of the Mughals near the peak, and Bharatmata Temple a cocktail of a mosque and temple. Somewhere in-between is the Ganapati Temple taken care of by Shobha Mausi who will offer you a glass of cold water to revive those wobbly knees.
Travel tips: 1) Timings: 9:00 am – 6:00 pm, Open every day. 2) Tickets: Rs. 25 for Indians, Rs. 300 for foreigners. 3) 14 kilometres from Aurangabad. 4) Hotel Omkarashewar across the road offers fantastic potato parathas.
5. Reflect on Karma at Emperor Aurangzeb’s bare unmarked grave
Whilst rulers throughout India’s history have preoccupied themselves with grand mausoleums, one exception exists. The 6th Mughal emperor, under whose reign the empire reached its peak in geographic spread and GDP, decided to be interred in an unmarked grave, bared to the elements. His name was Aurangzeb. Known for his brutal fanaticism, Aurangzeb spent his life wiping out all traces of his adopted land’s indigenous religions to make way for Islam. Defacement of temples and hefty taxes on non-Muslims were the norm of his day.
Karma is cruel and one’s conscience even crueller. His intolerance eventually destroyed the Mughal empire. By the time he reached his death in 1707 AD, aged 89, he was beleaguered with guilt and remorse. His simple grave at Khuldabad, paid for by the monies he made from sewing prayer caps, is his apology to his god.
Travel tips: 1) Timings: Sunrise to sunset. 2) Entry is free. 3) Club it with Ellora, stopping at Khuldabad on the way back.
6. Be charmed by the Taj of the Deccan—Bibi ka Maqbara
The Taj Mahal at Agra needs no introduction. But did you know there is another Taj Mahal built by a Mughal emperor for his beloved wife in India? Referred to as the Taj of the Deccan, Bibi ka Maqbara was meant to rival Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal when commissioned in 1660, 12 years later. Synonymous with Aurangabad, the monument is the only large-scale structure commissioned by the 6th Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s son.
The Bibi or Lady in question here was Aurangzeb’s Iranian wife, Dilras Banu Begum. Aurangzeb loved Dilras to the extent that he was willing to go against his miserly, fanatic ways for her. He spent Rs. 700,000 on the edifice and commissioned Ata-ullah, son of Taj Mahal’s chief architect as its designer. Bibi ka Maqbara may not have succeeded in rivalling the Taj Mahal, but has charms aplenty of its own. 😊
You may also like to read: Aurangabad: Remnants of a Despised Emperor and his Iranian Queen.
Travel tips: 1) Timings: 7:00 am – 10:00 pm. 2) Tickets: Rs. 25 for Indians, Rs. 300 for foreigners. 3) Plan your visit for late afternoon/ sunset to see it at its loveliest. 4) Bibi ka Maqbara is located inside Aurangabad city.
7. Hike through a 52,000-year-old crater lake at Lonar
Like Aurangabad’s other trump cards, Lonar is one of its kind. Steeped in both mythology and science, it is the only hyper-velocity impact crater in basaltic rock on our earth. 52,000 years ago, a meteor weighing 2 million tonnes hurtling at a speed of 90,000 kilometres per hour smashed into the earth’s surface at this point. Some believe the meteorite is still stuck inside the saline-alkaline crater lake which houses an unusual aquatic eco-system.
That’s the science part. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu, one of its principal deities, destroyed the demon Lonasur at Lonar. Temples in honour of various gods pepper the inner slopes and rim. Whatever be your inspiration, Lonar offers one the experience to hike a wee bit into the bowels of the earth and back up to ground level.
You may also like to read: Travel Diaries: Hiking in the Lonar Crater.
Travel tips: 1) Timings: Sunrise to sunset, Open every day. Aim for an early morning hike. 2) Entry is free. 3) 4-hour drive from Aurangabad. 4) MTDC guide: Mahesh Vijay Mishra, cell no. +91 95 2797 9538.