the essential travel guide to aurangabad

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. Continue reading

travel diaries: hiking in the lonar crater

It was hot. Though still “spring,” the dry earth and parched twigs crackled in the heat under the relentless bleached sun. Nestled in a yawning hollow below me was a murky saline and alkaline lake. There was no path leading down. Just boulders and a smattering of clear patches.

I asked myself what the hell was I doing here.

High on every geologist’s bucket list, Lonar is the only hyper-velocity impact crater in basaltic rock on our earth. It was created some 52,000 years ago by a meteor weighing 2 million tonnes, hurtling at a speed of 90,000 kilometres per hour. Some believe the meteorite is still stuck inside the lake. But I am no geologist. For a devout Hindu, it holds in its folds scores of medieval crumbling stone temples. But I am no devout Hindu either. For the hiker, it is an opportunity to hike down and then up, an attractive enough deviation from the ordinary. Perhaps that was it. Continue reading

india’s classical masterpiece: the ellora caves

Be prepared to be bowled over.

No matter how many incredible photographs or videos you may have seen or paragraphs of eloquent text in guide books and articles you may have read, the real thing will.still.take.your.breath.away.

The Ellora caves are grander and more magnificent, yet full of intricate detailing, than you may ever have imagined.

Three ancient Indian religions are housed here. Three arts converge here. The site, spread over a two-kilometre long basalt massif, is one of the world’s largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes with more than a hundred caves. And if that were not enough, these ‘caves’ were excavated out of living rock over a millennium ago, between 550 and 950 AD to be exact, with chisel and hammer, to create ethereal art and architecture in its wake.

Come, let me take you on a virtual tour of India’s Classical masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. And in the process, inspire you to also make the journey to the Ellora caves in person. For what is life, but moments which take our breath away. 🙂 Continue reading

aurangabad: remnants of a despised emperor and his iranian queen

Aurangzeb. The very name evokes revulsion in Hindus and Sikhs alike throughout India. The butcher. Defacer of India’s rich Hindu cultural heritage. Murderer of Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur. These are but a handful of epitaphs the country’s populace remembers Aurangzeb, India’s 6th Mughal emperor by.

His path to power was no less callous—he shed no tears when conniving the cold-blooded execution of his three brothers or when placing his old, frail father under house arrest.

It is 312 years since Shah Jahan’s fanatic son, Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707 AD) has died, but the hatred has not abated one iota. Stories of his cruelty fill school text-books. Nearly every major temple in India has either been mutilated or had a mosque built over it on his orders. The shudders are still there on the mention of his name. I have seen instances of all of these with my own eyes. Continue reading

the painted and sculpted caves of ajanta

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If you were ever of the opinion that Buddhist art was all about asceticism and restraint, think again. The caves at Ajanta, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, are a lavish statement to the contrary as I discovered earlier this month on a five-day trip exploring the region in and around Aurangabad. But then, isn’t that what travel is meant to do? Break perceptions. 🙂

Imbued with sensuality borrowed from its sibling, Hinduism, ancient Buddhist art in its parent country is filled with nudes performing graceful mudras, figures wrapped in erotic embraces, and faces marked with raw emotion. Interspersed in this human carnival are serene, silent, meditating Buddhas, perfectly at peace in their company.

The mix of spiritual with secular, ordinary with sublime are common traits in Indian aesthetics. Why then should Buddhist art have been any different! Continue reading

global travel shot: lonar crater, a meteorite’s shot at earth

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“That’s where the meteorite came hurtling from,” my guide Mahesh points towards the Gomukh Temple perched on a slight dent in the rim.

“When was this?” I ask, breathless, as I slip over rubble and step gingerly down boulders, trying hard to look where he is pointing to and not go tumbling down in the process.

“Some say 52,000 years ago, some say 570,000 years ago.” Continue reading

photo essay: ftii, stories of indian cinema told and untold

What is Pune without the FTII? Okay, one may say “lots” as my previous post 36 hours in Pune blatantly states. But one cannot deny FTII is integral to the city, and historically, even to the country.

Its contribution to Indian cinema through its alumni is legendary. Whether it be the histrionics of Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, and Naseeruddin Shah or the directorial vision of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and Prakash Jha, each has added a gem or two in India’s prized entertainment business—Bollywood.

FTII, the Film and Television Institute of India’s history is no less captivating. Christened Film Institute of India in 1960, the autonomous body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and a member of CILECT, was given its current name in 1974.

Though I am no movie buff, to be Indian translates to a love for cinema. But alas, one cannot just walk into FTII’s famed campus in the north-west outskirts of Pune. Closed to the public, the Institute opens its doors to common-folk on rare occasions. One such was for a heritage walk during the heritage week organised jointly by Janwani and Intach Pune. Continue reading

36 hours in pune


Pune youth at the 8th Century Pataleshwar Cave Temple celebrating Pune Heritage Week
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It took me three years to make the journey to Pune, a city nestled in the Sahyadri hills four hours by road and 149 kilometres away from Mumbai.

Every second person I have met in Mumbai has been somehow connected to Pune. It is either through their family or studies [when they were younger] or if nothing else a place they go to chill out. I figured this in itself warranted I see it with a local, and here I mean a Mumbaikar with one foot in Pune. And so I waited. And waited. Till my desire to explore the city out-weighed the comfort of a well-versed, impossible to pin down, human guide.

Clueless about the geography of the city, but armed with a smattering of facts, figures, and stories from poring over books and articles, I found myself one fine morning seated on a bus aptly named Shivneri. For the uninitiated, Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj was born in Shivneri Fort on the outskirts of Pune.

But more of that later on in the post. I was headed to Mumbai’s lesser known and lesser glamorous, yet historically and culturally [as I was soon to discover] richer neighbour. It also happened to be heritage week in Pune which turned out to be in my favour. Continue reading

st. mary’s church in camp, the oldest anglican church in the deccan

For some obscure misguided reason, I was under the assumption Camp [the Cantonment] area in Pune would be just one road. To add to it, my rather simplistic imagination envisioned Pune’s famed historical churches, built to serve the then Poona’s British Raj gentry, to be standing sentinel on both sides of it in a homogenous line. I could not be more wrong.

After being driven through a maze of wide, empty streets on a Sunday morning, I found myself dropped outside a poker faced, art deco facade by a cab driver with the announcement, “Old church.” Before I could ask or argue he had sped away, and there was I in the slowly rising heat, wondering, my brows raised towards the heavens, where the hell was I?

Almost, as if in answer, a woman with a beaming smile stepped out and wanted to know what I was looking for. Her name was Sheeba Reuben Deshmukh, a counsellor and committee member of the Oldham Methodist Church, the church I had been dropped at.

I explained to her I was a blogger from Mumbai and exploring Pune that weekend.

“Have you been to St. Mary’s?” Continue reading

kelkar museum: one man’s collection of 21,000 objets d’art

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Chess: Ivory; Maharashtra; 18th Century

“Aapko andar aadhaa ghanta hi lagega [It will only take you half an hour inside],” the auto rickshaw driver tells me with full conviction. A little voice inside of me shakes its head and mutters, “Naaaa, an hour. I need an hour.”

Neither know me well. I end up spending two hours.

Remember when we were little children and the whole world was one fantasy land filled with fantastical objects, much like an Aladdin’s cave? The Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum is a manifestation of that fantasy.

Tucked inside an obscure lane in Pune’s Old City—2,500 pieces of a whopping 21,000 objet d’art collection—are displayed over three floors and 42 sections of what was once Dr. Dinkar G. Kelkar’s (1896 – 1990) home. Though much of the edifice is now a museum the family continues to live in a portion closed to the public. Continue reading

pune heritage walk: lal mahal and shaniwar wada

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Aah, those wondrous figures who live on in the dusty worn out pages of time—the larger than life legends who changed the course of history! I am talking about Chhattrapati [Sovereign] Shivaji Maharaj [top left image] and Peshwa Bajirao I [top right image] of the Maratha Empire.

Though India’s Mughal-centric history has pushed the Maratha Empire to its periphery, it lives on, passionately and firmly embedded in Maharashtra, its founder’s state, and in Pune, the empire’s political seat. Continue reading

global travel shot: a sweetmeat shop owner’s gift to pune

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dagdusheth_ganpati

Welcome to my Pune series.

I decided to start my collection of posts on Mumbai’s less glamorous neighbour with the story of the above deity, Dagdusheth [Halwai] Ganpati. It reflects, perhaps most aptly, the depth of Pune’s cultural heritage in its seemingly commonplace everyday places—a heritage which is felt many times over at a pan-national level. Don’t believe me? Read on. 🙂

At first glance the effigy appears to be merely an oversized kindly Ganpati, Maharasthra’s most loved god, and the remover of obstacles. Covered in 8 kilograms of gold, and insured to the tune of US$150,000, the Ganpati is a devotee’s gift to the city and birthplace of the annual Ganeshotsav [Ganesh festival]. Continue reading