Ellora Caves

Our escape to Goa was hindered by sickness and breakdowns. Something we ate or drank made us ill. We suspect  the ‘mineral’ water we’d bought at a roadside hotel was in fact bottled tap water. Here you always watch out that the cap is sealed properly, but some places have been known to refill bottles and seal them again. What ever it was had me wake up with a queasy tummy in the middle of the night and Aidan, who kept drinking water, trying to get better, ended up spewing it all out again. He decided we should move on anyways since the hotel we were in was pricey and horrible (hadn’t been able to find anything that night).

We rode slowly, stopping every now and again so Aidan could throw up. He rode as if he was going to slide off the bike like a Dali clock but insisted on going on. The last diversion off the smooth two lane highway failed to return to it and we were bouncing along gravel and deep potholes trying to avoid the trucks hidden in the dust clouds. It was hell, even if you’re feeling great. When the road got a little better, we pulled into a quiet side road, where Aidan curled up on our jackets in the shade and fell asleep straight away. He said later he had no idea how he got there!

Today was supposed to be a high mileage day so we could make it to Aurangabad. No chance. When the shadows grew longer and the mozzies threatened to devour us entirely, we got up again, planning to stay in the next hotel we could find. But Nila had other ideas!

The chain jumped off, so I rolled to the roadside and slid it back on (yes, it’s that lose). 500 metres later it was off again. This time I had a proper look: the rear wheel bearing was shot, allowing the sprocket to wobble and the chain to come off. Shit! Luckily a couple of guys soon stopped and called a mechanic in town. While we waited Aidan was bent double over his bike, nothing left to throw up. When the mechanic finally arrived, he couldn’t help by the road side. So we tied the rear wheel and sprocket together with a bungee cord and rolled at 20kph to his workshop in the next town, 15km away.

As soon as got there, a massive crowd formed within seconds, climbing over other bikes and into parked tuk-tuks to get a better view. We were truly off the beaten track here! The mechanic had to shuffle the various school children and men out of the way to even get to my bike. He told us to hide inside his workshop, but that did very little to disperse the crowd. Word had got round that the big blue 220cc Pulsar belonged to a foreigner. When Aidan went back to retrieve his valuables from curious fingers, he almost drowned in the crowd.

And then a well educated gentleman in fancy Indian garb requested politely that we answer a few questions. He’d brought the crowd in with him, so I dragged them back outside, promising to give the interview if they gave our mechanic space to work. I was cross questioned about our names, education, job titles, European culture and why we were here. He could not understand we simply wanted to explore India and kept asking what the purpose of our visit was. Eventually I avoided the topic with a compliment to the country’s colorful culture and beauty and escaped back to the workshop.

When Nila was fixed, we thanked our mechanic and he requested a photo or two with us. But things soon got out of hand, the crowds threatening to flood the tiny shed, so he told us to leave (with a rather embarrassed expression on his face – it is rude to tell guests to go away and goes against his very helpful nature, but the crowds gave him no choice). The individuals in the crowd were just curious, wanting a look or a photo, but all together they became quite a threatening entity. There were so many now, we couldn’t see the crossroads 200m ahead. As I waited for Aidan to fetch his bike, kids began fiddling with my stuff. A guy who saw how unhappy I was getting told me to ride off. When I said I was waiting for my husband, he nodded understandingly and started shooing the kids off. We finally escaped, engines revving, horns honking to find a hotel at the edge of town. Aidan was still feeling crappy and it was getting dark anyways.

The journey to Goa was becoming a bit of an endurance test, so we decided to brake it up and pop by some caves first. The Ajanta ones are supposed to be amazing, but also tourist overrun, our guide book advising that it is extremely hard to imagine the Buddhist monks strolling about or meditating. The caves at Ellora, however, have their quiet moments. Built after the Ajanta ones, the first few are Buddhist, the next few Hindu and the final bunch Jain, in line with whatever religion was in fashion at the time. And they sport an amazing temple to Ganesh, carved out of a solid rock – not a cave, this one, but a free-standing monolith, looking remarkably like a normal temple built from the ground up. It took four generations of kings, architects and craftsmen to build. And that intrigued us.

We rode past overgrown castle walls and towers into the super busy, dusty Aurangabad and found a nice, cheap guesthouse to hole up in. Our tummies still queasy, we went for a stroll around town and dared a beer for dinner. Bad plan! Next day we felt all sick again. By lunchtime we’d finally got our act together and rode through town, back to Ellora. Having a good snoop round all 34 caves takes all day. We arrived in the early afternoon, so we decided to start with the early Buddhist ones and see how far we get.

Luckily most tourists come for the Hindu and Jain caves, and the temple I mentioned above. So we managed to have a few quiet moments in the Buddhist caves. The earliest ones are real simple, just a big room with small sleeping chambers off it. The monks are said to have lived here.

With time the caves got more elaborate, with columns, a big Buddha in his own little chamber at the back and some statues at the entrance or along the cave walls. Later statues of Buddha’s other incarnations and other creatures of the faith join him, both in his little back chamber as well as in the rest of the cave.

The later Buddhist caves from the 8th century have three floors. From the outside the square columns give them an almost multi-storey car park feel. And the ground floor doesn’t contain anything but columns and sleeping chambers. But go upstairs you are treated to elaborate assembly halls with Buddhas and some Hindu figures – evidence that the Hindus took over the cave once the Buddhists had left. Few tourists climb up here and we had these cave to ourselves for a long while. With no lamps the light fades through the columns and the back of the caves with their Buddhas in their chamber are quite dark and eerie. You really start to feel some of the spirituality of this place, disturbed only by bats whizzing from shadow to shadow.

One cave is almost like a giant church with a barrel-vaulted roof, stone ribs imitating the wooden beams a free-standing building would have had. reminding me a bit of a giant ribcage. A giant Buddha presides over it, not confined to a chamber at the back this time.

The Hindu caves become less elaborate in architecture, though one has a free-standing ‘Hall of Dance’ in front. They are covered in carvings and statues of the various Hindu gods, often depicting scenes of their many myths. These caves are favoured by the Indian tourists and so we found them full of screaming children. Still feeling decidedly under the weather and a little hot and bothered from climbing rocks and steps in heavy bike boots in the afternoon sun, we had little patience for the bustle and noise, so we sought out the quieter caves. It soon turned out the reason they were quiet, was that they didn’t look or feel very special.

The steps to the further away Jain caves were blocked off, exposing us to a horde of tuk-tuk drivers who insistently bugged us to hire them for the short journey to those caves at extortionate prices. Tired and still sick, we begrudgingly gave them a miss and turned to the promised delight of cave 16: the free-standing temple masterpiece. You can walk all the way around between rock wall and building. It’s intricately carved and (dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant headed god) decorated with loads of elephants. Sadly some invading Muslims have knocked most of the trunks off a long time ago.

It is incredible that the entire thing is carved from the solid rock hillside! There are several parts to the temple with a terrace around the inner sanctum and a viewing terrace over the valley.

And of course we were surrounded by a horde of school children wanting to take pictures. One teacher approached me, asking if I would talk to two fifteen-year-old students of his. The two girls were mighty embarrassed but we had a little polite conversation anyway.

Sufficiently amazed by the caves and queasy enough to wish we were in bed, we finally rode back to the hostel, where we curled up for the night with some supplies of ice cream, cashews, rusks and beer from the shops round the corner. Tomorrow we would launch attempt No two towards Goa.

But it wasn’t gonna be that easy! Nila decided to spew oil all over my boots and jeans. A local mechanic tried to fix it while a wedding procession, complete with lorry loaded with amps and speakers, booming Indian pop music drove past. Turns out we needed spare parts, so he bodged it back together, sending us on our way to Bajaj in the next town, warning us to go slowly! slowly! We went past the procession again. It’s a great sight! The music is deafening and the men dance and squiggle in the strangest exotic suggestive wiggles. Shame I was too busy with my ailing engine to take a picture.

And guess whose wedding it was? The Bajaj place sent us to another at the other end of town as their engine specialist was getting married today. By the time we’d crawled there, it was late and the bike wouldn’t be finished till sundown. So we just checked into a hotel close by. Tomorrow would be another day to ride on!


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