In celebration of American Independence Day, I, along with some other students, decided to take a trip to the world heritage sites of Ajanta (left) and Ellora. It was as if we were taking a trip through time. These are caves carved out of stone, and some date back to the sixth and seventh centuries.
Ellora caves lacked the tourist trap feeling that accompanied our trip to Ajanta. The Ellora caves are unique because they have temples built by three different religious groups; the Buddhists, the Hindus, and the Jains.
Wandering around the caves was incredible, as we climbed into Buddhist monks’ cells, stood in awe of the overwhelming Hindu rock temple of Kailas, and stared in wonderment at the detail of the Jain caves (photo left).
Ajanta caves were plagued by the tourist feel, and we had to navigate our way through at least a hundred stalls selling things at perhaps five hundred times their real value before we reached the buses that took us up to the caves.
Ajanta was only relatively recently rediscovered in the 19th century by a British officer named John Smith while he was on a tiger hunt. These caves were much more controlled, and the experience was much more like being at an outdoor museum. Unlike many museums in India, however, these paintings have been well preserved and the Indian government is going to great efforts to restore these caves.
The closest city to Ajanta and Ellora is Aurangabad, so while we were near Aurangabad, we headed to Aurangzeb’s grave. Aurangzeb was the last great Mughal ruler, who insisted in being buried in this humble abode off the beaten track.
As we observed the grave (photo left), I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the fact that we were actually standing on the grave site of one of the most powerful men the world has ever seen. It was also the site of the graves of certain Chishti (a Sufi order) saints. Here we had gone from the extravagance of the Kailas temple in Ellora to the simple grave of this emperor.
It was here that I had one of the more compelling experiences I have had in India. As we walked to see the tomb of a Chishti saint, my male colleagues went before me, and I, because I am a woman, wasn’t allowed to enter.
Now, this is a fairly common experience in India (and other places in the world) as I’ve visited various places of worship. Frequently there are areas of various places of worship where I’m denied entrance because I’m a woman. But when I was told I couldn’t enter, my stomach unexpectedly dropped, and I realized that there were barriers and challenges that I faced as a woman here. I’m very aware of them in the US, since I work in a male-dominated field, but it became blatantly apparent at that moment the challenges and limitations that women all over the world face. We like to think that we live in a world of equality, but the harsh reality is that our world is filled with inequalities.
Finally, on our way back to Pune, we visited the Daulatabad (also known as Devagiri) Fort (photo right). From the extravagance of the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora, to the simplicity of Aurangzeb’s tomb, we now came upon the military genius of the various occupiers of this fort.
We wandered through bat-filled, pitch-black tunnels, explored our way through trap doors, and climbed on the ruins of this magnificent fort. It’s no wonder no one ever captured this fort through invasion. It would be nearly impossible to get through this fort without quickly getting killed. There were a few times I wondered if I would make it through without killing myself while climbing up the steps or making my way through the tunnels.
Finally we headed back to Pune. After an incredible journey through northern Maharashtra, I was glad to be back to a place where I was no longer a tourist just trying not to get ripped off, but where I am a local (at least temporarily).