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From Nanded it was a short 5 hour train journey to Aurangabad, the base point to the world heritage listed Ajanta and Ellora caves. On the train I started to read a book given to me just before I left called ‘The Prophet’ (by Kahlil Gibran). It’s a century old and resonates with insight and powerful prose. The man sitting opposite kept staring at the book – The Prophet written in bold letters and a weird self portrait on its cover.

I could tell he was Muslim from his features, and started to worry that he would think I was reading something blasphemous. Everyone knows that its extremely offensive to Muslims to show images of the prophet Mohammad. Sure enough, when I tried to put the book away, he gestured for me to pass it over, which I did, rather hesitantly.

He slowly thumbed through the book, embarrassingly lingering on areas I’d marked for reference, and nodding thoughtfully. He asked if the story was about a real prophet, and I explained that it was simply a spiritual story written by a Palestinian in the early 20th century. In halting English he told me he thought it was a beautiful book, and he would like a copy. I would have given him mine, but it was gift. Instead I took his email address and promised to email him a version I had downloaded off the Internet.

The view from the train window was pepered with industrial scenes, steel mills belched black sulphurous smoke, and the landscape was parched and dusty. More like the India I had imagined, than the India I had been travelling through.

When I arrived in Aurangabad I was exhausted, so I eschewed the endless list of things to see in the guidebook, to simply rest, recharge and recuperate. I found an Internet cafe and spent several hours clearing and responding to emails, as wells as burning Cd’s (of photos) and uploading postings and images to this blog.

I was staying near some mid-market shops and took a wander. Western brands were sold everywhere: Levis, Samsonite, and various others were sold at least 30% cheaper than back home. A sudden desire to go shopping mad took hold of me, but I cooled down once I realised I’d have to lug the stuff around for another 6 weeks, and that I had no space in my backpack. Delhi’s my last stop, and I plan to go shopping mad there!

I got up late the next morning, and had breakfast at a roadside restaurant. Rickshaw drivers could smell the fresh meat of a new arrival, and started to congregate at the entrance, like sharks at a seal run. Whilst they were distracted I legged it out of the front and walked full speed in the opposite direction. Nevertheless one started to follow me. I ran through a series of James Bond double bluff manoeuvres to try and shake him, but before I knew it he was along side, asking my name, where I was from, what I had seen etc… He went through the classic ‘I’m your best mate’ routine. It’s very clever as it almost always catches you off your guard. They then hit you with ‘I’ll show you all the sites’, or a story of woe about how bad business/life is usually including information about sick kids, or something that makes you feel incredibly guilty. If this fails, they tend to drop the nice guy line and start getting pushy. And that inevitably moves me from being polite to being pissed off!

When I refused to be taken in by all his spangly tales, he started telling me the caves were miles away, the buses took hours and I’d have to wait for ages. All of this bore some grain of truth, but were generally large distortions; and it’s designed to be incredibly convincing at the time. I simply asked him to drop me at the bus station which annoyed him no end, and he took my money with menace!

A hair raising 45 minute bus ride later, I unceremoniously hauled myself off (the still moving) bus at the road to the Ellora caves. A troupe of black faced languors groomed each other under the shade of a large Banyan tree. A hawker offered peanuts to the local tourists to hand feed them. I admit I was tempted, but rather put off by the size of the beasts. After standing and staring for a good five minutes (a typically Indian activity) I sauntered towards the cave complex. It was midday and the heat was dry and intense (mid 30’s). The road led directly to cave 16, the magnificent Kailasa temple. This is the only one you have to pay to see, and (for India) it’s quite expensive. I asked for a ticket in Hindi and almost got away with the local price (foreigners pay 10 times more), but he took one look at me and thwacked me for the full price, it was worth a try!

Calling this a cave may have been technically accurate but did no justice to it’s majesty and beauty. It’s a jaw dropping man-made edifice. The largest monolithic sculpture on the planet. A good ten storeys high and five storeys wide. According to my guidebook, it covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and double the height and dates back to around 760AD. A quarter of a million tons of rock were carved out by several thousand workers over two centuries, with not a Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen in sight.

The sculpture represents Mount Kailash, the God Shiva’s home in the Himalayas. Huge elephants lined the ‘courtyard’, a giant chariot sat at the base of the central edifice. Climbing three flights of rock cut stairs (very Flintstones), one was surrounded by intricate carvings of Gods, Goddesses, and animals. At the mid point was the central temple, the spiritual heart of the ‘cave’.

Busloads of school children and local tourists had begun to arrive and the peaceful contemplative quiet was quickly broken by non-stop whooping, hollering, screaming and shouting. I elected to leave and check out a few of the other caves.

The Ellora caves number 34, and are spread out over 2 km. The earliest are Buddhist, followed by Hindu and then Jain. After the extravagant gaudiness of the Hindu caves, the Buddhist caves were impressive for their beautiful simplicity. Over time the blackened rock had aged and weathered, only sheltered crevices allowed a glimpse into the cream and ochre art which once adorned the walls.

A number of caves were only partly completed, which gave a real insight into how they were once constructed. Here, carvings were abandoned ‘mid-chisel’. Faceless and generously bosomed nymphs peered skyward in eery grandeur. I was impressed that the sculptor’s carved the best ‘bits’ first, but had no one to make cheap and sexist jokes to at the time which was very disconcerting. My second favourite temple was cave 10, with its giant Buddha under a concave dome, ridged with faux rafters (carved from the rock), surrounded by pillars, for me it was awe-inspiring.

I was starting to get a little caved-out (see what I did there, it’s the opposite of caved in…), so I hurriedly checked out the Jain temples (more of the same), before heading back on the road home. A man in a huge rickshaw (a rick bus?) chock full of people told me it was only 18 rupees to get back to Aurangabad, so in the spirit of adventure I hopped on. We then headed very slowly back home. At one hilarious point a cyclist overtook us, which shows how overloaded we were. Halfway there he stopped and unexpectedly hauled us out and into a waiting 4X4. I usually marvelled at how many people are normally crammed into these things but did not expect to be one of them. A full five adults (incl me) were pushed into the front with the driver. I had my right foot just to the left of the clutch, and my left foot just to the left of the gears, the driver had to reach between my knees to change gear! With a jolt we set off, overtaking trucks who were themselves overtaking trucks, forcing motorcycles off the road as they frantically flashed their headlights and tooted their horns. Not once did the driver flinch or brake unnecessarily, truly amazing.

When we were dumped in Aurangabad, I asked a fellow passenger how far we were from my hotel, he said ‘no more than 15 minutes’ and that as it was on his way he would take me there. I was exhausted and did not face arguing with another rip-off rickshaw walla so I set off with him. 50 hellish minutes later this guy stops and surreptitiously asks for directions, and I realise we’ve walked in a giant circle! India lesson #321: take rickshaws when tired, and think twice before joining helpful, nice but dim locals with no sense of direction!

I took the next day off, only visiting the ‘little Taj’, a not so inspiring mausoleum based on the original Taj, and built by the ‘evil’ emperor Aurangzeb. The only notable incident was the trouble I got into for using my tripod (apparently there was a forbidding sign somewhere), I got out of it with some more James Bond moves by losing myself in a bus load of tourists and hot footing it off to a waiting rickshaw, heart pumping the whole while.

On the third day I met up with two Canadians (Scott and Jen) who I had first met in Goa, and we three travelled to the Ajanta caves at an obscenely early hour. The Ajanta caves were the ‘same same but different’, from Ellora. Smaller, more decorative, with a stronger Buddhist contingent – we selected a fast talking guide who took a dim view of (my) questions and any slacking of his breakneck speed. As we trudged round a pervasive smell of BO followed us, and I started to worry it was me, until the French girl who was tagging along with our guide, strolled past me and I received a full frontal assault of the senses. Not known for my tact I was a hairs breadth from pulling her aside and giving her a lecture on how sans deodorant or au natrel doesn’t work in India, but instead stood as far away as possible from her for the rest of the tour.

We had an uninspiring brunch and headed home. On the way, Jen and I had a long conversation about life, the nature of friendship, work, business, anger, loss and India. A fairly typical travellers conversation. And she did help me figure out one particular friend related dilemma, with a good dose of common sense and telling me not to be so worried about others, and to spend more time thinking about what I want and need, and that I should expect more from others. I felt like giving her some cash for the advice!

I took the next day off, not because I was tired, but because I elected to avoid a number of monuments due to my intense dislike of Aurangzeb, the Muslim emperor after whom the town was named. Unlike the great Muslim emperor Akbar* (Steve, you’re only allowed one funny comment here), who was wise, spiritual and religiously tolerant, the fanatic Aurangzeb showed the very worst traits of incredible religious intolerance, zeal, faux piousness, and unconscionable cruelty (isn’t it strange how in the name of religion people perform the most barbaric acts?), and I would not waste one second visiting his tomb or other ‘places of interest’. If any of you care about it, his reign although extensive and broadened in his lifetime, collapsed on his death, the seeds sown by him were reaped with the collapse of the entire empire, he was (thank fully) the last of the Mughal emperors.

So instead I spent the afternoon watching US TV shows: Friends, Jay Leno, and the OC series II finale! For those who don’t know it, I rate series one of the OC as one of the all time great TV shows, it’s awesome!

My train was at 23:30, and the show finished at 23:00, but nerves got the better of me and I left the hotel at 22:45 for the station. I needn’t have bothered because the train was 1.5 hours late!

The train arrived at 1am, and I was finally on the way to the big smoke, slum city, the metropolis that is Mumbai.

Stay tuned for the next ‘episode’ of the SS!

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