Aurangabad (230 kilometers northeast of Mumbai) is a city of about 1.2 million people that serves as a convenient jumping off point for visiting Ajanta and Ellora Caves, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Named after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the city of Aurangabad is speckled with beautiful and legendary monuments, a legacy of the Mughals, who reigned from here in 1653. From the marvellous Bibi-qa-Maqbara, a replica of the world-famous Taj Mahal, to the formidable Daulatabad Fort, Aurangabad is steeped in history that is evident in its glorious ancient structures.
In the late 17th century, Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperors established the capital of the Mughal here so he could run his campaign to conquer the Deccan Plateau. His city had a wall with 53 gates. In recent years, Aurangabad has partaken in Maharashtra’s economic boom more as an industrial center than a technology center. Bajaj, India’s leading maker of motorcycles and motor scooters, has a large factory here.
Aurangabad has typical chaotic old town areas flanked by middle class neighborhoods with health clubs and cafes. Sites worth visiting city include the 12 Aurangbad Caves, which date to between the A.D. 3rd and 11th centuries; Bibi Ka Maqbara, a mausoleum built in 1660 that looks like a miniature Taj Mahal; and Panchakki, a historic water mill which uses an underground water supply to turn large grinding stones. The History Museum of Marathwada University contains exhibits of materials from the Satavahana dynasty.
Getting There: By Air: Aurangabad is well-connected to all the major cities like Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Udaipur. By Road: Aurangabad is well-connected by rail to all major cities in the country. By Train: Aurangabad is connected with good roads to major cities in the country.
Shopping in Aurangabad
A wide range of regional handicrafts makes Aurangabad a shopper’s haven. One can buy unique styles and crafts like Himroo shawls that have an extra layer of loose silk weft, which makes them so soft that they almost feel like silk. Some popular Himroo items that you can buy are shawls, pillowcases, jackets, bed sheets, coats and curtains. A Paithani sari is a treat if you're in Aurangabad. A luxurious weave, it has the distinction of looking exactly the same on both sides, including the border and the pallu.
The time taken to create a sari is about a month or two and involves careful coordination of hand, foot and eye. While one color thread is used length-wise, another color is used width-wise. This step enables the sari to reflect light off it and display a beautiful color play. In fact, it appears as it the sari is almost changing its color. A unique handmade paper that is manufactured in the village of Kaghzipura is also a must-buy. This art of paper-making is said to be about 700 years old, dating back to the times of Muhammad Tughalaq, the Sultan of Delhi. Another attraction is bidriware and one can buy many articles like plates, bowls, vases, ashtrays, jewelry etc., which are made with gold and silver thread inlaid in copper.
The locals have patronised the Himroo factory for about a century and a half and visit to this regional landmark will certainly make it obvious why that is so. Himroo is traditionally a weaving technique indigenous to Persia. Now, the Himroo Factory showroom is one of the best places in the city for blouses, coats, cloaks, Paithani saris, handloom shawls, bedcovers and furnishings created in the indigenous style.
Bibi Ka Maqbara
Bibi Ka Maqbara (three kilometers north of Aurangabad) is the burial place of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s wife, Dilras Banu Begum (popularly known as Bibi). She was given the title of Rabia-ud-Durrani (“Modern Day” Rabia). The title refers to the memory of Rabia Basra, who was an Iraqi aristocratic woman, well known for her generosity and kind-heartedness.
Bibi Ka Maqbara was built by Aurangzeb’s son, Azam Shah, in 1678. Made in the memory of his mother, the monument is very similar in design to the iconic Taj Mahal, and is popularly known as the Taj of the Deccan. It is one of the few grandiose Mughal monuments in the Deccan because of Aurangzeb’s long-term association, as the governor, with the region. The chief architect of this monument was Ustad-Ata-Ullah, a Persian. Such was its renown that it has been mentioned in the work of French travel writer, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who gives a lot of details about the initial stages of its construction. According to inscriptions, the cost of the construction of this grand monument was INR 665,283.
The mausoleum is flanked by spacious Mughal gardens with axial ponds, fountains, water channels, broad pathways and pavilions. The gardens at Bibi ka Maqbara are designed in the Char-Bagh pattern, the signature style of most Mughal gardens. These are gardens with a four-fold plot that have a large enclosure with essentially four geometric gardens in it. The monument has four minarets, about 72 feet high, and the raised plinth is surrounded by an octagonal lattice-screen of white marble. The tomb itself is surrounded by octagonal screens of marble lattice work. There are a lot of marble plates and screens that adorn the mausoleum and have repeated patterns of lotus medallions, rosettes and floral patterns.
Aurangabad Caves (just north of Bibi Ka Maqbara, four kilometers north of Aurangabad) is a set of 12 Buddhist caves dating from the 3rd century. Almost hidden between lush hills, they were not found by Westerners until the mid 19th century.From these are rock-cut caves are spectacular views of the city of Aurangabad and Bibi ka Maqbara.
Caves 3 and 7 are said to be the most interesting. Caves1 and 3 belong to the later Mahayana period. In terms of the floor plan, the pillar layout and the detailing are similar to Caves 21 and 24 at Ajanta. The western group consists of Caves 1 to 5, while the eastern group consists of Caves 6 to 10. Cave 4 is a chaitya, which is the only one of its kind to have been excavated during the later Satavahana period. Cave 6 is inscribed with figures of decked up women. The idols are in a good state and give the visitor a great idea of the aesthetic of the period. The cave also contains a Buddha idol and a Ganesha idol. Female sculptures of bejewelled women abound in Cave 7 and the style indicates a growing influence of Tantric Buddhism.
. Most of these caves are viharas, residential cells, with some having clear Tantric influences in the architecture and iconography. James Bird was the first one to give an account of Aurangabad Caves, in 1847, in his Historical Researches. Later, John Wilson and James Burgess gave detailed accounts of the caves as important historical monuments.
Soneri Mahal (in the hills of thay house Aurangabad Caves) is a palace by a Bundelkhand chief, who accompanied Mughal emperor Aurangzeb into the Deccan region. It was built between 1651 and 1653 and converted into a museum in 1979. Prominent exhibits include remnants from regional palaces, antiques, coins, ancient pottery, paintings, reliefs and sculptures found during local excavations.
Daulatabad Fort (14 kilometers from Aurangabad) is a remarkable structure built in 1187 with a deep moat and spiral passageway carved out of solid rock. Towering over the landscape on a 200-meter-high conical hill and spread over 95 hectare, the fort is the epitome of Deccan perseverance and strategic ingenuity. In its heydays, the fort was considered impenetrable, owing to a complicated series of defences around and inside it.
Mahakot, or the four distinct walls with 54 bastions surround the fort for a length of nearly 5 kilometers. The walls are about 6 to 9 feet thick and 18 to 27 feet high. Ammunition depots and granaries housed inside in the premises add to the thrill of exploring this historical stronghold. Another interesting feature is Hathi Haud, a gigantic water tank with a capacity of about 10,000 cubic meters. Today, the huge crater leaves one in awe of its size. You can also visit the Chand Minar, which stands at a height of 30 feet. The Tughlaq era royal bath, an elite structure, is a must-visit. It has massage chambers, provisions for hot baths and steam baths for which water was supplied through well-laid tanks, channels, pipes, ventilators etc.
Travelers should notice the remains of the moat, the fortified walls, the step wells, the court building, a unique temple dedicated to Bharat Mata, a hall of public audience, water cisterns and a rock-cut passage. A lower city complex consisting of main routes and by-lanes was also revealed through recent excavation.
Situated on the Aurangabad to Ellora road, the fort was built by king Bhillama V, a Yadava ruler, in 1187. The city was then known as Deogiri, or the abode of Gods. The grandiose fort was desired by a number of influential rulers throughout history because of its strategic importance. Muhammad Tughlaq, the ruler of Delhi, was so impressed by the fortress that he decided to move his court and capital there, renaming it Daulatabad, the city of wealth. The whole population of Delhi moved here en masse. Later, it passed on from the Bahmani rulers under Hasan Gangu to the Nizam Shahis of Ahmednagar. Even after this, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb laid a siege of four months before finally being able to capture it. It was then snatched away by the Marathas before being taken over by the Nizams of Hyderabad in 1724.
Lonar Crater (near the town of Lonar, 100 kilometers east of Aurangabad) is among the five largest crater lakes in the world, and is about 2 kilometers wide and 150 meters deep. Formed nearly 50,000 years ago, the crater is oval in shape and the only natural impact crater in the world in basalt rock. Geologists believe that it was formed by the impact of a meteorite that weighed more than a million tons to have created such an impact.
The fallen debris from the time of the impact is still present around the rim of the crater. This is called the ejecta blanket and ranges over a kilometer. The lake within the crater is both saline and alkaline but the water becomes more and more alkaline as one goes towards the center. Low hills covered in forests surround the water body. Tourists can enjoy sighting several wildlife species like the peafowl, chinkara and gazelles in this area. The lake also hosts a number of migratory birds in the winters. The distinctive and vibrant color of the water is also due to the presence of algae and plankton species in the water . Moreover, the presence of certain minerals like microbreccias and glass spherules has lead scientists to draw parallels between the crater formation and geology of the moon.
Shani Shingnapur (75 kilometers southwest of Aurangabad) is a village that hosts a unique religious experience. The presiding deity of the village is Sri Shaneshwara or Lord Shanidev, said to be the personification of planet Saturn. Interestingly, the idol, which is said to be self-manifested, is placed on a simple platform rather than an elaborate temple and devotees can perform the religious rituals themselves. Days dedicated to the god like Saturdays and Amavasyas (no moon) are celebrated with special pomp. The god is believed to be the arbiter of bad luck and hence his worship is a way of appeasing him so that his influence does not bring bad luck to the worshippers. Another interesting fact about this village is that the villagers’ belief in Lord Shani is so strong that they do not have door frames or locks. They believe that no crime can occur here when the lord is their guardian. Even shops are left unlocked.
Gandhi Teerth (in Jain Hills, Jalgaon, 150 kilometers north of Aurangabad) is a 65,000 square feet complex that comprises research centers and museums centerd on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Flanked by a mango orchard and many serene walkways, the complex has been beautifully landscaped. The sprawling gardens are spread across 300 acre and offer a great escape from the hustle-bustle of the city. Guests can also find rooms at a residential complex within the premise. The institution is home to a thematic, state-of-the-art ‘Gandhi ji ki Khoj’ museum. It includes various interactive multimedia presentations for visitors who can gain a lot of insight into the Indian Independence struggle as well as information about the philosophical beliefs and life of the Father of the Nation. The Gandhi Teerth is also home to the GIRI, or the Gandhi International Research Institute. This is the academic arm of the institute, which is responsible for awarding degrees, certificates and facilitating world-class research in Gandhi studies. Gandhi Teerth, Jain Hills, Shirsoli Rd, Jalgaon, Maharashtra 425001, India, WHV4+V3 Jalgaon, Maharashtra, India, gandhifoundation.net
Paithan Sari Weaving Town
Paithan (40 kilometers south of Aurangabad) has played host to a number of important dynasties, movements and aesthetic cultures. It is also the birthplace of Sri Nimbarka, the founder of the Nimbarka Sampradaya tradition of Vaishnavism. The city was also home to Sant Eknath Maharaj, whose samadhi is located here. Devotees flock to the city during the Paithan Yatra, also known as Nath Shashthi. Paithan is important as a Digambar Jain Atishay Kshetra. A beautiful black-colored sand idol of the 20th Jain Tirthankar, Bhagwan Munisuvratnath, is installed in a temple here.
Paithan, Maharashtra (19.4800° N, 75.3800° E) is one of the Saree Weaving Clusters of India that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Paithanis comprise pure gold threads and yarns of silk spun in the 2000-year old traditional method. This form of weaving was developed in Paithan (Aurangabad district), historically called Pratishthana. The city was the capital of the Satavahanas of ancient India that ruled from 2nd century B.C. to A.D. 2nd century. Paithan, at one time, was visited by Greek traders, between 400 and 200 B.C., during the Satavahana era, for the Paithani weaves. In the distant past, Romans imported this Golden Woven Fabric in exchange for gold of equal weight. The weaver’s houses have the largest room dedicated for weaving. In this the weavers work side by side to produce a sari. The open spaces also witness some spill over of the weaving practices. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
Yeola Sari Weaving Town
Yeola, Maharashtra (100 kilometers west of Aurangabad, 20.0420° N, 74.4890° E) is one of the Saree Weaving Clusters of India that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “This art form soon spread to the other places in Maharashtra namely Yeola, Pune, Malegaon and Nashik. One can even see motifs from Ajanta cave paintings. The art of Paithani survived under changing rulers. In fact it flourished under Aurangzeb. After decline of Mughal influence, the Peshwas' of Pune once again took Paithani under their wings by settling weavers in Yeola, a small town near Shirdi in Nasik district, now with approximately 1200 weavers. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
“Craftsmanship means more than technical virtuosity. It is not only a profound understanding of materials, and of the tools with which materials are fashioned, but most importantly it involves a genuine pride which drives an individual to craft and weave as well as can be done, beyond what is required, beyond economic considerations of reward. An excellent example of such craftsmanship is sari weaving in India. The sari is undoubtedly distinguishable as the Indian woman’s traditional attire and is essentially a valuable Indian contribution to the world’s cultural heritage and diversity. Rooted in history and maintaining continuity as a contemporary garment, the sari survives as a living traditional clothing. Traced to the Vedic civilization, evolving with cross-cultural influences of trade, confluences of techniques and patterns, the sari still has innovations in its production processes. As an unstitched garment for women, it has no parallels in terms of versatility, richness of color, texture, and variety of weaving techniques using different kinds of yarn, including cotton, silk, gold and silver thread.
“However, the craftsmanship is not only limited to the final product i.e. the sari but also in the space in which they are produced. The houses of craftsmen are example of vernacular architecture, where the architecture has evolved over a large span of time. The Plan of a weaver’s house developed from the livelihood needs of the inhabitants. Built from local materials and available technology, they aptly cater to the needs of the craftsmen. This pan-India serial comprises of sites from five Indian states: Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. It focuses on the tangible elements of sari weaving clusters irrespective of the popularity of the sari.”
Jalna (40 kilometers east of Aurangabad) is a popular spiritual site that invites people across faiths to visit various shrines and temples here. It is said to be the birthplace of Sant Ramdas Swami, who, according to Hindu mythology, shares his birth timing with Lord Rama. During Nav Navami, a festival is organised here that draws visitors from all over the region. Jalna is situated on the banks of River Kundalika. A fort and a citadel standing to the east are particular highlights. The citadel, today, is home to a number of municipal offices and the fort is also worth a visit. It is quadrangular in shape and has semi-circular bastions at the corners.
Guru Ganesh Tapodham (in Jalna) is a prominent pilgrimage place for Jains. It is also known as Karnatak Kesari. The Jain Trust Shri Vardhaman Sthankwasi Jain Shravak Sangh, is responsible for the running of Tapodham. It also runs several other institutions like a school, library and gaushala. The gaushala is one of the largest in the Marathwada region. An annual fair held here, attracts a large number of tourists and devotees from across the country.
Sri Ganesha Temple (25 kilometers from Jalna) is noted for its celebrations during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Another attraction is Anandi Swami Temple, built by Mahadji Shinde, a Maratha warrior. It is believed to be about 250 years old and hosts a grand annual fair on the eve of Ashadi Ekadashi. Matsyodari Devi Temple (20 kilometers from Jalna) is situated on a hill that resembles a matsya or a fish, lies 21 kilometers from the city of Jalna. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Matsyadevi, and both the name of the goddess and the city have been derived from the aforementioned hill. Believed to be one of the oldest temples in the region, the Matsyodari Devi Temple hosts a popular fair held every Navratra (a nine-day holy festival) around October. Local legend believes that the town of Ambad was founded by Rishi Ambad, who was at some time a Hindu king who ran away from his governance responsibilities and hid in one of the caves in this hill to relinquish this world of attachments.
Jamb Samartha Temple (40 kilometers south of Jalna) was built in memory of Sant Ramdas, the younger son of Suryajipant Thosar Kulkarni and Ranubai. It is widely believed that he was born at the exact time of the birth of Lord Rama. His actual name was Narayan. Every Ram Navami, a popular annual fair is held at the Rama temple situated in Sant Ramdas Swami’s home. The temple was built by the donation received from Mother Queen Holkar of Indore in the memory and honour of Shri Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar. There are boarding facilities available for those who want to have an immersive experience. It is said that Sant Ramdas Swami was born at Jamb Samartha, which is situated in the Ghansavangi tahsil of Jalna district.
Ellora (two kilometers east of the town of Ellora,32 kilometers northwest of Aurangabad) is a sickle-shaped hill known for its temples and monasteries and natural caves enlarged with chisels and hammers. Created between A.D. 550 and 1000, Ellora is considered one of the finest examples of rock-cut architecture. Unlike Ajanta, the carvings here are unconventional, freely departing from austerity of early Indian art. There are clear indications of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain influences. Of the 34 caves, 12 are Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jain, and date back to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, about 1,500 years ago. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and are now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
According to UNESCO: “The Ellora Caves not only bear witness to three great religions (Buddhism, Brahminism and Jainism) but they also illustrate the spirit of tolerance, characteristic of ancient India, which permitted these three religions to establish their sanctuaries and their communities in a single place, which thus served to reinforce its universal value. The caves, with their uninterrupted sequence of from 600 to 1,000 monuments, bring to life again the civilization of ancient India. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]
“There are 34 caves (13 Buddhist, 16 Hindu and 5 Jain caves). They come in two types viharas (monasteries) and chaityas (halls of worship) and appear to have been made from the top down by monks who cut away the basalt and chiseled out entrances, columns and chambers and then created sculptures on the walls and ceiling. Some contain friezes. The caves face west. which means that visiting them in the afternoon offers the best light.
“These 34 monasteries and temples, extending over more than 2 kilometers, were dug side by side in the wall of a high basalt cliff... brings the civilization of ancient India to life. Not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India. This rupestral ensemble constitute one of the most beautiful expressions of the art of the Indian Middle Ages; they are noteworthy as three major Indian religions have laid joint claim to the caves peacefully since they were created. These breathtaking caves are definitely worth visiting for their remarkable reliefs, sculptures and architecture. It is not, like that of Ajanta, the expression of a single belief; rather it is the product of the three principal religions of ancient India.
“Progressing from south to north along the cliff, one discovers successively the twelve caves of the Buddhist group, which appear to be the oldest (between c. 600 and 800) and comprise monasteries and a single large temple (cave 10); then the caves of the Brahmin group (c. 600 to 900) which are no doubt the best known of Ellora with the 'Cavern of the Ten Avatars' (cave 15) and especially the Kailasha Temple (cave 16), an enormous complex, most likely undertaken during the reign of Krishna I (757-83); and, finally, the Jain group (caves 30-34) whose sanctuaries were created by the sect of the Digambara towards 800-1000, The Jain caves, the last to be excavated, drew their inspiration from the art already existing at Ellora: cave 32 recalls by certain of its dispositions the Kailasha Temple.”
Ajanta Caves (100 kilometers northeast of Ellora, 104 kilometers from Aurangabad and 52 kilometers from Jalgaon Railway Station) is a monastic site housing the richest collection of early Indian painting in a set of 32 man-made caves overlooking a wide horseshoe-shaped gorge. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1983, the caves features hundred of paintings and murals made between 200 B.C. and A.D. 650, which are considered to be some of the finest Indian painting and the most important Buddhist art in the world. The first phase of construction was in thr first century B.C. to the A.D. 2nd century; the second phase was produced in the A.D. the fifth and sixth centuries.
The caves are divided into two chronological phases, the early Buddhist caves (2nd century B.C. to A.D. 1st century) and the Mahayana caves (A.D. 5th century). Since Ajanta is located on the ancient trade route of Dakshinapatha, the early phase of Ajanta was funded mostly by traders. The second phase received patronage from the Vakatakas. Stories of these donors are inscribed and painted. The narrative murals about Lord Buddha, Avadana stories of Bodhisattva, Jataka stories and panels based on Mahayana themes from Vipulya Sutras are extremely interesting. The monasteries were in operation until 8th century but were lost and forgotten until 1819.
According to UNESCO: “The first Buddhist cave monuments at Ajanta date from the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. During the Gupta period (5th and 6th centuries A.D.), many more richly decorated caves were added to the original group. The paintings and sculptures of Ajanta, considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, have had a considerable artistic influence. The style of Ajanta has exerted a considerable influence in India and elsewhere, extending, in particular, to Java. With its two groups of monuments corresponding to two important moments in Indian history, the Ajanta cave ensemble bears exceptional testimony to the evolution of Indian art, as well as to the determining role of the Buddhist community, intellectual and religious foyers, schools and reception centers in the India of the Gupta and their immediate successors." [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website, India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020