How many times have you gazed at an ancient edifice and wondered exactly what its story was? How many times has a tour guide given you unsatisfactory, even questionable, answers? So, when a friend mentioned a weekend study tour of Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora conducted by Fulbright fellow and PhD Navina Jafa, we signed up.
Soon after landing in Aurangabad, we headed for Bibi ka Maqbara, the mini Taj Mahal, built by Aurangzeb’s son Azam Shah to honour his mother. The 17th century monument has not been maintained well, and Jafa was the first to point out that the landscape was less than perfect. But the surrounding parks are great for children to run about in. Foretelling how perfect this trip would be for Naya, our three-year-old daughter, a bunch of geese greeted us from a cage in front of the mausoleum.
The Kailash temple is the world’s largest monolithic sculpture. Nitin Mukul
On the way to a Sufi monastery, Jafa gave us a broader history of Aurangabad and its significance in the country’s religionscape. Not many people, she said, know that the city had a role to play in chanelling Sufism to south India. She contrasted the city’s tolerant heritage with the arrest of Lashkar-e-Taiba suspects two years ago. But the peace is undisturbed at Panchakki, a centuries-old water mill that houses the tomb of Baba Shah Muzaffar, a Sufi saint who was spiritual adviser to Aurangzeb. We fed the fish (yes, Naya’s delights continued) and looked at the mechanism that allowed water to churn in from a source several kilometres away in the mountains.
Before heading back to the hotel, we stopped at a Himroo factory; one loom was in the middle of a brilliant purple-and-green peacock motif on the pallu part of a Paithani sari. Jafa, who spent a year at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, also runs a non-profit that aims to pass traditional arts on to the next generation of artisans, balancing child labour laws with the need to preserve a country’s culture. On the drive back, Jafa regaled us with tales of her great-grandfather, her family’s religious diversity and their dysfunctional escapades.
The next morning, we set out at 8am to beat the Independence Day holiday rush to the Ajanta caves, which date back to the second century BC. We started at the viewpoint, an awe-inspiring look at the horseshoe-shaped assemblage of 29 caves. Jafa wanted us to take a path downhill and “discover” the Buddhist caves in the same manner that a British hunting expedition stumbled upon them in 1819. Along the way, the son of a local villager described myriad plants and their medicinal (often poisonous, too) properties.
Paintings at Ajanta still show a lot of detailing. Nitin Mukul
The benefit of having a tour guide who has studied the caves exhaustively is that you don’t need to go into all of them. Jafa expertly weaved a narrative that took advantage of the panels with paintings and stories still intact: The princess with the multi-tiered pearl necklace, the half-man-half-lion maneater, the sorrow of Buddha’s wife when he left the family. Jafa seemed able to look with fresh eyes, often exclaiming, “Isn’t this just so amazing?”
At Ellora, we began with cave No. 16, which depicts Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. Like a chisel, Jafa’s stories gave shape to what could have been rocky meaningless masses. At a chess game of Shiva and Parvati, we looked to his straight back as a sign of confidence. At their wedding, a coyness came in a slight bend of her knee. Naya, a fan of all Hindu mythology, loved the one of Ravana shaking Kailash and Shiva, the protector, holding it steady with one arm. Before a dancing Shiva, Jafa herself struck the poses—and explained their significance.
There are five Jain caves, but we chose to tour an unfinished one—presided over by Mahavir— the chiselled masterpieces contrasting with the flat stone waiting to take form. In a Buddhist cave, we fell silent at the magnificence of the artistry. The ceiling was an arched, almost-Gothic creation, allowing the Buddhist chants performed by Jafa and another staff member to resonate eerily through the prayer hall. Naya sat at Buddha’s feet, exhausted but enchanted.
We caught an evening flight back to our modern Capital, where ornate stone carvings have been replaced by glass and steel as the architectural preference of a New India. I wonder if they, too, will endure for centuries. Because, led by Jafa, our trip back into history had been empowered by timeless elements: the physical durability of stone and the less tangible one of her knowledge.
In association with Icon Travels (www.icontravelaid.com), Navina Jafa conducts academic-cultural tours in Delhi and elsewhere in India. Visit www.navinajafa.com for details