About 200 mi/320 km east of Mumbai, India's Ellora and Ajanta aren't cities, but ancient sites filled with religious carvings and paintings.
Ellora is a collection of 34 cave-shrines chiseled out of solid rock between the fourth and ninth centuries. The oldest carvings honor the figures and stories of Buddhism, the middle-period work honors Hinduism, and the last phase is devoted to Jainism. The marvel of these hand-carved temples is that they were chiseled out of the hillside from the top down.
Perhaps the most incredible is the immense Kailash Temple, a Hindu shrine twice the size of the Greek Parthenon. It took 800 workers some 150 years to build, and it's clear why. Cave 12 is a three-story domicile that was used as monks' quarters during the seventh century. The monks' beds and pillows were, like everything else, carved out of rock. Don't miss the colonnaded hall of Cave 33, the hall of Cave 10 and the Ravana rock carvings. Their detail and beauty are astounding.
Ajanta is more touristy than Ellora, largely because its caves are considerably older and often even more impressively sculpted. The earliest date from the second century BC, and several of them have retained color in their painted frescoes (all the surfaces of both sites were once painted). Nearly all of the carvings at Ajanta are devoted to Buddhist stories and characters. Pay particular attention to the sculpted wall panels, beautiful facade and court of Cave 19. Conservation has restored deteriorating cave paintings and the monuments there. While visiting Ajanta, take a look at the geodes and crystal minerals sold by local children. Some are great bargains.
Unless time is really tight, plan to spend the better part of a day at both Ellora and Ajanta, and allow time to stop at a few other attractions along the way. Among them are the Bibi-ka-Maqbara (an imitation of the Taj Mahal built for Emperor Aurangzeb's wife), Daulatabad (an old ruined fortress—the guide will tell you grisly stories about the fort's tortures) and the town of Paithan, where gold and silk embroideries are woven using designs copied from the caves.
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