Exploring India's Ellora Caves

Exploring India's Ellora Caves

One of India's must-sees are the 34 caves in Aurangabad, cut completely out of rock.
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In January, 2014, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in India under the direction of two CSULB professors, Dr. Norbert Schürer and Prof. Tim Keirn. One of the most memorable experiences during this trip was seeing the Ellora Caves in Aurangabad. A huge tourist site, the 34 caves were cut out of rock to create Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu temples and monasteries, and were built between the sixth and ninth centuries.


On my trip there had been extremely hot weather, but the drive up to the caves was comfortable enough in our little van, passing by fields of mustard seed.

The heat was uncomfortable, and I remember feeling in a sort of heat-induced relaxed state; excited, but definitely less sociable and outwardly peppy. The day before we had been to the Ajanta caves, where we saw multiple caves with a guide explaining each and every thing we saw; at the Ellora caves, however, we proceeded on our own in groups, deciding to regroup after less than an hour or so.


I can’t remember the exact number of the first cave we went to, but I remember the two enormous elephants inside of its entrance, and going into the separate alcoves and marveling at the various stone statues and carvings. It was interesting being able to draw the parallels between the caves at Ajanta and the ones at Ellora, and silently recognizing what was Buddhist and what was Hindu, which was really all I knew how to do on my own. I kind of wandered off on my own often, not too far from a friendly face from the trip, but with enough distance that I could look at everything at my own pace and really enjoy what I was seeing.


When we gathered together again, we stopped quickly for some popsicles at a stand outside the caves to cool down from the heat, and the sugar helped wake me up a little bit before we continued on further away to Cave 16, one of the famous Hindu caves of Ellora that was carved from top to bottom out of one single rock. We were given a few hours’ time to explore, and like before, I wandered off a little on my own – not exactly the smartest thing for the youngest woman on the trip to do, but it was hard not to want to get away from the bustle of the groups’ agenda and see things by myself for once.

It was absolutely breathtaking walking up the steps to the mosque and fully realizing how much time and effort went into building this particular cave, let alone the countless others built out of the mountain’s rock that surrounded Cave 16. I loved running my fingers along the edges of the carved walls, and looking down at the different people walking below and wondering if this was a holy place for them, or just another stop on the World Heritage Sites Grand Tour.

A few Indian families and men asked for some pictures (not an uncommon request for a white woman tourist, as I’d come to realize), which I awkwardly posed for. I didn't notice until later that my lips and teeth were stained bright red from my popsicle I had finished off earlier.

The sun was bright and emanating so much heat, but escaping into the sides of the cave, I found it was much cooler. I climbed up to a solitary spot, where bats were hanging in corners and screeching every few minutes, reminding me that this was their holy place, now.

It was just me and no one else in the dark recesses of a cave, with idols I couldn’t name or recognize carved out of cool mountain rock, with a view of the whole Cave 16 from above. The stench of bat guano was not enough to ruin the feeling of peace I could feel run through me as I looked down at people posing for pictures, couples laughing, groups of young Indian men walking fast and excitedly, pointing at all the elephants and enjoying some inside joke. It was nice to be able to enjoy a piece of India’s history alone. Content in my solitude, I climbed back down, wondering if anyone from the group would run into me and force themselves into my personal exploration, and hoping I could think of some way to avoid them.

Around the perimeter of the caves was an open walkway carved into the mountain, with enormous idols carved into the walls. I saw a few of the CSULB college kids, all broken up into twos and threes across the cave taking pictures, some laughing. A few waved from across the way, but didn’t come over, and kept on exploring with each other. I felt comforted in the fact they didn’t feel the need to come join me.

After deflecting a gaggle of Indian boys’ endless photograph requests, I ran into Soo, a member of my group, going the opposite direction of me. I noticed she was also by herself.

“You exploring alone, too?” I said.

“Yeah,” Soo replied with a smile. “I love you guys, but sometimes we all just need some time to be without each other. And this is my time.”

We laughed and walked past one another. I looked at the idol on the wall in front of me, and I had no idea what it might have represented. It was definitely Hindu, but was it a God? Was it Vishnu? What era was this cave from again? I had no real idea. But I didn’t mind being alone and without a mile-a-minute talking guide, not exactly knowing where I was going or what I was looking at.

I guess I really like not knowing.


Want to study abroad in India this upcoming January 2016? Learn more about the upcoming trip by looking at the program here.

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Cover Image Credit: Unsplash

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