Monday, February 21, 2011

Amiable Aurangabad

Aurangabad was the second destination in our Maharashtra cave tour and the gateway for Ajanta and Ellora. We boarded the Tapovan Express from Nasik Road station around ten o’clock in the morning and reached Aurangabad just after one in the afternoon. There was a huge crowd at the station and we had to literally elbow our way out. We took an auto and proceeded to our hotel. The magnitude of tourists justified why there had been a paucity of hotels. The tourism hotels were already booked when we tried back in Kolkata. On the internet, a few private hotels were available but at exorbitant prices. On my persistence Santu had booked two rooms at the Gymkhana Club hotel at Rs. 2400 per room per night for the first night only. He was confident that we will find an alternative accommodation on the spot for the next two days, but I was a bit jittery.

In the end, it turned out to be a good decision that we did not book the Gymkhana Club for all the three days that we were scheduled to stay in Aurangabad. When we entered the hotel (located on the way to the airport), it looked awesome from the exterior. But when we checked in, our assessment was completely shattered. The were all kind of things in the corridors, there were dirt and loose ends of hairs everywhere inside the rooms, the couches and chairs were stained, there was no soap in the bathroom and I was even not sure if the toilet had been cleaned and disinfected before we checked in. I called up the room service to complain and their excuse was that the entire floor was booked the previous day for a wedding and hence the mess up. A couple of men arrived, a short while later, to clean up the rooms yet again but it did not improve the room condition by a great extent. We had breakfast in Nasik in the morning and did not have much to eat afterwards, so we were almost starving. It was distressing to know that lunch would not be served at that hour. All that we could have was some snacks and tea; that too was not very tasteful.

At four o’clock we left the hotel, took an auto and headed towards the Bibi Ka Maqbara. Aurangabad flourished under Malik Ambar, the Prime Minister of Murtaza Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar, who made it his capital in 1610. Before that it was a small place named Khadki. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb made it the Deccan capital in 1653. Our auto driver was an eccentric one who kept making wisecracks on the city and its people. He was entertaining us with his terrible singing and we felt as if we were in a karaoke show. He was wandering around in all directions and it even appeared to us that he was taking a lengthy route than required (though he did not charge much). Santu was giving him some competition with his equally bad singing. The dreadful part was that he was passing all kinds of comments to the female pedestrians and motor cyclists and was coming up with impromptu Bollywood songs on them. We feared that he might end up being beaten up for eve teasing and we were contemplating how we should escape in that case. Thankfully we reached our destination without any untoward incident. I can not help but mention the amusing photos he had put up inside his auto. In one of them he was standing smartly in between the two superstars Shahrukh Khan (in a stylish suit) and Salman Khan (in his signature topless avatar). The photograph was superimposed of course. The second one was more hilarious. It showed him in the middle blessing two other images of him on the two sides. It was proof enough of how much weird and crazy a man he was.

Bibi Ka Maqbara is the beautiful mausoleum believed to be constructed by Emperor Aurangzeb’s son, Prince Azam Shah, in memory of his mother Rabia-ul Durrani alias Dilras Banu Begum between 1651 and 1661. The mausoleum, designed and constructed by Ata-Ulla, an architect and Hanspat Rai, an engineer, is built at the centre of a high platform with four minarets at the corners and resembles the Taj Mahal of Agra. But unlike Taj Mahal, only the dome and lower body are made of pure marble and though there is some intricate ornamentation, it is no match for the majestic Taj Mahal in terms of artistic splendour. The pavement, pool and kiosk leading to the mausoleum also remind one of the Taj Mahal. The Mughal Garden was not preserved well and the mausoleum was undergoing some maintenance work and the rear side and the dome were enveloped with iron bars. The grave inside was simple, with a flight of stairs going down from the base platform to the grave (the entrance being guarded by a locked iron gate), and some people were throwing money inside.

We spent some more time in backyard watching the sun go down behind the walls of the complex before we bid good bye to the Taj of Deccan.

Now we were left with the big task of searching down a hotel accommodation for the next two days of our stay at Aurangabad. We took an auto from outside the Bibi Ka Maqbara and told the driver to show us some decent hotels in the heart of the city. We were prepared for enduring a tough time but the experience turned out to be more excruciating than we perceived. The first couple of hotels had rooms available but neither the rooms were good nor the room rents were acceptable. In another hotel, the reception clerk showed us a room which was already occupied by some people (who were not present at that time) and their things were scattered all over the place. We rejected that hotel primarily because of security concerns. After visiting a couple of more hotels we found one which was quite nice. It was located near the Anjali Talkies and there was a fine temple of Khadakeshwar (dedicated to Lord Shiva) in the vicinity (that we visited on a later day). Actually Santu inquired some local people in the streets and someone recommended this hotel. The manager of the hotel told us that he would confirm availability of rooms over phone in an hour. Perhaps he was trying to evade paying the auto driver money for bringing customers. However, he did not call up that day and when he finally called on the next day it was too late.

By this time the tout was showing to come out of our auto driver and he was desperate to book some hotel or other for us and he even admitted that he would end up making some extra money that way. The issue was that he was inclined to take us only to the hotels of his choice where probably he would make more money. And even in some circumstances when we asked him to wait outside, he would end up accompanying us into the hotel. I remember one hotel where there was a notice board in the reception area proclaiming that they do not indulge in bargaining like other hotels because they are confident that their services are much more superior to others. Later when we checked the rooms they were so poor that we could only laugh at their boasting of providing unparallel amenities. Shortly we paid off the auto driver who had started to nag and started on a wayward mission on foot. We came across some good hotels but there were no rooms available. Santu was primarily entrusted with the task of finding a decent hotel since it was he who was of the idea that we could book any hotel on the spot very easily. He and Srimanta knocked on all the hotels that we came across on our way while Anirban and I simply followed suit and even we lost them after some time. But no agreeable hotel, not even the star rated ones had any room available. By then our hunt for hotels had completed nearly three hours and it was taking its toll on us. We were physically exhausted apart from being terribly frustrated. Finally we booked two rooms at Hotel Venkateshwara at Rs 1200 per room per night. It was not very good to be honest but we were tired of searching any more and did not believe that we could get hold of any better room even if we continued our search. We had a pathetic dinner in a nearby restaurant and returned to the Gymkhana Club for a good night’s sleep after an arduous exercise which was no less than an exploration.

After breakfast we came back again to the hotel, checked into our rooms and started for the Aurangabad caves. Aurangabad has its own group of Buddhist caves which were curved out of the hills in the 6th and 7th century A.D. They are situated further away from Bibi Ka Maqbara but we could not visit them the previous day due to lack of time. The road leading to the caves bifurcates at a place with 5 caves on the left and the rest on the right side. The two groups of caves are almost half a km apart. We first visited caves numbered 1 to 5 which are located on the left side.

Although nothing much was mentioned in the tourism website about these caves, we were much impressed with their spectacular artwork. Our cave experience was getting better place by place and we were very excited about what Ajanta and Ellora would have in store for us. We were the only tourists who visited the caves at that hour so it was very peaceful. Even our auto driver bought his own ticket and accompanied us to the caves. Later he confessed that though he had lived in Aurangabad for some years he had not visited the caves up till then. One of the caves (probably Cave 3) is a Chaitya Griha (prayer hall) with the usual apse surrounded by the octagonal pillars.

In the second group, Cave 7 is the most elaborate and famous. In fact it is the only cave about which some information was put up by the Archeological Survey of India. The monastery has a pillared verandah and cells circumambulating the square sanctum in the centre. The immaculate sculptural panels include images of Avalokiteshvara and Padmapani and some dancing deities.

In one of the other caves (probably Cave 6) it was interesting to notice a Ganesh idol beside a Buddha figure.

We came out of the caves and spent a few moments capturing the barren beauty that surrounded the hills. On the other hand the hills themselves were not devoid of vegetation and we even noticed some cows roaming on the steep slopes of the hills and eating grass. It astonished us how they walked up to that height and how they were balancing themselves. A few more tourists were turning up and it was time for us to move on. The breakfast we had had a couple of hours earlier had been digested by then and we planned to have lunch first and then set out for Daulatabad.

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