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Ancient sites of central India

From Khajuraho via Jhansi to Ajanta and Ellora

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Khajuraho is a small town, centred around a group of ancient Hindu and Jain temples, which are the towns main reason for existing and source of income. A total of 85 temples have been identified, but only 25 have been restored. Most date from between AD 950 to AD 1050, by the Chandela dynasty. Eventually, they abandoned the temples, as they were threatened by Afghan invaders. The temples fell into ruin and were hidden by the lush jungle that still surrounds the town. The were rediscovered by a British officer in 1838, and the main temples have since been reconstructed to their original splendour.

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The temples are famous for their erotic carvings, found among numerous other carvings on all the temples. With or without this Kama Sutra in stone, the carvings on these temples are fantastic. The detail, and the softness of especially the female figures is stunning. Their breasts are enormous, looking like silicone breasts, but their hips, shoulders and stomachs are rounded, giving the figures a look of softness that makes them look like they are not made of stone at all. We spent most of a day exploring these temples, studying the variety of figures. Parades of soldiers, elephants and camels, mythical beasts, gods and goddesses.

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And women busy with a variety of things, some putting on makeup, some playing with children or animals, some washing, their wet saris clinging to their bodies, others simply posing in suggestive poses, looking over their shoulders, their spines curved and their hips thrust to one side. All of them beautiful.

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And of course, there is the erotica - couples, threesomes and foursomes in all imaginable and some unimaginable poses and positions. In places, large orgies are portrayed, one even involving a man and a horse (in the background, a woman looks shocked, peeking out from behind her hands).

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All in all, the temples were a fantastic experience, and the stonework here is uniquely detailed and skilled. The town itself though, has little appeal, and so once we had enjoyed the temples, we headed on for other things.

Once we left Khajuraho, we went to Jhansi, only a few hours away. This is the town where Alan’s dad grew up, as the family moved here from Goa, so we thought we would visit and have a look. The town is centred around an ancient fort, which we visited, and also has several churches. Jhansi’s main importance today, however, is as a railhead. Several of the main railway lines of India converge here. We spent the night here, and then caught a train onwards to Jalgaon.

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Jalgaon is the nearest town to the famous Ajanta caves, which is what we came here to see. We spent the night, and the next morning headed out to these ancient Buddhist monuments. The caves date from around 200 BC to AD 650, and are all carved out of a steep cliff side along a horseshoe-shaped gorge overlooking a bend in the Waghore river. They were built by Buddhist monks, and later abandoned as Buddhism in India waned. They lay forgotten until 1819, when a British hunting party stumbled upon them in a long forgotten river gorge.

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There are 30 caves altogether. Some are small, simple monasteries, with cells for the monks to sleep in and a plain central hall, while others are large temples, with carved pillars and sculptures, all carved out of the same rock as the temples themselves.

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In many of the temples, original paintings have survived the ages, and show how colourfully the temples were decorated when they were in use.
We walked around the gorge, entering each cave, and marvelling and the work that would have been involved in creating these temples - the amount of rock that would have been removed and transported away, and with the tools available at the time that they were constructed - its truly mind-boggling! A group of Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns were touring the caves as well, and their presence added to a sense of spirituality and worship. We watched kneel and pray at the many, huge Buddha statues carved inside the caves - in a way bringing the temples back to life if only for a moment.

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After the caves at Ajanta, we thought we should also see the nearby caves at Ellora, another World Heritage site. We moved from Jalgaon to the town of Aurangabad, which is nearer to Ellora. The caves here are later than the ones at Ajanta - as Buddhism waned and Hinduism had a renaissance as the main religion of India, Ajanta was forgotten and Ellora came into being, although not all the caves here are Hindu - out of 34 caves, 12 are Buddhist, 17 Hindu and five Jain. The caves here have fewer preserved paintings, but the carvings are more elaborate, especially in the Hindu caves. Also, unlike the steep gorge at Ajanta, the caves here are hewn from a gentle slope. This means that many of the caves have elaborate courtyards in front of their entrances. The interiors are damp and dark, and full of bats, adding to a mysterious atmosphere. The Buddhist caves are serene and calm, like in Ajanta, with large Buddha sculptures, while the Hindu and Jain are far more dramatic and busy. Either style has its own charm, and all the caves are amazing.

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The main event at Ellora is the Hindu Kailasa temple, located approximately in the centre of the slope. This temple is more a rock-cut sculpture on a huge scale, than a simple cave. It was constructed by cutting three huge trenches into the slope, and then cutting out the outside of the temple from the top to the bottom, and then hollowing out the inside to create the inner chambers and prayer rooms. It is must have been a massive undertaking - if Ajanta was mind-boggling, then this defies description. This temple is said to be the largest monolithic sculpture in the world, and its construction would have meant removing 200,000 tonnes of rock! It was cut from the rock by 7000 labourers over 150 years. It is not only the scale of this temple that amazes, but also its detailed decoration. Every surface is carved with decorative figures and patterns, and there are sculptures everywhere. Alongside the temple there is a path, and we climbed up to the top of the slope and looked down on the temple, getting an overview of its proportion. A truly amazing sight!

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Posted by monkyhands 30.09.2008 05:02 Archived in India

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