Aurangabad: the underachieving city

My first impression of Aurangabad was the mob of autorickshaw drivers, clawing at the gate of the bus compound like zombies. In Bombay, the drivers were relatively civilised, letting you approach them when you needed a lift, and using the meter by default. But I’d moved on from that bubble of sanity and returned to real India now. There was no question of using a meter. The first quoted price for the journey to my couchsurfing host’s house was 350 rupees. Luckily, he’d already told me it should be 100, to 120 max. I laughed in the face of the first offer and walked away. The price quickly came down: 250… 200… At 150, I accepted. I’m not fussy about getting the same price an Indian would; I accept a little bit of overcharging as fair and natural. When it’s a matter of 30 rupees difference, it’s not worth the bother of keeping up the “I’m going to walk away and pretend I don’t really need you” charade any more.

Ashish was another CS host who had a separate apartment for couchsurfers, although unlike Pintu in Bikaner, this one wasn’t filled with drunk, shouting Indians every night. In fact, Ashish, who runs a technical translation agency, used it as an office during the day, and sometimes in the evening, so it was very quiet. It was an ideal little base for a few days.

The reason I stopped in Aurangabad was not to see Aurangabad. The two cave temple complexes of Ellora and Ajanta, both World Heritage Sites and recommended by everyone I’ve met, are within day trip distance. Daulatabad Fort and the ‘Valley of Saints’ at Khuldabad are also nearby. Aurangabad itself is a fairly uninteresting industrial city in Maharashtran hinterland. I wasn’t expecting to visit anything in the town itself.

However, after I’d arrived and slept for a few hours, I had a free afternoon, and Ashish suggested I go into Aurangabad to see the Bibi ka Maqbara. The Emperor Aurangzeb, who named Aurangabad after himself, was more interested in destroying interesting buildings than erecting them. He commissioned the Bibi ka Maqbara tomb for his wife, but obviously couldn’t be bothered with the tradition of artistic patronage of his predecessors, notably his father, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. Instead, he just got his builders to copy that design, but smaller, and with cheaper materials – plaster on sandstone, in place of marble.

Despite appearances, this isn’t the Taj Mahal, and that isn’t Diana’s bench

It does look uncannily like the Taj, at first, but that’s its undoing. It means you start noticing the flaws in comparison. The nubbins around the tops of the domes are an unnecessary addition. The mosque on the left hand side is crammed onto the plinth, whereas at the Taj it’s at a stately distance at the edge of the surrounding garden. Here, it also breaks the symmetry of the complex; at the Taj, an entire, identical non-mosque was built on the far side, to maintain it.

Inside, Rabia-ud-Daurani’s tomb is visible from the gallery above it, from where people throw money and, strangely, their ticket stubs.

Rabia-ud-Daurani’s tomb, covered in money, at the Bibi ka Maqbara, Aurangabad

If the Taj Mahal didn’t exist, the Bibi ka Maqbara would seem a lot more elegant. But then, if the Taj didn’t exist, neither would the Bibi. But what’s really letting it down is the dingy condition it’s been left in. It needs a lot of restoration work, to repair the plaster, clean all the surfaces, smarten up the gardens and refill the pools and fountains. Then it might live up to its status as the best Mughal tomb in the Deccan.

My autorickshaw driver persuaded me to visit the Aurangabad Caves. I thought they were unlikely to be as interesting or impressive as Ellora or Ajanta, but since they were close by and I still had some time, I might as well try to visit as complete a set of Maharashtran caves as possible.

There are two groups, on either side of the hill, with about half a dozen smallish caves at each. The temples are Buddhist and contain rock-cut sculptures of Buddha, and various Taras, Bodhisattvas, and other gods and goddesses. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Buddhism isn’t really a religion, or that it doesn’t have gods. It has a shedload of them. Buddha may have refused to talk about god, and strict Buddhist teaching may say that worship of god is incompatible with the aim of achieving enlightenment, but as a belief system followed by millions, Buddhism offers its adherents just as many prayer-hungry deities as any other. What about Kubera, for example, the Hindu god of wealth, assimilated into Buddhism as Vaisravana, one of the Four Heavenly Kings? Here he is, ready for you to make offerings and plead for material wealth, in a base reversal of your most fundamental principles.

Kubera, the oxymoronic Buddhist god of wealth, at Aurangabad Caves

One of the popular stories about Buddha’s path to enlightenment was that a demon tried to stop him, by sending sexy women to distract him with sexual temptation. Luckily Buddha managed to resist. Given the moral of this tale, it seems odd that Buddhists would make their own quests for enlightenment that much harder by filling their cave monasteries with statues of sexy naked women. My auto driver used a reflective panel to focus sunlight on a dark alcove, to show me the frieze of Tara dancing “with no cloths”, accompanied by a chorus line of other female dancers, also “with no cloths” (he really enjoyed pointing out that they had “no cloths”).

The Aurangabad Caves were much quieter and pleasanter to visit than Elephanta. There was no gauntlet of souvenir sellers to get past. In fact there was hardly anyone around at all: a couple of family groups at the second set of caves, and at the first, just three teenage boys who seemed to use it as their loitering area of choice, and who crowded in as well to see the dancing girls “with no cloths”.

Finally, on the way back to Ashish’s place, the driver stopped at Panchakki, Aurangabad’s third most notable tourist spot. It’s even included in the Rough Guide, though I can’t see why. It’s a water wheel. Not a big one. A small, metal wheel about 3 feet across. In a dark chamber, behind a grill. Turning a small millstone. It’s in a small courtyard, with a pond and fountain, which I suppose would be quite a nice place to sit and relax – if there were any seats, instead of all the souvenir stalls.

Panchakki, Aurangabad’s third most interesting tourist spot

Mediocre tomb, mediocre caves, mediocre water wheel. I wasn’t expecting anything at all from Aurangabad itself, so it exceeded those expectations. But Ellora and Ajanta are still the only reason you should bother coming here.

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