The flight from Bombay to the city of Aurangabad took less than an hour; from there to the spectacular carved caves of Ellora was a journey that encompassed nearly two thousand years of history.
Our host to Northern India, Avinash Rachmale, had placed Aurangabad high on our list of must-visits for a couple of reasons. Enjoying the rare distinction of being the only city apart from Delhi to have served as the capital of India, Aurangabad was a once-important stop along the famed Silk Road which ran the length of Asia and continued into Europe. Equally, the sprawling, hand-carved caves of Ellora are a world-wonder to rival Jordan’s Petra, where we had recently filmed ‘Our Arab American Story’. But on a personal note, Aurangabad also represented perhaps the most important transition in Rachmale’s whirlwind life—it was where he attended the utilitarian-sounding Government College of Engineering and obtained the degree in civil engineering that has ultimately propelled him to such success in the United States.
Established in 1960, the college is arguably the premier technical institute in the state Maharashtra, admitting only students of the highest academic caliber, and Rachmale may be justly proud of being one of the school’s most successful graduates.
We enjoyed a morning of reminiscing through the halls and courtyards of the college, meeting up with Rachmale’s old colleagues and spending some leisure time with the few students remaining in and around campus, as the yearly school break—which we equate with ‘summer vacation’—was in full swing. India’s hottest weather coincides with our April trip, peaking in the weeks leading up to the start of the midsummer monsoon. The day we toured the thirty acre campus, the temperature hovered above one hundred degrees and grew hotter as the day progressed.
Despite his impressive list of engineering accomplishments, Rachmale will be the first to admit that the skill set that went into the creation of the cave temples at Ellora is something that no institute of higher learning could have taught—it was, beside a mind bogglingly intricate feat of engineering, the result of countless successive generations offering backbreaking labor (not unlike the Great Pyramids, the work was done entirely with small chisels) to cut away the living rock of the cliff sides about twenty miles from Aurangabad. Filled with numerous alcoves, chambers, carved Buddhas and exuberant Hindu gods, the highlight may be the vast ribbed roof of cave ten, and cave fifteen, two stories depicting the ten incarnations of Vishnu.
Our ambassador to India’s small pleasures as well, Rachmale introduced us to the most popular local refreshment at a roadside stand, pure sugar cane juice blended with a little lime. Having grown up on a farm which primarily grew cane, the experience was tinged with as much nostalgia as his return to his alma mater.
Later than evening, he led us to Bibi Ka Maqbara, the Mughal temple built by Prince Azam Shah, son of Emperor Aurangzeb, in the late 17th century as a loving tribute to his mother. Somewhat cynically, the complex is referred to as ‘the poor man’s Taj Mahal’ due to the tomb’s bargain-basement mimicry of the great monument at Agra. Even our tour guide sniffed a bit at the site’s construction technique and the relatively unkempt grounds, but for us, never having seen the original Taj, the symmetrical series of domes and turrets was moving nonetheless, especially in the failing light of a sultry Indian evening.