India’s third-largest and second-most populous state, Maharashtra is an expansive canvas showcasing many of India’s iconic attractions. There are palm-fringed beaches; lofty, cool-green mountains; Unesco World Heritage Sites; and bustling cosmopolitan cities (and gorgeous vineyards in which to escape them). In the far east of the state are some of the nation’s most impressive national parks, including Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve.
Inland lie the extraordinary cave temples of Ellora and Ajanta, undoubtedly Maharashtra’s greatest monuments, hewn by hand from solid rock. Matheran, a colonial-era hill station served by a toy train, has a certain allure, while pilgrims and inquisitive souls are drawn to cosmopolitan Pune, a city famous for its alternative spiritualism. Westwards, the romantic Konkan Coast, fringing the Arabian Sea, is lined with spectacular, crumbling forts and sandy beaches; some of the best are around pretty Malvan, which is fast becoming one of India’s premier diving centres.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Maharashtra.
One of India’s greatest monuments, this astonishing temple, carved from solid rock, was built by King Krishna I in AD 760 to represent Mt Kailasa (Kailash), Shiva’s Himalayan abode. To say that the assignment was daring would be an understatement. Three huge trenches were bored into the sheer cliff face, a process that entailed removing 200,000 tonnes of rock by hammer and chisel, before the temple could begin to take shape and its remarkable sculptural decoration could be added.
Ajanta’s caves line a steep face of a horseshoe-shaped gorge bordering the Waghore River. Five of the caves are chaityas (assembly or prayer halls) while others are viharas (monasteries with attached residential cells). Caves 8, 9, 10, 12, 13 and part of 15 are early Buddhist caves, while the others date from around the 5th century AD (Mahayana period). In the austere early Buddhist school, the Buddha was never represented directly but always alluded to by a symbol such as the footprint or wheel of law.
One of the best places to see tigers in India, the seldom-visited Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, 150km south of Nagpur, is now much more accessible thanks to the upgrading of state highways. Despite not drawing the crowds of many other bigger name forest reserves in India, it is one of the best spots to get up close and personal with tigers and other wildlife.
The saga of the hammer and chisel comes full circle at the Unesco World Heritage-listed Ellora cave temples, located 30km from Aurangabad. The pinnacle of ancient Indian rock-cut architecture, these caves were chipped out laboriously over five centuries by generations of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks.
Cave 1, a Mahayana vihara, was one of the last to be excavated and is the most beautifully decorated. This is where you’ll find a rendition of the Bodhisattva Padmapani, the most famous and iconic of the Ajanta artworks. A verandah in front leads to a large congregation hall housing sculptures and narrative murals known for their splendid perspective and elaborate detailing of dress, daily life and facial expressions.
Cave 16, a vihara, contains some of Ajanta’s finest paintings and is thought to have been the original entrance to the entire complex. The best known of these paintings is of the ‘dying princess’, Sundari, wife of the Buddha’s half-brother Nanda, who is said to have fainted at the news her husband was renouncing the material life (and her) in order to become a monk.
Cave 19, a magnificent chaitya, has a remarkably detailed facade; its dominant feature is an impressive horseshoe-shaped window. Two fine, standing Buddha figures flank the entrance. Inside is a three-tiered dagoba with a figure of the Buddha on the front. Outside the cave, to the west, sits a striking image of the Naga king with seven cobra hoods around his head. His wife, hooded by a single cobra, sits by his side.
Cave 10 is the only chaitya in the Buddhist group and one of the finest in India. Its ceiling features ribs carved into the stonework; the grooves were once fitted with wooden panels. The balcony and upper gallery offer a closer view of the ceiling and a frieze depicting amorous couples. A decorative window gently illuminates an enormous figure of the teaching Buddha.
Cave 2 is a late Mahayana vihara with deliriously ornamented columns and capitals and some fine paintings. The ceiling is decorated with geometric and floral patterns. The murals depict scenes from the Jataka tales, including Buddha’s mother’s dream of a six-tusked elephant, which heralded his conception.