Traveling through Magical Maharashtra
India is overflowing with rich history, tradition, natural heritage, and glorious architecture. To say the country is overly blessed with attractions is the understatement of the century. One destination which offers up an excellent cross-section of attractions is magical Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state.
Whether arriving via a convenient Delhi to Mumbai flight or making your way overland as we did from Madya Pradesh, the region’s highlights are easily combined into an adventurous circuit which should satisfy even the most jaded travelers (including yours truly).
Mumbai – Megacity on the West Coast
Most visitors will either start or finish their Maharashtra adventure in Mumbai, the state’s bustling capital. Formerly known as Bombay, the legendary city boasts a mind-bending population of 18 million. To say Mumbai has a bit of everything just doesn’t do it justice.
The city if filled with phenomenal art, architecture, festivals, and even performers. It’s the ultimate people-watching paradise. It’s also a people-listening paradise as you’ll hear people chatting away in Marathi, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, and Konkani as well as Persian, Arabic, English, and a hundred other tourist languages.
You could spend a lifetime wandering the city’s colorful backstreet markets shopping for tourist trinkets, saris or spices. The monumental Crawford Market, built in 1869, is particularly impressive. If shopping doesn’t do it for you, there is plenty to keep you busy: watch the cricket players at Azad Maidan, risk your life trying to squeeze into (or hang off of) a local train, temple hop, grab a coffee in colonial Colaba, or visit the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (seriously, that’s the name).
For us personally, the architecture and colonial vibe really made Mumbai stand out. From the Victorian-Gothic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus to the Indo-Saracenic Gateway of India, the city boasts some amazing buildings. Strolling by the Taj Hotel or along the Art Deco waterfront, you feel like a character in an Agatha Christie novel. Tons of tropical, crumbling city atmosphere. When you’ve had your fill of Indian urban life, it’s time to head inland.
Ellora Cave Temples – Sculptures Galore
The interior of Maharashtra is filled with attractions. Serious Indiana Jones wannabes will head straight for the Cave Temples at Ellora. Yes, you can see cave temples closer to Mumbai at Elephanta, or at many other sites around India, but Ellora is special. The scale and grandeur of the site will leave you speechless.
It’s a cliché to call something the 8th Wonder of the World, but the mammoth complex features over 100 cave temples including the gigantic stone-hewn Kailasa Temple, said to be the largest monolithic rock structure in the world. Beyond Kailasa, 33 other caves are open to the public, all of them filled with Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu sculpture and reliefs.
Despite the fact that Ellora is not a household name, this lost city of prayer demands to be on the short list of the world’s most amazing sites. We were overwhelmed by the size of the statues, the doorways, and the elaborately carved columns. (Take a moment to really process the scale in the pictures above.) We spent hours here winding our way through the temples, climbing to balconies and overlooks, and marveling at the ingenuity it took to create a city from solid rock. At the end of the day, most visitors will head to Aurangabad for accommodation and more impressive sites.
Aurangabad – City of Gates
No, the Taj Mahal didn’t go on a diet. Aurangabad’s skinny, but impressive Bibi ka Maqbara is Emperor Aurangzeb’s not-so-original tomb dedicated to the memory of his favorite wife. A selfie here is great fun and will leave your friends back home scratching their heads about what doesn’t look quite right with one of the world’s most famous monuments.
Beyond the famous mausoleum, Aurangabad has a lot to see including some fairly monumental city gates (Makai Gate is the best) as well as several temples. We, however, spent the bulk of our time at the sprawling Daulatabad Fort complex with its hulking double walls and some pretty eye-popping views out over the surrounding plains.
One particularly interesting thing you might spot is the rather suggestive Chand Minar. (Methinks King Ala-ud-din Bahmani might have been overcompensating a bit.) The 63-meter structure, which is also known as the Tower of the Moon, is considered one of the most important examples of Indo-Islamic architecture in southern India. It looks especially impressive when viewed from up on the fort.
And of course, as in every Indian city, the monkeys are always a highlight. In Aurangabad, we actually spotted a langur stealing water from a water vendor. That was certainly something we had never seen before.
Ajanta Cave Temples – Paintings Galore
One hundred kilometers north of Aurangabad lies Ajanta, another spectacular cave complex home to Maharashtra. Travelers might balk at the concept of hours on pot-holed roads to visit more cave temples, but Ajanta is actually quite different from Ellora. For some inexplicable reason, much of the colorful temple frescos have survived the centuries. If Ellora is all about sculpture, Ajanta is all about paintings.
And we aren’t talking about a few random splashes of paint. In some caves, the columns, ceilings, walls, and statues are all covered in color. Paintings range from abstract designs to gorgeous royal processions to the birth of Buddha. One portrait-like depiction of the Bodhisattva Padmapani in Cave #1 is especially famous; it might even be considered the Mona Lisa of Ajanta (if Mona Lisa were male).
Again we spent several hours at the site, which has 29 cave temples open to the public. While not as complex or as extensive as Ellora, the site sits in a beautiful little canyon filled with langurs and parakeets. The paths cling to the solid rock face inching along a balcony of stone past elaborately carved facades through an elephant gate up into ornate, vaulted worship halls. The site complements Ellora perfectly, and it really is worth visiting both UNESCO World Heritage sites before returning to the coast.
Coastal Life of Maharashtra
This brings us to the 720 kilometers of tropical Maharashtrian coastline, which runs from Gujarat in the north to Goa in the south. As we hopped from Murud to Ratnagiri to Panaji on our way to Goa, we took the opportunity to explore a number of traditional beach villages. This entire stretch of coast feels like a living museum dedicated to fishing culture and Indian Ocean communities.
For centuries, these fishermen have traded and interacted with Persians, Arabs, and Africans as well as the Portuguese, British and Dutch. This makes the state of Maharashtra one of the most diverse regions in India, which is really saying something. It’s not uncommon to see one woman walk by in an Arab-style niqab, another wearing a lavish sari, and another dressed like a little old gray-haired British lady. There are even pockets of Siddi people, the descendants of African sailors.
To fully appreciate these coastal communities, you need to get out and walk the beaches to take it all in. We found locals preparing nets or hauling in the day’s catch in creaky wooden dhows. Kids ran along the beach and climbed onto painted boats demanding we take their picture.
We found village markets, ancient fortresses, and lots of smiling faces. At the end of each day, the sun dipped into a dreamlike ocean haze that lit up the beach in a surreal orange light that only seems to exist in India. Even a sunset seems more magical in Maharashtra.