It started with the promise of haleem. There was, I heard, a street stall in Aurangabad, near the Institute of Hotel Management, that served haleem so sublime, it was worth a seven-hour train journey from Mumbai. The dish—made from broken wheat, hunks of boneless beef, and a medley of whole spices—is slow-cooked for twelve hours over amber coals and then beaten with a heavy wooden paddle, until it acquires the texture of a creamy gelato (this is actually harees, but everyone calls it haleem here). Munnabhai, the cook behind the legend, sets up his stall only during Ramzan. For the rest of the year, we learned after scarfing down three bowls of the glorious stuff, he is a wedding caterer known for his haunting mutton biryani, teetar (quail) curry, and murgh musallam.
A week after my trip, Munnabhai’s culinary dexterity still lingers in my mind, along with other memories I gathered in Aurangabad: of sky-clad Buddhist monks, jealous Hindu gods, fourth-generation unani hakeems, and crumbling military forts. Aurangabad is small as far as cities go, but its medley of cultural influences is richer than the haleem that spurred my visit there.
Driving through the city, lush green after the bountiful monsoon, I saw ancient ruins, minarets peeking out of the skyline, and numerous stores advertising himroo, an intricately designed textile made of silk. Himroo is a souvenir from the city’s first Mughal benefactor: Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, a monarch known for his military mind and personal eccentricities. In the 14th century, Tughlaq ordered every last subject of Delhi to move to present-day Aurangabad, which he decided would be his new capital. Its central location, he felt, would help him keep an eye on northern as well as Deccan territories. Forts were sieged, castles built, and signs changed (he named the city Daulatabad) in preparation for the monarch’s arrival. All was well until a drought struck two years later, depleting food supplies and the royal treasury. So Tughlaq did the only thing he could: he ordered his subjects to make the back-breaking trek back to Delhi. Daulatabad (on the outskirts of the city) is still littered with crumbling ruins from the time.
Aurangabad has had many masters. Its next was Malik Ambar, a prime minister of the Ahmednagar Sultanate who felt that the region still had potential. Two centuries after Tughlaq left, he built palaces, mosques, water tanks, and gardens, transforming the region yet again. When his son Fateh Khan took over, the city was christened Fatehnagar. It was only in 1653 that Aurangabad acquired its present name, when the fierce Mughal emperor Aurangzeb made the city his capital. For fortification, he built a wall around the city, and 52 soaring gates, lest the Marathas attack, which they did on numerous occasions. From within the city, Aurangzeb orchestrated his army of 500,000 soldiers, 50,000 camels, and 30,000 war elephants. The gates he built are still a defining feature of the city, and directions from locals are often described in terms of their proximity to the Roshan, Dilli, or Badkal darwazas.
Aurangabad’s current claim to fame is its proximity to the Ajanta and Ellora caves, UNESCO World Heritage sites that are known for their exquisite sculptures and wall paintings. Both sets of caves were excavated from the rocky mountainside, and carved from top down, and front to back using only hammers and chisels. The brilliance of the basalt temples is humbling. From the walls of the caves at Ellora (30 km/40 minutes; Wed-Mon 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; ₹10 for Indians, ₹250 for foreign nationals, children under 15 years enter free), sculptures of Buddha, Shiva, Durga, and Brahma look upon mortal tourists, as they squint at gods’ intricately carved jewellery, and their posses of nubile apsaras and grotesque half-animal guardians. Ellora has Buddhist, Brahmanical, and Jain excavations that date back to the period between the 5th and 11th centuries. The most popular caves are numbers 5,10,15,16,21,29, and 32, but each and every site has something to offer. Spend at least one entire day exploring Ellora; if possible spread the caves over two or three days. Guides are generally milling about the entrance and outside the mammoth Kailāsa temple (From ₹750 for a 2-3 hour tour of the major caves).
Ajanta, maintained with the assistance of the Japanese government, is in far better condition. Unlike Ellora, where anything goes, tourists are strictly prohibited from littering, touching sculptures, or using a flash to photograph paintings. Only a certain number of people are allowed to enter the caves at a time and lines can get long over the weekend. It is best to visit Ajanta during the week, or first thing in the morning (106km/ 2 hours; Tue-Sun 9am-6pm; ₹10 for Indians, ₹250 for foreign nationals, children under 15 years enter free). The site tends to get crowded in the second half of the day. Ajanta’s caves are Buddhist and can be classified into two structures: viharas (dormitories) and chaityas (prayer halls). Both are decorated with intricate paintings of the many avatars of Buddha, his journey to enlightenment, and the kings and demons that attempted to disrupt his meditation, using distractions ranging from sensual dancers to trumpeting elephants. The chaityas at Ajanta belong to two schools of Buddhism: Hinayana (featuring only stupas) and Mahayana (where idols as well as stupas are worshipped). The Mahayana chaityas have ribbed, vaulted ceilings and acoustics that facilitate goose bump-inducing echoes. Others have ceilings filled with floral and animal motifs, pillars that sound like a tabla when struck, and figurines that make eye contact with viewers, no matter where in the room they stand. Ajanta requires less time than Ellora. Still, it is best to spend an entire day there to really soak in the artwork.
Often ignored, the Aurangabad Caves were cut between the 3rd and 8th centuries, and feature a bevy of Buddhist sculptures. The caves (seven in all) aren’t as elaborate as Ajanta and Ellora, and are best visited before the UNESCO sites.
Aurangabad is peppered with souvenirs from Aurangzeb’s reign. The man himself was terribly austere but his son Azam Shah was a little indulgent. It is believed that Prince Shah built Bibi-ka-Maqbara, a likeness of the Taj Mahal, for his mother. The structure however, was constructed in 1660 when he was all of seven years old. Bibi-ka-Maqbara is far smaller, and the craft isn’t nearly as skilled as the Agra monument’s, but it’s worth a visit, if only to compare it to India’s number one tourist spot.
A little outside the city, in Khuldabad, is Aurangzeb’s tomb. The mighty Mughal ruler lies in an unassuming dargah by a narrow winding road cluttered with barbers, butchers, and homes with pale green and pink walls. When he wasn’t plotting war, Aurangzeb used to stitch prayer caps and copy the Quran. In death, he wished to be treated as a common man, and decreed that only the money saved from his religious work could be spent on his tomb. He lies a few feet away from Azam Shah and his wife.
Daulatabad Fort was originally called Deogiri (The Hill of Gods), and was founded by the Yadavas in the 11th century. Built on a 200-metre-high conical hill, it was one of the most powerful forts of the medieval Deccan era—and some historians claim, among the chief reasons that Tughlaq shifted his capital to the region. Daulatabad Fort is a brutally beautiful structure, filled with fatal traps meant to quickly incapacitate invading enemies. The gates of the structure have dagger-like spikes so elephants couldn’t be used to ram it down. Inside, there are narrow tunnels—parts of which are pitch dark—with coves cut out for assassins, strategically placed rocks meant to trip enemies, and elaborate maze-like routes that run in circles. The original stairs in the fort (now demolished) were only three to six inches wide, forcing invaders to look down while running, instead of at the attackers shooting arrows at them from the fort’s terraces. Spend time trekking to the top for stunning views of the hills around (17 km/30 min; daily 7 a.m.-6 p.m.; ₹20; guide ₹750).
While there are several budget hotels in Aurangabad, the quality at these establishments is not always consistent. Linens are not always fresh, food is often greasy, and restaurants are filled with busloads of loud tour groups visiting the Ajanta-Ellora caves. The business hotels on the other hand, though slightly more expensive—about ₹700 more per night—are far more reliable. Most establishments offer discount deals over the weekend. Check for deals on travel booking websites.
Keys Hotel Aures is a plush hotel with a multi-cuisine restaurant and a bar. Rooms have free Wi-Fi, flat screen LCD televisions, and stocked minibars. The food is strictly average but the rooms are comfortable, and the hotel staff is friendly (0240-6654000; www.aureshospitality.com; doubles ₹3,699 including breakfast).
Ajanta T Junction is run by the Maharashtra Tourism Board and has affordable, fuss-free rooms. Expect minimal service (8879222035; www.maharashtratourism.gov.in; doubles from ₹2,142).
Lemon Tree Hotel on Jalna Road often hosts training programmes for large corporate groups. Rooms are pleasant and the property has a pool, lawns, and a gym (0240-3055050; www.lemontreehotels.com; doubles ₹5,097).
Vivanta by Taj – Aurangabad Frequented by visiting expats and businessmen, The Taj is a palace-style hotel amidst five acres of landscaped gardens. Service is top-notch and all rooms offer views of the azure swimming pool or lawns. The hotel’s multi-cuisine restaurant serves excellent Maharashtrian fare; the pitla, bhakri, and Aurangabad chicken curry are all very good (0240-6613737; www.vivantabytaj.com; doubles ₹7,500 including breakfast).
Aurangabad’s culinary offerings are a carnivore’s delight. The fare is similar to the cuisine of Hyderabad, though less extravagant. For a crash course in the city’s favourite food, visit Buddi Lane, where the streets are filled with stalls selling seekh kebabs, meat biryani, haleem, and naan qaliya, a rich, meat curry served with rotis. Vegetarians should visit Hiranya Resort (19km/25 min; daily 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; meal for two ₹500) for delicious to the lake on the resort’s property. Don’t miss the masala bhaat (rice), puran poli, and bharli vangi, baby brinjals stuffed with coconut, peanuts, and sesame seeds.
There are a crop of handloom weaving centres near Ellora, advertising Paithani and himroo shawls and saris. These are Aurangabad’s principal exports. Paithani saris are made of thick silk, embellished with plenty of zari work in floral and bird motifs. It is extremely expensive but is considered a collector’s item. Himroo shawls are far more wearable, and feature small paisley and Mughal-looking floral motifs in bright fuschia, cobalt blue, and mustard yellow. At Himroo Fabrics (Zaffer Gate; daily 11 a.m.-8.30 p.m.; himroofabrics.com) travellers can see textiles being woven, and buy reasonably priced souvenirs. The Taj hotel has a family-run store that showcases bidri ware, a metal handicraft from Karnataka which is now rare to find (Mon-Sat 7.30-9 am, 1-3.30 pm, and 7-11 pm).
Updated in June 2016. Appeared in the September 2013 issue as “Many Lives, Many Masters”.
Aurangabad lies in central Maharashtra, about 335 km/6 hours drive, east of Mumbai.
Air Daily flights connect Aurangabad’s Chikkalthana Airport to the rest of the country. The flight from Mumbai takes 50 minutes.
Rail Trains are a convenient and economical way to travel to Aurangabad, since it is a major railhead. On the Janshatabdi train, the journey lasts roughly 7 hours.
Road Aurangabad lies on the Mumbai-Nagpur Express Highway. Roads are wide and smooth, and the 6-hour drive is comfortable. Numerous sleeper bus services ply between Aurangabad and Mumbai daily. They take about 9 hours depending on the time of departure. Buses leaving during the day tend to take longer.
Having an all-day cab at your disposal is not necessary, save for the day you visit the Ajanta Caves, which is a 1.5 hour drive from Aurangabad. To visit Ellora and the other attractions in and around the city, auto rickshaws and local taxis are available. From the MTDC Resort (0240-2331143), near Aurangabad Railway Station, daily buses to Ellora (₹300; 9.30 a.m.) and Ajanta (₹450; 8.30 a.m.) depart every morning and return by 5.30 p.m. Buses to Ellora also visit the Daulatabad Fort and a few city attractions on the way back. Autos (₹650 per day) and taxis (₹1,300 per day) are also available here.
Aurangabad is hot for most of the year. During the summer (Mar to May), day temperatures can cross 40°C; the nights are warm too. The monsoon months between June and September are far nicer. Thirst quenched, Aurangabad comes alive. Green tendrils creep around the old darwazas, blankets of moss spread over fort ramparts, and otherwise brown swathes of land on the outskirts of the city turn into vast oceans of jade. The temperature hovers around 20°C and there is always a cool breeze blowing. Winter (Nov to Feb) days can be warm but in the evening, the mercury drops to a cool 10°C.