Driving in India is like playing a large and very real game of chicken. The roads are full of every kind of transportation imaginable: men on foot pushing carts give way to carts being led by buffalo; small pedal bikes are skirted by whole families perched on one motorcycle; small yellow Tata Nano cars get passed by larger Innovas which honk as they go around a gargantuan colorful Goods Carrier. And when they all share a two lane highway the result is like an elaborate dance sequence, with everyone mostly knowing their part until you get to the number that’s a little too complicated and the group hasn’t practiced enough. Two dancers are bound to make a wrong step and crash into each other.
My parents had been shocked throughout their trip by the insanity of the roads. But in Aurangabad the roads were even more precarious.
We were in Aurangabad to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves. They’re a full plane ride from any other place worth seeing in India and my dad had been wondering throughout the course of the trip why we were leaving Delhi in order to go see some caves. The answer is very simple: these rock-cut ‘caves’ are magnificant. They are a combination of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain structures (they would be amazing just for detailing the relgious tolerance that existed in this part of India during that period). They all are large rooms, temples, and art carved out of sheer rockface from the 2nd century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. Ajanta, the older group, is renowned for its carvings and well-preserved paintings.
But Ellora holds the masterpiece: Kailash Temple, built from approximately 600 A.D. to 900 A.D. The temple was created by vertical excavation, meaning 200,000 tons of rocks were slowly chiseled from above to build and form a temple larger than the Parthenon. There are many levels and areas but in the center stands a gargantuan and intricately carved singular temple, made from just the one piece of rock left in the middle. It is the largest monolithic structure in the world. It would be unbelievable to create today, but to that the whole thing was carved out of a mountain from above with only a chisel and hammer is truly staggering.
Of course, to get to these staggering, incredible feats of human artistry you have to drive along some pretty small and terrible roads. It was nerve-wracking to say the least. Our driver on the first day was a man with places to go and things to see. He swerved around in his large white Innova, honking to alert everyone in his path that he was going around them. Hairpin turns or traffic jams didn’t stop him. He only slowed down for potholes and cows, deftly braking while moving around them. On our way to Ajanta – which is a much longer trip from Aurangabad than Ellora – we were secretly quite happy at all the time we had saved.
But on the way back, as the late afternoon sun started to dip towards sunset, he clearly was in a race of his own making. At one juncture in the road we saw a huge Goods Carrier truck trying to make a three point turn. It was stuck: every little motorcycle, every small car was trying to go past it as it turned and in essence it couldn’t move.
“No one is going to let that guy go!” my dad said, as we started approaching. But there was a large gap between the cars that had just passed and our car – and there was clearly the first window for the truck to move back. But our driver decided to make a go for it.
Unfortunately, so did the other driver.
Sitting on the drivers side of the car, I saw it coming like in slow motion. He thought he could make it. He thought he could slickly pass beyond the truck and keep going at the pace to which he was accustomed. But the truck had seen his moment and he wasn’t letting it pass. They both played chicken and they both failed.
The truck came at us with a crunch. I let out a little yelp but thankfully none of us were hurt. The driver jumped out and we rolled down our window to look at the damage. The side of the car was badly dented and it couldn’t even open.
Immediately the conversations started between the truck driver, our driver and a few other men who had materialized out of nowhere to discuss the action. The drivers traded information and then the truck driver left. But our guy kept scheming with the men on the side of the road. We sat there, watching women working in the fields and cars driving by, and it started to seem like something was up.
“Sir? What’s happening?” I asked, even thought I knew he wasn’t listening and didn’t really speak English.
“Ek minute, ek minute,” (one minute, one minute), he replied, ignoring the fact that the sun was going down and we needed to get back to the hotel.
It started to seem like we were part of a cover-up.
After a few more minutes I called my friend D and asked if she could speak with the man in Hindi and get a sense of what was happening. The cover-up became clearer – he was waiting for paint. It was kind of hilarious that he thought paint would cover the big dent in his car. We didn’t want him to lose his job (he worked for our hotel) but on the other hand we didn’t want to be standing on the side of the road in the dark.
We finally convinced him to go and we piled back into the car (not using our smashed door, of course), and made our way back to civilization. It was a fitting end to our travels – my parents had seen some of India’s greatest sights, met a lot of great people, gotten a little bit of food poisoning, and now had gotten into a roadside altercation. It doesn’t beat spending a year in the place, but it certainly was a good overview!
We’re all back in Mumbai now and it’s going to be very difficult to watch them go, but it’s been so wonderful to have them experience India. And at the very least we all came out unscathed!