India // Maharashtra //

Aurangabad and beyond


On first impressions, it’s easy to see why many travellers regard AURANGABAD as little more than a convenient, though largely uninteresting, place in which to kill time on the way to Ellora and Ajanta. Yet given a little effort, this city of over a million inhabitants can compensate for its architectural shortcomings. Scattered around its ragged fringes, the remains of fortifications, gateways, domes and minarets – including those of the most ambitious Mughal tomb garden in western India, the Bibi-ka-Maqbara – bear witness to an illustrious imperial past; the small but fascinating crop of rock-cut Buddhist caves, huddled along the flanks of the flat-topped, sandy yellow hills to the north, are remnants of even more ancient occupation.

The city was founded in the early seventeenth century by Malik Ambar, an ex-Abyssinian slave and prime minister of the independent Muslim kingdom of the Nizam Shahis; many of the mosques and palaces he erected still endure, albeit in ruins. Aurangabad really rose to prominence, however, towards the end of the seventeenth century, when Aurangzeb decamped here from Delhi. At his behest, the impressive city walls and gates were raised in 1682 to withstand the persistent Maratha attacks that bedevilled his later years. Following his death in 1707, the city was renamed in his honour as it changed hands once again. The new rulers, the Nizams of Hyderabad, staved off the Marathas for the greater part of 250 years, until the city finally merged with Maharashtra in 1956.

Modern Aurangabad is one of India’s fastest growing commercial and industrial centres, specializing in car, soft drink and beer production. It’s a decidedly upbeat place, boasting plenty of restaurants, bars and interesting shops in the old city. Easy day-trips from Aurangabad include the dramatic fort of Daulatabad, and, just a little further along the Ellora road, the tomb of Emperor Aurangzeb at the Muslim village of Khuldabad.

The old city, laid out on a grid by Malik Amber in the early seventeenth century, still forms the core of Aurangabad’s large bazaar area. It’s best approached via Gulmandi Square to the south, along any of several streets lined with colourful shops and stalls. Sections of Aurangzeb’s city wall survive, though more impressive is the network of city gates, some of which have been restored to something approaching their former glory.

On the left bank of the Kham River, on Panchakki Road, is an unusual water-mill known as the Panchakki. Water pumped underground from a reservoir in the hills 6km away drives a small grindstone, once used to mill flour, and collects in an attractive fish-filled tank, shaded by a large banyan tree. The Panchakki forms part of the Dargah of Baba Shah Muzaffar, a religious compound built by Aurangzeb as a memorial to his spiritual mentor, a Chishti mystic. The complex makes a lively place to wander around in the early evening with lots of chai shops, mehendi (henna hand-painting) artists and souvenir shops.

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