Aurangabad is a dusty little town, sitting in the heart of Maharashtra and serving as the gateway to the deeply historic Ajanta and Ellora caves. For most visitors, this is the main purpose of Aurangabad, as the hub spot to launch towards other must-see sites, and so, very little time is spent in the actual town. Yet, Aurangabad has its own charms that can infuse a richness to your visit, if only you let it.
One of its charms rises from its place in time right now. Aurangabad is in the throes of change, as much of India is transforming via high economic growth and global integration. This churn is what is bringing unique experiences to the surface.
For people from Marathwada, Aurangabad is the big city. That’s why you see throngs of villagers squatting outside government offices and courts. From the vibrant pagdis (turbans) on men’s heads and colourful irkal saris on women (a particular design type) worn in the longer 9-yard style, it is evident they are not city-dwellers. Packed tiffins and overnight bags sit close to them, further disclosing their outsiderness. The magic rises from their juxtaposition with all the trappings of modern living: latest model motorbikes and SUVs zoom by, with men sporting the trendiest beards and gelled hair and young women zip by on their daily run. If there is a picture of the old co-existing with the new, this is it.
Usually, we think of tradition and modernity as foes, where each seeks to trump the other. There is a low tolerance for the other, as the one’s way of life is deemed indubitably superior. Suspicion abounds – do you really accept me, or are you trying to quell me?
In Aurangabad, there are ample examples of the overly simplistic nature of this kind of thinking. Like India, it holds both, with grace and ease. There is space for old traditions even as new norms emerge.
On a recent trip, I experienced a particularly delightful version of this.
It was morning, around the time people are starting to get their day going. I walked out of my housing society to meet my taxi. At the same time, an elderly gentleman was making his way past me. He was dressed in the old-style Marathwada outfit: white pajamas, a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, untucked, over the pants, and a white boat-shaped topi (hat) covering his head. He had on simple, open-toed chappals. He wore steel-rimmed, round glasses on his sunned face. He could have been a farmer.
He looked towards me, and in one of those unintended moments of life, our eyes met. His eyes grew a little, and then he let out a small smile. Nodding his head appreciatively, he said to me, “Tai, you look so smart. Really nice.” It did not feel creepy or patronising, as such exchanges can often be. On the contrary, it had a sincerity to it, with only a desire to appreciate benevolently, nothing more.
I was surprised. First of all, by the fact that a stranger had made such a gesture. In Marathwada, people don’t randomly interact with each other, unlike in the West, where it is customary to make shared observations about the weather or the game last night or to ask how one is doing. On top of this, what threw me off for a few moments was that he felt positive about my attire. I was not in a sari or even a salwar kameez. I was wearing pants and a soft yellow Lucknowi kurti (top). I have short, cropped hair, the total antithesis to beauty. I did not have a bindi on my forehead, nor traditional jewellery. My accessories were a smartphone and a business handbag.
Flustered for a split second, I gathered myself and grinned back, mouthing a thank you in Marathi. We nodded to each other, he, the bastion of the old, and me, the ultimate ode to modernity.
Aurangabad provides such opportunities in ample supply, because of its mixed heritage. It is worth ambling along the markets, being open to the possibility of anything. Shop boys in a bakery might delight you with an unexpected conversation. Ladies in the vegetable market might want to talk to you about your culture. You might meet your own farmer who wants to appreciate your uniqueness.
I love Aurangabad for this quality. You cannot label anything or anyone without allowing for surprises.