''When?'' I asked, horrified.
''Next year, I believe.''
That did it. Monsoon or no monsoon, we were going to catch a glimpse of Ajanta and Ellora before the curtain came down on either place.
After two days of rest in Bombay, we flew 235 miles inland to the city of Aurangabad, northeast of Bombay, for our excursions to Ajanta and Ellora. Aurangabad, a spread-out manufacturing town of some 1.1 million people, green and dusty in equal measure, has the airport nearest to the caves, as well as several fine hotels.
As a concession to the suddenly queasy stomach of our son Kanishk -- whose hospitability to any passing malady is a source of family legend -- we reversed the traditional order of doing things and decided to go to Ellora, the nearer site, first. Our hotel, the Taj Residency, equipped our rented, chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned car with packed lunches, chilled drinks and even umbrellas to ward off the monsoon, of which, to Minu's relief, we saw little evidence. Our youthful guide, Srikant Jadhav, had been in the business only four years, but he made up for inexperience with a fund of historical knowledge and a small stock of witticisms he tested on the unamused boys (''Why is the number 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 ate 9'').
Ellora is less than an hour's drive from Aurangabad across lush farming country, on a good road. Even though Ishaan and Kanishk had outgrown their desire as 7-year-olds to lead the Mongol hordes or, failing that, to become military historians, we decided to make one stop on the way. This was at the Deogiri Fort at Daulatabad, a soaring citadel on a conical hill that commands the land approaches from both north and east. This largely 13th-century edifice, now in ruins, was widely reputed to be invincible, so intricate was its pyramidal construction. The rock-hewn fort had several layers of walls, iron gates with elephant-deterring spikes, a 40-foot-deep moat and a narrow twisting subterranean passage that could be blocked by the intense heat generated by a large brazier at one end. It is a bit of a hike to the top, and Minu soon gave up the climb, preferring to sit under a mango tree with a lazily solicitous Ishaan, while Kanishk, miraculously revived by the challenge, trudged up with me. Among the fort's incongruities is an ancient Hindu temple, its roof supported by 150 pillars, that today houses a modern idol -- a kitsch figure of ''Mother India,'' draped in a gaudy sari, her eight arms brandishing an assortment of implements, including a sword, a trident and a somewhat startled-looking snake.
We also paused to visit two contrasting graves. The first was of the Emperor Aurangzeb, the last of the Great Moguls, after whom Aurangabad is named -- a simple and austere slab of marble paid for by the sale of prayer caps the devout monarch had stitched himself. (He died in 1707, at the age of 89, and had forbidden any other expenditure on a tomb.) The second, the Bibi ka Maqbara, just outside the city, was of his wife Rabla Daurani, a grand imitation Taj Mahal, startlingly reminiscent of the original, but without the Taj's perfect proportions and majesty. In other circumstances it might have been an attractive resting place, but Minu didn't think so. ''Wonder what it's like for her,'' she said sympathetically, ''to know she's buried in a travesty and her mother-in-law's tomb is where the real action is?''
At Ellora itself, we saw all 34 caves in a little over four hours, sequentially admiring the work of artists of different faiths. This meant starting with the Buddhist (constructed A.D. 550-750), then working our way through the Hindu caves (A.D. 600-875) to the Jain ones (A.D. 800-1000). The tour was not arduous, not even with Kanishk still a bit wobbly at the knees. The monsoon finally sprinkled us, but briefly and rather halfheartedly, as if it didn't really want to get in the way of our view. Around us were rolling hills, rock-laden and stately; golden gulmohur blossoms, flaming insolent and tender amid the greenery; and then, serene in the afternoon sun, the caves themselves, opening into the earth like a secret prayer.
The caves are numbered for the visitor's convenience. We walked through them in order, marveling at the paucity of people. Last year we had taken the boys to Italy, where they had got accustomed to throngs everywhere; here, being able to enjoy the splendors without crowds made our discovery of each cave, each carving, more intimate.
Every pillar, alcove and niche at Ellora is carved from solid rock. We admired the contrast between the somewhat ostentatious Cave 5, whose treasures include an immense, ornate praying Buddha, and the plain and austere lines of Caves 1 and 7.
We could see why Cave 6 might have been ''afraid of 7.'' It seemed the work, perhaps, of lay sculptors rather than monks, because it overflows with lush carvings: dancing dwarfs play musical instruments; busty goddesses disport themselves, every detail of their clothing, ornaments and headdresses rendered with minute precision; on one wall, a student toils at a desk, oblivious to temptation. Cave 10, with its vaulted arches and intricate interior carvings, reminded the boys of a Roman basilica, except that there was no gelato for sale outside.
''You mean they didn't actually carry a single stone into the cave?'' Ishaan asked incredulously. They didn't. Though the rock-temples are referred to as caves, they are the work of men, who created principally two kinds of structures -- monasteries, or viharas, and halls of worship, or chaityas. The basalt rock of the Deccan plateau, solid but easy to hew, proved ideal for the sculptors. Imagine the drama of it, turning mountain faces into works of art, sanctuaries, temples; year after year, working only with natural light, the metronomic poetry of hammer and chisel against rock.
Cave 12 is a three-storied edifice carved in the seventh century to serve as a hostel for the monks. Each room cut into the rock has a carved stone bed, complete with stone pillow, and a niche cut into the wall for the monk's lamp. Ishaan and Kanishk, overwhelmed by the sense that they were in a 2,000-year-old boarding school, refused to climb to the headmaster's floor. Minu and I followed our guide to the top level, where a row of seven meditating Buddhas sits alongside another row of seven who have already attained enlightenment, as attested to by the stone umbrellas over their beatific heads. Here, too, were faded remnants of paintings on the ceiling, a faint hint of what was to come in Ajanta.
The Hindu Cave 16 goes one better: it is the largest monolithic carving in the world, a gigantic temple called Kailash, after the god Shiva's mountain abode, which took 800 workmen a century and a half to complete and is twice the size of the Parthenon. The sculptors' vision was that of a flying chariot, and the cave is carved like one. It is embellished with vivid statuary depicting Hindu legends, a particularly astonishing piece showing the goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura amid a flurry of flailing arms and weapons.
We ate our picnic lunch at a spot where Cave 29 overlooks a waterfall. We sat on an ancient ledge and looked out to where the water cascaded sudden and silvery from the hillside. After lunch, when we tried to venture farther into the cave, we found it had been cut so deeply into the hill that no sunlight ever reached its farthest interior. The back of the cave smelled strongly of the droppings of bats, which whirled furiously past us in the dark.
We ended our tour of Ellora at the massive double-storied Jain Indrasabha, Cave 32, a relatively late construction (11th century) notable for more than one statue of Siddhayika, a female attendant of the founder of the Jain faith, Mahavira. An exquisitely carved lotus on the ceiling caught our eye. And there, in stone, was a yakshi (demoness) sitting on a lion under a mango tree. The ripe beauty of the doe-eyed woman seemed at odds with the legendary asceticism of the Jain faith. But the caves were carved in lushly prosperous times, and asceticism always thrives better in penury.
We started a little earlier on the second day, since the 65-mile journey from Aurangabad to Ajanta takes almost two hours by road, and we had a flight back to Bombay at the end of the day.
Ajanta looks more like an organized tourist destination. As soon as we parked, we were inundated by hawkers. Young boys thrust chunks of minerals into our hands as gifts to entice us into their shops. We fled, but were drawn up short at a paved ascent that curved upward from the parking lot to the caves. A wiry porter emerged to carry our possessions for us -- 80 rupees ($2) for the entire visit. I accepted with alacrity, since the Taj Residency appeared to have given us an even more generous supply of bottled drinks than on the previous day. Two more individuals appeared, looking as if a couple of the larger sculptures had come to life. They were palanquin bearers, enterprising young men ready to carry the less energetic visitor up to the caves in a stuffed chair mounted on two long poles. Minu looked wistfully at the palanquin, but the shocked disapproval of our sons sent her off, abashed. ''It's their livelihood,'' she murmured defensively.
There weren't enough foreigners around to remind us that we were tourists, but the pressure of tourism is felt more keenly at Ajanta than at Ellora: the four main caves admit only 40 visitors at a time, for a maximum of 15 minutes. It was just as well that we were there in the relatively unpopular monsoon, for we found an intimidating line at only one cave, to which we were able to return later. For years, attendants used to stand outside the caves with mirrors to reflect the sunlight onto the art within, but today Ajanta employs a ''lighting attendant'' in selected caves, whose job it is to shine a large electric lamp upon certain paintings pointed out by your guide.
Ajanta, a purely Buddhist complex that was created beginning in the second century B.C., had disappeared from popular consciousness around the eighth century A.D., when Buddhism faded away in India, largely absorbed by a reformed and resurgent Hinduism. Eleven hundred years of neglect have preserved it well, particularly its paintings, though we wondered about the long-term effects of the helpful ministrations of the lighting attendant.
We were grateful for his presence, though, because there would have been no other way to have captured, from three angles, the extraordinary enigmatic expression of the Padmapani Bodhisattava in Cave 1. The young man, his elongated eyes both brooding and reverential, a lotus in his hand, seems both of this world and beyond it. The cave carvings and paintings are positioned to catch natural light at certain moments of the day, and if one had all day one could have waited to see how different rays of sunlight might have illuminated different aspects of the face and figure portrayed. But even five minutes under electric light told us we were in the presence of a work of genius.
The womb-shaped caves served Buddhist monks as monasteries and seats of learning. The paintings of tales from the Buddhist Jatakas and the nondevotional images of princesses and nymphs suggest the caves were also intended to attract lay visitors. Our guide had an attentive eye for signs of modern life in ancient art, pointing out figures carrying such items of daily use as Coke-shaped bottles, glass tumblers and playing cards. (''Ancient India had Coke,'' he grinned proudly.) But when he suggested that a hanger-on in one Buddhist painting was actually wearing blue jeans, I called a halt to his appropriations of the past. The truth was remarkable enough: Many of the paintings testified to an amazing degree of international contact and trade. The ceiling in cave 2, for example, is covered with seventh-century portraits of visiting princes, including a Persian monarch and his consort, while Hellenic influences are reflected in bacchanalian figures wearing stockings and hats.
The art of Ajanta has a standing comparable in the history of Asian art to that of the frescoes of Siena and Florence in European art. The Ajanta painters used a tempera technique, applying their colors onto a thin layer of dry plaster rather than directly onto the walls themselves. The plaster was composed of organic material, including vegetable fibers and rice husks, mixed with fine sand. The paints themselves, in vivid chromatic colors, were derived from locally available minerals, though the blue is believed to have come from lapis lazuli imported from Central Asia.
Apart from the Padmapani figure in Cave 1, I was most struck by a painting in Cave 16 portraying the conversion of Prince Nanda by the Buddha, as his princess swoons, realizing she is to lose her husband to the world-renouncing faith of his preceptor. The narrative painting, depicting the mournful messenger bearing the news, an attendant bringing the prince's rejected crown, and melancholy ladies-in-waiting consoling the grieving princess, is an extraordinary evocation of the price of faith, rendered with exquisite sensitivity. In a different mood is a flying apsara (celestial nymph) in Cave 17, a figure of joy and glitter, her necklace studded with diamonds and sapphires that glint 15 centuries after she was painted, her ribbons trailing gaily as she swings forward.
In all the caves, the paintings reveal a high level of technical skill, with a subtle use of shading and highlighting to achieve a three-dimensional effect. There are curiosities: the women in the pictures are all dark, the men all fair, and it is not clear whether this was an artistic convention or the reflection of some ancient colonizing sensibility. With their varied themes, their sophisticated execution and their vivid depictions of human and animal forms, the painting of Ajanta made a tremendous impact across Asia, becoming a model for artists throughout the Buddhist world.
We returned to Aurangabad after five hours, having consumed the Taj's packed offerings in a gazebo a hundred steps below the cave level. Our patient porter had sensibly waited downstairs, rather than dog our footsteps as we climbed, and he laid claim to the gazebo before anyone else had the same idea. Oddly enough, there is no concession stand, let alone a restaurant, in the complex; while there is no shortage of peddlers offering everything from postcards to samples of local rock, you have to bring your own food.
Before boarding the aircraft for Bombay, I asked D. M. Yadav, the senior tourism official in Aurangabad, about the threatened closure of the caves. He seemed puzzled. ''Why would we do that?'' he asked. ''People have been coming daily to Ellora for 2,000 years, to Ajanta for somewhat less. Why stop them now?''
''Never believe everything you hear at diplomatic parties,'' the twins chimed in. But I was grateful for the misinformation, which had sent us scurrying here in the monsoon. We had seen the caves, encountered no crowds and stuck to our schedule. What's more, not a single flight was canceled because of the weather. And we didn't even really get wet.
Not long after our return, I found myself comparing notes with the South African novelist and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, who had visited the caves the previous year. ''I now tell my friends, forget the Sistine Chapel,'' she declared, ''visit Ajanta and Ellora instead!''
Bombay: We stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel Mumbai, Apollo Bunder, Mumbai 400001 (telephone: 22-202-3366; fax: 22-287-2711; reservations can also be made in the United States: 800-458-8825). The hotel, built in 1903, is still perhaps India's finest, a grand crenelated edifice facing the sea near the Gateway to India arch. Rates range from about $220 to about $440 for a double room. Other good hotels in the same price range include the Oberoi Towers at Nariman Point (22-202-4343; fax: 22-204-3282) and, near the airport, the Leela Kempinski (22-836-3636; fax: 22-836-0606).
Aurangabad offers a choice of three excellent hotels. We stayed at the newest of these, the Taj Residency, 8-N-12 CIDCO, Aurangabad 431003, Maharastra (240-381-106; fax: 240-381-053; in the United States: 800-458-8825), which is set amid five acres of landscaped gardens. Rates range from about $125 to about $150 for a double room. The same prices obtain at the Welcomgroup Rama International, R-3 Chikalthana (240-485-441; fax: 240-485-444), and the Ambassador Ajanta, Jalna Road (240-485-211; fax: 240-484-367).
We found it useful to seek the advice of the Government of India Tourist Office in Aurangabad, Krishna Vilas, Station Road West (240-331-217). Its head, Mr. D. M. Yadav, has spent half his 30-year career in Aurangabad, and can be relied on for good counsel on every subject, from tourist guides to medical practitioners. (The Tourism Department licenses guides and maintains a list of 57 approved guides; any local travel agency can also supply you with one.)
It is impractical to rent a car without a driver. Since the driver's English may be rudimentary, it is best to have your official tourist guide with you to ease any communication problems. Each hotel has a contract with a car-rental firm that maintains its vehicles on the premises. We were satisfied with our air-conditioned Indian-made Ambassador car from T.G.S. Tours and Travels ($55 to $75 a day). Bus tours are also available at less than $10 round-trip to either Ajanta or Ellora.
We ate only at our hotel in Aurangabad; there is an excellent choice of Continental and Indian dishes available in the two principal restaurants at the Residency, although we also heard good things about the buffet at the Rama International. A typical dinner for two, without alcohol, comes to less that $15. For trips to the caves, it is generally advisable to take boxed lunches from your hotel. The temple complexes are open six days a week from sunrise (or no later than 8 A.M.) to 5 P.M. (closed Mondays). Admission fees are negligible: five rupees (13 cents) at each location, plus a ''lighting fee'' of 15 rupees (40 cents) at Ajanta. SHASHI THAROOR