The Ellora Caves: A showcase for Indian sculptural art

You know what they say about saving the best for the last? Well, Ellora Caves doesn’t believe in that !

The first thing that visitors to Ellora Caves see on entering the complex is its most famous monument. It is the monument that writers have written paeans about, the monument that is a photographer’s delight, the monument that leaves visitors awestruck, and the monument that everyone knows as Kailasa Temple, but is officially known as Cave 16.

When I walked in after buying my entry ticket and saw the richly carved entrance to the cave, familiar from so many photographs, I actually rubbed my eyes in disbelief !

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
The entrance to the Kailasa Temple or Cave 16

My impulse was to explore Kailasa first, but better sense prevailed. Tempting as it was to explore Cave 16, I decided to begin with Cave 1, which was a short distance away. It turned out to be a good decision for if I had explored the Kailasa Temple first, I would probably not have seen any of the other 33 caves at Ellora!

Once again, as it happened at the Ajanta Caves and then at Daulatabad Fort, no guides were available when I arrived at the Ellora Caves at noon, one day in December 2013. There was also no literature on Ellora available at the ticket office. But, as I found out later, the information boards placed outside each cave provided adequate information.

The Ellora Caves get their name from the nearby village of Elapura (present name Veral) and have been excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri Hills, about 30 km from Aurangabad. Rock cutting activity at the Ellora Caves began in mid-6th century CE, when similar activity at the Ajanta Caves was almost coming to an end. Ellora was buzzing with activity for nearly 400 years —from 550 CE to around 950 CE — producing 34 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves.

The Hindu caves were the first to be excavated at Ellora, while excavation of the Buddhist caves began about 50 years later. By 7th century CE, work was underway in both the Buddhist and Hindu caves. Activity in the former set of caves ceased by the end of that century, but saw increased activity in the latter set of caves. Cave 16 or the Kailasa Temple was excavated during this time. Work on the Jain caves began only towards the end of the 8th century CE and continued through the ninth and tenth centuries.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Some of the caves at Ellora

Unlike the Ajanta Caves, the Ellora Caves never disappeared from human memory, record or knowledge. There are several written, historical records of travellers visiting the caves in medieval  times. Unfortunately, perhaps that is also the reason why several of the sculptures were disfigured when the area came under the rule of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Disfigured sculptures outside one of the Buddhist caves

I spent half-a-day at the Ellora Caves, exploring them in the order that they were numbered. The caves are spread out for over 2 km, so there is some amount of walking to be done if you want to cover all the caves. Since the caves have been excavated at various levels, there is also a fair amount of climbing up and down stairs if, like me, you want to see everything. Presenting the highlights for each set of caves — Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. 🙂

Buddhist Caves: There are 13 caves numbered from 1 to 13. With the exception of one cave, which is a chaitya or prayer hall, all the others are viharas or monasteries, some of them multi-storied.

There is a sense of aesthetics in the caves where corners, entry points, and edges have beautiful wall reliefs carved on them. The unexpectedness of seeing them never failed to delight.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cave 5, also known as Maharwada, is a vihara with cells leading off from the main hall. The men that you see in the picture made a pest of themselves by refusing to move from the frame, and insisting that their photograph be taken.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

A sculpture of the Buddhist Goddess, Mahamayuri. I found the scribe sitting at her feet on her right interesting. Is she associated with learning and knowledge, or does her name come from the mayur or the peacock, also visible on her right?

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

The grandest of all the Buddhist caves at Ellora is Cave 10, locally known as Vishwakarma. A chaitya, it has one of the most beautiful sculptures of the Buddha I have seen.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

When I saw this multi-storied vihara that is Cave 12 or Teen Thal, I thought I was back in Mumbai in front of one of its many unfinished buildings !

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage SiteHindu Caves: There are 16 Hindu caves, numbered from 14 to 29, and are perhaps the best examples of Hindu rock-cut caves in India. These caves were excavated at a time when Hinduism received royal patronage in the area, the great epics—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana — were given the form that we are largely familiar with today, etc. The caves are richly sculpted with stories from the Puranas, and also have panels from the two epics.

As in the case of the Buddhist caves, there is a high degree of aesthetics and style, and it would not be wrong to call the caves sculpture galleries. Many of the sculpted panels in the Hindu caves are repeated in the more than one cave, for example, Ravana lifting Kailasa, Andhakasura-vadha, etc.. In fact, Cave 29 or the Dumar Lena, is almost a replica of Cave 1 of Elephanta Caves !

The saptamatrikas — Chamunda, Indrani, Varahi, Vaishnavi, Kaumari, Maheshwari and Brahmi — in Cave 14 or Ravan ki Khai. Each one of them can be identified by the mounts carved on pedestal their feet rest on. Next to them, on the right, is Ganesha and the skeletal form of Kala or the god of death.
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage SiteThe upper part of this beautiful panel in Cave 14 represents Shiva and Parvati playing chausar, while the lower panel shows Nandi, the bull, and several of Shiva’s ganas playing.
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cave 15 is double-storeyed and full of richly sculpted wall panels. What caught my eye, when I climbed up to the first floor and entered this huge hall, was this sculpture of Nandi placed very casually in the centre of the room, between the pillars and in front of the main shrine. It looked so alive that I was startled !Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Kailasa Temple is actually a complex of many monuments excavated at different periods of time, and carved from a single piece of rock.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Kailasa Temple
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
The remnants of painting on this panel just gives a glimpse of just how beautiful this must have been
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
A shiv linga surrounded by nine faces of Shiva
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
A panel from the Ramayana
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
The elephants may appear decorative, but actually play the role of support pillars

The gorgeous sculpture of Ganga at the entrance of Cave 21.Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

This panel of an 8-armed dancing Shiva in Cave 21 or Rameshwar was one of the most beautiful panels I saw at Ellora. Just look at the expression on Shiva’s face !
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Jain Caves: There are 5 Jain Caves, numbered from 30 to 34. These are the farthest set of caves at Ellora and the sculptures in them belong to the Digambar sect of Jains. Though the Jain caves are not as large as the Buddhist or Hindu caves, they are no less detailed.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Bahubali in Cave 32
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Detail from a panel in Cave 32

I cannot stress enough on the attention to detail seen in the sculptures that depict various stories and incidents from the Puranas at the Ellora Caves. One of the things I was particularly fascinated with was with animal carvings. Just see the following three photographs.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Durga’s lion attacks Mahisa, the bull demon. Detail from Cave 15
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
A lion tugs at an elephant’s trunk causing him to lift one of his forelegs in pain. Detail from Cave 16
Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Just look at the tail of this lion. Detail from Cave 29

I think I moved around Ellora Caves, quite like the man wearing the veshti or dhoti in the photograph below. I saw him at the Kailasa standing and staring at something that I could not see. When he finally moved away after some minutes, he had tears running down his cheeks.

I understood exactly how he felt, for my own cheeks were wet. Kailasa has that effect on you.

Ellora Caves, Sculptures, Indian Art, Aurangabad, UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Ellora Caves is just one of the 1200 rock-cut caves that exist in India, of which I have probably seen just a fraction. And of the fraction that I’ve seen, the Ellora Caves, particularly Kailasa, ranks right up there amongst the best. The few hours that I spent at the Ellora Caves were overwhelming in the best possible way understanding, or rather trying to understand, Indian sculptural art and its unique aesthetic. Very simply I came away awed.

Once again, pictures or reading the accounts of others who have visited before simply did not prepare me for the grandeur that awaited me. If you have visited the Ellora Caves, you would know what I mean. And if you haven’t, then you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself ! 🙂


Notes:

  1. I would recommend a full day at the Ellora Caves, but if you can’t spare that much time, do try to spend at least half-a-day there.
  2. For further reading on the Ellora Caves, I recommend “Ellora” by M.K. Dhavalikar, which has been published by Oxford University Press, as part of their Monumental Legacy Series.

26 thoughts on “The Ellora Caves: A showcase for Indian sculptural art

    1. Thanks, Deboshree. The Ellora Caves and Ajanta, too for that matter, must be visited. A mere post like this or photographs cannot capture the grandeur and the beauty. And I would always suggest visiting sooner rather than later 🙂

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    1. Thank you, MM. With Ellora being such a gorgeous place, the post had to match up to it somewhat. 😛

      But seriously, I think the Ellora and the Ajanta Caves, for all their popularity, are still very understated, if you compare it to the Taj. When you look at the caves and then read about it and then correlate the two, its amazing considering that the first sculptors were actually carpenters ! And carpenters, as we know them today are no sculptors. Both the caves are where, art and bhakti have the perfect marriage. The Kailasa is stupendous when you consider that every single thing there has been carved out from from single piece of rock — top to botton, outside to inside. The mind boggles at the artist or the architect’s vision as there would have been no scope for error.

      It’s humbling and inspiring and overwhelming, all at the same time.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is a comprehensive post on the caves of Ellora. The sculptures left me gazing for long. I would recommend a half day tour for Ellora as Cave 16 would take the other half. Kailas cave is a riot of sculptures which left me enthralled. Wonderful post!

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  2. Hey, this is a great piece of work. I really like your collection of photos and their meaning in the caption. I found it to be really interesting. I invite you to visit my blog where I have just started writing about my travel stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome to “My Favourite Things”, Nomadic Notes, and thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your appreciation. I will visit your blog soon. Keep writing and hope you keep visiting her. Cheers 🙂

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  3. Hi Sudha,
    I am so found of your posts that I have read almost everything you’ve been writing. This post is my most favourite because you’ve put the experience of witnessing the beauty of Ellora Caves in the most eloquent manner! Kudos to that! Historical places have always mesmerized me but this has amazed like no other!! Awesome pictures btw!! So which cam are you using?

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    1. Welcome to my blog, Saachi. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting with such warm words. Ellora is special for me too. I still get a little overwhelmed when I see the photographs. I use a Canon 600D camera for the Ellora, though I also use a Panasonic Lumix and my Ipad as well.

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    1. Welcome here, Shreedevi. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I’m sure much would have changed in the 20 years since you were there. I only hope that the changes would be for the better.

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  4. I visited Ellora caves a couple of weeks ago and I am in such awe…came across your blog and relived the splendor of the sculptures and the sheer grandeur of the caves. I have visited several countries around the world and I always feel India has so much more to offer with regard to history and spellboundingly beautiful monuments, wish we could showcase it properly. I wish Indians would visit our heritage sites first before traveling abroad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome to “My Favourite Things”, Srilatha. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I agree with you that India has a lot to offer. As for why Indians prefer to travel abroad instead of travelling within India, I really can’t say why. It comes down to personal choices, connect and interests, I guess.

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