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 !
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 !
Hindu 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.
The 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.
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 !
The Kailasa Temple is actually a complex of many monuments excavated at different periods of time, and carved from a single piece of rock.
The gorgeous sculpture of Ganga at the entrance of Cave 21.
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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 ! 🙂
- 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.
- 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.