india’s classical masterpiece: the ellora caves

Be prepared to be bowled over.

No matter how many incredible photographs or videos you may have seen or paragraphs of eloquent text in guide books and articles you may have read, the real thing will.still.take.your.breath.away.

The Ellora caves are grander and more magnificent, yet full of intricate detailing, than you may ever have imagined.

Three ancient Indian religions are housed here. Three arts converge here. The site, spread over a two-kilometre long basalt massif, is one of the world’s largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes with more than a hundred caves. And if that were not enough, these ‘caves’ were excavated out of living rock over a millennium ago, between 550 and 950 AD to be exact, with chisel and hammer, to create ethereal art and architecture in its wake.

Come, let me take you on a virtual tour of India’s Classical masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. And in the process, inspire you to also make the journey to the Ellora caves in person. For what is life, but moments which take our breath away. 🙂

Ellora caves: Where three ancient indigenous Indian religions meet

Three of the world’s most ancient religions took birth in India.

Hinduism, sans any founder and recognized as the “oldest religion” in the world, started in the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 – 1300 BC) on the banks of the Indus river. Many centuries later, in the Kingdom of Magadha in eastern India, Mahavira (599 – 527 BC) instituted Jainism and Buddha, the Enlightened, founded Buddhism in the late-6th Century BC.

Although temples dedicated to these three religions are scattered all over the country, and there is ample proof that they co-existed peacefully with each other through the centuries, something wonderful happened in Ellora. On the basalt cliff lining an early South Asian trade route, the three religions decided to build monasteries and temples—next to each other in three clusters filed in a single line.

First came the Hindus, then the Buddhists, and lastly the Jains. And they all stayed together until the 13th Century. That is, until the region came under Islamic rule and the subsequent iconoclasm or defacing of the idols by India’s new rulers forced the monks and pilgrims to flee.

From 550 – 950 AD the Hindu kings of the Vakataka, Chalukya, and Rashtrakuta dynasties, had funded over a hundred caves for the monks and pilgrims of the three faiths. Each series was characterized by its own religious iconography, architectural style, and aesthetics.

The Hindus carved out temples and wrapped them with gods and goddesses from its colourful, vibrant pantheon. The Buddhists carved out virahas [monasteries] and chaityagrihas [prayer halls] and decorated them with serene Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The Jains, meanwhile, carved out sanctuaries and filled them with ethereal details and stories of Tirthankaras from their mythology.

Of these, 34 caves are now open to the public. 1 – 12 are Buddhist, 13 to 29 are Hindu, and 30 – 34 are Jain. The result: A novel opportunity to see a display of three different ancient religious art and architectural styles all in one go.

Hindu caves at Ellora
[Note: Click on an image to enlarge it and read the caption. Use the arrow keys to navigate through the set.]

Ellora caves: Where painting, sculpture, and architecture converge

It is not often one comes across a seamless amalgamation of the arts. Where painting, sculpture, and architecture fuse into a unified whole that it is hard put to make out where one ends and the other begins. In the Ellora caves, it is as if the artisans had mastered this technique.

All 34 caves in Ellora are a flawless marriage of sculpture and architecture, both created concurrently when excavating the basalt cliff. Way back in antiquity, these caves were covered in dry frescoes too, not unlike those at Ajanta. Stories from mythology and every-day life interspersed with geometric designs and flora decorated the walls and ceilings. Vibrant colour encased the sculptures and pillars. Much of this has flaked off, but patches still remain if you know where to look.

Though each cave possesses artistic merit there are six which stand above the rest in aesthetic value. I’d like to call them the six wonders of Ellora. They are Caves 10, 12, 16, 29, 32, and 33.

What can I say about the Kailasha Temple or Cave 16, the wonder of the wonders?

The largest monolithic structure in the world, it is as much an engineering feat as a magnum opus of the arts. With its inspiration rooted in Mount Kailash, the Hindu god Shiva’s abode, the temple was built by Rashtrakuta king Krishna I in the 8th Century AD. Not only is it complete architecturally with a gateway, assembly hall, multi-level temple replete with an inner sanctum and spire, plus multiple shrines to various deities, all carved out of o.n.e single rock, but each element is festooned with animated sculptures inside out. Exotic paintings to-date hide in its deep inner recesses.

Dhumar Lena [Cave 29], on the other hand, is one of the oldest and largest caves at Ellora. Evocative of the Elephanta caves, numerous large panels depict key events from Shiva’s life and a central sanctum houses a linga-yoni. Colossal pits for Vedic rituals are scattered around its halls.

Vishvakarma Temple [Cave 10] and Tin Taal [Cave 12] are the cream of the crop in the Buddhist series. Cave 10 is the only chaityagriha [prayer hall] in the Buddhist series with a polished stone roof which looks uncannily like wooden beams and a stupa fronted by a Buddha in preaching pose. Watch out for the nagas [human-headed snake deities] topping the pillars.

Seemingly nondescript on the outside, almost like a school building, Tin Taal, meanwhile, is a three-storeyed Vajrayana monastery with living and sleeping quarters for the monks, kitchens, and an inner sanctum. Climb up the stairs and be prepared to be knocked over by a riot of art. Buddhas in various poses cram niches and line walls in the company of tantric mandalas and Bodhisattvas.

At a distance of 1.5 kilometres from Cave 16 are the Jain temples Indra Sabha [Cave 32] and Jagannatha Sabha [Cave 33]. They complete the not-to-be-missed list. Most of Ellora’s intact paintings are in these two caves. Here, heavenly couples float on clouds on painted ceilings whilst sculptured panels recount mythological tales of Tirthankaras. In their inner sanctums, Mahavira meditates.

With time and its vagaries, many of the idols in Ellora’s caves have been defaced. The paintings have worn off. But what a sight the caves must have been a thousand years ago, if this is what they look like in 2019!

Buddhist caves at Ellora
[Note: Click on an image to enlarge it and read the caption. Use the arrow keys to navigate through the set.]

Ellora caves: Where monolithic art and architecture were carved into solid rock

Besides the fusion of religion and the arts, there is one other feature about the Ellora caves which distinguishes it from other sites, past or present. This feature, running through all the caves like a thread, is also its most remarkable part.

Whilst the ancient world at large was content building their monuments and temples from ground up, piling bricks one on top of the other and carving individual blocks of stone, the builders at Ellora wanted to do something else.

They wanted to climb up cliffs and carve out their edifices downwards. What they were doing was nothing out of the ordinary. Their peers were doing exactly the same across the breadth of India. In fact, the builders at Ajanta had perfected the excavated cave with porches and pillared halls less than a century ago, a hundred-odd kilometres away.

As their ambitions grew in Ellora, and the scale of their ‘excavated’ temples became larger, the builders decided to dig trenches to create monolithic free-standing structures out of single rocks. Hence, from caves which sat on the facade of the cliff with one side open, they evolved to became a four-side open edifice inside the cliff.

It sounds simple enough, but removing millions of cubic metres of basalt rock on the ridge to expose hollow, three-dimensional edifices decorated with sculptures and geometric patterns was no small accomplishment. In the Kailasha Temple [Cave 16], the largest edifice in the site measuring 82 meters by 46 meters at its base and 30 meters high, an astronomical 200,000 tonnes of rock had to be dug out.

Since not all the caves at Ellora were completed, a visit to the incomplete ones provide deep insights into the processes that were employed. Cave 30A in the Jain series is one such which illustrates graphically how these architectural wonders were carved out front to back and top to bottom simultaneously. And how architecture and sculpture were created at this exact same time.

Exploring Ellora reminded me of Michelangelo’s quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” For the builders of antiquity, the basalt cliffs of the Deccan plateau had temples and monasteries in them. Like Michelangelo, they were simply setting them free. ❤

Jain caves at Ellora
[Note: Click on an image to enlarge it and read the caption. Use the arrow keys to navigate through the set.]

Travel tips:

  • Timings: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm. Tuesdays closed.
  • Ticket: Rs. 40 for Indians; Rs. 600 for foreigners; MTDC guide: Rs. 1,600. An MTDC bus takes visitors to the Jain caves from opposite Cave 16 on a once-the-bus-is-filled basis: Rs. 20 one way.
  • For a wiki map of the site, click here.
  • MTDC guide: I had Bharat Joshi as my guide. He was fantastic. One of the best guides I have ever had. Cell no. +91 90 9688 7878.
  • Where to stay: I stayed at Hotel Green Olive through makemytrip.com. Wonderful rooms, great service, and lovely restaurants. Can’t go wrong with this one.
  • Getting there: The Ellora caves are a 45-minute ride from Aurangabad. I hired a car for my entire 5-day trip from KM Holidays run by Mangesh Kathar. Mangesh was fantastic! Thorough, patient, and punctual. Cell no. +91 99 6007 7444.

12 thoughts on “india’s classical masterpiece: the ellora caves

  1. Pingback: the essential travel guide to aurangabad | rama arya's blog

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