Ellora caves

Ajanta & Ellora are world famous for the rock cut temples. The 30 rock caves of Ajanta are in the shape of a mammoth horse-shoe, nestling in an inner fold of the Sahyadri Hills. In Ellora, there are 34 cave temples, 12 Mahayana Buddhist caves, 17 Hindu caves and 5 caves of the Jain faith. 22 more caves dedicated to Shiva were recently discovered.

Starting from the 7th century AD, Ellora carried on the great legacy of Ajanta and was subject to Buddhist and later Hindu and Jain influences. The sculptures at Ellora are massive in form and these rock temples and monasteries were constructed between the fifth and eight centuries A.D.

Ellora caves lay in the lap of the Chamadari hills extending over a mile and a quarter in the north-south direction and are situated 18 miles northwest of Aurangabad. Ellora represents some 300 years of great experiments carried out by different faiths with their very different iconography and structural compulsions. Ellora first appears to the visitors as an irregular ridge of rock, rising vertically from the ground.

Ellora caves are finest specimens of cave temple architecture. They house elaborate facades and exquisitely adorned interiors. These structures representing the three faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, were carved during 350 AD to 700 AD period.

The cave monuments of Ellora were chiefly patronised by the Chalukya - Rashtrakuta rulers (7th - 10th century AD). The kings and the mercantile community willingly donated to the cause of the temple building. Certain religious injunctions and the ethical codes, which prompted patronage of works of the art, governed the rulers. The temple building was considered to help the attainment of worldly power as well as religious merit and spiritual salvation.

In total there are 34 temples carved out of stone. These can be divided into three groups belonging roughly to three periods: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. Only 12 of the 34 caves are Buddhist, but even these caves incorporate Hindu and Jain theme, demonstrating the gradual decline of Buddhism.

It took over five centuries for the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monks to chisel out these monasteries, temples, and chapels and decorate them with remarkable imagination and detail. These caves run North-South and take on the Golden Radiance of the late afternoon sun.

Out of 34 caves, sixteen caves are the oldest in the group and were carved in the 5th century. As one enters these caves, one crosses graceful angles and steps in a high ceiling chamber where a 15 feet huge statute of Buddha is sitting in a preaching pose. In these caves the artist has tried an element of surprise by giving them expression of wood. Most of these 16 caves are ‘Viharas’.

The 10th cave has an impression of wooden beams on its ceiling and has a small decorated window, which illuminates the sitting Buddha. These caves are rightly called the “Vishvakarma” caves. This cave is considered to be one of the finest caves in India. Here life and religion go hand in hand. The amorous couples play joyfully along the balustrade.

While stepping out of this cave one will come across an upper gallery giving a view of the precisely carved Naga Queen, the harbinger of monsoon and the dwarfs who were the court entertainers. The Buddhists believe that Buddha returns after every five thousand years, thus the 12th cave has seven images of Buddha depicting his seven incarnations.

The Hindu caves exhibit a totally different league from the Jain and Buddhist temples in terms of style, creative vision and execution skills. These temples were built top to bottom and the architecture of these caves show that it required several generation of planning and co-ordination to give it the final shape. Cave 14 was initially a Buddha Vihar but in the 7th century it was turned into Shiva temple. Here Shiva is depicted as “The Destroyer”.

The famous rock-cut Hindu temple of Kailasanath is in Ellora. The Kailasa temple, dedicated to Shiva, is the most glorious achievement here. The whole spelndid structure of Kailasa is “an enormous monolithic rock carving in architectural form”. Massive blocks had to be left intact to fashion the inner sanctuary, the two free standing pillars, the life sized elephant in the courtyard, lesser shrines and cloisters. The main shrine was placed on a high podium which was carved in a continuous frieze of lions and elephants that seem to carry the massive structure effortlessly on their backs as they march in slow procession. The deep relief of the Shaivite themes and incidents from the Puranas that so profusely ornament the Kailasa temple make them appear almost like free standing sculptures.

Each of the caves shows the beliefs of the Jains, and their strict asceticism that imbibed in them a spirit of non-violence towards all. These caves do not carry the high voltage drama of the Hindu or the Buddhist caves nor are they ambitious in size but they balance these with their exceptionally detailed work. The 32nd cave is a beautiful shrine with exquisite carvings of a lotus flower on the ceiling and an imposing ‘Yakshi’ seated on her lion under a mango-tree laden with fruit. The ceiling of this double-storied cave is also decorated with paintings.

Mural paintings in Ellora are found in 5 caves, but only in the Kailasa temple are they somewhat preserved. The paintings were done in two series - the first, at the time of carving the caves and the subsequent one was done several centuries later. The earlier paintings show Vishnu and Lakshmi borne through the clouds by Garuda, with clouds in the background.

The sinewy figures have sharp features & pointed noses. The protruding eye typical of the later Gujarati style appears for the first time in Ellora. In the subsequent series, the main composition is that of a procession of Shaiva holy men. The flying ‘Apsaras’ are graceful. Very few murals in the Jain temples are well preserved.