Friday, January 25, 2008


The rock cut caves of Ellora

In my earlier blog on Ajanta, I have already written that Government service does provide some unique pleasures and opportunities.

I have thanked the Election Commission of India which sent me as an election observer to Buldana (Maharashtra).

This spell of duty made it possible for me to see the Lonar Crater, Aurangabad, Ajanta, Ellora and vast areas completely devastated by earth quakes.

The caves of Ellora represent the epitome of Indian rock-cut cave architecture.

Caves of Ajanta and Ellora – Differences

There are two basic differences between the rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora.

The caves of Ajanta were covered by vegetation and debris and lost between the pages of history.
They were ‘re-discovered’ in 1819 by a group of British Officers of the Madras Army.
On the other hand, Ellora was continuously visited by pilgrims, tourists and travellers, right up to the present day.

Secondly, all the caves of Ajanta are connected to the Buddha and Buddhism.
But the caves of Ellora encompass three religions - Buddhism, Hindu and Jain.

The Caves of Ellora

There are a total of 34 caves excavated out of the vertical cliffs of the Charanandri hills.

These comprise of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples and monasteries excavated during different periods of time spanning across six centuries.

Of the 34 caves:

· 12 are Buddhist caves - excavated during the 5th to 7th century A.D. (Cave nos. 1 - 12 at the southern end).
· 17 are Hindu caves - excavated during the 8th to 10th century A.D. (Cave nos. 13 - 29 in the middle, and
· 5 are Jain caves - excavated during the 9th and 11th century A.D. (Cave nos. 30 - 34 at the northern end).

The Buddhist Caves

The Buddhist caves are the earliest in point of time. They were excavated between the fifth and seventh centuries.

Just like the Ajanta caves, the caves here consist of two types of excavations - viharas (monastic halls of residence) and chaitya grihas (stupa or monument halls).

Of the 12 Buddhist caves, all except Cave no. 10, are viharas - large, multi-storeyed buildings carved into the mountain face, which include living quarters, sleeping quarters, kitchens, etc.

The last two Buddhist caves, Do Tal (Cave no. 11) and Tin Tal (Cave no. 12) are viharas having three storeys each.

Some of these viharas have shrines, and carvings of Buddha, bodhisattvas

and saints.
In many of the caves, the stone has been sculpted to give the appearance of wood.

The most famous Buddhist cave is Cave no. 10, a chaitya griha (chandrashala) or ‘Vishwakarma Cave’, popularly known as the ‘Carpenter’s Cave’.

When you enter the multi storeyed entrance of Cave no. 10, you come into a large hall, whose ceiling has been carved to give the impression of wooden beams.

And there is a 15 foot statue of Buddha seated in a preaching pose.

The Hindu Caves

The Hindu caves were constructed in the beginning of the 7th century and represent a complex mix of creative art and execution skills.

The Kailash Temple, Cave no. 16, is the grandest and undisputed masterpiece of Ellora.
It is the largest monolithic structure in the world.

Construction of this cave involved removal of 200,000 tons of rock and took 100 years to complete.
It is a feat of creative human genius.

This gargantuan structure depicts Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva.
It looks like a free standing, multi-storeyed temple complex.
But it was actually carved out of one single rock, and covers an area double the size of the Parthenon in Athens.

All the carvings were done in more than one level.
A two-storey gateway leads into a U-shaped court yard.
The court yard is edged by three storeys high, columned galleries.
The galleries have huge sculpted panels; and alcoves containing enormous sculptures of a variety of deities.
Originally, flying stone bridges connected these galleries to the central temple structures, but these have since fallen away.

The main temple has a Shiva linga.
In front of this linga, is an image of the sacred bull Nandi.

The base of the temple is carved to suggest that elephants are holding up the structure.

Most of the deities at the left of the entrance are Shaivaite (followers of Shiva); while on the right hand side, the deities are Vaishnavaites (followers of Vishnu).

The temple is a splendid specimen of Dravidian art.
Its excavation was started by Krishna I (757 A.D. - 773 A.D.) of the Rashtrakuta dynasty that ruled from Manyakheta in the present day Karnataka state.
Krishna I’s rule had spread to southern India.

Therefore, this temple was excavated in the prevalent Dravidian style.
Its builders modelled the temple on the lines of the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal.

Other notable Hindu caves are the Dashavatara Cave, Cave no.15, which depicts the 10 incarnations of Vishnu; the Ramesvara Cave, Cave no. 21, which has figurines of river goddesses at the entrance, and the Dhumar Lena Cave, Cave no. 29, which is the oldest excavation and whose design is similar to the cave temples on Elephanta Island in Mumbai.

The Jain caves

The Jain caves are simple and reflect asceticism.
Compared to the other caves, they are small, but they have exceptionally detailed art work.

For example, Cave no. 32, Indra Sabha is a shrine with a very fine carving of a lotus flower on the ceiling.
In another cave, an imposing yakshini is sitting on a lion under a mango tree, laden with fruits.

All other Jain caves also have intricate details.

Many of the structures had rich paintings in the ceilings - fragments of which are still visible.

My recommendation

Ellora is 30 km from Aurangabad in the state of Maharashtra.
It was known as Verul in ancient times.

Ellora is a World Heritage Site.
Its temples will always remind us that the rulers of those days were tolerant of all religions.

And that is the essence of Hindu religion.

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