Ellora Caves: a thousand years of secular Indian history written on stones

Magnificence of holistic vision and coordination of patrons and their elaborate years long planning.

By Rakesh Agrawal

As we entered the awesomely imposing façade of the famous Ellora Caves, Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, we were dumbfounded by the majesty and splendor of these structures, many of them, like the trunk-less elephant standing in front of us, really colossal.

These caves belong to the ancient India, during between 5th to 7th Centuries. 36 such caves belong to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Historians have found that although the Buddhist caves are the most ancient, constructed in the late fifth Century, but a few Hindu caves were constructed even before them, probably in the early late fifth Century. These idols and rock-cut temples are enclosed inside viharas or monasteries: they are large, multi-storey monasteries where Budhist monks used to live. In the most famous Buddhist cave, Cave 10, a series of columns, called a chaitya stand in a large hall, known which is flanked by other buildings, possibly the monks’ living quarters with sleeping rooms and kitchens. Fine carvings of Gautama Buddha, bodhisattvas and saints adorn the walls of the cave and chaitya. This cave has eight cubicles, four being in the back and four in the front.Hindu-Sculptures-of-Ellora-Caves

As a true secular representation of India, Hindu caves stand along with the Buddhist. Some of these Hindu caves were constructed before the Buddhist ones, while most others after them. On an average, they were crafted between the mid-sixth century to the late eighth century. The two most impressive caves are Caves 29 and 21 which are also the earliest ones, constructed, during the Kalachuri period, while the Hindu caves in 14, 15 and 16 belong to the Rashtrakuta period. These sculptures are the epitomes of a diversity of style and artistic vision that the highly dexterous artists executed so intrinsically that they have survived till date. Some are so detailed in their structure and dexterity, exhibiting a holistic vision and coordination of patrons and their elaborate years long planning.

Cave 16, belonging to the later Rashtrakuta period, is also known as the Kailasa or the Kailasanatha, is the unparallel piece of attraction amongst the Hindu caves in Ellora. This established Mount Kailash, where Lord Shiva resides in the high Himalayas, in this part of peninsular India, hundreds of miles away. It is a great monolithic temple isolated from surrounding rock and excavated from top to bottom and scooped out all through from inside to outside. It is from top to bottom a self-supporting, multi-storey temple complex, carved out of one huge rock and covers a big area. It is said that about ten generations worked for it and it took more than 200 years to complete it as the temple was planned and work began under Rashtrakutra kind Dantidurna (735-757 AD).Shiva-Thandava

This Shiva Temple is a fabulous example of the Post-Mauryan architecture, notably of  Rashtrakuta Karnataka and Maharashtra. This school of archirecture is known as the Gandharva School of Art and was patronised by Krishna I (757–773) of the Rashtrakuta dynasty. Sculptors of this dynasty followed the style of South Indian temples with gopuram without a shikhara on the top as found in most North Indian temples.

Five Jain caves of the Digambara sect, belonging to the ninth and tenth centuries, stand apart from the Buddhist and Hindu caves, about 200 m away. These monuments reflect the asceticism  of Jainism. They are comparatively small monuments, but are analogous in finery and craftsmanship, exhibiting outstandingly meticulous art works. Chhota Kailash in cave 30, the Indra Sabha incave 32 and the Jagannath Sabha in cave 33 are the most significant Jain temples. The Indra Sabha is a double story cave having two monumental shrine in its patio. We were dumfounded to look up and the temple’s roof had a very finely woven lotus flower in stone. The name of this cave, Indra Sabha was christened because of the adjacent sculpture of the yaksha Matanga. And, really, there was a deity sitting on a big elephant, although not as colossal as the Shiva temple and people thought, it was Indra, hence the name. We climbed to visit the shrine on the upper floor where we saw an arched idol of Ambika, mythologically known as the  Neminath’s Yakshini who was seated on her lion under a mango tree, full of fruits.Ellora-single-stone-elephant

Ellora has its history written on stones spread over a thousand years from the early 6th century to the early 15th century, as its inscriptions reveal. The Ellora architecture reached to its zenith during the Satvahanas reign of Rashtrakuta Dantidurga (753-57 A.D.) as it is mentioned at the entrance of Cave 16. Also, the inscriptions on the back wall of the front mandapa of Cave 15, gives an account of his conquests. While, Hindu caves were patronised by kings, Jain caves were supported by monks and donors as it is evident by the three inscriptions that are adorned on the wall of Jagannatha Sabha, having a list of these monks and donors. The similar list can be found at the walls of the Parshvanth temple, be built in the 11th-century.

Alas, only inscriptions crafted on the walls and stones of Ellora can be seen, not names and love you messages by tourists, using chalks, stones and screw drives as in most historical monuments across India.

Fact File:

  • How to Reach Ellora: Take a train from most major Indian cities or a flight to Aurangabad Airport (Chikkalthana Airport).
  • Where to stay: There are a number of hotels in the city.
  • Tow to reach Ellora: Hire a taxi from Aurangabad to Ellora that is just 30 km (18 miles) from the city.


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