Ageless chisel: The rock-cut caves of Ellora

Cross-section of a frieze in Cave 16, or the Kailasa Temple
Cross-section of a frieze in Cave 16, or the Kailasa Temple

The Ellora caves, locally known as ‘Verul Leni’ and located on the Aurangabad-Chalisgaon road, were, like the Ajanta caves,carved out of the terraces that were formed as a result of the great movements in the crust of the earth that began millions of years ago. A part of land that had broken off the Australian landmass drifted north and began to push against the Laurasian plate about 65 million years ago, giving birth to the Himalayas at one end and triggering hectic volcanic activity at the point of contact. The resulting waves of lava flow solidified into layers, or terraces, spread across hundreds of miles. Both Ajanta and Ellora are located on this massive lava flow known as the Deccan trap. Incidentally, the Deccan trap is full of man-made caves. Maha-rashtra alone has about 1,200 big or small caves or big and small cave clusters and close to 75 per cent of them (about 900) are Buddhist caves.

The volcanic activity in the region that led to the formation of the Sahyadri ranges went on probably for millions of years, the lava solidifying in layer upon layer of rock. Near Cave 32 in Ellora you get to see one of those channels through which lava oozed out more than 60 million years ago. Some layers cooled and solidified faster while others took longer and so the nature of the grains that formed these layers varied, from fine to coarse to rough.

The stone carvers who arrived here millions of years later knew the rocks and the layering patterns. They chose fine grained layers that had also developed vertical and horizontal cracks to carve out the caves. The first of the carvers were the Hinayana Budhhists. The later arrivals followed the lead of their pioneers and improved upon them. Working with the cracks and following the natural faults in the rock structures helped them to hew out caves faster. The fact that basaltic rock hardens once it is exposed to the elements seems to have contributed greatly to the longevity of the caves and their carvings across the centuries.

There are many large and small streams in the area and during monsoons many of them, like the Elaganga, acquire a vigorous flow. The Elaganga gets a vigorous flow and forms a natural waterfall near Cave 29. The pond formed over millions of years at the place where the waterfall hits the rocks has ‘most imaginatively’ been named Sita Ki Nahani – Sita’s Bath Tub!

The similarities between Ajanta and Ellora do not end with their location on the Deccan plateau; both contain within them treasures of high-relief carving, sculpting and fresco like paintings that are considered to have universal value and are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage.

Despite these similarities, the two are vastly different from each other in many respects. Accessibility is just one of them – getting to Ellora is easier than getting to Ajanta. The Ellora caves are 30 km from Aurangabad while the Ajanta caves are 64 km from Jalgaon and 104 km from Aurangabad. The Ajanta caves are some distance from the closest road point whereas the Ellora caves are bang opposite the bus stop; you can actually see some of the cave fronts while sitting in your bus or car.

Being located next to a major trade route ensured that Ellora was constantly visited through subsequent centuries. Ajanta was deliberately located far away from habitation in order to afford a measure of privacy to the monks who arrived there during the monsoon to meditate, pray and to undergo training.

According to records available with the ASI, among the earliest visitors to Ellora from far away was the Arab Geographer Al-Mas‘udi of the 10th century CE. He must have arrived not too long after work had finished. In 1352 the approach roads were apparently repaired and made usable for the visit of the founder of the Bahmani Sultanate, Sultan Hasan Gangu Bahmani. The practice of decking up the monuments and sprucing up the approaches for visiting dignitaries is a practice that we seem to have continued over the last 660 years. Our public works departments are yet to learn we have turned into a democracy in the meanwhile and the hoi polloi also need good roads and transport links to visit heritage sites.

Another visitor to Ellora was Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah,also known as Farishta, the author of Tarikh-e-Farishta – a history of India from the 12th century to his times with detailed descriptions of the rulers of different parts of India. The book also known as Gulshan-e-Ibrahim is the first work of history. Though at times subjective and exaggerated, it is an interesting source providing detailed accounts of the Deccan and south India. Qasim (1560-1620) was a contemporary of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur (1556-1627) and Mughal emperor Jehangir (1569-1627).

Others who visited the caves and left behind their accounts include Thevenot (1633-67) and Niccolao Manucci (1653-1708). In the 19th century, the Holkars came to control the region and began to charge an entrance fee. They also apparently leased out the caves for religious rituals. Subsequently, these territories came under the control of the Nizams of Hyderabad and their department of archaeology carried out extensive repairs under the supervision of the ASI.

The Ajanta caves are profusely painted whereas one does not see too many paintings inside the Buddhist and Hindu caves at Ellora. In fact, except for the Jain caves that are marked by a fairy large number of paintings, the fresco like paintings that earned international repute for Ajanta and played a major part in influencing 19th century painting in India, are almost absent at Ellora. There is evidence on carvings and high relief figures to suggest that they were earlier painted. But now paint has flaked off, leaving behind scattered traces of the original white or off-white base applied upon the surface before the application of colours.

Ajanta was lost to humanity for centuries but Ellora has always been on the mental horizon of Indians, or at least some of them. The Ajanta caves were hewn during the 2nd Century BCE to 6th Century CE whereas work at the Ellora Caves began in 6th century CE and continued well into the 10th Century CE and beyond.

There are 65 odd caves in the range here, but out of these, 34 caves are more popularly known as the Ellora caves. Though normally seen as a continuum, they are easily divided in three broad groups – Buddhist (Caves 1-12), Brahmanical (Caves 13-29) and Jain (Caves 30 to 34). Two more groups – one located along the Elaganga and the other along an upper terrace and called respectively the Ganesh Leni and Jogeshwari Leni – are neither very famous nor as popular as these 34 caves. The lack of interest in them could be because they are located off the beaten track.

One can assume that the Buddhist caves at Ellora were meant to serve a purpose that was markedly different from the purpose for which the Buddhist caves at Ajanta were built. The latter were built for the exclusive use of monks and that is why they were located in a secluded spot whereas the caves at Ellora were for the laity, for the general worshippers.

The exquisitely carved pillar in Cave 32, one of the four in the Jain group of caves
The exquisitely carved pillar in Cave 32, one of the four in the Jain group of caves

The fact that we see the caves carved by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains at roughly the same location has been used by many to suggest that this is evidence of the great tolerant tradition of India and proof that the three religions lived in great harmony. The truth is not so harmonious; the past was never as peaceful as it is made out to be and there is evidence to the contrary at Ellora itself. The chronology of the construction of the Buddhist temples starts with the 6th century, though a few have been dated a little earlier. Because of the virtual absence of datable references, it is not easy to give exact dates but still it can broadly be said that the 12 Buddhist caves were excavated between the 5th and the 7th century. Excavations on the earliest of the 17 Brahmanical caves began around the 7th century and the 5 Jain caves were excavated between the 8th and 10th century CE.

So what we see together today was not constructed together. There may have been periods that overlap but they are fairly clearly demarcated periods of construction activity and there is one clearly established example. Cave 15 clearly began as a Buddhist shrine and it still has all the signs of being one – the exterior carvings, a sanctum for the idol of Buddha with high relief carvings of Bodhisatvas as Dwarpalas. The sanctum is vacant today with carvings of the Dashavtars of Vishnu on the north and south walls of the cave. This is a clear evidence that a cave that began as a Buddhist shrine was taken over and redesigned as a Brahmanic shrine.

So when you go to Ellora, remember that easy generalisations and simplistic explanations are best avoided. The best course is to pick up an ASI publication on the monument, though a few of the more recent publications brought out by the ASI are also not free of this constructed concord. The authors of most other publications and the guides that you get at all historical monuments in India, with a very few honourable exceptions, are spinning their own stories. Even if you are not able to lay hands on the slim volume about Ellora, carefully read the large sign boards displayed outside each cave; they mostly talk sense and so do most of the ASI publications. A new series has been brought out on all the world heritage sites. Slim, easy to read and profusely illustrated, most booklets run close to a 100 pages and are printed on art paper. They are priced at Rs 60 only.

The best time to visit Ellora is the monsoons. The streams, and there are plenty of them around, are filled to the brim and everywhere you see the glory of verdant green. The Ellora caves are spread across a more than 2-km stretch in the shape of a semi-circle. They face west and so the best time to view them is in the afternoon when the rays of the sun shine on the rock-walls, illuminating the interiors and making the carvings to stand out in sharp relief.

The caves are among the largest collection of rock-cut “monastic and temple complexes” in the world. The first lot of caves to be built at Ellora were Buddhist caves and the earlier ones belong to the Hinayana sect, as was the case with the first lot of caves at Ajanta. The later Buddhist caves in both locations were built by those following the Mahayana sect.

Given the kind of time available for modern-day tourists, the ASI suggests that those in hurry – that is, those who have just 4 to five hours at their disposal – should certainly see the following: The two storied Cave 10, A Buddhist cave that is the only Chaitya (Prayer) hall at Ellora and for some reason popularly called the Vishvakarma cave. The cave is remarkable for images of Padmapani (Bodhisatva holding a lotus in his right hand), sculptures of Tara and Avalokitesvara and a huge figure of Buddha, aside from a large number of other carvings and decorative motifs, each representative of the complex mythology around Buddha that had come to be established through the expansion of the traditions of the Jatakas by this time.

Cave 16 or the Kailasa cave is reputed to represent the zenith of rock-cut architecture. The cave depicts Mount Kailash, the mythical abode of Lord Shiva. It is believed that the excavation was commissioned by Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (756–774 CE). The cave represents the “single largest monolithic excavation in the world”, which essentially means that all the structures, animals, idols, pillars, kalashs, torans and everything else that you see in this large complex, including the gallery of pillars that runs on the periphery of the cave, has been carved out of a single piece of rock.

Kailasa Temple, reputed to be the zenith of rock-cut architecture, depicts Mount Kailash, the mythical abode of Lord Shiva.
Kailasa Temple, reputed to be the zenith of rock-cut architecture, depicts Mount Kailash, the mythical abode of Lord Shiva.

The complex scene depicted in the central structure shows Ravana shaking mount Kailash; the consequential developments of this myth are too well known to merit a detailed repetition here. The depictions of episodes from the battle between the Kauravas and Pandavas and of the legend of Ram in frieze panels flanking the central structure, the detailed depiction of the major and minor mythologies associated with both the Vaishnavite and Shaivite traditions, and other exquisite carvings would ideally take up all of the four hours suggested by the ASI.

Cave 21 or Ramesvara, is a cave dedicated to Shiva. Though badly eroded, it still displays signs of delicate and beautiful carvings, including a very large sculpture of Ganga standing atop a crocodile, a Ganesha in a cell on the north wall, the Saptmatrikas on the north wall, a large Shiva, a Veenadhari Shiva and a Dancing Shiva, along with panels depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati and a powerful image of Mahishasurmardani are some of the other attractions of the cave.

Two of the Jain caves – Cave 32, also known as the Indra Sabha, and Cave 34 – bring up the end of the must-see list suggested by the ASI. While Cave 34 has images and figures of Sumatinath, Parsavanath and Gommata and is believed to be the latest of the Jain caves at Ellora, the two-storied Cave 32 is the most elaborately carved of the four Jain caves at Ellora. Figures of Gommata, Parsvanath, Santinath, Matanga, the 24 Tirthankaras, graceful Yakshas and Yakshinis, a large elephant, a monolithic mandap open on all four sides, a chaumukha or square pillar with intricate carvings, flying gandharvas, mithun figures, a huge, seated Mahavir and a few, though badly faded, images and paintings make this one of the most interesting caves at Ellora.

Having realised that everyone may not be in a tearing hurry to leave the place, the ASI also suggests a more leisurely stroll and recommends a few more caves in its list. All of these can be seen if you are there for a whole day. The extended list includes cave numbers 2, 5 and 12 of the Buddhist group; Cave 14, 15, 21 and 29 of the Brahmanical group; and, Caves 32 to 34 of the Jain group.

What these caves have to show and the secrets of the other caves are revealed in detailed descriptions on the site and in the ASI publication on Ellora. I am not going to help your arm-chair tourism by telling you everything. Go to Ellora, go there at the peak of the monsoons, and if you value my suggestion, spend at least two days at Ellora. See Caves 1 to 12 on day one and the rest on day 2. Reach Ellora at about 12.30 am on both days, since afternoon is the time to there. Alternately, take a powerful torch with you. Please… I repeat please… do not shine your torch at the paintings. They fade in bright lights and very soon may disappear totally if tourists and guides do not stop flashing their torches and camera flashes at them.

(First published in Terrascape magazine.)

7 thoughts on “Ageless chisel: The rock-cut caves of Ellora”

  1. Do you have any idea why the Hindus didn’t destroy Buddhist cave temples or convert them into Hindu temples when there were hardly any Buddhists left any more? Do you think it might have something to do with the fact that many Hindus worship in Buddhist and Jain temples too?


  2. @ Bimal, do you have any idea what had happened to the Buddhists, why were there hardly any left in the land of their birth ? do you think they all migrated to China, Japan or the far east or did they just evaporate into thin air?


  3. @ Sohail…face the facts. Whole world knows what happened to Buddhists in India and how they too faced the brunt of the barbarians who came to India. Education is the way forward not ignorance.


  4. @ rudolf Everyone has a right to chose what they want from history, you have chosen to only focus on the theory of the invaders being responsible for everything, this is a convenient position, it does not require too much investigation and is a position that allows the indigenous provocateurs to get away without any blemish. you are welcome to your views. .


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