Ellora is an ancient village 30 km (18.6 miles) from the city of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Famous for its monumental caves, Ellora is a World Heritage Site.
Ellora represents the epitome of Indian rock cut architecture. The 34 "caves" – actually structures excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills – comprised of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples and monasteries, were built between the 5th century and 10th century. The 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jain caves, built in close proximity, demonstrate the religious tolerance prevalent during this period of Indian history.
The Buddist Caves
The Buddhist caves were the earliest structures, created between the fifth and seventh centuries. These consist mostly of viharas or monasteries: large, multi-storeyed buildings carved into the mountain face, including living quarters, sleeping quarters, kitchens, etc.
Some of these monastery caves have shrines including carvings of Buddha, bodhisattvas and saints. In many of these caves, sculptors had endeavoured to give the stone the look of wood.
Most famous of the Buddhist caves is cave 10, a chaitya hall or 'Visvakarma' cave, popularly known as the "Carpenter's Cave". Beyond its multi-storeyed entry is a cathedral-like stupa hall, whose ceiling has been carved to give the impression of wooden beams. At the heart of this cave is a 15 foot statue of Buddha seated in a preaching pose.
The Hindu Caves
The Hindu caves, constructed beginning in the 7th century, represent a different style of creative vision and execution skills. These are temples many carved from the top down. Some were of such complexity that they required several generations of planning and coordination to complete.
Cave 16, called The Kailasa or Kailasanatha Temple, is the unrivalled centerpiece of Ellora. This gargantuan structure – designed to recall Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva – looks like a freestanding, multi-storied temple complex, but it was carved out of one single rock, and covers an area double the size of Parthenon in Athens.
All the carvings are done in more than one level. A two-storeyed gateway opens to reveal a U-shaped courtyard. The courtyard is edged by columned galleries three stories high. The galleries are punctuated by huge sculpted panels, and alcoves containing enormous sculptures of a variety of deities. Originally flying bridges of living stone connected these galleries to central temple structures, but these have fallen.
Within the courtyard are two structures. As is traditional in Shiva temples, an image of the sacred bull Nandi fronts the central temple housing the lingam. In Cave 16, the Nandi Mandap and main Shiva temple are each about 7 meters high, and built on two stories. The lower stories of the Nandi Mandap are both solid structures, decorated with elaborate illustrative carvings. The base of the temple has been carved to suggest that elephants are holding the structure aloft.
A living rock bridge connects the Nandi Mandap to the porch of the temple. The temple itself is tall pyramidic structure reminiscent of a South Indian temple. The shrine – complete with pillars, windows, inner and outer rooms, gathering halls, and an enormous lingam at its heart – carved from living stone, is carved with niches, plasters, windows as well as images of deities, mithunas (erotic male and female figures) and other figures. Most of the deities at the left of the entrance are Shaivaite (followers of Lord Shiva) while on the right hand side the deities are Vaishnavaites (followers of Lord Vishnu).
There are two Dhvajastambhas (pillars with the flagstaff) in the courtyard. The grand sculpture of Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva, with his full might is a landmark in Indian art.
The construction of this cave was a feat of human genius – it entailed removal of 200,000 tonnes of rock, took 100 years to complete.
Other notable Hindu caves include the Das Avatara cave, which depicts the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, and the Ramesvara cave, which has figurines of river goddesses at the entrance.
The Jain Caves
Jain caves reveal specific dimensions of Jain philosophy and tradition. They reflect a strict sense of asceticism – they are not relatively large as compared to others, but they present exceptionally detailed art works. For example, the 32nd cave is a shrine with a very fine carving of the lotus flower on the ceiling. In another cave, an imposing yakshi is seated on her lion under a mango tree, laden with fruits. All other Jain caves are also characterised by intricate detailing. Many of the structures had rich paintings in the ceilings - fragments of which are still visible.