Friday, June 3, 2011


Known as Velur (वेरूळ) in Marathi, Ellora caves are listed in the World Heritage Site list. Ellora is situated around 30 kms from the city of Aurangabad. There are 34 caves that are divided into Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain rock-cut temples and monasteries.

Understanding the Caves

Ellora Caves
Caves 1-12 are Buddhist caves, which include monasteries and chaityagrihas. Caves 13-29 are Hindu caves, with the famous cave 16, which is the largest single monolithic excavation in the world. Caves 30-34 are Jain caves, depicting Jain philosophy and tradition.

The caves are dated back to the time period of around 6th-7th century A.D. to 11th-12th century A.D. These caves are a classic example of the coexistence of multiple religions. These religious establishments could have had royal patronage, though not enough and complete information is available.

Inscriptional Evidence

Sculpture in cave 29
The only definite inscriptional evidence is that of Rashtrakuta Dantidurga (c. 753-57 A.D.) on the back wall of the front mandapa of Cave 15. The Great Kailasa (Cave 16) is attributed to Krishna I (c. 757-83 A.D.), the successor and uncle of Dantidurga. A copper plate grant from Baroda of the period of Karka II (c. 812-13 A.D.) speaks about the greatness of this edifice (cave 16). The inscription tells us that this great edifice was built on a hill by Krishnaraja at Elapura (Ellora). Apart from these two inscriptions, the cave complexes lack any other inscriptions.

The entrance to the caves from the car parking opens at cave 16. Also known as the Kailasa cave, it is a remarkable example of rock-cut temples. Its striking proportion, elaborate workmanship, architectural content, and sculptural ornamentation is marvelous. This cave is dedicated to Lord Shiva and named after His mountain home in the Himalayas, the snow-peak Kailasa.

Not-to-be-Missed Caves

Although it's right at the entrance, I am going to start from the beginning to describe the caves. We visited caves 6, 10, 12, 15, 16, 21, 25, and 29. We did not have enough time to visit the Jain caves. Caves 10, 12, 15, 16, 21, 25, 29, and 32 are not to be missed.

Chaityagriha-Cave 10
Cave 6

Cave 6 is a Buddhist cave with two fine sculptures. On the left is goddess Tara, and on the right is Mahamayuri, the Buddhist goddess of learning. A diligent student sits at his desk below.

Row of seated Buddhas in Cave 12
Cave 10

Cave 10 is a magnificent chaityagriha, a place of worship and meditation for the Buddhists. It has a beautiful, ornamental facade. Also known as Visvakarma, it is a typical chaityagriha with stone beams across the ceiling. A seated Buddha is enthroned in front of a large stone stupa in the cave.

Cave 12

Buddha giving his first sermon
Cave 12 is known as Teen Tal, literally meaning three floors. It is three storied, each with a hall with pillars. The walls of the shrine room are lined with five large bodhisattvas, and is flanked by seven Buddhas, representing each of his previous incarnations. It also has a sculpture of Buddha, giving his first sermon depicted by a pair of deer at his feet. The historical value of this cave lies in the fact that human hands built a three-storeyed building from rock with such painstaking efforts and skills that even the floors and ceiling are smooth and levelled. Teen Tala is a monastry-cum-chapel with cells.

Cave 15

Narasimha Avataar coming out of the pillar
Cave 15 is called the Cave of Ten Avatars or Dashavatar. It is a two-storeyed temple having large sculptural panels between the wall columns on the upper floor illustrating a wide range of themes, which include the ten avatars of Vishnu. A panel to the right of the antechamber also depicts the superiority of Shaivism in the region at the time - Shiva emerges from a lingam while his rivals Brahma and Vishnu stand in humility and supplication. One of the sculptures is Shiva as Nataraja.

Cave 15 is the only cave for which you  have to ascend a great many steps, because it is situated at a height. And that's the reason that it is not as frequently visited as other caves. So, if you want to visit cave 15, make sure that there are a few more people with you when you climb in. Going in there all alone is quite spooky. Unlike other caves, it smells of disuse. It's a strange feeling to be all alone with those sculptures all staring at you. And yet, the carvings in this cave are as beautiful as in others. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, some of the sculptures are really magnificent.

Cave 16

Cave 16, Kailasa cave, is the best of the 34 caves. It is a temple worshiping Lord Shiva and depicts various poses, scenes, and stories of Shiva.

Kailasa has been carved out of a single rock. Kailasa is believed to have been started by the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I. The construction was a feat of human genius – it entailed removal of 250,000 tons of rock, took 100 years to complete and covers an area double the size of Parthenon in Athens.

A two-storeyed gateway resembling a South Indian gopuram opens to reveal a U-shaped courtyard. The courtyard is edged by columned galleries three storeys high. The galleries contain enormous sculptures of various deities.

The first huge sculpture is the Gajalakshmi that you see as soon as you enter the cave. Two life-size elephants cut in rock on each side in the courtyard magnificently guard the cave. The pillars, Dhwajastambhas in the courtyard are intricately carved.

The whole temple consists of a shrine with lingam at the rear of the hall with Dravidian sikhara, a flat-roofed mandapa supported by 16 pillars, and a separate porch for Nandi surrounded by an open court entered through a low gopura. The Nandi Mandap stands on 16 pillars and is 29.3 m high. The base of the Nandi Mandap has been carved to suggest that life-sized elephants are holding the structure aloft.

Mahabharat and Krishna Leela scenes
The temple is a tall pyramidal structure reminiscent of a South Indian temple. The shrine is complete with pillars, windows, inner and outer rooms, gathering halls, and an enormous lingam at its heart – carved from living stone. The temple is carved with niches, pilasters, 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 Shiva) while on the right hand side the deities are Vaishnavaites (followers of Vishnu).

Narasimha Avataar
One of the most remarkable sculptures is the grand sculpture of Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva, with his full might. Some other sculptures include Ravana offering his nine heads to Shiva, Shiva as Nataraj, scene of Shiva-Parvati wedding, Mahishasur Mardini, Mahabharat, Krishna Leela, and Ramayana carvings, Narsimha avataar, Vishnu resting, Tripurantak Shiva, and some other splendid carvings.

Ravana shaking Kailasa
You need at least two hours to see Kailasa. And it definitely is awe-inspiring.

Cave 21

Ramayana scenes
Cave 21 is also known as Ramesvara. It has figurines of goddesses Ganga and Yamuna at the entrance. Cave 21 is thought to be the oldest Hindu cave.

Cave 25

Cave 25 features Surya driving his chariot towards the dawn.

Cave 29

Nataraj in Cave 16
Cave 29 has sculptures of Ravana shaking Kailasa and the wedding scene of Shiva-Parvati. Pairs of lions guard its three staircases. Inside, the walls are covered in large friezes. To the left of the entrance, Shiva slays the Andhaka demon, then defeats the many-armed Ravana's attempt to shake him and Parvati off the top of Mount Kailash. There's also a dwarf baring his bottom to taunt the demon! On the south side, Shiva teases Parvati by holding her arm back as she prepares to throw dice in a game.

Cave 32

Shiva-Parvati wedding
Cave 32 from the Jain caves is known as Indra Sabha. The upper floor has elaborate carvings, including a fine lotus flower on the ceiling. Two tirthankaras guard the entrance to the central shrine. On the right is the naked Gomatesvara, who is meditating deeply in the forest - so much so that vines have grown up his legs and animals, snakes and scorpions crawl around his feet. On the upper level is also seen an imposing image of Ambika, the Yakshi (dedicated attendant deity) of Neminatha found seated on her lion under a mango tree, laden with fruits. We did not have enough time to visit this cave.

Overall, it is a great experience to behold the confluence and spiritual tolerance of three religions. The magnificent structures stand proof to the glorious culture, architecture, art, and painstaking efforts taken by the sculptors in those bygone days.

Grhishneshwar Temple

It is with a heart full of admiration, and the head full of the different sculptures that we come out of the Ellora caves site. It is easy to then visit Grhishneshwar and pay respects to Lord Shiva at one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in India.

Grhisheshwar is still a small temple, yet well-known, and very jagrut. The temple was constructed by Ahilyabai Holkar. It is believed that an ardent devotee named Kusuma offered prayers to Lord Shiva at Grhishneshwar by dipping the Shivalinga in a water tank. Eventually Lord Shiva appeared in front of her and her prayers for the restoration of her son's life were answered.

Back to Aurangabad

With a heart full of devotion to Lord Shiva, you return to Aurangabad for relaxation. Another big day awaits you: a visit to Ajanta.

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