1600 years or so after a rocky hillside in Maharashtra, India, was painstakingly and systematically dug out from its top by hundreds of spirited architects and sculptors to craft Buddhist monasteries and temples of the Hindu and Jain faiths, the allure of the caves at Ellora remains intact. This World Heritage Site is famous for its architectural design and outstanding sculptures – and is different from its ‘sister’ cave system at Ajanta, built a few centuries earlier, which is more famous for its intricate and still colourful paintings.
Ellora is easier to access than Ajanta, since it is only 28 Kms away from Aurangabad (which is connected by air to New Delhi and Mumbai) compared to the 104 Kms drive to Ajanta. But of course that’s not the only allure of Ellora. In fact, Ellora offers a unique – perhaps a one-of-its-kind – perspective of the then evolving religion we now call Hinduism, as it grew from its roots in what is known as Brahmanism. It’s only at Ellora that one can see — and touch — two other great religions which are alive to this day – Buddhism and Jainism – right alongside Brahmanism or Hinduism. Each of these faiths had its own individual style and this is what can be savored at Ellora.
The Ellora caves are spread across 2 Kms of a hillside where, literally in a sequence, we see the first caves, which were Buddhist (12 caves), followed by the Brahmanism section (16 caves) which, in turn, leads ultimately to the Jain section (4 caves). The Buddhist caves are the earliest ones and were built during 500 – 700 A.D. The entrance to the first few caves is under a waterfall and is in a picturesque corner that looks upon a thickly forested section, which in itself transports visitors to an era when nature was unspoilt by human habitation. A spectacular view beckons visitors to the even more amazing wonders that lie hidden inside the caves. While Cave 5 is the largest in this series (117 feet by 56 feet), Cave 10 has a magnificent Buddha in stupa which can be viewed from the group level and one higher level. Caves 11 and 12 are the most important ones to view in the Buddhist group. They are large three-story structures and are alike in design. Together, they represent the peak of the early work at Ellora. Maybe because it was close to closing time when I visited these caves, there were very few tourists in the Buddhist caves. Since there are no lights inside the caves, I had to use the ‘torch’ application on my mobile to see the sculptures and monuments. With the sound of bats waking up to their nightly vigil in the background, it felt a bit eerie as my ‘torch’ shone on the walls and sculpted faces began to appear out of nothingness. This was indeed Buddhism being experienced in its true essence!
The Brahmanical Series was excavated between the 7th and 9th centuries, during a phase when this religion was being revived after Buddhism had swept across the sub-continent, and takes you a world away from the Buddhist style. The Brahmanical religion was based on the concept of one Supreme Being but later grew to include a pantheon of gods and goddesses – and it is the seeds of this growth that are vividly captured on the walls of these caves. In the caves, there are sculptures of Shiva (with Parvati and many Shiv lings too), Brahma, Vishnu, Krishna and Ganesh. There is also the sculpture of ‘Ravana shaking Kailasha’ which depicts the demon God trying and failing to lift Shiva’s mountain abode. Cave 16 is deemed to be Kailasha and is a Shiva temple. It is considered to be the best in this series and also the best in the entire Ellora excavations. The spacious court has three buildings connected by an overhead bridge. It is one of the greatest monolithic structures in the world and the 3 million cubic feet of rock which was required to be removed is estimated to have taken at least 100 years to do. And then the sculpting, exquisite as it is, must have taken an equal number of years to complete!
A kilometer away from these two sets of caves are the Jain excavations which are from the 9th to 11 centuries. There are two caves to visit here: 32 (which is known as the Indra Sabha, the assembly hall of Indra — the king of Gods) and 34, which is connected to Cave 32 through a connecting passage. Cave 32 is enormous with many pillars and sections in the middle of the area, which is surrounded by wall-to-wall sculptures. The decorative shrine features Mahavira, who is the founder of the religion. The pillars and walls of the caves are ornamental works similar to carvings on ivory. In Cave 34, the figures are again of Jain saints and their attendants. Apart from the long history of these caves, it’s a wonder how these treasures have remained here for so many centuries but this must be because they are religious sites — for even thieves would be wary of toying with the supernatural works that they contain.
In an age of spiralling intolerance among religions, Ellora is an exceptional example of how three great faiths continue to attract people of all religions – as well as non-believers – without any conflict, bringing joy and a sense of awe regarding our creation and the creation that can follow if only we can learn to be more tolerant and supportive of each other during our fleeting time on Earth!
The Ellora Caves are closed on Mondays.
Entrance fee is Rs. 10 for Indians and $ 10 for foreigners.