Often called the most remarkable rock-cut temple in the world, the Kailasa cave at Ellora in Maharashtra is a huge monumental shrine devoted to the home of Shiva. The cave itself symbolizes the cosmic mountain in which Shiva resides. The cave itself was constructed in the 8th century by the Rashtrakuta dynasty to celebrate victory over the Chalukyas.
Photo from Flickr
Located outside of Aurangabad in the Sahyadri Hills in Maharashtra, Ellora is the sister site to Ajanta, a largely Buddhist site. Ellora contains 34 caves, some of which are Buddhist, some are Hindu, and others are Jaina. The earliest caves were shrines devoted to Hindu deities. These were carved in the 5th or 6th century CE and modeled after the earlier caves at Elephanta, located outside Mumbai. The early Hindu caves began the tradition of devotion to the god Shiva at the site. In particular, the Pashupata sect resided in the area from the 5th until the 9th centuries. The Buddhist caves were carved in the 7th and 8th centuries primarily and display Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist traditional features. The overlapping period when the Buddhist and Hindu shrines were occupied together resulted in several caves being virtual copies of one another despite the separate religious traditions. It is likely that the builders did not discriminate between Hindu and Buddhist patrons and deployed similar carving techniques throughout their tenure as menial workers at the site. Additionally, the shared features between many Hindu and Buddhist caves at the site represent religious syncretism existing between the traditions at this time. Rather than being fiercely competitive to the point of no return, the residents of the site likely shared in conversation, food, and cultural activities beyond their religious denominations. As a result, the caves epitomize an outstanding cultural camaraderie rarely seen elsewhere in India or elsewhere.
The Kailasa Temple in Context
The main shrine was commissioned by Krishna I of the Rashtrakutas in the late 8th century to celebrate his victory over the competing Chalukya dynasty in Badami. Although not an entirely original creation at first, the temple eventually became one of the most identifiable pieces of Indian architecture, rock-cut or not. The overseer of works drew inspiration from the Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples at Pattadakal. These temples were once considered rivals to the great Kailasanatha temple located in Kanchipuram. Inscriptions found in the cave reveal that the architect considered the temple his masterpiece. Legend tells that he came from the south, so it is likely that he grew up and trained with artisans who were experts in Shiva iconography and Shaiva-temple architecture as known in the south.
One of the most interesting features of the temple is that it is carved within context of the cave and incorporates the cave as a part of the art. Since Lord Shiva is said to reside deep within Mount Kailasa, a mountain in the Himalayas, the Ellora cave-site was made to be a stand-in for this famous mountain, hence why the cave-shrine is a remarkable achievement. Every feature in the cave, save for some now-lost wooden boards, is carved from a single piece of rock. This includes the main shrine, the Nandi pavilion, and the doorway, all of which are perfectly in situ. Later, additional temples were sculpted into the vertical sides of the same rock. One may enter the temple through the second floor. The entrance is flanked with massive elephants and lions. The elephants and lions are quarreling with each other. Other elephants found at the site, of which there are many, represent military conquest for the Rashtrakuta dynasty. On the steps leading up to the second level are elaborate reliefs in eight tiers showing relief-images known from the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. Other reliefs show the childhood of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu and not Shiva. The prominence of Vaishnava iconography at the site also reveals the symbiotic nature of both the Shiva and Vishnu cults of the time period.
A frustrating but yet beautiful rock-cut screen obstructs any view from the outside. In other words, visitors to the site would be unable to view the magnificence that is the inside without actually going inside the cave. This is a clever manipulation of the site’s tantalizing visual aesthetics. Flanking the screen’s entrance are Nagas and Naginis, serpents which represent water. Elsewhere the river-goddesses Ganga and Yamuna are present. Also seen on the inside of the screen are destructive images of both Vishnu and Shiva. These are contrasted by images of Kama, the god of love, and his consort Rati. Durga, an incarnation of Shiva’s consort Parvati, is depicted killing the famous buffalo demon Mahisha. The violence of the Shiva scenes shows the expansive and diverse nature of Shiva as a deity.
The Kailasa Temple
After moving through the stone screen, one enters a pit where the free-standing rock-cut temple resides. The temple is two stories. The lower level resembles southern Indian temple style because of its rectangular layout. It has a number of large shrines and a gallery of art on three sides, like earlier temples. However, the lower level is only a shrine in theory as it is not hallow but solid. The piece of rock exists to house the grandiose images on its outside. In contrast, the upper level may be entered. A mandapa contains sixteen pillars in four distinct groups creates the illusion of aisles. The shrine itself is outlined like older temples, like that of Deogarh, as it is meant to be circumambulated. Five small shrines can be visited while walking along the obvious circumambulatory path. On the outside, the temple is ornately carved with the usual Shaiva imagery.
One of the most famous and often cited images is of Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa. This enormous relief image shows Ravana with many arms and heads shaking the whole mountain where Shiva lives with Parvati. It may be seen underneath the porch of the mandapa on the south side. The sheer size of the relief will startle visitors as the images are nearly human size and approximately three-dimensional. The scene is famous because Lord Shiva eventually subdues Ravana using only his big toe. Ravana himself is shown in a mini-cave just below where Shiva and Parvati are dwelling. The god and goddess are flanked by Shiva’s dwarves, animals, and attendants. Parvati is leaning on Shiva, showing her stress during the situation. The image of Ravana creates a kinetic effect, as a visitor can nearly see his arms moving and shaking the mountain, i.e. the cave itself.
The amount of time it took to create such a place is unknown, but could have taken a century or slightly less. Some scholars believe Krishna I’s predecessor Dantidurga began excavating the cave in the early 8th century and Krishna I only completed the construction. Interestingly, shortly after the completion of this cave, the resident Hindus seemed to have abandoned cave temples like this and began worshipping nearly exclusively at open-air, structural temples. It is unclear as to how many people actually worshipped at the Kailasa temple at Ellora because accessibility to the mountain would have been limited, especially during seasons where rain restricted access. The Buddhists at the site were crafty and constructed different caves at the site for different seasons. Perhaps the Hindus, not sharing the Buddhist monastic ideal, opted eventually for a more settled, lay-oriented lifestyle which was better suited to worshipping open-air structural temples far away from the secluded caves.
- J. Burgess and J. Fergusson: The Cave Temples of India (London, 1880)
- M. K. Dhavalikar: ‘Kailasa: The Stylistic Development and Chronology’, Bull. Deccan Coll. Res. Inst., xli (1982), pp. 35–45
- S. L. Huntington and J.C. Huntington: The Art of Ancient India. (Boston and London, 1985).
- W. Spink: Ajanta to Ellora (Bombay and Ann Arbor, 1967)