Vivid forms and attention to minute detail are the hallmarks of the exquisite carvings on solid rock in Ellora caves.
It is one of the finest examples of rock-cut architecture in the world. Located near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, Ellora, has been declared a world heritage site. The 34 caves in the site embodying the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions-are the handiwork of generations of artisans who specialised in carving out temples from sheer rock. Interestingly, work began at Ellora when the ancient site of Ajanta was abandoned in the middle of the 6th century A.D.
The Brahminical resurgence towards the end of the 7th century is responsible for the existence of a large number of Hindu cave temples at Ellora where the Buddhists had already started building monasteries and chaitya halls. The Hindu works culminated in the Kailash temple-the most splendid and unique monolithic monument-complete in all structural components, not built, but hewn out of a mass of rock in unimaginable perfection.
The Buddhist cave temples are grouped at the southern end of the Ellora hill. Most of them belong to the Mahayana, and later the Vajrayana faith. These viharas (monasteries) progressively become more elaborate in a bid to match the sculptural grandeur of the Hindu temples being concurrently dug out at Ellora. The Buddhist temples at Ellora surpass the earlier examples at Bhaja, Bedsa, Karle and Ajanta in planning. The plans are grand and the iconography much more varied at the later Buddhist excavations at Ellora.
The Buddhist halls have sparse sculptural embellishments. They were meant to function as spartan residences for monks who had relinquished the world of luxury. There is little here to distract them-no apsaras, dancers or gods in myriad forms as in the Hindu shrines, but only an all-pervading calm and serenity emanating from the gigantic Buddha figures enshrined in the sanctum. The rest is eternal space.
The two long rows of raised benches and 10 pillars are all that we see in the magnificent hall at cave 5. The effect of this stark simplicity or vacuity is overpowering. The Buddha in the sanctuary is flanked by images of Padmapani (symbol of purity) and Vajrapani (symbol of esoteric knowledge). The image of Tara rescuing devotees from the perils-snake, sword, elephant, fire and shipwreck-faced by man in his journey through life (in cave 9) is a work of beauty.
The seated Buddha carved in front of the stupa in the Vishwakarma, cave 10, is a sculpture of sheer spiritual grandeur. This splendid chaitya hall has a columned entrance portico. The ribbed roof is a replica of wooden rafters. The large chaitya window admits light into the dimly-lit interior. The shape of the leaf is symbolic of the leaf of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
Do Tal and Teen Tal (cave 11 and 12) are massive three-tiered excavations. The image of Durga and Ganesh in Do Tal shows the increasing influence of Hinduism.
Ravan ki khai (cave 14) is a vihara, later converted into a Hindu shrine with images of Durga, Lakshmi, Vishnu as the boar, Shiva as Nataraja, and Ravana shaking Mount Kailash. The sculptured deities are full of rare vitality and energy. The Dasavatara (cave 15) depicts 10 incarnations of Vishnu but the most impressive panel is the one depicting Shiva as Nataraja. An inscription here records donations by the Rashtrakuta king, Dantidurga (725-55 AD). This two-tiered shrine is yet another example of a massive hall carved out of the rocks.
At the heart of the Ellora excavations stands cave 16, the Kailash temple. This is a brilliant piece of work. The visitor is bound to be stupefied by this extraordinary creation. Here, human imagination has been transformed into reality. First, two trenches (each measuring 30 metres) were carved into the solid basalt up to the level of the surrounding land. These were then connected at the deepest point at the rear by another 30 metre-long trench. The great mass of rock left standing between the trenches thus was fashioned inch by inch from the top to create a three-storeyed vimana, a mandap flanked by two gigantic dhwaj-stambhas (free standing columns) and two grand elephant statues symbolising royal power. The temple rises to 30 metres from the level of the court. Work on this magnificent piece of work began under Krishna I (1756-73 AD) who was inspired by the Virupaksha temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Pattadakal.
Almost every inch of the basalt has been touched by the sculptor’s chisel and hammer. The beauty of the Kailash temple lies in the number of sculptural panels depicting Shiva in his various forms-as Nataraja, Dakshinamurti, the god playing the veena, indulging in a game of dice, or simply the marriage of the divine couple. In the most celebrated panel, Shiva and Parvati are atop Mount Kailash which is being shaken by Ravana. There are panels depicting scenes from the Ramayan and Mahabharat, and also river goddesses Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Initially covered with white lime plaster to resemble the snow-covered peaks of Mount Kailash, the temple retains a few traces of lime plaster coating and paintings-notably the Nataraja-on the ceiling of the mandap.
The richly-carved columns, sculptures as brackets and grand panels are best seen at the Rameshwar or cave 21, which is believed to be amongst the earliest caves at Ellora. Shiva as Nataraja, an image of divine rhythmic grace in a classic dance posture, is the piece de resistance in the vestibule of this small, but beautiful, cave. A monolithic Nandi shrine stands in the front court here. Dhumar Lena, cave 29, with three separate entrances, each guarded by a pair of lions, is a large cave with spectacular sculptural panels depicting Shiva slaying the demon Andaka and his marriage with Parvati. The grand scale of Dhumar Lena is reminiscent of the Elephanta, near Mumbai, as both these cave temples were patronised by the Kalachuris, before they lost power to the Chalukyas.
The Jain caves at the northern end of Ellora were the last to be excavated. Chota Kailash, cave 30, is a mini version of the spectacular original at cave 16. It lacks charm of sculptural decoration and originality of concept.
The Indra Sabha, cave 32, is the pride of Ellora. The cave has a monolithic shrine, a pillar and the statue of an elephant. The lower hall at the rear is mostly incomplete. Work here was perhaps hastily abandoned. The upper hall, is, however, a picture of splendour with 12 exquisitely carved pillars and a magnificent lotus on the ceiling. The sanctum contains the image of Mahavira. The lowered panels on each side of the front verandah contain splendid sculptures, notably of Ambika, the mother goddess. It is difficult to believe that such grand halls with pillars and sculptures have really been excavated, with nothing added to the mass rock. It is a sheer miracle of planning as the sculptor chiselled inch by inch into the heart of the hard rock, leaving out huge blocks of pieces to carve out magnificent columns. Gods and goddesses took form under the strokes of chisel and hammer.
The Jagannath Sabha or cave 33, has five interconnected shrines. It is notable for the grandeur of its pillars and sculptures, but here it becomes apparent that these are the last days of glory at Ellora. Cave 34, a small shrine with the sculpture of the seated Mahavira, is the last important cave to have been excavated at Ellora.
Ellora continued to draw a stream of visitors and pilgrims from India and abroad since the creation of the Kailash temple. Although Aurangzeb had ordered the destruction of the carvings, the best works surprisingly escaped the hammer. Since these sculptures are located deep inside the caves, they enjoy natural protection from the sun and the rain. But for how long can they overcome the ravages of time?