The Ellora Caves


The Ellora caves are located on the Aurangabad-Chalisgaon road at a distance of 30 km north-northwest of Aurangabad, the district headquarters. The name Ellora itself inspires everyone as it represents one of the largest rockhewn monastic-temple complexes in the entire world. Ellora is also world famous for the largest single monolithic excavation in the world, the great Kailasa Temple. The caves are hewn out of the volcanic basaltic formation of Maharasthra, known as ‘Deccan Trap’, the term trap being of Scandinavian origin representing the step like formation of the volcanic deposits. The rock formation, on weathering has given rise to the appearance of terraces with flat summits. At Ellora, one can also have a glimpse of the channels through which the volcanic lava once flowed. These channels, due to overheating, have a characteristic brownish red colour. Similar rock was used in the construction of the Grishneshwar Temple nearby and also utilised for the flooring of the pathways at Bibi-ka-Maqbara.
Basaltic Rocks
The volcanic lava flowed during different periods, gave rise to extensive horizontal flows alternating with vesicular trap beds. The vesicular traps formed the upper portion of each of the massive trap beds. The different lava flows also gave rise to vertical as well as horizontal joints in the rock formation. Depending upon the nature and mineralogical content of the lava flow, the rock formations also varied in character and texture, giving rise to various qualities like coarse grained, fine grained formations. The ancient builders at Ellora, like other places, particularly chose the fine grained formations of the Deccan trap, ideal for sculpting and rock hewing. In addition to this, the ancient builders also traced the horizontal and vertical joints in the rock formation to minimise the labour and time during excavation and rock splitting. The basaltic rock is also ideal for rock hewing, as they are soft during the initial excavation and hardens on exposure to environment. The basaltic formation of the Deccan is ideal for rock hewing, the technique widely understood during ancient times. This induced the religious followers of various creeds to establish their settlements in them. By a rough estimate, there are nearly 1200 caves of varying sizes in the entire Maharashtra, out of which nearly 900 alone belong to Buddhism. The caves are excavated in the scarp of a large plateau, running in a north-south direction for nearly 2 km, the scarp

Dr. R. Kuberan,
Editorial Consultant,
being in the form of a semi-circle, the Buddhist group at the right arc on the south, while the Jaina group at the left arc on the north and the Brahmanical group at the centre.
Buddhist Group of Caves
At Ellora, the Buddhists were the first to start excavation of caves. Their period of excavation here can be dated between circa A.D. 450 and 700. During this period, 12 caves were excavated by the followers of Buddhism. These 12 caves can be sub-divided into two groups based on the date of these caves. Cave 1 to 5 is earlier among the twelve and is placed in a separate group from Caves 6 to 12 which are later in date. These two groups have chaityagrihas and monasteries.
Cave 2
This is a shrine dedicated to Lord Buddha, reached through a flight of steps, and consists of a pillared mandapa with side galleries with the shrine at the rear end. The side galleries have images of Buddha in the sunken niches, many of them unfinished. The pillars are adorned with cushion brackets. The sculptures are massive, particularly, the dvarapalas (door-keepers), and apart from Buddha in the shrine many subsidiary deities are also represented.
Cave 5
This is called as Maharvada, which is a vihara (monastery) and measures 117 feet deep and 59 feet wide. The most striking feature of this monastery is two long and low stone benches placed at the centre and stretches throughout its length, flanked by row of 24 pillars, 12 on each side. The monastery has a shrine for Buddha at the rear end and twenty cells for the monks. This cave could have been a place of preaching and learning of the Buddhist principles and teaching, the stone benches being the seats for the mendicant disciples.
Cave 12
This is the largest monastic complex at Ellora, or even in the entire Maharashtra. The complex is in three storeys, hence called as Teen Thal locally. The huge complex is entered through a huge entrance carved out of natural rock, which leads into a large courtyard. A step on the right leads to the first storey which has a shrine at the middle of the rear end. There are 9 cells arranged on the side walls of the first storey. Various sculptural representations of Buddha and subsidiary deities adorn the walls. A stair leads to the second storey which is a huge hall measuring 118 feet north to south and 34 feet in width. The hall is divided into three aisles by rows of eight square pillars. This floor has 13 cells pierced on the end of halls and on the back wall. The shrine at the eastern side of the storey has a huge Buddha image in bhumisparsa mudra. In front of the Buddha image is Sujata offering payasa, the episode reminding the events just before the enlightenment of Siddhartha before he became Buddha. On each side of the seated Buddha image is a row of five Bodhisattvas. The top floor is reached by a flight of steps on the north. The top storey is a huge hall of nearly equal dimensions of the lower one, with a shrine and a huge antechamber on the east. The back wall of the hall contains fourteen representations of Buddha, seven on the north and seven on the south. The seven images on the north are in bhumisparsa mudra and are of Vipasyi, Sikhi, Vishvabahu, Krakuchhanda, Kanakamuni, Kashyapa and Sakyasimha, all are manusi Buddhas. The seven on the south are representations of divine Buddhas. The side walls of the antechamber are adorned by three images of female deities, three on each side. The shrine is adorned by a colossal image of Lord Buddha flanked by Padmapani and Vajrapani.
Water Cisterns
Almost invariably each and every cave here contains provision for storing water. These water cisterns were useful for the monks and disciples alike. This ingenious arrangement was made for harnessing the rainwater during the monsoon to be used during the dry season. Considerable care was taken to locate these cisterns for preserving the water. Often channels were also cut on the rock surface for diverting the rainwater into these cisterns. These water cisterns are filled with water even today indicating the success of their innovative creation.
Brahmanical Group of Caves
There are altogether 17 excavations belonging to the Brahmanical faith at Ellora, excavated out of the west face of the hill for nearly a nearly a kilometre and datable from around A.D. 650 to 900.
Cave 14
The origin of the name Ravana-ka-khai for this cave is not known. This cave consists of a huge pillared courtyard in front of a shrine containing a linga. The shrine has a circumambulatory passage directly approached also from the aisles of the courtyard. The side walls of the aisles of the courtyard are adorned with sculptural representations from Saiva as well as Vaishnava faith. The south wall contains the images of mahisasuramardini (the slaying of buffalo-demon), Lord Siva and Parvati playing the game of chausar, Lord Siva performing the celestial dance (Nataraja), Ravananugrahamurti (Ravana shaking the Mount Kailasa and later Siva pardoning him and blessing him), Gajasamharamurti (Siva killing the elephant-demon). By the side of these sculptural representations, and on the southern wall of the circumambulation, is the depiction of Saptamatrikas (Seven Divine Mothers), Chamunda with owl, Indrani with elephant, Varahi with boar, Lakshmi with garuda, Kaumari with peacock, Maheshwari with bull and Sarasvati with hamsa or goose. The north wall contains the images of Bhavani or Durga, Gajalakshmi, Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu, Vishnu and Lakshmi. Curiously enough, the floor of the courtyard has four circular pits, might be remnants of a religious ritual of the past.
Cave 16 (Kailasa)
The culmination of the rock-cut architecture is undoubtedly the magnificent Kailasa, which is the largest cave excavation in India, and probably in the entire world. This marks the departure from all the earlier conventions in which a huge mass of rock was made free of the parent rock formation first and then it was sculpted and carved into a huge temple. Three deep trenches were sunk in the parent rock mass, which left a huge monolithic structure measuring 276 x 154 x 107 feet (length x width x height). The influence of other temple styles cannot be neglected, for, this temple resembles closely with the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakkal, an early Chalukyan temple. Kailasa was excavated under Krishna I (A.D. 756-783) the Rashtrakuta monarch, who after subduing the Western Chalukyas in the eighth century was in the high of power. It was originally known as Krishneswara, after the great king, conceived on a mighty scale, announcing to the entire world, the ingenuity, character and architectural genius. The Kailasa may be broadly classified into four parts, namely, the entrance gateway, the body of the temple, an intermediate nandi shrine, and the cloisters surrounding the courtyard. The front wall of the Kailasa is in the form of a fortification wall with an entrance gopura of the Dravidian style at the centre. The wall is adorned with sculptural representations of Siva and Vishnu and Ashtadigpalas (guardian gods of eight directions). The representations of Urdhvadandava Siva, Brahma, Vishnu, Lingodhbhava Siva, Harihara, Ashtadigpalas, VamanaTrivikrama, Narasimha, Nataraja, etc., are seen on the front wall. A huge subterranean cistern is also seen to the south of this wall. The entrance gopura is double-storeyed, the entrance being flanked by images of Ganga and Yamuna, the symbolical purification of the worshippers by these sacred rivers. A huge sculpture of Gajalakshmi greets the visitors after passing the entrance, and the huge court of the temple can be reached from here by either turning left or right. The most prominent feature of the court is two huge monolithic elephants and pillars on each side. The pillars, square in shape rise to a height of 45 feet and is crowned by a huge trisula. The pillars are decorated with sculptural as well as moulding decorations. The main body of the temple is a huge parallelogram with the principal shrine excavated at the first floor level. The level corresponding to the lower storey consists of a series of mouldings executed one upon other. The massive plinth, which is nearly 8 m in height, is heavily moulded with a central frieze occupied by boldly carved elephants, lions and mythical animals. Episodes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Krishna’s life are also sculpted on the walls of the plinth giving a running account of the great Epics.The principal shrine proper rises to a height of nearly 23 m over the plinth with five subsidiary shrines all fashioned out of the rock. The interior of the shrine consists of a pillared mandapa, an antarala (antechamber) and a garbhagriha (shrine). Remnants of paintings are to be seen on the ceilings of the portico immediately after one land on the first floor by right angled steps. The original paintings have survived at very less places. The paintings belong to two different periods, the first one is the period of Rashtrakutas while the second exactly superimposing the original one belongs to the period of Holkars when the entire structure was given a lime wash and painted with ochre coloured paintings during the period of Ahalya Bai Holker. The pillars of the mandapa are exquisitely carved with sculptural as well as geometrical motifs. The central piece of attraction is a huge nataraja image executed on the ceiling of the mandapa. One has only to marvel the pains taken to execute the sculpture, as the artist has to lie down on his back over scaffolding while preventing the dust and stone particles from his eye, illumined just with an oil lamp. The ceiling at many places contain murals, most of which have lost their lustre due to soot and carbon deposition resulted by lighting of oil lamps in the past. The main shrine is entered from the mandapa through an antechamber which have on its sidewalls, huge sculptures of Umamahesvara and Annapurna (the goddess of food). Once again the devotee is purified by the presence of Ganga and Yamuna depicted here with their respective vehicles, the crocodile and tortoise respectively. The sanctum contains a huge monolithic linga over a huge yonipitha, the ceiling is decorated with an enormous lotus. The devotee is conjured by the mystique in which the linga the iconic representation of Lord Siva is placed in the sanctum and tenders his obeisance and requests for the blessing from Almighty. After coming out from the sanctum, one can have a huge circumambulation around the main shrine from an exit from the mandapa. On the circumambulatory passage are five independent shrines, two at the corners and three at the centers, with another two shrines just at the entrance and exit. These shrines are empty now; however, these could have been the shrines of parivaradevatas of Lord Siva and other deities of Brahmanical faith. These shrines, seven in number, if added to the main shrine makes it an ashtayathana concept of a temple complex with eight shrines. The wall portion of the main shrine along with the subsidiary shrines are sculpted in detail with various representations of Lord Siva.The visitor after completing the circumambulation again enters the mandapa and exits through the main entrance. In front of it is the nandimandpa, the vehicle of Lord Siva. It is a huge monolith, the style and execution indicates that it was sculpted somewhere else and placed here later. The interior of the nandimandapa is exquisitely painted with various episodes from the Ramayana, with votive inscriptions in the characters of the Rashtrakuta times. After passing through the nandimandapa, the visitor can reach the upper storey of the entrance gopura, and through a window can have a glimpse of the exterior of the cave complex. Two exits branch off from the upper storey of the gopura to an elevated platform, from where one can have a fuller view of the entire Kailasa temple complex. This elevated platform is an added attraction for most of the tourists for photography.
Cave 29
The Dumar Lena (Cave 29) is another important excavation at Ellora by the side of “Sita-ka-nahani” a pool created by a waterfall in the Elaganga. The Dumar Lena consists of an isolated shrine located within a group of halls arranged on a cruciform plan. Similar example is also seen at Elephanta Island near Mumbai. The shrine houses a huge linga entered through four entrances flanked by huge dvarapalakas (door-keepers).The halls are adorned with six huge sculptural panels depicting various episodes connected with Lord Siva. They are Ravananugrahamurti or Ravana Shaking Mount Kailasa (Siva blessing Ravana, the demon King), Kalyanamurti (the celestial marriage between Lord Siva and Parvati), Antakasuravadamurti (killing of the demon Antaka), Siva and Parvati playing chausar, Nataraja (the celestial dance of Lord Siva), Lakulisa (form of Lord Siva). This cave also has two enigmatic sculpted depressions, one on south and other on the north. The exact function of these depressions is not clearly understood. Various identifications have been proposed, the prominent among them is that they are religious Vedic altars used at specific important religious rituals. A pathway near Cave 21 leads northward towards Cave nos. 22 – 28 and also to Ganesh Leni mentioned above.
Jaina Group of Caves
The followers of the Jainism were the last to arrive at Ellora. The Cave nos. 30 – 34 belongs to the Jaina tradition. They are generally dated between 9th and 11th – 12th centuries A.D. The technique of rock excavation and converting it into structures can be well understood from the unfinished excavation.
Cave 32
The Cave 32 known as Indra Sabha is actually a series of shrines dedicated to Mahavira and other Jaina divinities aesthetically arranged in double storeys. The main entrance of Cave 32 is on the south, the gate in the form of a Dravidian gopura. The entrance leads into a small court at the center of which is a monolithic shrine on a high pedestal. A huge monolithic pillar known as manastambha is to its right and a colossal monolithic elephant to its left. The manastambha measures 28 feet in height and is crowned by four seated images facing the cardinal directions. The monolithic elephant reminds one of the elephants sculpted in the court of Kailasa, but, here it is more elegant and well preserved. The court leads to multiple shrines, two on the west, one on the north and one on the east. All these shrines are primarily dedicated to Mahavira, flanked by his attendant deities, Indra on elephant and Ambika on lion. The side walls of the shrines usually depict the images of Gomateshwara (the son of Rishabhanatha, in penance), Parsvanatha with the snake hood and subsidiary deities. A flight of steps leads us to the first storey through the bigger shrine at the north of the court. The steps lead into a large shrine on the first floor, with side entrances on the east and west leading to smaller shrines. Invariably these shrines are also dedicated to Mahavira. Here one can see the remains of murals executed on the ceilings and the wall portion of the caves. The exit on the west leads to two smaller shrines dedicated to Mahavira. A small exit on the southwest corner of this shrine takes us to a huge shrine of Mahavira. The pillars, wall portions are exquisitely decorated with sculptures. The pillars are elaborate and depart well with the earlier period traditions. The doorway of the shrine is also elaborately carved with multiple bands of sculptures.