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Ellora Caves Review

In the 7th century, the focus of activity shifted from Ajanta to a site 123 km (76 miles) to the southwest—a place known today as Ellora—although the reason for this switch is not known. Unlike the cave temples at Ajanta, those of Ellora are not solely Buddhist. Instead, they follow the development of religious thought in India through the decline of Buddhism in the latter half of the 8th century, to the Hindu renaissance that followed the return of the Gupta dynasty, and to the Jain resurgence between the 9th and 11th centuries. Of the 34 caves here, the 12 to the south are Buddhist, the 17 in the center are Hindu, and the 5 to the north are Jain.

At Ellora the focus is on sculpture, which covers the walls in ornate masses. The carvings in the Buddhist caves are serene, but in the Hindu caves they take on a certain exuberance and vitality—gods and demons do fearful battle, Lord Shiva angrily flails his eight arms, elephants rampage, eagles swoop, and lovers intertwine.

Unlike at Ajanta, where the temples were chopped out of a steep cliff, the caves at Ellora were dug into the slope of a hill along a north–south line, presumably so that they faced west and could receive the light of the setting sun.

Cave 2 is an impressive monastery. The deceptively simple facade looms nearly 50 feet high; beyond is a lavish interior: gouged into the block of rock is a central hall with ornate pillars and a gallery of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas seated under trees and parasols.

The largest of the Buddhist caves is Cave 5. It was probably used as a classroom for young monks. The roof appears to be supported by 24 pillars; working their way down, sculptors first "built" the roof before they "erected" the pillars.

Cave 6 contains a statue of Mahamayuri, the Buddhist goddess of learning—also identified as Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning—in the company of Buddhist figures. The boundaries between Hinduism and Buddhism are fuzzy and Hindus worship and recognize some Buddhist gods and goddesses as their own, and vice versa. For instance, Hindus consider Buddha the avatar of Vishnu.

Cave 7, an austere hall with pillars, is the first two-story cave.

Cave 10 is impressive: the stonecutters reproduced the timbered roofs of their day over a richly decorated facade that resembles masonry work. Inside this shrine—the only actual Buddhist chapel at Ellora—the main work of art is a huge sculpture of Buddha. Make sure to check out the high ceiling with stone "rafters" and note the sharp echo. The cave has been dubbed the Sutar Jhopdi or Carpenter's Cave and called a tribute to Visvakarma, the Hindu god of tools and carpentry.

Caves 11 and 12 rise grandly three floors up and are richly decorated with sculptural panels.

Starting with Cave 13, the Hindu caves are the successors to the Buddhist ones, and a step inside these is enough to stop you in your tracks. It's another world—another universe—in which the calm contemplation of the seated Buddhas gives way to the dynamic cosmology of Hinduism. These caves were created around the 7th and 8th centuries.

Ellora is dominated by the mammoth Kailasa temple (also known as Kailasanatha, or Kailash) complex, known as Cave 16. Dedicated to Shiva, the complex is a replica of his legendary abode at Mount Kailasa in the Tibetan Himalayas. The largest monolithic structure in the world, the Kailasa reveals the genius, daring, and raw skill of its artisans. To create the Kailasa complex, an army of stonecutters started at the top of the cliff, where they removed 3 million cubic feet of rock to create a vast pit with a freestanding rock left in the center. Out of this single slab, 276 feet long and 154 feet wide, the workers created Shiva's abode, which includes the main temple, a series of smaller shrines, and galleries built into a wall that encloses the entire complex. Nearly every surface is exquisitely sculpted with epic themes.

Around the courtyard, numerous friezes illustrate the legends of Shiva and stories from the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. One interesting panel on the eastern wall relates the origin of Shiva's main symbol, the lingam, or phallus. Another frieze, on the outer wall of the main sanctuary on the southern side of the courtyard, shows the demon Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, from a story in the Ramayana.

The Jain caves are at the far end of Ellora. If you have a car, consider driving there once you've seen the Hindu caves. These caves are compelling in their own right, and should not be missed on account of geography. It's fascinating to climb through the many well-carved chambers and study the towering figures of Gomateshvara (a Jain mythological figure) and Mahavira (an important Jain sage).

Because Ellora is such a busy tourist destination, try to avoid coming here during school holidays from April to first week of June. Don't encourage hawkers and unknown guides; they can be a terrible nuisance. Visiting the Ellora caves is in many ways easier than visiting Ajanta, though the rewards are different—even in terms of the practical, Ellora is more accessible: the entire line of caves is parallel to the road and there are not many steps involved. Proximity to Aurangabad and the easy access makes seeing these caves a half-day's adventure; choose either early morning or late afternoon. The winding drive to Ellora is very pleasant, through low-slung hills past old ruins as well as Daulatabad Fort (try to squeeze at least a half-hour stop there, too).

Updated: 10-26-2012

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