Carved in the volcanic basaltic rock, the grand Ellora Caves are the true heritage of Indian art and culture. Spread over a range of 2 kilometers, the 34 caves represent three religions, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, a testimony to the religious harmony that existed in the ancient India. These excavations in the part of Sahyadri hill range formed nearly 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period have some amazing structures, the prominent highlight being the Kailasa Temple, the world’s largest monolithic structure hewn downwards into the hill.
Though it is assumed that several royal dynasties may have beneficed the work that went on for over five hundred years, from 500A.D to 1000 A.D, the only certain evidence left in the form of inscriptions speaks of the Rashtrakuta Dantidurga, 753 to 757 A.D and of Krishna 1, 757 to 783 A.D. Another inscription praising the structure of Kailasa says it was built by Krishnaraja. It further says, the grandeur of the temple made the celestial bodies passing from the sky stop and look at it in wonder, pondering if it was really created by the mortals or it existed there since the dawn of time. It also says that the architect of this structure himself was awestruck that he could create something so magnificent.
The first 12 of these excavations are the Buddhist Caves, created between the fifth and the seventh century. The Buddhist caves mostly served as monasteries with multi-storied living quarters and prayer halls with statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. The most impressive of these is the 10th cave named Vishvakarma or the Carpenter’s Cave. The ceiling of this has a ribcage-like pattern depicting the wooden beams. The imposing structures of the caves Do-tal (two-storied) and Tin-tal (three storied) are also impressive.
The further seventeen are the Hindu Caves. These caves illustrate a different style of sculpting and artistry. The complexity of designs and themes in some of these caves demanded planning and contribution of several generations of the artists.
The most famous of the Hindu caves is the majestic Kailasa Cave, or Kailasanatha, the temple of god Shiva, a depiction of his abode at the Kailasa Mountain in the Himalayas. Several stories high, the whole structure has been hewn out of a single rock, with the imaginative theme of elephant sculptures at its base that appear to be bearing the structure on their back. There is a mandapa, an antechamber hosting the sculpture of Nandi, the sacred bull, in front of the central temple which is at the heart of the structure, connected by a rock bridge. One can see different motifs and sculptures from the epic Indian mythologies everywhere in this cave, with the striking sculpture of the demon lord Ravana trying to lift the Kailasa Mountain being a landmark in the Indian art. The construction of this great structure demanded a massive effort of removing 2,00,000 tones of rock and a period of over 100 years.
Amongst the other notable Hindu caves are Dashavatara, depicting ten re-incarnations of God Vishnu. The depiction of Vishnu’s re-incarnation as a neither-man-nor-lion, where he emerges from a pillar and slays Hiranyakashipu is particularly graceful. The other notable caves Rameshvara, Dhumar Lena, Ravana ki Khai and Nilkantha have several interesting sculptures.
The last in the row are the Jain caves, the ones assumed to have been built last. These caves present amazingly detailed artwork. Chota Kailasa, a miniature Kailasa Temple, Indrasabha and Jagannath Sabha are considered to be the best amongst the Jain caves. Unlike most of the others, the Jain caves had rich and vivid paintings at the ceilings which can still be seen in pieces and admired.
The best season to visit Ellora Caves is after the Monsoon has arrived, as the surroundings will be lush green and the couple of small waterfalls around will be at their best. However, the visit can be enjoyed right up to February from June.
Note: The caves are closed on Tuesdays.