Ellora: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 2
In the Aurangabad district we recently visited there are two world-heritage cave temple sites. One is the Ajanta Caves, which I wrote about a few days ago. Ajanta is a Buddhist site, constructed in the period from about 100 BCE to 450 CE. The second is the Ellora Caves, located about 30 kms from Aurangabad. Ellora was built between the 5th and 10th centuries CE, and its caves depict and celebrate Hindu, Jain and Buddhist beliefs. Wikipedia has an excellent writeup on Ellora. Another excellent site on the caves was created by ArtStor and the Indian Government; in this site is an interactive map that allows you to map photos to the layouts of the various caves.
So, since through the magic of the interwebs readers can find more and better facts than I could present, herewith then are my quick impressions of this incredible place. (For those who just want to page through our Ellora photos, they are available here on Dropbox.)
Ellora is spread out more than Ajanta, there are multiple clusters of caves and most people go from cluster-to-cluster by car. Seen from above the map of all the caves is like so:
We began our viewing with the far left cluster, then proceeded to the middle two, and finally ended on cave 16, which is a major complex in itself. (After cave 16, having spent the first half of the day climbing Daulatabad Fort, we were climbed- and caved-out.)
Our first cave was cave 32:
This cave is typical of Ellora in that it is mostly not roofed-over, but is a courtyard delved into the rock of the hillside. Inside is a sizeable elephant:
Cave 32 is one of the Jain caves. This and the other Jain caves feature many figures in seated meditation, just as in the most common depiction of Buddha; but these figures are not Buddha, they reflect the Jain discipline of meditation that in fact pre-dates Buddhism. Although Jainism is an austere faith, you quickly see these caves are more ambitious than most at Ajanta, making greater use of ornament, and combining Hindu symbols with symbols unique to Jainism. For example these two statues, at opposite sides of the cave 33 entrance, depict Sarvanubhuti (for Hindus, Kubera) and Ambika, god and goddess respectively of material prosperity:
From here we went to our next cluster, starting with cave 29:
This is a Hindu cave, one of the largest at Ellora. Close inside the entrance you find this wall-carving:
Finally we reached cave 16, otherwise known as the Kailashnath Temple:
“Cave” is a tremendous understatement. Wikipedia says this excavation is twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens. The inner courtyard is easily 100 meters deep, plus that courtyard is ringed by multi-story galleries each 30 or more meters deep. Here’s a view from inside:
There’s many more photos I could post, and that in itself is a major message – all the Ellora caves are filled with detail and ornament, so much we could spend hours in any single one, let alone the whole complex of more than 30 caves.
How to contrast Ajanta and Ellora? Ajanta to me was intensely reverent – even with its many paintings and many carvings, it was a place clearly dedicated to the Way of Buddha, with every one of it’s halls proclaiming this function. The word I have for Ellora is exuberant. Being there, seeing the hundreds of silent stories proclaimed by its carvings of gods, goddesses, monks, elephants, demons and more, you feel the intensity of the 1,000-year-ago artisans and patrons who created this place. How else to explain just how tremendously overflowing the place is with detail and content? Another impression … When I see the easy familiarity the Indian visitors have with the overflowing iconography of the place I realize how much I don’t know the culture here. I look at a statue and I see an elephant, a woman, a multi-armed warrior, and that’s it. Indians by and large see much more, of this I am sure.
Since I concluded my Ajanta post with words of the Buddha, it seems fitting to close here by invoking one of the teachings of Jainism:
In truthfulness do reside self-restraint and all other virtues.
Just as the fish can live only in the sea, so can all other virtues reside in Truthfulness alone.
Mahavira (Bhagavati Aradhana, 842)
I am not sure if I will again visit Ajanta and Ellora – there is much to see in India and I only have two years, after all. However, for my USA friends and family, if you visit we could all do worse than a repeat trip to Aurangabad to see these unique works of the ancient world.