Posts Tagged ‘ellora’

Ellora: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 2

March 29, 2013 Comments off

Ellora cave 29, Shiva and Parvati

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 ElloraAnother 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:

Ellora cave 32 outside

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:

Morgan and Kim with Ellora 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:

Ellora cave 29 entrance

This is a Hindu cave, one of the largest at Ellora.  Close inside the entrance you find this wall-carving:


This is Andhakasuravadha, the demon-killing incarnation of Lord Shiva.  In cave 22 we saw many examples of Ganga, the River Goddess:

Ganga, outside Ellora cave 22

Finally we reached cave 16, otherwise known as the Kailashnath Temple:

Ellora cave 16 entrance

“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:

Ellora cave 16 inner court

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.

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Ajanta: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 1

March 27, 2013 1 comment

Reclining Buddha

2,500 years ago, Siddhartha, a Hindu Prince, was born in Nepal.  Dismayed to discover suffering, he tried to make sense of the world.  After many excesses, and deprivations, and trials of character, he achieved the insight of the middle way whereby he freed himself from extremes and was able to see and be with clarity.  Many followers sought his teachings and the one who was Siddhartha came to be called Gautama Buddha.

400 years after the time of Gautama his teaching has spread across the northern half of India.  Then, as today, monks who follow this way practice meditation and reverent prayer as a discipline.  At the northern edge of the Deccan Plateau, in the state that is today called Maharashtra, some followers of the Buddha came to rocky cliffs high up in isolated hills.  There, in the solid basalt and granite of the cliff faces, they envision great halls where the distractions of the world cannot enter and prayers echo off of cool rock.  With only the meanest of implements, they begin work, knowing it will fall to successor generations of monks to fully complete this vision.  Local kings and princes sent many workmen, but the monks themselves – or so I believe – must have aided the construction.  Surely this must have been another kind of meditation for them, as they wielded tools in silence, a single monk perhaps removing only a few feet of stone in an entire lifetime.  Caves would be built here for five centuries to come, only to be forgotten for a 1,000 years or more …

Standing here in the 21st century, this is how the story of the Ajanta Caves seems to me.  There are many examples of rock-cut or cave temples in India; back in January, our family visited the Karla Caves.  Ajanta and Ellora (to be described in a separate post), in the district of Aurangabad, about 250 kms from Pune, are the preeminent examples of this rock-cut architecture.  When Morgan had a 1-week school break we decided to use some of that time to view these ancient places.  (The trip itself I shall have to post about as well.)

At the main compound of Ajanta there is a ticket booth, restaurant, a few shops, basic facilities.  To reach the actual caves, there is a bit of a trek up stairs:

Ajanta stairs

In addition to the many hawkers and supposed guides offering their goods and services, you can hire a sedan chair and bearers to carry you up.  It is probably best for all involved that I declined to engage such a chair.

It takes perhaps 10 mins walk to reach the first cave. Here is the view when you reach the top:

Ajanta caves

There are 26 caves in all at Ajanta.  The cliff describes a horseshoe shape with the oldest caves being at the middle of the horseshoe and newer caves to the right and left. The caves are of two types.  The first type is a vihara prayer hall, where monks lived and prayed daily:

Ajanta prayer hall

These halls are 30 or more meters across, 8 meters or more high, and surrounded by pillars; cut into the the walls are cells where monks would sleep.  At the end of the hall is a shrine to Buddha:

Ajanta shrine

These photos are so dark because flash photography is forbid in many of the caves.  This is because these caves are painted, either to adorn the carvings or to present scenes important to Buddhist lore:

Ajanta cave painting

The second type of cave is the chaitya hall, a place purely for prayer with a stupa or shrine at the far end:

Ajanta cave 10 stupa

As Morgan in the foreground helpfully illustrates, the stupa is about 15-20 feet high.

This photo is cave 10, one of the oldest caves at Ajanta.  Comparing older and newer caves you can see how stupas became more elaborate:

Ajanta stupas

These are from, going left to right, cave 9, cave 10, cave 19 and cave 26.  9 and 10 were constructed approx. 100 BCE to 100 CE; 19 and 26 date from the 5th century CE.

All the open space you see here was created by human activity; these are not natural caves that were somehow enlarged, but bodies of solid rock where these large chambers were created.  Cave 24 is an unfinished cave where you can see the process:

Ajanta cave 24

The workers would start the excavation at the ceiling, working down.  Pillars were left in rough outline to be finished later.  The actual removal of stone was accomplished by a combination of hammer/chisel, drill and a method of forcing dry wood fibers into cracks which were then wetted – the expansion of the fibers would crack the stone.

For me, Ajanta was a very affecting place.  The early caves have a simplicity – even with their rich paintings – that is very humbling to contemplate.  The later caves display more ornamentation, but still all is in devotion to Buddha:

Ajanta cave 19


Ajanta medallion


Ajanta cave 26


Ajanta Buddha, cave 26


Buddha said:

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.

To visit these caves is to perceive at one time the suffering of their creation, but also the profound devotion of their achievement.  The thoughts of those long-ago people and, as Buddha taught, what those people must have been, are there to be seen and touched at Ajanta.

UPDATE: All our Ajanta photos are on Flickr, here:

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Lord Balaji’s Finances

March 26, 2013 Comments off


This weekend past Kim, Morgan and myself visited the famous rock-cut temples of Ajanta and Ellora; a great experience on which I will post more fully soon.  Meanwhile, having returned home I was paging though the many photos taken and came to this one. and I thought I’d say a quick word about it.

This photo is at the Ellora caves.  It shows the sacred bull, Nandi, mount of Lord Shiva; this is at the entrance of cave 21.  I was glad to get these Hindu ladies in the frame; we smiled and said our hellos after.  When they were gone, our driver Rupesh – in his first visit to these caves – said, "Sir, did you see that lady with shaved head?”  I told him, yes, and that I wondered about it – Indian women are very particular  about their hair and take great pains to grow it long.  Rupesh told me his guess that this lady was a devotee of Lord Balaji, an avatar of Vishnu sometimes known as Venkateswara.  There are two stories of Lord Balaji that explain how ladies who worship him cut their hair.

The first is that Balaji was once wounded on his head.  A devoted princess saw him and offered some of her hair to repair the wound in his scalp; even today followers will offer hair in the same spirit.

A more interesting story (to me, at least) is how Lord Balaji got married.  For various reasons Balaji wished to marry Lady Padmavathi.  Balaji however lacked funds for a wedding celebration of suitable luxury.  So he went  to Lord Kubera, god of wealth,  and asked for a loan.  The terms of the load were so usurious, that today Lord Balaji’s followers are still paying interest.  For this reason his temples are among the richest in India, as many devotees donate money and gold, and hair – a valuable donation –  to defray payments in this ancient debt.

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