The Ellora caves are a unique conglomeration of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist cave shrines and comes within Maharashtra’s Aurangabad town. The coexisting shrines belonging to three religions are a superb illustration of the religious acceptance of the Indians. Carved somewhere in between the 6th and 10th centuries next to the old village of Ellora, the temples sculpting is breathtaking that makes it a must to visit ancient monument. Ellora formed the part of the World Heritage Site in 1983 and is accredited as the most appealing primeval complex in the state of Maharashtra.
The carving activity began in 550 A.D. on the perpendicular facade of the Charanandri hills. At this time, the Ajanta Caves at 100 km northeast were deserted. In addition in India at this time, Buddhism was getting weaken on one hand; whereas on the other hand, Hinduism was gaining its strength again. In between, the Brahmanical movement became dominating under the benefaction of the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta kings. These kings administered majority of the development activities at Ellora caves. Under their supervision, one of the most glorious shrines, Kailasa Temple, was carved in the 8th century.
The final phase of carving work started and ended in the 10th century. At this time, the native kings transited their adherence from Shaivism that involves Hindus worshipping Shiva to the Digambara division of Jainism.
Ellora is made of 34 caves, chronologically numbered. Among these 34 caves, there are 12 Buddhist caves [500-750 AD], 17 Hindu caves [600-870AD] and 5 Jain caves [800-1000AD]. A visit to Ellora caves starts from the southern direction where there’s a cluster of some very old Buddhist caves.
The Buddhist Caves
These are also known as the Vishvakarma caves. Leaving Cave 10, all other are monasteries also known as the viharas. In these viharas, people ate and slept, studied, and performed meditation and rituals. As you progress, the caves slowly expand and decorate themselves towards north to race with Hinduism for benefaction.
Has eight miniature monastic cells and is a simple one.
Comprises of huge mid chamber erected on 12 square pillars aligned with the idols of Buddhas in seated position. The cave’s gateway is lined with a strong Padmapani with a lotus and an ornamented Maitreya, the Future Buddha. The shrine holds the seated Buddha on a throne of lion.
Caves 3 and 4
Have carving styles as that of Cave 2.
Lies in the middle of the grand chamber used as the dining hall proved by the existence of two rows of sculpted benches. Here, the Buddha is seated on a bench wherein his right hand is pointing the ground. This cave is called the Maharwada Cave, as the native Mahar tribes used to take shelter here at the time of rains.
Holds the two detailed sculptures of Ellora. One of them is the Goddess Tara on the left with a deep gentle appearance. The other one is that of Mahamayuri with peacock and a student below on the right. She is considered the Goddess of learning in Buddhism being very similar to the Hindu equivalent, Saraswati.
Is also known as Carpenters Cave, as it is replicated on the ceiling’s stone made of wooden beam. Herein, a Buddha in its seating pose can be seen in portico of the huge stupa of stone.
Is also known as the Dho Tal or ‘Two Floors’ Cave. However, there are three floors, the third one been discovered in 1876. The uppermost floor, a long chamber, holds a Buddha, Goddess Durga (Goddess of divine power), and Lord Ganesh (God of wisdom and fortune). This depicts that earlier being the Buddhist shrine, later it was treated as the Hindu temple.
Is also known as Tin Tal or ‘Three Floors’ and beholds a magnificent upper hall. The shrine’s walls consist of five large bodhisattvas lined with seven Buddhas, depicting each of his previous births.
The Hindu Caves
The creativity of these caves is very different from those of the Buddhist caves. The Buddha caves hold tranquil Buddhas, whereas the Hindu caves depict events of Hindu scriptures. Carved from each corner and side, the construction of Hindu temples actually needed too much planning and coordination. The caves are numbered from 13 to 29 and are in the middle of the complex around the famous Kailasa Temple. Caves are dedicated to Lord Shiva, but also hold a few pictures of Vishnu and his forms.
Originally, a Buddhist vihara, its entrance is protected by the river Goddess Ganga and Yamuna and its long walls are decorated with superbly friezes. Herein, a niche houses seven fertility goddesses known as the Sapta Matrikas with hefty babies in laps. To their right side, there is a female facet of Lord Ganesh along with Kala and Kali, the ghastly goddesses of death.
Originally a Buddhist cave and a plain ground floor, the uppermost floor houses a few of the best carvings. To the right side, there are continuous panels displaying 5 incarnations of Lord Vishnu out of its total 10. Due to this characteristic, the cave is named Das Avatara. In the left wall of the hall, there is the most superb sculpture that is the Shiva as Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer.
This declines to be a cave, as it is the splendid temple made from rock having a thick coat of white plaster that gives an illusion of snow-clad mountain. It imitates Mount Kailash, the permanent residence of Lord Shiva. Therefore, it is also known as the Kailashnath, Kailash, or Kailasa Temple. An astounding masterwork with stunning spatial effects, its construction was started by the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I, which took 100 years to finish.
Named as Ramesvara, it is the most ancient Hindu cave that is the home of fine sculpting involving river goddesses and two guardians at doors.
Houses a carving of Surya, the sun god who is driving his chariot.
This is also known as the Dhumar Lena, which is north of Cave 25 near a gorge under a seasonal waterfall. It has a strange cross-shaped layout. Its three steps are watched by the pairs of lions and its internal walls are coated with huge friezes. As soon as you enter, at the left, you will see Lord Shiva killing the Andhaka demon, defeating the several-armed Ravana efforts to tremble him, and Parvati atop Mount Kailash. Other important attractions include the dwarf bearing to tease the demon and Lord Shiva teasing Parvati by catching her arm behind when she is preparing to throw the game dice.
The Jain Caves
These caves are located 2 km north descending a blacktop road for which rickshaws can be noticed. The shrines replicate the individuality of Jain viewpoint and practices with a strict aspect of simplicity and intricate embellishment. Housed with the paintings on the ceilings, these caves are comparatively not huge, but are a symbol of exemplary sculpts work.
Among all the caves, the most stunning is Cave 32 that actually is a small version of the Kailash Temple. It is named as the Indra Sabha, Lord Indras (God of Rains) Assembly Hall. Base being in plain, the top floor exhibits intricate sculpting such as a lotus flower created on the ceiling. The central shrine is guarded by two tirthankaras (Jain apostles) at the entrance. Towards the right, the exists the naked Gomatesvara, who is contemplating profoundly in a jungle such that creepers have reached his legs and animals, snakes, and scorpions move near his feet.
Reaching the Ellora Caves
Aurangabad is the nearest city from where you can avail of regular MSRTC buses. The city is well connected by road and rail from Mumbai and Pune.
You are allowed to visit the caves after sunrise until sunset from Wednesday to Monday.