Updated Sep 3, 2006: I added some pictures from my trip. Captions cover the key items i have described below. Also updated some details below.
Decided to use the Independence Day weekend to go see the famed Ajanta Ellora caves in Maharashtra – this is the first major tour we are undertaking after coming back to India. We took off last night to Mumbai. Thanks to the terror news from London, the security was very tight. We had to check-in everything. We did make it to Mumbai at 12 midnight 2 hours behind schedule. Our travel agent had booked us into a Hotel Benzy Palace in Andheri.
When I booked it I was told that it was a 3 star deluxe hotel. It turned out to be a very very bad hotel. Even the sheets weren’t clean. The only thing deluxe about it was the sign on the hotel’s door. We managed to sleep for a couple hours and got up at 5am to catch the flight to Aurangabad. Airport security was tight again, but the flight took off on time. Being the rainy season, we were very anxious about rains spoiling the trip. Fortunately, when we landed in Aurangabad, the sun was shining bright and our travel company’s car was waiting. We reached our hotel – another supposed 3 star hotel. After Benzy Palace anything would be better. But this one was decent, although not quite 3 star. We had a quick breakfast and met our local english-speaking guide at 11am.
He suggested that we don’t do the city tour as planned but see the Ellora today taking advantage of the sunny day. It was a great decision. We reached Ellora at 12 noon with the sun still shining bright. There was lush greenery, waterfalls and the caves laid out in front of us like a picture post card. Ellora caves are dated to have started in 6th century AD and went on till 12th century AD. Ellora is a twist on the name of a local village called Ellur.
The main dynasties that funded the Ellora was the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas. There were a few others as well, but these were the main patrons. The Ellora caves consist of 34 caves – 1-13 are Buddhist, 14-29 are Hindu and 30-34 are Jain. All the caves are cut into the face of the cliff except one which we will cover later.
All of them were cut with using nothing other than basic tools like pick axes, chisels and hammers. The rocks are basalt (igneous rock) which is slightly easier to carve than granite but quite a bit tougher than sandstone. So you can imagine the sheer human effort that went into this.
Our tour started at Cave #1. The buddhist caves are from the Mahayana school of buddhism (the other one being the hinayana school of buddhism). The first few Buddhist caves were Viharas (monasteries) with long pillared halls. Buddha adorning the inner sanctum in his famous poses. 2 Bodhisattvas guarding the door – one is Padmapani (lotus bearer) and the other is Vajrapani (thunderbolt bearer). Although nothing spectacular so far, we could start to sense the magnitude of the effort. So far the scenes were pretty repetitive with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the niches and sanctums.
When we reached Cave #10 – our guide mentioned that this is locally known as the Carpenter’s hut (sutar ki zopadi) for its stonework imitating woodwork. Its also called Viswakarma’s hut. Nothing could have prepared us for the sight we saw in here. I got goosebumps. It is a beautiful cathedral (chaitya) with the Buddha sitting in the center with a remarkably serene face – an elaborately carved backdrop (stupa). As we looked up we could see the roof shaped in the form of a inverted semi circle. The entire roof was punctuated with beams carved every few inches as a series of semi circles. All this resembling curved wooden beams that you typically see. Our guide reminded us again that this is monolithic as well. Entire chaitya carved out of a single rock. Wow!
Then we looked at caves 11-14 were the dormintories for young monks. 2 of the dormitories were 3 storeyed, probably to accomodate a larger number of people. At the top storey (cave #13) we saw a grand hall again with Buddhas and Boddhisattvas. There were 2 important arrangements of Buddha statues pointed out by our guide. Each arrangement had 7 buddhas each – the first one representing the earthly Buddhas and the second one representing the heavenly Buddhas (note to self – need to look up the religious meaning of this). We also saw a few statues of Maha Mayuri (buddhist goddess of learning – equivalent of the Hindu Goddess Saraswati). Then we moved to the Hindu cave #15.
Point to note that although Vishnu appears in a few places, the sculptures are entirely dominated by Shiva and related deities. Now onto what many consider THE most important in all of Ellora – cave #16. This is the famous Kailash temple dedicated to Shiva. This one pounds to dust any ideas you may have had about the sizes of these caves. Gives new meaning to the word monumental. The entire edifice was carved out of a single rock – considered to be the world’s largest monolithic structure. Kailash temple was created by removing, get this, 200,000 tons of rock to create a magnigficent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Our guide mentioned that the temple was inspired by the Virupaksha temple in Karnataka and Kailasanadhar Temple in Kancheepuram, Tamilnadu.
It took 15 150 years to make this temple employing artisans spanning seven generations. The entire temple is said to resemble a chariot. Interestingly, instead of wheels, the artists have carved hundreds of elephants and lions in the lower part of the temple to make it appear as if the temple is held aloft by these animals. The temple has 2 ornate flagstaff pillars (dwajasthamb) instead of the usual one flagstaff and 2 large elephants standing guard. On either side of the main structure, ramayana and mahabharata are carved. Sadly, the temple was never consecrated probably because it was never fully completed.
Behind the main structure there is an enormous cantilevered structure carved in rock – its supposedly an engineering marvel. There are also statues for ganga, jamuna and saraswati – the 3 major rivers. The one major recurring theme in the Hindu caves is the story of Ravana getting under Kailash and shaking it with Parvati (Shiva’s wife) running into Shiva’s arms in fear. There are a few others like Shiva and Parvati playing a game of dice that keep repeating.
Another interesting sculpture we came across in the rest of the Hindu caves is the one with the 7 divine mothers (saptamatha) flanked on one side by Skanda and Ganesh on the other with an unusual twin sculptures called Kala and Kali. Kala and Kali are carved in a form resembling a skeleton. Another unusual one was Bhringi imitating Shiva’s dance also represented in skeletal form.
As we moved from cave to cave, the typical ones like Kali killing Mahishasura (buffalo demon), Shiva killing various demons kept appearing. Finally, we moved to the Jain caves. Experts consider the Jain caves to be the most intricately carved in Ellora. In all the caves, Mahavira is in the sanctum flanked by Mathanga on a elephant and Siddhayika on a lion (goddess of wealth). There were also statues of Parsvanath ( the 23rd thirthankara, Mahavira being the 24th). Our guide pointed out the differences between Mahavira statues and Buddha statues.
To the untrained eye both look almost identical – Buddha is usually in the Padmasana (a yoga pose) and Mahavira is usually in the Ardha Padmasana. Buddha wears some clothes and Mahavira does not. Mahavira has 3 umbrellas over his head and Buddha does not. The Jain caves are from the Digambara school ( the other one being Swetambara). It was around 4pm and we completed the tour and came back to the hotel, took a small walk around, had dinner and went to bed.
More to come.