Ellora (Elura)

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ELLORA (ELURA) The Ellora caves are located in the heart of Maharashtra, near the town of Aurangabad, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the site of Ajanta. A modern Hindu shrine in the vicinity of the rock-hewn site is also renowned for being one of the twelve sacred tirthas, or pilgrimage centers associated with the Shiva liṇga. The thirty-four caves, carved onto the steep face of a hill, can be divided into three main groups: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain. The earliest caves at Ellora, mostly unfinished, appear to be the Hindu ones, clustered around and upstream of a waterfall at the center of the rock-hewn site. Caves 27 and 28, according to Walter Spink, were the first to be excavated, as they make reference to architectural features occurring at Ajanta. Caves 20, 21, 26, and 29, also known as Dhumar Lena, are grandiose in conception and appear to be architecturally and stylistically related to Elephanta and other sixth-century excavations in the Konkan. Caves 17 and 19 follow, showing a complete local assimilation of features common at other rock-hewn sites in the Konkan and inner Maharashtra. The last of the early excavations linked to the sphere of Kalachuri influence in the region is cave 14, also known as Ravana ka khai (Demon Ravana's cave), judging from its location and innovative iconography. All of these early Hindu units are dedicated to Shiva, as the presence of reliefs depicting the god and his associates, as well as liṇga shrines, seem to indicate.

The most grandiose Hindu rock-cut temple of the subcontinent was completed at Ellora during the eighth century a.d. Cave 16, better known as Kailash, consists of a temple structure excavated in the round out of the Deccan trap, emerging like a freestanding structure from the hill out of which it was dug. This 197 foot long (60-meter) and 98 foot (30-meter) deep temple was carved mostly during the time of the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (r. 757–783). Dedicated to Shiva, this monolithic structure evoking the god's Himalayan dwelling materializes almost like a self-generated (svayambhu) structure within the domain of the Rashtrakutas to serve their political ambitions and help legitimize their power in the Deccan. The body of the Kailash temple consists of three independent parts, linked together by small bridges: an entrance pavilion, followed by a shrine hosting an image of Nandi (the "bull vehicle" of Shiva), and finally the actual temple. The southern style, or Dravida temple, cruciform in plan, consists of a pillared hall decorated with wall paintings (now mostly lost), and a sanctum enclosing a Shiva liṇga surmounted by a shikhara (tower) on the outside. The outer walls of the Kailash, once also painted, are embellished with images portraying Hindu mythological scenes and deities carved deep into niches framed by pillars. Worth noting is the Rāvaṇa scene, rendered with great intensity; the three-dimensional figure of the demon powerfully emerges from the living rock. All around the base of the temple are sculptures of elephants, almost as if supporting the weight of the entire structure. The Kailash is placed at the center of a rectangular court with multistoried porticoes that house subsidiary shrines and large images of deities. While no inscriptions are immediately associated with this cave, a copper plate inscription from the region mentions this amazing structure as rivaling heavenly abodes. To the same phase of Rashtrakuta patronage can be ascribed the neighboring cave 15, carved high on the cliff, also known as Dashavatara, as well as caves 25 and 22, nestled among the earliest Hindu caves at the site.

The Buddhist caves (2 to 12), located toward the southern end of the cliff, can be roughly dated to the seventh century a.d., an intermediate phase between Kalachuri and Rashtrakuta Hindu patronage at the site. Images of buddhas, bodhisattvas, female and other esoteric deities are arranged in each cave, following precise iconographical schemes that suggest the diffusion of early tantric beliefs at Ellora. Geri Malandra has argued that each cave should be understood as a mandala (cosmic diagram), thus implying the existence of a programmatic vision for the structures that merges imagery and design. However, most of the Buddhist caves appear to be unfinished.

The most imposing Buddhist excavations at Ellora are caves 10, 11, and 12. Cave 10, or Vishvakarma cave, consists of an apsidal hall (caitya hall) containing a rock-cut stupa (dome-shaped monument) measuring over 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter. On the stupa, facing the entrance to the hall, is carved an image of a seated Buddha, flanked by attendants, in a guise reminiscent of Ajanta caves 19 and 26. The elaborate ornamentation of the rock-hewn facade of this cave appears to be a development of earlier caitya hall types, with a central horseshoe-shaped window. The cave opens onto a large court with a pillared corridor along the sides. Caves 11 and 12 are unfinished multistoried excavations, apparently conceived to be pillared halls with central chambers hosting a seated Buddha image. Noteworthy is the third floor of cave 12, a grandiose pillared hall with cells opening on either side in which are carved different types of seated buddhas. A row of seated female deities is sculpted on the back wall of this cave, flanking the entrance to the main Buddha sanctum. It is worth remarking that none of the Buddhist caves was intended to be a monastic residence.

The five Jain caves (30–34), all unfinished, sit isolated on the northern spur of Ellora hill and represent the last phase of patronage at the site. Some excavations appear very complex and elaborate. Cave 30 (also known as Chota [Little] Kailash) imitates on a smaller scale the monolithic structure of the Hindu Kailash cave. The two-storied Indra Sabha cave (32) and the Jagannatha Sabha cave (33) appear rather irregular in plan and are filled with images of Tirthankaras (Ford-crossers) and other Jain subsidiary gods and goddesses.

Pia Brancaccio

See alsoAjanta ; Buddhism in Ancient India ; Elephanta ; Maharashtra


The most detailed description of the caves appears in the authoritative volume The Cave Temples of India by James Fergusson and James Burgess (1880; reprint, Delhi: Oriental Books, 1969). For more interpretative studies see: W. Spink, "Ellora's Earliest Phase," in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Benares 1 (1966); G. Malandra, Unfolding a Mandala (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993); and C. Berkson, Ellora: Concept and Style (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1992).

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Ellora (Elura)

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