On a two-kilometer tract, along the basaltic rock of the Deccan Trap in Maharashtra, lie some of the finest works of art to have come out of ancient India, the Ellora caves. Located 30 km away from the historical city of Aurangabad, the Ellora caves are a collection of 34 striking rock-cut caves built between 600 CE and 1000 CE under the patronage of the Kalachuri, Rashtrakuta and Yadava dynasties. There are 5 Jain caves, 12 Buddhist caves, and 17 Hindu caves standing side by side, thereby encapsulating the ethos of religious harmony that is ingrained in the culture of India. The Ellora Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that must be on your list of best places to visit in India.
To the south of the Ellora Caves complex lie the Buddhist caves, numbered 1-12, built between 600 and 730 CE. While Cave 6 was the first Buddhist cave that came into existence, caves 11 and 12 were constructed at the very end of the period. The caves are viharas (monasteries) and stupas (shrines) that are adorned with striking carvings of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas (a person on his way to becoming a Buddhist and attaining enlightenment). The fascinating cave, however, is Cave 10 or the Vishvakarma Cave. It is also known as the Carpenter’s Cave, as the incredible finishing of the rock gives the appearance of the wooden beam! The Vishvakarma cave was the Buddhists’ dedicated prayer house at the Ellora Caves. The elaborate cave has a portico, eight cells and a massive prayer hall with a 15-feet long Buddha statue in the preaching pose.
The Hindu caves at the Ellora Caves numbered 13-29, were built over two periods- 550-600 CE and 730-950 CE. The Hindu caves built in the earlier phase were dedicated to Lord Shiva and also had mythology concerning other gods inscribed into their walls. A particularly famous inscription is that on the mandapa of Cave 15, done by the Rashtrakuta King Dantidurga stating that he had prayed at that temple. A characteristic feature of the Shiva temples was the lingam-yoni (lingam symbolises phallus of Shiva, yoni symbolises womb of Shakti, the Supreme Divine Mother) occupying pride of place at the centre of every shrine. Of all the Hindu temples that are there at the Ellora Caves, the one that stands out due to sheer artistic brilliance is the Kailasa Temple or Cave 16.
I am not at all exaggerating when I say that if I had to make you visit only three monuments in the whole of India, the Kailasa Temple would be right up there in my list along with the Taj Mahal and the Ajanta Caves. I can guarantee you have never witnessed something quite like the Kailasa Temple. It is an architectural marvel and the largest monolithic structure (carved out of a single piece of rock) in the world! The entire temple measures 164 ft in length, 108 ft in width, and 100 ft in height. The construction of this 8th-century wonder required the removal of solid rock weighing 200,000 tonnes, and it is the only temple at the Ellora Caves that was excavated downwards! One look at the Kailasa Temple and you will straight away know that all that hard work was worth it.
The walls of the temple are decorated with ornate carvings of different mythological figures, gods and goddesses, life-size sculptures of animals, erotic representations of men and women in the throes of passion. A part of the temple walls even has the two Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, depicted through miniature carvings! The temple has carved monoliths, doorways, stairs leading to the intricately carved sanctum that houses the lingam-yoni. The Kailasa Temple is truly an artistic spectacle and a technological exploit that will remain etched in your mind even long after your visit.
I’ll suggest getting yourself a guide while exploring the Kailasa Temple. Once you understand the enormity of the happenings that have been quite simply illustrated on the walls of the temple, you will realize its true value.
The 5 Jain caves, numbered 30-34, were built between 730 and 950 CE. These caves belonged to the Digambara sect of Jainism and exhibit carvings depicting the then-mythological sensibilities of the Jains. The caves, located on the northern side of the cave complex, comprise architectural features such as pillared verandahs and mandapas (temple porch). Cave 32 is embellished with beautiful carvings of flowers along with other ornate elements. Take special note of Cave 30, also known as Chota Kailasa. It houses two colossal statues of Lord Indra, one with 8 arms and the other with 12 arms, in dancing poses.
The Ellora Caves are a one-hour drive away from the city of Aurangabad via National Highway 52. The simplest thing to do is to hire a car that will drop you off and again pick you from the entrance of the cave complex. The Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MRSTC) provides guided bus tours to the caves. The buses depart from Aurangabad’s Central Bus Stand and also cover the tourist attractions en route. Alternatively, there are state-run buses that ply on the same route regularly. The caves remain open for visitors from 7 AM to 6 PM all week long except on Mondays.
The Ellora Caves exemplify the spirit of religious harmony and co-existence, something that is the need of the hour. And the best part is that the message is conveyed in the language of art! It is one of the best places to visit not just in Maharashtra but also in the whole of India. So, don’t idle away. Head to India as soon as you can and experience the stupendous Ellora Caves in all their glory.
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