I have a habit of not looking up information of a new place I’m going to visit. This might be very well due to lethargy, but it does give me the capacity to experience the new location with a clean mind, without any bias or expectation. It was no different in this visit too; when I first got to know that we are visiting Ellora caves I had half-expected dark dingy passages but never had I dreamt that temples could be carved out of mountains!! This is precisely what the Rashtrakutas have done at Ellora, carved temples out of Charanandri hills! Rashtrakutas in their 250 years of rule have built 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jain caves. The most popular of them has been the ‘monolithic’ Kailasanath Temple, more on it later.
Rashtrakutas: I didn’t know much about this empire other than the fact that this was the first empire which had promoted Kannada literature. What I hadnt been aware was the extent to which the empire extended in its peak – the empire held in its sway regions spanning from River Cauvery right upto Kanauj near the Gangetic plains. As the name indicates (Rashtra + Kuta – collection of Rashtra, states) the Empire was more of a collection of separate feudataries having allegiance to a single powerful ruler. Rashtrakuta had its centre at Manyakheta (present day Gulbarga, Karnataka). The tolerance of the empire towards all religions (prevalent) is clearly indicated by the temples dedicated to different religions at Ellora.
This visit to Ellora caves has been short, understandably, as I visited this place with a large party – 5 other friends. And a person interested in architecture photography (like me) is not pleasant company in any travel group. But then, what I saw in the limited 2-3 hours has convinced me that I will come to this place again with the exclusive puporse of photography with at least 2-3 days to spare.
We could visit two caves; the first of them was the most famous Kailasanath Temple – Cave 16.
This temple is a monolith in the true sense. The builders had to just carve the temple out from a hill side, no need of transporting stone or other materials. Sounds simple, right? Actually no! The fact that you are going to carve the top floor before even conceptualizing the ground floor should require some kind of imagination and planning! The temple has been carved top to bottom and front to back and has taken several generations of work and planning. The rock texture and color being the same as the surrounding mountain the temple hardly stands out on first glance, but as you enter the place the sculptures combined with the architectural genius is sure to evoke awe.
A passage carved out of the mountain on the Temple’s rear. This passage is lined with beautiful sculptures of different deities and prominent figures. The temple sides have two levels of these passages.
Elephant heads on the temple’s rear. Right above the Elephant heads is the structure that houses the large Shiva linga. The large animals supporting the structure symbolize the importance given to animal world in those times. This style of using elephants head I last saw in the Akshardham temple complex in Delhi and those are more than 1000 years newer in construction!
Sculpture of Lord Narasimha (avatar of Lord Vishnu) putting to death Hiranya-Kashyapu, the demon king. The sculpture’s surface bares the different layers of the Earth. I’m no Geologist but the the rocks at Ellora seem mostly of the Igneous variety.
Lord Shiva. Everything from the expression on the face to the stance and position of limbs gives out subtle characterstics which the sculptor wanted to portray. In this case the depiction might portray Lord Shiva to be supremely confident but at the same time gentle by the manner in which he has extended his hand to his wife. Again, notice the gradient in rock texture.
Disclaimer: I’m presenting just an interpretation, I might well be wrong.
The right foot is crushing evil (people) and upholding justice. A person in dancing pose seems to depict promotion of dance and arts. Second right hand with trishul resting on Elephants head. Third Right hand with ‘Damruga’, shiva’s small percusion instrument (used while he dances). Second left hand holding a begging bowl, might represent humility. First left hand caressing the cheek of a seated lady might reprsent the importance of family values. There might be other interpretations and better ones at that.
From here we visited another cave (cave number I forget). The entrace was carved like a tunnel from the hill side. Inside there are openings both on the left and right, so practically light enters from three directions but the hallway is big enough to be dark which makes it quite challenging for photography.
The sanctum was adorned by 20 feet long sculptures on all sides. As all sanctums in India, here too there was a passage way to circumnavigate. The ceiling of the rear passage way due to lack of light was filled with Bats, and the floor with Bat droppings. I had no intention to agitate the bats by flashing my camera and quitely passed beneath them, but I did notice that this part of the cave was being distinctly avoided by other tourists, I soon realized why – I saw a Bat dropping fall quite close to me, thankfully missing me.