Story and pictures by Kishanie S. Fernando
Ellora presents a breathtaking spectrum of images commencing with Buddhist art, passing through the Brahmanical phase and ending with the Jain faith. It has been described as one of India’s most magnificent sculptural sites, carved with Buddhist, Hindu, Jain monasteries, chaityas and temples within a two km long escarpment of gently sloping Deccan rock.
Moreover Ellora is an eloquent testimony to a crystallization of a unique harmony of ancient India’s three main faiths - Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
Our friendly guide informed us that the 34 temples and caves hallowed out of the Charanadari hills were situated on the ancient north- south trade route or the dakshinapatha. It was a well- known stopover for traders, priests and pilgrims who plied the route to the western ports. Some of these wayfarers decided to make their presence permanent and excavation started on a number of Buddhist chaityas and viharas. With time the place found favour with missionaries of other faiths as well, and Hindus and Jains also built their temples in the rocks there. The Buddhist group of caves (550-750 AD) is believed to be the oldest of these caves at Ellora.
The Hindu caves compared
The Hindu caves cannot be compared with the Buddhist caves. The 17 Hindu temples have been built as abodes for their gods and goddesses. The Kailasa Temple is the undisputable masterpiece of Ellora. (These caves were focused on last Sunday 17th June on this page)
We were advised to spend the first half of the day amongst the Hindu caves exploring its cavalcade of Gods and Goddesses, fully experiencing the drama and dynamic energy distinguishing the Hindu group of temples.
Southwards of the Hindu group are the 12 Buddhist caves which are designed to serve as assembly halls and monasteries to monks thus radiating a tranquility inviting for calm contemplation. All of the Buddhist caves are monasteries except cave No 10.
Thus we spent the second half of the day exploring the Buddhist and Jain caves.
An unforgettable experience
Cave 10 or the Vishvakarma cave is named so indicating its popularity among the artisans whose patron deity is Vishwakarma. It is the only Chaitya amongst the Buddhist caves and is recognized as one of the finest in India. Some scholars are of the opinion that the apsidal chaitya form first seen at Ajanta evolved fully here. The small decorative circular window in the façade of the upper level, set off by beautiful groupings of flying figures, illuminate an enormous image of a seated Buddha inside. The typically vaulted ceiling is supported by the ribs carved into the ceiling in imitation of wooden beams. A balcony at an upper level gives you a closer view of the ceiling. The hunting scenes and the decorative work on the pillar capitals are exceptional.
The semi dark atmosphere inside this cave almost glowed with a strange warmth and gentle compassion that suddenly vibrated and reverberated with our guide intoning a series of gentle ‘Aums’. A chant so pleasing almost mesmerizing that once heard you will never forget. We could only wonder at the mood and atmosphere that a hundreds chanting monks may have created in those ancient days.
A cave with a buried basement
Cave 11 was known for a long time as Do Thal (two stories) to distinguish it from the next cave which was called Tin Thal (three stories). However this cave was subsequently discovered to be three storeyed with the discovery of a basement which had been buried by several centuries of earth.
A veritable Buddhist Pantheon
Cave 12 or Tin Thal (three stories) is enormous and its walls are carved with relief pictures and filled with sculptures. Rows of Buddha’s meditating and preaching and manifesting different attributes, a sculpture of the Buddha turning the Wheel of Law flanked by two naga figures. a row of seven Manushi Buddhas – the enlightened One in human forms, the seven Dhyani Buddhas, various manifestations of the Bodhisattvas Maitreya and Manjusiri as well as different forms of the Buddhist Goddess Tara are portrayed here. This cave has been described as “a veritable Buddhist pantheon”. The cave is entered through a courtyard with its main shrine on the upper floor containing a large seated Buddha.
Salvation through renunciation
The Jain Caves of Ellora
About 1 km north of the last Hindu temple are the 5 Jain caves which has been constructed as the final phase at Ellora. Unlike the Hindu and the Buddhist temples they are less ambitious in size and sculpture but sometimes will surprise you with exceptional ornamentation and detail.
The pillars in these temples are weighed down with intricately carved decorative themes and at times adorned with stunningly delicate filigree work.
Jainism is as old as Buddhism. A Jain is said to be one who has conquered temptation, weakness, overcome ignorance and vanquished all passions. The doctrine of Jainism having achieved its climax in the teachings of Lord Mahavira who was preceded by 23 other Tirthankaras (Jain masters- enlightened individuals teaching the path of salvation). At Ellora most of the Jain Tirthankaras are depicted without any garments and with their arms stretched downwards signifying renunciation. Each Tirthankara is depicted with a distinct symbol with which he is associated. The first Tirthankara Adinath has vrishahh (the bull), Neminath is associated with the shankh (the conch shell), Prashvanath with the snake and Mahavira the lion. They are accompanied by retinues of demigods. Also included are popular Hindu Gods and goddesses like Ganesha and Lakshmi.
Incomplete but interesting
Cave 30 or Chhota Kailash or Little Kailasa, constructed in an attempt to imitate the great Kailasa Temple seemed to be incomplete. However there are many attractive carvings on the walls and images of seated Tirthankaras (Jain masters). On either side of the arch over the main gate way are the idols of Parshvanath and Gommateshvara the Jain saints. Inside are images of the Tirthankaras and of Mahavira on his Lion throne. The portico is supported by decorated pillars. This cave stands a little away from the rest of the Jain temples.
The best of the Jain caves
Cave 32 or the Indra sabha or the assembly hall of Indra, is two storeyed and comprises a miniature Dravidian style temple. The doorway opens onto a courtyard and the temple itself is a large edifice richly decorated attained by a high flight of steps. The three-sides of the central quadrangle are carved over to produce a two-storeyed façade containing a series of shrines to the many Jain Tirthankaras. Inside the shrine is a seated figure of Mahavira, the 24th and the last Tirthankara and founder of the Jain religion. Some images of Hindu Gods like Indra are also to be seen. It is a beautiful shrine with exquisite carvings of a lotus flower on the ceiling. Traces of paintings can still be seen on the ceiling. Other exquisite carvings include Ambika seated on her lion under a mango tree laden with fruit and Matanga riding his elephant.
The last caves
Cave 31 looks more like an extension of cave 32. Cave 33 the Jagannath Sabbha is also similar to cave 32. The final temple is cave 34. On the hilltop over the Jain temples a 5 m high image of the Parasnath looks down on Ellora.
End of the day
At the end of the Jain caves and at the end of that day we could understand what the Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand meant when he said that sensibility and imagination are interchangeable here as individuals and symbols. Fantasy is not escape but liberation.
It had been an extremely tiring day. However every minute had contributed towards an enriching experience spanning over 5 centuries of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain thinking, expressed through a profusion of sculptures of remarkable imagination and detail.