Once upon a time, a group of artisans picked up their chisels and hammers and started working on a high basalt cliff. They started carving from the top and worked to the bottom: chiseling, chipping, shaping, and removing debris. Finally, instead of the high basalt cliff, there stood 34 stunningly carved monasteries and temples collectively known as Ellora caves. The whole project is believed to have taken around 500 years and once it was finished, the pièce de résistance was nothing short of an architectural marvel. Known as the Kailasa Temple, this structure is a freestanding, multi-level chariot-shaped temple complex covering an area twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens. The most astonishing part is that it is completely carved out of a single stone and used the unique ‘cut-in’ technique. It is believed the artists removed three million cubic feet of stone, weighing approximately 200,000 tonnes, to excavate the temple, and the Kailasa temple is indeed an unforgettable sight. Located in Maharashtra in India, Ellora extends more than 2 km, and this UNESCO World Heritage Site is only 100 km away from another set of famous cave temples – Ajanta. Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery cave complexes in the world and it can be combined with Ajanta to make an unforgettable day trip.

Ellora has more than 100 cave shrines

Although there are over 100 caves at Ellora, only 34 of them are accessible to the public. These are 17 Hindu (caves 13–29), 12 Buddhist (caves 1–12), and 5 Jain (caves 30–34) caves. Each religious group represents deities and mythologies prevalent in the 1st millennium CE, as well as monasteries of each respective religion. Even though they have been built, rebuilt, and used over centuries, the close juxtaposition of these religious monuments illustrates the religious harmony that existed in ancient India. The Ellora monuments were all built between 753-982 CE i.e during the rule of the Rashtrakuta dynasty. This royal dynasty was also responsible for building sections of the Hindu and Buddhist caves while the Yadava dynasty (c. 1187–1317) constructed a number of the Jain caves. Interestingly, Ellora just like its neighbour Ajanta was also a part community project. Funding for the construction and decoration of the monuments was provided by the contemporary royals, traders, and other wealthy people of the region. Similarly, just like Ajanta, the Ellora cave temples provided shelter and served as a rest stop for pilgrims, and the site’s location on an ancient South Asian trade route made it an important commercial center in the Deccan region.

A cut-in massive monolithic rock temple at Ellora

I loved my Ellora visit. In fact, I enjoyed it even more than the Ajanta caves. This, however, is not shared by most travellers. After being dazzled by the fantastic combination of the scintillating location and exquisite artwork of Ajanta, most people find Ellora underwhelming. Its plain, close to the main road location reduces the thrill factor and the easy accessibility draws hordes of noisy crowds that can be rather off-putting. Then, the site’s frontal view does not really capture the stupendous architectural marvel of Kailasa Temple and they don’t even get the feeling that they are standing inside the belly of a carved-out basalt mountain until they see it from the top. Then, reality hits them and the magic of Ellora takes over. I was one of these people, who whined and complained constantly about the noise, and the crowd at the Ellora caves until I walked up to the rim of the cliff to look down at the Kailasa Temple. What met my eyes absolutely stunned me and I have often questioned how could these ancient artisans achieve such an amazing architectural feat without the benefit of our modern technology. Looking up at me was a 32-meter-high structure that seemed to have come out of the ground.

The massive monolithic Kailasa Temple

It is believed that this massive monument was first built by digging out a sort of basalt island in the middle of the hill. Kailasa temple was then patiently carved out from this basalt outcrop. That must have indeed taken a lot of centuries of patience and hard work since the complex measures some 164 feet (50 meters) long, 108 feet (33 meters) wide, and 100 feet (30 meters) high and has four levels. Construction of the temple in the 8th century and involved the removal of 150,000 to 200,000 tons of solid rock. Perhaps as a supercilious joke or as a matter of show-off, this monolithic temple, even if not structurally required, has all the architectural details of a block-built temple with bases, beams, columns, capitals, brackets, and pilasters. It contains elaborately carved monoliths and halls with stairs, doorways, windows, and numerous fixed sculptures. Just beyond the entrance, in the main courtyard, there is the statue of Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull staring in the direction of the inner sanctuary. Life-size sculptures of elephants and other animals decorate the walls of the temple, sometimes even at the second-story level. There are also several erotic and voluptuous representations of Hindu divinities and mythological figures along with beautiful relief carvings of scenes from the sacred Hindu texts the Mahabharata and Ramayana. A monumental traditional temple (gopura) was carved on the left side of the temple and the rest of the surrounding walls were carved to create shrines and galleries.

Feeling like being inside a whale’s belly

After so many years, I cannot remember all the minute details of the Ellora caves I visited except for Cave number 10. Its high vaulted ceiling gave me the feeling of being inside a whale’s belly and then there was the magnificent Buddha statue right in the middle of this incredible shrine. He was beautifully carved and is represented seated in a teaching posture underneath a bodhi tree. There’s something so incredibly surreal about finding such intricate carvings inside a stony hill inside which you are yourself standing, that I actually went back to Ellora the next day. I arrived early, spent half a day wandering around in a relatively peaceful stony sanctuary, and quickly left as soon the first gaggle of loud noises came up the stone steps. Ellora is best enjoyed in contemplative silence when soft shadows create wonderful nuances and glimpses of light reveal stunning details. Only then does the 500 years of thousands of artisans’ labour unfold their real magnificence and you come away asking only one question, ”How did they do it?”

Ellora Travel Tips

A brief background

Comprising 34 monasteries and temples, dug side by side in a wall of a high basalt cliff that extends over more than 2 km, Ellora caves represent one of the finest examples of Indian rock-cut architecture. A Unesco World Heritage Site, these caves were built during the 5th to 10th centuries and were devoted to Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain deities. It is believed that the Buddhist caves came first and they were built between the 5th and 8th centuries. These consist mostly of viharas or monasteries, which were large, multi-level buildings carved into the rock face. Viharas included living quarters, sleeping quarters, kitchens, and other rooms. The most famous Buddhist cave is the Vishwakarma cave, popularly known as the ‘Carpenter’s Cave’. The Hindu caves came next. These were constructed between the middle of the 6th century to the end of the 8th century. Their architectural style represents a different style of creative vision and execution skills. The highlight of this set is the monolithic Kailasa Temple. The Jain caves belong to the last phase of construction at Ellora. These caves are smaller but contain some detailed artwork like the beautifully carved pillars of the Indrasabha, the lotus on its ceiling or the exceptional shrine called Chota Kailasa, or the sculptures of Yakshini and Durga.

How To Reach

Ellora is just 30 km away from Aurangabad and the best way to reach there is by bus. Tickets cost approx Rs. 35 per person. Shared jeeps and shared autos are also available. Aurangabad is in Maharashtra and it is well connected with other parts of India by road and train. The city also has an airport and there are one or two daily flights to cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Udaipur. Another alternative is to sign up for a government tour. Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) operates a guided tour to Ellora Caves. It is available every day except Tuesdays. This guided tour follows a fixed route that includes other local attractions like Biwi Ka Maqbara, Daulatbad Fort, and Panchakki (Water Mill). An AC bus leaves from MTDC Resort near Aurangabad Railway Station at 08.30 AM and returns to the same place by 5.30 PM. The total cost of this tour package is Rs. 280 per person. Entry fees to the monuments are not included in this package. My personal recommendation is to do Ellora on a DIY basis.

Timings and Entrance Tickets

Ellora caves are open every day from 9 am to 5 pm except Tuesday. Entrance tickets cost 10 INR for Indian nationals, nationals of SAARC, and BIMSTEC countries. For other foreign nationals, it costs 250 INR. A video camera ticket costs 25 INR.

Where to Stay

The best option is to stay at Aurangabad, where accommodations for all kinds of budgets are easily available. However, there are a few high-end and few budget accommodations available in the immediate vicinity of the Ellora caves.

Both complexes are covered with sculptures and paintings

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