Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Around the World: Ellora Caves

February 7, 1992

The bus trip to Ellora is the most enjoyable yet.  I have the company of seven other backpackers, all of us sharing our experiences of India and cracking jokes about the likely injuries we will suffer from this bus in particular.  The road, if you can call it that, is only safely passable at a slow speed or we risk being launched into the bush by one of the bumps and craters along the way.

The caves at Ellora are magnificent.  The builders abandoned the Ajanta caves and began construction at the Ellora site around 550 AD.  It is believed that Hinduism was reasserting itself in India before the Buddhist caves were completed.  Construction on the Jain caves began when the local rulers switched allegiance from Shaivism (Hinduism devoted to Shiva) to the Digambara sect of Jainism, and were the last to be completed.  There are a total of 34 caves at Ellora, spread over 2 km.

The Ellora Caves, Maharashtra

All of the caves were cut out of the Charanandri hillside, chiseling away the rock starting with the roof and working towards the bottom. The amount of detail and planning required to create the Ellora caves is truly remarkable, considering that there would be no possibility of adding supports or details if things didn't go as planned.

Buddhist caves:

With the exception of cave 10, all of the 12 Buddhist caves are viharas (monasteries).  Constructed between 600 - 800 AD, the caves document Buddhism's decline in India, and some are adorned with a distinct Hindu influence.

Buddhist cave 6 includes a figure thought to be
Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning or her
Buddhist equivalent, Mahamayuri.

There is a curious stillness around the site, a peaceful and centering sort of calm that I find quite pleasant.

Sculptures in a Buddhist cave Photo by Diana Criswell

Carpenter's Cave (number 10) is the only chaitya (temple) in the Buddhist group of caves.  Five people stayed behind from their tour group to enjoy the cave's acoustic advantages, singing acapella renditions of hymns I recognize, but cannot name.  The rich, five part harmony combined with the cave's natural echo produced a sound that doesn't do justice to describe it as beautiful. 

Buddhists worship at Cave 10 (Carpenter's Cave)
Photo by Sacred Destinations

Hindu caves:

There are 17 Hindu caves, completed around 900 AD, and are by far the most spectacular, both in size and detail. 

The jewel of the Ellora site  is cave number 16.  The Kailasa temple is a representation of Shiva's Himalayan home. The enormous temple (265ft long x 154ft wide) covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and is the height of an 11 story building.

The Kailasa Temple
Photo by Cepolina

Over 200,000 tons of rock were removed to created the Kailasa temple.  There are several finely chiseled story panels, like this one of Lord Shiva, unimpressed with the demon king, Ravana, who picked up Shiva's mountain home in a demonstration of strength.  Shiva simply stepped on the mountain, pressing it down and Ravana back into place.

Detailed panels adorn the Kailasa temple. 
Photo courtesy TravelBlog

Jain Temples:

Construction started around 800 AD on the five Jain temples and was completed by 1000 AD.  What these temples lack in size against the enormous Hindu temples, they make up for in intricate details. 

Cave 32, (Jain), "The Assembly Hall of Indra"

Inside Cave 32, what remains of the lotus flower painted on the ceiling when it was completed is still visible a thousand years later. 

Mahavira, the last of the great Jain teachers
and founder of the Jain religion.

One of the backpackers from the bus, Uwe, from Vienna, joined Alain and I for dinner.  Uwe and Alain will continue their journey south towards Madras, while I am bound for Varanasi in the morning.

• ¤ •

History is a symphony of echoes heard and unheard.  
It is a poem with events as verses.
~Charles Angoff