Ellora (also spelled Ellura and known as Elpura in ancient times) is a holy site in Maharashtra, central India. The Ellora Caves are listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and are celebrated for their Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples and monuments, which were carved from the local rock in the 6th to 8th centuries CE. The most spectacular example is the 8th-century Kailas Temple, 32 meters high, the largest rock-cut monument in the world.
Situated in the Sahyadri Hills near Aurangabad, Ellora is the most important second-wave site of ancient rock-cut architecture in India. There are 35 caves and rock-cut temples on the western side of a hill made of volcanic basalt rock built during the reign of the Kalachuri dynasty in the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
The oldest cave, Hindu Rameshwar (number 21), dates back to the 6th century AD. Early Hindu temples typically had an inner sanctum (garbhagriha), a circular corridor for worshipers to walk through, vestibules with double porticos, and high-relief friezes depicting scenes from the sacred texts of the Puranas. . There is extensive decoration through carving. The exterior of Cave 21 houses the god of the river, a Nandi statue at the entrance, and a giant dancing Shiva, surrounded by both musicians and Durga, who is slaying the demon king of buffaloes. Other points of interest are the use of couple figures for the relief of the brackets (salabhanjika) as well as figures of elephants and mithuns (lovers).
The Dhumar Leena Cave (No. 29) seems to imitate the famous Elephanta Cave which suggests a connection between Ellora and the Kalachuris. The figure brackets of Cave 21 are additional evidence of a cultural link between the two sites.
The Ravana-ka-Khai cave (number 14) was probably dedicated to a Hindu goddess. It has a wide walkway and a pillared hall that leads to the inner sanctum. The inner walls are decorated with five relief panels, separated by ornate pilasters, and show images of Shiva and Vishnu.
The Kailasa Temple (Structure No. 16) is one of the most spectacular monuments in the world and the largest rock-cut structure anywhere. Built by Krishna I of the Rashtrakuta dynasty (r. 756–773 CE) to celebrate his victory over the Pallavas, it added to the grandeur of Ellora, which was made the capital after his victory by Krishna’s predecessor, Dantidurga. The rival Chalukyas in c. 753 AD Kailasa is the northernmost example of the Southern Dravidian temple style and is similar to the Kailasanatha at Kanchipuram. It is a Panchayatan or Five Tirtha Temple.
As its name suggests (the name of Shiva’s mythical abode in the Himalayas) the temple was dedicated to Shiva, and in fact, he may have tried to replicate his palace on earth. That this was the intention of the architect is supported by the carved scene of Ravana trapped under the Shiva mountain at the bottom of the temple. An additional mountain effect is achieved by the entire temple being located on a high platform, which worshipers must climb up two monumental steps.
The temple was built from a sloping basalt hill by two massive excavations, each 90 meters long and 53 meters long joined with a connecting moat. The temple was then carved out of the remaining central part. This resulted in a 32 meter high structure that appears to have protruded out of the ground. The temple consists of a three-storey vimana (tower) with an octagonal dome and two huge free-standing pillars (dhwajastambh) towards the mandapa entrance hall, with 16 pillars in groups of four. Towards the inner sanctum there is also the usual Nandi temple with the sacred bull calf of Shiva. Temples, even if they are not structurally necessary, have all the architectural details of a real, block-built temple, with bases, beams, pillars, capitals, brackets and pillars.
Shiva is depicted in sculptural additions such as his trident and the sacred cow Nandi, which are carved on two huge pillars, and a huge linga (phallus) was stored in the inner sanctum. Throughout the temple there are groups of elephants and lions along with scenes from the sacred Hindu texts Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The copper plate contemporary with the construction of the temple gives this impressive detail:
A temple on the hill of Elapura… of a marvelous structure, – seeing which the best immortals, driving in divine cars, are in awe, constantly thinking, ‘This temple of Shiva himself exists; Such beauty is not to be seen in an object created by art, a temple, the architect-builder of which, as a result of the failure of his energies in relation to another such work, himself suddenly was astonished, saying, ” Oh, how was it I made it.”‘ (Harley, 181)
To the left of the temple, a monumental gateway (gopura) was carved and the rest of the walls were carved to form temples and galleries. There are two more temples just a short distance away from Kailash, though on a much smaller scale. It has the Indra Sabha with its Gopuras and the Jagannath Sabha; Both are Jain temples and were the last structures to be built at ancient Ellora.
The Buddhist caves are among the largest excavated anywhere and were built later than the Hindu caves, probably between the 7th and 8th centuries CE. Their layouts are more complex and the capitals in the colonies are either vase and leaves or chamfered cushion types. Cave 5 is particularly grand and unusually deep. It has 17 chambers and a large rectangular hall with two rows of 10 pillars, between which are two rows of stone benches. Their work remains a mystery beyond speculation that monks had gathered there for some sort of assembly.
The interior decoration of these caves displays various forms of Buddha and figures of several bodhisattvas, some of which are early examples, for example Tara. Several inner sanctums are surrounded by a bodhisattva figure. There are examples of Hindu influence in the depiction of the four-armed figures, the first such carving in Cave 8 yet to be discovered.
The cave is the most ornate of the 12 Buddhist caves while the Vishwakarma cave (number 10) has the largest Buddha statue. The latter cave was probably cut in c. 650 CE and, after a large open court space, presents an extremely impressive aspect on two levels. The ground floor has a four-pillared façade while the top has a large central chaitya window verandah. On either side of this window, which leads to an internal barrel-vaulted gallery, is a deep and richly carved niche and relief panels. Finally, the Dashavatara cave (number 15) is of interest as it contains the only significant ancient inscription, in this case, describing the visit of a local ruler Rashtrakuta Dantidurga between c. 730 and 755 CE.