Ellora, also known by the name of Verul in Marathi (the local language), is a magnificient work of rock-cut cave architecture in India, situated around 30kms from the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Ellora consists of 34 caves representing a cluster of three different religions Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain caves together at one place. Cave no. 1 to 12 are the Buddhist caves, caves no. 13-29 are Hindu caves and caves no. 30 – 34 are Jaina caves. Unlike Ajanta caves, Ellora caves were never forgotten and it remained to be used as a living temple till the modern times and it also found mention in various literatures and writings right from ancient times to the colonial (pre-independence) period. It enjoyed the patronage of various dynasties like the Kalachuri, Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, etc. for around 500 to 700 years. Ellora has witnessed innovations in the sculptural and architectural forms spanning from 5th to 12th century CE. It represents the last stage in the rock-cut cave architecture giving way to the evolution of free standing structural architecture. The most fascinating work at Ellora includes cave no. 16 (Kailasa temple), cave no. 15 (Dasavatara cave), cave no. 10 (Vishvakarma cave), etc. Kailasanath temple is the most magnificent and intricate form of architecture at Ellora which was built from a single rock from top to bottom.
Kailasa temple at Ellora is considered to be most representative monument of the Rashtrakuta dynasty. It was built around the middle of the 8th century CE evident from an inscription of Krishnaraja I (757 – 772 CE). It is one of the largest monolithic structure in the world and it is built out of a single-rock from top to bottom. One of the reason for the vertical excavation finds a mention in a 10th century text ‘Katha Kalpa Taru’. It states that once a king fell ill and his queen prayed for his cure and if her prayers are answered, she will abstain from eating until the erection of a Siva temple and she sees the shikara of the temple. As such, the workers decided to first start carving out the Shikara of the temple and took the top-down approach for the excavation of the temple. However, Kailasa was not build during the reign of a single ruler and many distinct styles existed side by side. The different architectural elements of the temple seem to have taken inspiration from the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, built for a queen of Vikramaditya II Chalukya, and the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram. Many intricate carvings depicting various gods and goddesses along with episodes from the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, make it an incredible example of Indian art and architecture. A legend, from a 10th century text ‘Katha Kalapataru’, mentions that once a king had fallen severely ill for which his queen prayed for his cure and to construct a temple if her wish was granted. She also made a vow that she will not eat anything till the time the shikara of the temple was complete. So one of the architects came up with a plan to construct the temple from top to bottom, so that the shikara of the temple was complete first after which the queen could eat. However, this is just a legend!
Ramayana and Mahabharata Reliefs
Narrative architecture as a form of storytelling started to popularize in ancient India. Most of the south Indian temples practiced depicting narratives and scenes from the epics of India. Similarly, the sabhamandapa of the Kailasanath temple displays not only sculptures of different deities but also the narratives of both the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Ramayana scenes are more elaborate and lengthy as compared to the Mahabharata story. However, Krishnacarita which portrays scenes from the life of lord Krishna have also been added to the Mahabharata panel.
Entrance of the Kailasanath Temple
Gopuram are the entrance gateways having ornamental and decorative designs and usually found in the Dravidian temple architecture. The entrance to the Kailasanath temple consists of a two-storey gopuram. The entrance is rich with carvings depicting Shaivite deities on the right and the Vaishnavite deities on the left of the entrance. Such ornate gopurams can be found in large numbers in the ancient and early medieval temples of south India.
The Dhwajastambhas on the north and south court of the Kailasa temple are noteworthy for their highly stylized and ornamental decorations. The square shaft has a shallow niche in the middle with a deity in the center (probably Visnu) along with a decorative capital at the top. These Sthambas are usually depicted in the space between the gopuram and mandapa or mahamandapa.
Elephant Sculptures in Lower Reliefs
Elephants have always formed a part of mythologies and symbolism in Indian art and architecture. They are also revered as deities, in the form of lord Ganesha, often signifying strength and wisdom. They have been associated with different myths and stories as well. The examples of this being the appearance of a white elephant in the dreams of Maha-Maya, the mother of Buddha, and as a four-tusked elephant in the dreams of Trisala, the mother of Mahavir, the Jain Tirthankara. As such, elephant reliefs are a common feature of the early Buddhist cave architecture. Here, the lower plinth of the Vimana of the Kailasanath temple also shows numerous elephant figures which have been attributed to the Paramara style of architecture.
Gajalakshmi is one of the popular motifs in Indian architecture, where the goddess is seen either seated or standing on a lotus flanked by two elephants on either sides who sprinkle water on the goddess. She is worshipped for wealth and abundance. She is revered by among all the religions, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain and thus forms a part of the sculptural representation in the Kailasanath temple of Ellora. One finds the Gajalakshmi panel in the front just when they enter through the low gopuram of Kailasa temple.
Mandapa in temple architecture refers to the pillared hall which was used for rituals. Initially the mandapa consisted of a small porch which then developed into mahamandapa. These structures are usually constructed in line of the garbhagriha. Siva temples do have a nandi mandapa, mandapa with a nandi (bull) inside it, in some of the ancient Indian temples. The nandi mandapa at Kailasa is intricately carved having Makara symbols on the upper part of the door supported by pillars which have been holded by Yaksha figures.
A Work of Different Craftsmen
Ellora caves have been a witness to architectural innovations experienced over hundreds of years. The patrons, in most cases, preferred to appoint craftsmen from different places and having unique set of skills. These craftsmen acquired skills and knowledge about a particular style which then was implemented to the sites where they migrated to for a living. This is also evident in case of Ellora, where in Kailasa temple we find resemblances of the style followed in both the Kanchipuram temple and the Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal.