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Ellora

Ellora is only 30-odd km from Aurangabad, and that’s where we headed first. We reached, checked-in to the one and only hotel, Kailash, bathed, breakfasted and were at the caves by 9.30.

The entry to the caves (a 2-minute walk from our hotel) was right in front of cave 16, the grandest and most well known, dubbed the Kailasha temple. We decided to keep this for later in the day, and headed for Cave 1, thence to proceed in orderly fashion towards Cave 34, some 3 km away. Determined to take our time over the caves, we found that it was lunch time all too soon and we hadn’t even reached halfway.

Caves 1-12 are Buddhist caves. Some of them are very plain, but a few of them are quite ornate. The last two, 11 and 12, are three-storeyed, with very wide and deep halls. Cave 10 is a deep and high cave with a vaulted ceiling, dominated by a huge sculpture of Buddha in the central aisle. At one point in the afternoon, a group of Japanese tourists – or pilgrims – were kneeling and chanting a prayer in this chaitya hall. Their low, deep tones resounded sonorously among the pillars and bounced off the ribs of the domed ceiling, filling the cave with rich vibrations. Outside, an attendant held a sheet of reflecting material, directing the rays of the sun on to the massive face and head of the Buddha, making it shimmer and glow with a mysterious aura.

At last, we moved on to the Brahminical caves, 13 through 30. Cave 15 was memorable for the long, exhausting flight of steps that led to the front door. It was highly decorated with carvings inside, a worthy precursor to 16, though in no sense a rival to the magnificence and splendour of that most fantastic of caves, Kailasha.

When we entered Kailasha, I could hardly believe my eyes. From the outside, though it looks wonderful, one could never guess what lies behind its sculpted doorway. Inside, it is hardly possible to remember that you are technically in a man-made cave, cut out of the hill. For all practical purposes, it looks just like a temple that has been built by putting stones and pillars together in the usual way. But Kailasha is actually a monolithic sculpture, the entire temple having been carved out of a single chunk of rock that has been separated from the parent hill by means of a deep horseshoe-shaped trench. At the front, the two wings of the hill are joined by a sculpted bridge which houses the entrance to the temple. Inside, there is a pillared gallery cut into the rock, running around three sides of the central structure. Various sculptures, mainly Vishnu, adorn the niches in this gallery. In the courtyard are two finely carved pillars and a large elephant sculpture. The main temple is on the first floor of the central building, carved out of the orphaned rock. Behind the temple is an open verandah facing the sheer rock wall. In front is a pavilion housing a Nandi sculpture and beyond that the bridge over the entrance that extends to the hill on each side.

I could have spent half a day just admiring this masterpiece alone, but we were driven out by the crowds. At length we emerged, reluctantly, and wandered around, finding our way to the path that leads uphill around the Kailasha excavation. From here you can get some unusual views of the temple and a better perspective of its setting in the hill and in the distant countryside.

We continued on the path over the hill, going away from the Buddhist caves, and in due course found ourselves passing over another bunch of caves. We scrambled down and discovered that we were near cave 21. I was too tired to do much but sit outside and enjoy the fading sunlight that played sublimely on the rock faces of these caves. It was quiet here, away from the main tourist attraction, Kailasha. We would have ventured on, but when we started down the path around 6 pm, we were sternly turned back by a zealous guard. Time to go home.

Ellora (being west-facing) shines its best in the afternoon light. So the next morning we decided to pay a quick visit to the fort at Daulatabad and return to Ellora later.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.