The Magnificence of Ellora Caves – UNESCO World Heritage
Professor Kanak Baran Barua
Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery temple caves complex in the world, and a
UNESCO World Heritage Site in Maharashtra, India. The site reveals monuments and artwork of
Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism from the 600 – 1000 CE period.
Location of Ellora Caves in India:
The site features over 100 caves, of which 34 caves are open to public. These were
excavated out of the vertical basalt cliff in the Charanandri hills. These consists of 12 Buddhist
(Caves 1-12), 17 Hindu (Caves 13-29) and 5 Jain (Caves 30-34) caves. Each group presents the
respective deities and mythologies prevalent in 1st millennium CE, as well as the monasteries of
that religion. They were built in proximity and illustrate the religious harmony prevalent in
ancient India. All Ellora monuments were built during Hindu dynasties, such as the Rashtrakuta
dynasty, who built some of the Hindu & Buddhist group of caves, and Yadab dynasty who built
some of the Hindu & Buddhist group of caves, and Yadab dynasty who built some of the Jain
group of caves.
Ellora was an important historic commercial center of the Deccan region, located on an
ancient trade route of South Asia. The caves served as monasteries for monks, temples for
prayers and a place for pilgrims to rest, but now is an archaeological site. It is 29 kilometres (190
miles) East-Northeast from Mumbai. Ellora caves, along with the nearby Ajanta caves, form one
of the major tourist attractions in Marathwada region of Maharashtra.
Ellora, also called Verul or Elura, is the short form of the ancient name Elapura, the latter
found in ancient references such as the Baroda inscription of 812 CE which describes the
magnificence of the Kailasha temple (Cave 16) at “Elapura.” In the India tradition, each cave is
named and has a suffix Guha, Lenaor Leni (Marathi), which means caves.
Starting with the colonial British era scholarship on Ellora caves, the overlapping styles
of art work between the Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina Caves have led to many different Chronology
proposals, with no consensus. The disagreements have broadly been two fold. One is being
whether Buddhist or Hindu caves were carved first, and the second scholarly disagreement being
the relative dating of caves within a specific tradition. The broad consensus that has emerged is
based on comparing the style and content of artwork at the Ellora caves to other ancient & early
medieval era cave temples in the Deccan region that have been dated, textual records of various
dynasties, and by including epigraphical evidence such as inscription found at various
archaeological sites near Ellora and elsewhere in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh & Karnataka.
These studies suggest, state Geri Hockfield Malandra & other scholars, that the Ellora caves and
three chronologically important building periods: an early Hindu period (550 t 600 CE), a
Buddhist phase (600-730 CE), a later Hindu and Jain phase (730 to 950 CE).
The earliest Ellora caves may have been built during the rule of the Hindu dynasties of Vakataka
and Traikutakas. However, it is more likely that some of the earliest Ellora caves, such as cave
29 (Hindu), were built by the Shiva-inspired Kalachuri Hindu dynasty, while the Buddhist caves
were built by the Chalukya Hindu dynasty.
The Buddhist monuments: Caves 1 -12
Cave no. 11 (above) & 12 are three storey monasteries cut out of a rock, with Vajrayana
These caves are located on the Southern side of the Ellora cave collection, & were built
between 600 – 730 CE. It was initially thought that the Buddhist caves were the earliest
structures that were created between the 5th & 8th centuries, with caves 1-5 in the first phase (400
– 600) & 6-12 in the later phase (650 – 750).
The earliest Buddhist cave is cave 6, chronologically followed 5, 2, 3, 5 (right wing), 4,
7, 8, 10 & 9. Caves 11 and 12, also called the Do Thal and Tin Thal respectively, were the last.
All the Buddhist caves were constructed between (630 – 700).
Plan of Cave no. 5 (Mahawara Cave):
Eleven out of twelve Buddhist caves consists of Viharas, or monasteries with prayer halls,
large, multi-storeyed buildings carved into the mountain face, including living quarters, sleeping
quarters, kitchens, & other rooms. The monastery caves have shrines including carvings of
Gautama Buddha, bodhisattvas and saints. In some of these caves, sculptors have endeavored to
give the stone the look of wood.
Caves 5, 10, 11 and 12 are architecturally important Buddhist caves. Cave 5 is unique
because it is designed as a hall with two parallel refectory benches in the center with a Buddha
statue in the rear. Cave 5 of Ellora and Cave 11 of the Kanheri caves are only two such Buddhist
caves in India. Cave 10 is called the Visvakarma Cave, a major Buddhist prayer hall. Amongst
other Buddhist caves, all of the first nine (Caves 1-9) are monasteries.
Numerous tantric Buddhist goddesses are carved in Ellora Cave 12. Caves 11 & 12 are
three storied Mahayana monastery cave with idols, mandalas carved into the walls, & numerous
goddesses & Bodhisattvas-related artwork belonging to the Vajrayana Buddhism. These are
compelling evidence to suggest that Vajrayana & Tantra ideas of Buddhism were well established
in South Asia by the 8th Century CE.
The Vishvakarma Cave:
Most famous of the Buddhist caves is cave 10, as worship hall called the “Vishvakarma
Cave”. It is also known as the “Carpenter’s Cave”, because the artistic finish gives the rock an
appearence of wooden beams. Beyond its multistoried entry is a cathedral-like Stupa hall also
known as Chaitya-griha (prayer hall). At the heart of this cave is a 15 foot statue of Buddha
seated in a preaching pose. It was likely built around 650 CE.
A part of the Carpenter’s cave (Buddhist Cave 10):
Cave 10 combines a Vihara with a Chapel-like worship hall with eight subsidiary cells,
four in the back wall and four in the right wall. It had a portico in the front with a cell. It is the
only dedicated Chaitya griha amongst the Buddhist group of Ellora Caves. It follows the pattern
of construction of caves 19 and 26 of Ajanta, features a Chandrashala & a side connection to
cave 9 of Ellora.
The main hall of the Visvakarma cave is apsidal on plan & is divided into a central nave
& side aisles by 28 octagonal columns with plain bracket capitals. In the apsidal end of the
Chaitya hall is a stupa on the face of which a colossal high seated Buddha in Vyakhyana Mudra
(teaching mudra). A large Bodhi tree is carved at his back. The hall has a vaulted roof in which
ribs have been carved in the rock imitations the wooden ones.
Fig: Interior View of Cave-10
The friezes above the pillars are Naga queens & the extensive relief artwork shows
characters as entertainers, dancers & musicians. The front of the prayer hall is a rock cut court,
which is entered through a flight of steps. The triple entrance of the cave has a dramatic facade is
well carved with Indian motifs such as apsaras & meditating monks. Upstairs, on either side are
pillared porticos with small rooms in their back halls. The pillared Verandah of the Chaitya has a
small shrine at either end and a single cell in the far end of the back wall. The corridor columns
have massive square-shaped shafts and ghata pallava (Vase & foliage) capitals. The various
levels of cave 10 feature, in addition to the large Buddha idol, the male and female deity idols,
carved in the Pala dynasty style found in eastern regions of India, such as those of Maitreya,
Tara, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Bharkuti & Mahamayuri, some with four or six arms. The
artwork also shows the influence Southern Indian style.
Several inscriptions at Ellora range from 6th century onwards. The best known of them is
an inscription of Rashtrakuta Dantidurga (C. 753-57 A.D) on the back wall of the front mandapa
of Cave 15, which mentions that be offered prayers at this temple. Jaina Cave Jagannatha Sabha
has 3 inscriptions that give the names of monks and donors. A Parshvanath temple on the hill has
an 11th century inscriptions that gives the name of the donor from Vardhanapura.
The Kaitasa & other Rastrakuta Caves were not, however, the first Brahmanical
excavations at Ellora. Cave excavation began in the late 6th Century; one of its earliest caves
dedicated to the worship of Shiva, & most similar to the great temple at Elephanta. So when
Buddhist teachers, practitioners & patrons moved to Ellora around 600, they were locating their
worship at a Brahmanical site, a tirtha “on the rise”. And, somewhat later, during the late seventh
& early 8th centuries when the Rastrakuta connection to the changes in Buddhism expressed at
Ellora. Similarly dramatic changes in China & Japan, initiated with the support of royal houses
concerned about expansion & stability, suggest such a connections. Moreover, this was the time
frame in which Islamic merchants and armies were just beginning to expand the systems in
which goods & ideas circulated in Asia, & that included the continuous movement of monks
back and forth to India from China & Southeast Asia to study & teach new esoteric texts &
The juxtaposition of Buddhist & Saiva (late Jain) shrines shows that Ellora’s space was
considered sacred in more than a Brahmanical context.
But, despite its later fame & the weighty evidence of the Buddhist caves themselves, we
have no direct evidence to identify patrons or teachers. Unlike many earlier cave temple sites,
where donative inscriptions in situ help locate them fairly precisely in time and dynastic
affiliation, Ellora’s Buddhist caves are anonymous. It has appeared to be, therefore, lacking
historical, religious, & historiographic importance. It has been treated as marginal & derivative,
as “the end of the line” by most art and religious historians, who have typically looked to eastern
India to explain changes in style, iconography, & sectarian affiliation that we can observe in
other parts of the subcontinent. This is connected to the even broader tendency many historians
have had to see decline & deterioration in the religion, art, & politics of late classical & early
medieval India. Such work as Wink’s Al-Hind & Inden’s Imagining India are helpful counters to
that attitude, offering fresh explorations of the economic/cultural/political & ritual context of
religious monuments & objects.
At Ellora, we see the culmination of a millennium-long tradition of rock-cut Buddhist
architecture in India. At the start of the 12 cave Buddhist sequence around 600 C.E. style,
iconography, derive in part from other nearby sites. But, by the end of the sequence, around 730
C.E. more is different than similar.
Techniques, stylistics, thematic & iconographic idioms were in place to be applied them;
the new idioms were introduced in a “traditional” style. And, finally, in its last Buddhist temples,
new style and iconography appear, spanning different cultural zones. The traditional rock cut
environment was shaped-in places unevenly, experimentally, incompletely, to house a new kind
of sect & practice, with as many connections outside, as inside the region. And looking outward,
Ellora’s meaning can be placed in a network extending from the Buddhist caves within a
Brahmanical tirtha, to other early esoteric sites in central India, to the wider range of places
connected by monks & traders traveling through the Buddhist world system of the 8th Century
Ellora’s Buddhist temples followed patterns used for centuries in the Western caves, the
typical layout including a caitya & several other excavations that served as worship, study, or
residence halls. The earliest at Ellora is worth noting briefly, to highlight continuities and
changes even in the early 600s, & to anticipate what was to happen a century later.
If we “fast forward” to look at Ellora’s latest Buddhist cave, it will be apparent how much
had changed in a century. Cave 12 is a three-level excavation, everything excavated on a larger
scale than in Cave 6. One approaches through a thick screen wall across a large, bright forecourt.
A shallow stairway leads up through two entrance pillars into a dark mandapa filled with pillars
& lined with small, empty cells. On the left rear wall of the mandapa is the first of the cave 12
eight bodhisattvas relief mandalas. Two others were carved in the cell that leads to the stairway
up to the second level; & two more are carved on either side of a Buddha image in a subshrine
between the first & second floor; making a total of five relief mandalas in cave 12. The
bodhisattva identics are similar in all, as is the Central, dhyanamudra Buddha image. They
appear to be:
Maitreya (nagakesara) Samantabhadra (Sword) Kstigarbha (Kalpadruma)
Avalokitesvara Buddha Vajrapani (Vajra)
Akasagarbha (bug/jewel) Manjusri (book)
Cave 12 Relief Mandala
Moving toward the shrine on the first floor, panels depicting dhyanamudra buddhas were
carved on the first floor, panels depicting dhyanamudra Buddhas were carved in large riches on
both walls of the six-pillared antechamber. Outside the shrine door, seated images of Maitreya &
Manjusree were carved to the left & right, respectively. Inside the shrine, an image of Tara was
carved to the left the door; to the right of the door in an image of Cunda. On the left & right
walls of the shrine are carved eight bodhisattvas, all seated in Lalitasana. Carved on the back
wall, the main shrine image is a Dharmacakramudra Buddha attended by two nagas.
Ellora’s “Text Evaluation:
Looking in overview at the relief mandalas while their locations suggest that they were
not part of the original programs of the cave, their content-eight differentiated bodhisattvas
surrounding a dhyanamudra Buddha image – connects them directly to the bodhisattva
programme in the cave 12 shirnes. The Kernel of the concept was there from the beginning, but
the content changed quite dramatically over the century and a quarter of Buddhist activity.
Carved in shallow relief, they were also “unfolded” into the three-dimensional space of the cave
shrines in which groupings of eight bodhisattvas frame the central buddha image: the “top” row
becomes the left shrine wall, the “bottom” row the right wall, and the “center” row in the rear
wall, containing the main shrine image. The Central shrine images should also contain important
informations. As do two of the three key shrine images in Cave 12, shrine images of the second
floor of cave 11, and many of the small “intrusive” images in the two latest covers depict the
Buddha holding his right hand in bhumiparsamudra. It is commonly viewed as the emblem of
Sakyamuni. This gesture has layers of meaning, but on the most basic level, it symbolizes the
event of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which took place at Bodhgaya. It appears that Ellora’s
creators did not want to leave this interpretation in doubt: many of the main shrine images in
caves 11 & 12 include sculptures of Bhudevi and Aparajita, rising from the earth in front of the
Throne’ Bhudevi attesting to the Buddha’s integrity as the faced Mara’s attack; Aparajita
trampling on the back of a male figure, representative of the “evil beings” she slaps into
submission with a hand raised in capetamudra. These images condense the lesson to be learned
about the power of enlightenment & of the Buddha himself. They are unique and strikingly early
at Ellora. Similar, although later, images have been found in eastern India, including Bodhgaya
itself, and Ratanagiri in Orissa.
Buddhist Ellora thus exemplified the attitude expressed in the later medieval period by a
Maharashtrian saint who advised, “stay in Maharstra because every place worth going to is
there.” Transformations & interactions of geography, politics & religion combined to create
powerful regional tirtha, part of a universal sacred system to which architecture, sculpture &
religions practice refer. The patrons & teachers responsible for this extraordinary transformation
of the site must have been thinking in what we might call transregional terms; terms in which
most historians & art historians have not viewed it.
It gives us a glimpse, still difficult to interpret, of the expression of one such system in a
very early form. Among these and many other places, Ellora apears to reflect esoteric Buddhism
on the cusp of Change, at a relatively early point. If it was geographically peripheral from the
point of view of the great University at Nalanda, it was central in that it more than “Kept up with
the times”. We might even say, in aspiring to be the “Bodhgaya of the south” it erased, in sense,
the geographic and sectarian boundaries that separated them.
How far do these selective comparisons get us in understanding who was responsible for
what happened at Ellora? Although the mandala is a clear link throughout Ellora’s Buddhist
development, its content had changed radically by the end of the 7th century. The teachings
represented in Cave 12 are not the same as in the earlier caves. And, the new ideas were carved
in a new style. So, new teacher/teachings, new artisans. Where did they come from? Taking
iconographic discussions as primary evidence, the answer would appear more likely to be Orissa
than eastern India, or a place that sent teachers to Orissa and the Deccan certainly, legends about
esoteric teachers who reportedly came from, or preached in the Deccan, suggest but cannot prove
this scenario. This was, after all, during the time when teachers like subhakarasimha and
Vajrabodhi were active in India & then in China. One way to imagine how this outstanding
sculptures created is in the context of the pre-imperial “opening” of the Deccan in which the
early Rastrakutas appear to have been engaged. The regional and national references in the
iconographic ambience at Ellora are not, then simply evidence of a dynastic change.
A “cutting edge” (if now, anonymous) teacher would have been recruited to Ellora, or a
local monk could have been sent out to study with such a person, linking this region to the
growing international network of esoteric teachers & sites. If the ambitions Rastrakuta leader
took a more personal interest in these developments then cave 12 and its mandala might indeed
have been as central to the official activities of this new empire, as the movements of monks
supported by emperors were to the North & East in Java, China & Japan. This analogy suggests
that, just as Kukai built on already existing juxtapositions of beliefs, in support of Buddhism and
the Heian Empire, so we might imagine Buddhism at Ellora as a century old traditions
blossomed for the advent of new cogitations in support of a newly broad-thinking dynasty.
Ellora’s “Kukai” may well have gone out to seek them, returning, as Kukai himself did, to create
an original, local synthesis of new and old concepts & practices.
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