Exploring Ellora – A Confluence of Three Religions (Part 1 – Jain Excavations)

Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.
– Winston Churchill

A testimonial to the great artistic and religious tradition made timeless by an exquisite display of sculptures, paintings and architectural prowess – Ellora still stands as a treasure chest for artisans the world over. A total of 34 cave temples and monasteries stretching over 2 kms exhibits the passion and creativity of the great minds of our ancestors that built the basis of the modern society that we live in.

Unlike many other architectural sites, Ellora contains excavations which belong to three of the great religious movements that the subcontinent has witnessed – Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. In this post, I will be talking about the Jain excavations. i.e., caves no 30-34. Belonging to the 9th and 10th centuries, these caves are located at the northern end of the stretch. One of these caves demand special mention due to its elegant architecture and sculptures.

Cave no 32 – ‘Indra Sabha’

Courtyard of Indra Sabha

This cave temple is mistakenly named Indra Sabha (court of Indra) after the Hindu king of gods Indra. In fact, the temple features many sculptures of Jain deity Matanga, who is generally portrayed as sitting over an elephant (Similar to Indra portrayed in Hindu sculptures).

A panel of Tirthankaras – Indra Sabha

Indra Sabha is arguably the most ‘complete’ among the Jain excavations. There is a standalone temple in the courtyard along with a monolithic elephant and a monolithic flag post on either side. Surrounding this building, there is a two tier structure carved on the rocky hill. This structure contains multiple halls on each storey. The walls are engraved with sculptures depicting stories of Jain Tirthankaras (ascetics who have achieved liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). The halls contain chapels which hold the portrait of lord Mahavira, who was the last of the 24 Tirthankaras.

This temple belongs to the Digambara sect of Jainism. The monks of this sect do not wear cloths and practice extremely ascetic lifestyle.

Stories engraved on walls

There are many stories that are depicted on these walls. A prominent one is that of Bahubali, son of Rishabha, the first Tirthankara. Bahubali renounced all worldly pleasures due to a dispute with his brother Bharata. He mediated without moving for an year in Kayotsarga posture. Vines started crawling up his body. But he continued to meditate in the same posture. However, the thought that he was standing on the piece of land ruled by Bharata troubled him.

Bahubali with his sisters – Indra Sabha

 His sisters Brahmi and Surabhi approached a Tirthankara called Adinath to express their concern. Adinath told them that Bahubali cannot achieve the ultimate enlightenment since he was standing on an ‘elephant’. When the sisters approached Bahubali and told him “O brother, at least get down from the elephant now”, he realized that he was standing on the ‘elephant’ called pride and ego. He then shed his pride and ego to achieve ‘Moksha’ (liberation) and became a Tirthankara.

Weakening of Jainism – Cave no 30: Chotta Kailash

Chotta Kailash (small Kailash) is a cave temple which signifies the weakening of Jainism because of the uprising of Hindu ideology. Though a Jain temple, it contains many sculptures of Hindu god Mahashiva and goddesses Parvati and Saraswati. Thus the name ‘Chotta Kailash’ (Kailash is considered to be the abode of Mahashiva)

Chotta Kailash
Shiva in Nataraja posture – Chotta Kailash

The chapel inside the temple holds an effigy of Jain lord Mahavira. But, some of the portraits on the outer walls belong to Hindu mythology. For example, there is a familiar figure of lord Shiva in ‘Nataraja’ posture (Dancing posture of Shiva).

This is a true reflection of how the various ideologies clashed at an intellectual level. Which is what philosophers and artists might call a golden age.

This is precisely what makes Ellora unique. It’s a site of great significance in Indian history and culture. Next time when I go to Ellora, I will cover both Buddhist and Hindu excavations which will give a wholesome perspective of how these religions coexisted for a long time, influenced each other, and inspired the great artisans of that golden era.


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