Exploring Ellora – A Confluence of Three Religions (Part 2 – Buddhist and Brahmanical Excavations)

The great temple named Aladra [Ellora], where Indians come on pilgrimage from the farthest regions. The temple has an entire city dedicated to its support and it is surrounded by thousands of cells where devotees consecrated to the worship of the idol dwell.

– Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Mas’udi (Arab Historian)

It’s evident from the famous Arab scholar Al-Mas’udi’s (A.D. 896 – 956) notes that Ellora has been a place of worship since it’s beginning – not just for one religion. But, for three religions – Jainism, Buddhism, and Brahmanism. I had written about the Jain excavations in a separate post. In this post, I will attempt to go through the Buddhist and Brahmanical excavations.

The Brahmanical Might

Cave No. 16: The mighty Kailasa
Cave No. 16: The mighty Kailasa

The entrance to the Ellora caves leads straight to an architectural wonder called ‘Kailasa’. I was dumbfounded by the magnificence of temple’s huge monolithic rock-cut structure. Rock cut style was typical of Indian architecture during that period. It means that the mountain is chipped off top to bottom layer-by-layer until the outer structure is excavated. And, it’s scooped out from outside to inside to create the interiors. Kailasa is so large and intricate that it’s hard to believe that it’s constructed by humans using handheld chisels by carving the mountain for more than 200 years (There is even a theory that argues that the technology behind Kailasa is alien).

Cave no. 16: Kailasa - Rang Mahal
Cave no. 16: Kailasa – Rang Mahal

The temple was built during the golden period of Rastrakuta dynasty who ruled a large part of south, west and central India during the period of 8th to 10th century. The two pillars and elephants in the courtyard located at either side of the main temple symbolizes the Rastrakuta’s supremacy.

The main shrine hosts a Shiva Linga in the chamber. It’s called Rang Mahal (painted palace), since after the stone work, it was painted. At the front of the main shrine, there is a temple hosting Nandi the bull, who is the vehicle of Shiva.

Cave No. 16: The Pillar of Victory
Cave No. 16: The Pillar of Victory
Cave No. 16: A sculpture in the Hallway surrounding the main temple
Cave No. 16: A sculpture in the Hallway surrounding the main temple

There are hallways on the three sides surrounding the temple. These hallways are  carved in mountain and are supported with many rectangular columns. There are beautiful images etched in stone wall whole through the hallways.

Another major attraction is the many stone made elephant heads which are carved on the three sides of the temple wall as if the poor animals are holding the structure on their backs.

Cave No. 16: 'Elephants' holding up the temple
Cave No. 16: ‘Elephants’ holding up the temple

Apart from these, there are many sculptures on the outer wall of the temple, which portray various Hindu mythological figures and scenes.

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In order to enjoy the full view of Kailasa from the top, we climbed the surrounding rock from the left side and got down through the right. At this side, there is a walkway going up the hill, into the jungle. Following this path, we found some relief from the heat in the form of a small stream of water. After the refreshing break, we began exploring the other Brahmanical excavations. A couple of the most notable ones are cave no 14 and 15.

Cave No.14: Ravan ki Khai
Cave No.14: Ravan ki Khai

Cave no. 14 is known as “Ravan ki Khai” because of a sculpture of Ravana shaking Kailasa, which is a common theme at Ellora. This cave also features Avatars of Hindu god Vishnu. Cave no. 15 is another large temple which is a double storied building with a rock-cut gateway and a raised square hall in the courtyard called Natya Mandapa. This hall contains an inscription of Dantidurga (A.D. 735 – 756)a Rastrakuta ruler. This cave is locally known as “Dasavatara Cave” because of the sculptures portraying various Avatars of Vishnu.

Cave No. 15: An Avatar of Vishnu called Varaha
Cave No. 15: An Avatar of Vishnu called Varaha
Cave No. 15: Upper floor: Nandi the bull, facing Shiva Linga in the chamber
Cave No. 15: Upper floor: Nandi the bull, facing Shiva Linga in the chamber

Along with the portrayals of Vishnu, the temple also features sculptures related to Shaivism and a Shiva Linga in the chamber located in the upper hall, along with a Nandi figure on the other end.

These caves mark the popularization of an important movement in the history of Hindu religion, named Advaita. The movement was founded by Adi Shankaracharya (A.D. 788-820) who sought to combine the two large sects of Hinduism called Shaivism (Following Hindu god Shiva) and Vaishnavism (Following Hindu god Vishnu). The movement resulted in Hinduism emerging as the largest religion, weakening Buddhism and Jainism in the process.

Transformation of Buddhism

Buddhist cave temples of Ellora give a picture of transformation of Buddhism over a period of 200 years.  Between the earliest cave, dating back to 600 A.D and the latest one dating back to around 750 A.D, a vast difference can be seen. The earliest caves exhibit relatively simple and traditional Buddhist architectural style. Whereas, the latest ones display complex structure as if they are trying to match the rich Brahmanical architecture.

Cave No. 5: Buddhist monastery, dating back to the 7th century.
Cave No. 5: Buddhist monastery, dating back to the 7th century.

One of the earliest excavations is cave number 5, which is a traditional Buddhist monastery . It was constructed during the 7th century. Featuring a large hall with two side chapels and an antechamber, this monastery is considered to be used as an assembly hall for monks. I remember seeing a similar monastery in Kanheri caves, situated in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. Kanheri caves were constructed over a period of 1st century BC to 10th century A.D.

Cave no.10: Chaitya griha
Cave no.10: Chaitya Griha

Another notable cave constructed in the 7th century is cave no. 10. This cave is the only Chaitya Griha (prayer hall) at Ellora. It has a Stupa on which a beautiful effigy of preaching Buddha is carved. The hall is very spacious and contains ornate sculptural work. The cave is a two-storeyed building with the upper floor containing a music gallery opening towards the prayer hall.

Cave 12 : Avalokitesvara, Tara, Bhrikuti and other Bodhisattvas
Cave 12 : Avalokitesvara, Tara, Bhrikuti and other Bodhisattvas

Ellora caves were inspired by the popular sect of Buddhism called the ‘Mahayana’. One of the hallmarks of Mahayana traditional art is the repeated images of Bodhisattvas. In  Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is anyone who has generated a spontaneous wish to be like Buddha for the benefit of all the sentient beings. A cave famous for its “Eight Bodhisattva Mandal” is cave no. 12., known as ‘teen taal’.

Cave No. 12: Eight Bodhisattvas surrounding Buddha
Cave No. 12: Eight Bodhisattvas surrounding Buddha
Cave no. 12: Teen Taal
Cave no. 12: Teen Taal

Teen taal, a massive  three tier building, is the result of an attempt to match the Brahmanical architectural size. This transformation of Ellora’s Buddhist architecture from simple to large size structure over a period of 100 years can be attributed to the patronage of Rastrakuta dynasty. Rastrakutas where known for their tolerance towards multiple religions. Hence, the later, complex Buddhist temples may have been constructed under their patronage.  Rastrakuta’s period also marks the spread of Advaita movement, which enabled the Brahmanical religion to absorb other minor beliefs and expand rapidly to become the modern Hindu religion. As a consequence, Buddhism, one of the greatest religions at that time, began to decline in the land of its origin.

Note for Travellers

Ellora is situated at around 350 kms from Mumbai. The nearest city is Aurangabad, which is reachable by rail, road or air. Ellora is just 28 kms away from Aurangabad. There are regular buses running from Aurangabad to Ellora.

Aurangabad itself is a historically important city. Known as the city of gates, it features 52 gates built by various rulers. “Bibi ka Makhbara” – popular as the “mini Taj Mahal” – the memorial of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s wife, is also situated in this city.

The road to Ellora passes beneath the famous Daulatabad fort. Daulatabad was made the capital of India for a brief period during the Tughlaq dynasty, under Muhammad bin Tughluq.

Only around 2 kms away from the Ellora caves, stands Ghrushneshwar temple of Hindu god Shiva, which hosts one of the 12 Jyotirlingas. This temple is visited by pilgrims from all over India.

The Ajanta caves are located at around 100 kms from Ellora.


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