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xEurasia Odyssey

Ellora Caves

INDIA | Tuesday, 19 November 2013 | Views [875]

Ellora Caves

The Ellora Cave complex is closer to Aurangabad than the Ajanta complex. The drive past the huge 12th C Deccan fortress of Daulatabad, many Paithani silk weaving and embroidery workshops and Khuldabad, the tomb of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, only took about an hour. Wanting to avoid the problems from the day before, Sanjay dropped me off directly at the ticket office by the entrance to the Jain set at the north end of the complex.  The Ellora Caves do not have the wealth of painting that Ajanta does, but the ca. two kilometer hillside offers three religious groupings that highlight rock cut sculpture, reliefs and architectural genius. The latest ones are the 9th -11th C Jain caves numbered 30-34. The oldest, 6th-8th C are the Buddhist Caves 1-12 in the far southern section, followed by the Hindu 7-9th C tantric Caves 14- 29 in the middle.  

Except for Cave 30, the Jain complex caves seem to flow into each other and I’m sure I’ve mislabeled some of them as Cave 32 when I had probably already slipped into Cave 33, but I’m just not sure where one officially ended and the next one began.  The Jain complex houses some of the most magnificent rock sculpture I have been fortunate to see.  The grace and beauty of the images sends their spiritual message sensually flowing to the viewer.  The multitude of seductive poses in the women and their beckoning the faithful into contemplation of the divine is truly captivating. It is clear to me that the later Khajuraho erotic temple carvings sprang at least in part from this style of rock art.

After gawking at the beauty of the Jain art, I headed back to meet Sanjay for a short drive to the main entrance in front of Cave 16, known as Kailasha.  This is the central “cave” for Hindu pilgrims.  It is actually not a cave but a huge temple complex that has been cut out of the rock.  As with the other caves, at Ajanta, Ellora and at Aurangabad (& for that matter at Dazu and Longmen in China), the caves are not natural, but man-made.  The monks and stonemasons started at the level where they wanted the ceiling to be, then cut away down, back and around to get the architectural and sculptural shapes they desired.  Many of these caves have three leveled structures, and some are over a 100 feet in depth, so there was a lot of digging going on. Some of the caves were left unfinished, presumably because the basalt rock was not strong enough to withstand the pressure, but I also have to wonder if they didn’t have financial problems.  The construction of these caves was costly and not all royal patrons were so generous.  This wasn’t a problem for Cave 16, however, and the royal family made sure their name would live on in perpetuity through their generosity over the 200 years it took to complete. The complex is truly incredible by all measures, and even more remarkable when one realizes it was cut – all of it – from one rock.  After going through a gateway one comes to a courtyard with two guardian over 10 ft. high elephant sculptures on either side of an inner complex, that alone is two stories tall with literally thousands of carvings of gods, goddesses, elephants, lions and peacocks. The inner structure is surrounded by an atrium with images telling stories from the Mahayana and Ramayana.  There are also two tall towers, one on either side of the inner buildings well behind the elephants, with beautiful carvings all the way to the top. The complex is a veritable encyclopedia of Hindu mythology in stone. 

Rather than starting with 16, though, I walked to the end to start at the very beginning.  Each of the caves was fabulous, and I had a hard time deciding which pictures to include in the gallery and which to leave out. All the caves had teaching and meditating Buddhas and Bodhisattvas galore.  The standard pattern seemed to be to have Buddha in the center framed by Vajrapani and Padmapani with Apsaras and Gandharvas flying above and Prajnaparamita somewhere near the frame to the central Buddha figures.  The columns supporting the ceiling have detailed carvings the open up like lotus petals, and have ribbons of primarily female figures like armbands. In Cave 10 there was an amazing chaitya that was reminiscent of the ones at Ajanta, but this one has an upstairs section supposedly for musicians to accompany the monks chanting below.  The floorboards on the upstairs section are lined with female figures in highly seductive poses.  The severity of the chaitya/stupa stands in sharp contrast to the figures on the balcony. 

Caves 11 & 12 were large three storied viharas, each filled with incredible artwork.

Cave 13 separates the Buddhist and Hindu sections and wasn’t open to the public; it seems to be used by the Archeological Survey as a storage facility. 

There were a number of surprises in the Buddhist and Hindu sections, such as in front of Cave 8, where I came across a large relief with a male and female bodhisattva, but the female bodhisattva had a child in her lap.  Next to it was a smaller relief with just the mother and child.  This is proof that the Madonna image was used by the Indian Buddhists in the 7th C and was a real find for me.    Cave 14 was overflowing with images for my research as it had the Hindu Matrikas along the side walls and in the back to the left of the central shrine which had a walkway around it, I found a wall lined with reliefs of goddesses with infants with Ganesha as their guardian, but death next to him as the last statue in the sequence.

Cave 15 is up a fairly long staircase and has a courtyard around an ornate central structure and a two storied sadhus’ residence in the back.  Similar in structure to the Buddhist viharas, this Hindu building has meditation rooms off to the sides of the “prayer halls.”  Rather than a statue of the Buddha in the center of the back wall, there is a large Shiva Lingum.  Nandi, Shiva’s bull, looks down the 125 ft. depth to the Lingum on the second floor.

On the other side of Cave 16 lie the remaining Hindu excavations.  Of them, caves 17 and 21 had the most fascination for me as the images of Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesha were outstanding in the first and the images of Ganga and Yanuma along with those of Shiva and Parvati were amazing in the second. 

It is easy to become severely overwhelmed by the incredible artistry of the work in Ellora and at Ajanta.  It’s like trying to do the Louvre in one day; it just can’t be done. To do these sites justice, one should really plan on studying them over a couple of days and not try to squeeze it all into one day each.  There are tour packages that combine both Ajanta and Ellora in one day.  That would be a nightmare & the only way to do that would be to visit only Cave 16 at Ellora and just a few in Ajanta.  This is fine for those who just want to check a box off a “to do” list of places to see, but for those seriously interested in Indian art and culture, these sites deserve more time and attention.

 After leaving Ellora, I wanted to visit the Aurangabad Caves as I had heard they also had some of the best pieces of Indian rock art.  The site is only 9 kilometers from the city so it is easy to reach, but not many people go there because of the long staircase up to the first set of five caves. I started with the middle cave by accident, Cave 3 and as that was the only one that was marked, have mislabeled the caves in the gallery. Cave 3 was correct, but those labeled Cave 2 are really Cave 4 and Cave 1 is really Cave 5.  There weren’t many people at this site and those that were there were probably local villagers out for a picnic.  I couldn’t find a guide here, even though I wanted one as the second set of two caves, 6 & 7, are supposedly located about a mile away along a “rugged footpath” according a pamphlet I got in Ellora.  I couldn’t find the footpath, so never got to the hidden caves.

I did have an interesting experience at the first set though.  In Asia it is quite common for people to come up and ask to have their picture taken with a foreigner. Sometimes the pictures never seem to stop, as often everyone in a large group wants their picture taken individually and when one group sees the photos being taken the next group wants theirs too and so on. Eventually, though, the personal photos stop and one can get back to the reason one is there.  In Aurangabad, however, there was a new twist to this theme.  I was poked on the shoulder while having trouble with trying to get a decent picture of a very dark relief at the back of one of the caves. When I turned around there were two children, a boy of about 6 and a girl of maybe 10.  The girl said, “Photo.” I said yes, and got ready to pose, but no they didn’t want one of me they wanted me to photograph them, which I dutifully did.  I then asked how I could get the picture to them.  They didn’t want the picture; they just wanted it taken.  I was a bit confused, but thought ok, they are kids and don’t really understand.  Then a few minutes later I was approached by a woman who wanted her picture taken with her daughter in front of the Chaitya in Cave 4 (mislabeled 2).  When I asked her for her email, she didn’t have one. Her older brother was with her and he spoke some English. He said they didn’t have access to a computer, they just wanted their picture taken that was all. So I asked for an address to send where I could send the photographs and was told the sister and daughter didn’t have an address but I could send them to his work if I wanted to. When I got back to the hotel, I asked if I was missing some cultural nuance with people wanting their picture taken but not wanting the picture itself.  The hotel staff was as dumbfounded as I, and explained it as, “Villagers don’t understand.” Whether they can or not, they did provide me with some sweet photographs.

 The last stop of the day was at the Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangzeb’s wife’s mausoleum, which was built by their son in imitation of his grandfather’s Taj Mahal.  Artistically it is a poor imitation of the spectacular original (that really is as amazing as it’s made out to be), but given that a son made it for his mother who had to put up with an ogre of a husband/father/ruler is worth visiting.  The layout is the same as the Taj, but the buildings are smaller and there are no intricate mosaics. Instead there are painted flowers and stucco designs.  The tomb itself has become a place of worship and is used as wishing well.  Rupee notes and coins cover the flags and blankets spread on the tombstone.

There were quite a few local tourists here. Aurangabad is mostly Muslim and there were more women and girls (& mostly young girls/women) in full black niqabs and some black burqas walking around than I’d seen in quite some time. (The niqabs allow the eyes to be seen, while the burqa doesn’t & contrary to many websites that say the burqas are only blue and in Afghanistan, in India they are black.) Given what I saw, it seems that there is a resurgence of conservativism in this region as the older women wore hijabs but not the niqabs. But they haven’t gone to the extent that Saudi Arabia would like its women to; it was heartening to watch a young woman in a full black burqa expertly weaving her motor scooter through traffic. Yet, watching others in colorful saris or black niqabs sitting sidesaddle while holding onto infants was terrifying; in my mind’s eye I could see them both flying off the machine at the first pot hole or sharp turn to avoid a truck.


Aurangabad isn’t a nice city, nor a pretty one; it’s dusty and dirty, but the cave art in the region is second to none.  It makes one wonder what the region was like before cars, trucks, traffic and masses of people.  The 12th C Fort indicates that there was a large population even during the times the caves were created.  I wonder if the monks felt they needed to move to caves in the countryside because the city was too congested. History does, after all, repeat itself.


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