Ellora and Ajanta

Incredible hillsides carved from bedrock, two thousand years ago.

Step back two thousand years, and find yourself a mountainside of solid volcanic rock: black basalt, solidified lava.  Working top down and outside in, carve yourself a freestanding three-story temple using only hand tools.  As you go, include exquisite carvings, rooms, pillars, and life-size elephants. Coat the sculpture with plaster and paint detailed scenes from Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain mythology.  Really?  Read on.

Ellora: WOW! an entire Hindu temple carved out of the mountainside, top down and outside in.

Really!  Ellora caves is a series of 34 caves constructed from the fifth to the tenth century A.D.  At Ajanta, 100km to the northeast, there are 30 caves constructed from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. and from 400 A.D. to 600 A.D.  They are located in the plains of western Maharastra, which I describe in my prior blog entry.  Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites because of their artistic and cultural significance.

Ellora: remember, this temple is all carved from one rock; not erected.

On Saturday we visited Ellora caves [see photos and location]. Although the highlight is the incredible Hindu temple pictured above, which is not really a cave but a temple carved from the mountainside, the earlier Buddhist caves and later Jain caves and temples are also amazing; the Buddhist caves include both Chaityas (shrines) and Viharas (monasteries).  We hired a guide at the entrance, and he was worth every Rupee.  He has been a professional government guide for 35 years, speaks English very well, knows every detail of the caves, and describes them with incredible richness.  (He also speaks French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, not to mention Hindi and other languages of India.)  Ellora remained active for over a thousand years, with new caves added perhaps as late as 1200 or 1300 A.D.  After the Mughals moved into northern India, these caves were no longer maintained; locals lived in them or stabled their livestock in them.  The paintings disappeared. My photos only show a few of the caves and only hint at the incredible sculpture.  The caves are largely unlit, and my flash photography can only give one a sense of what it’s like to be there.  The centerpiece, described by one guidebook as “the most wonderful monument ever crated by mankind on earth”, is the Kailasa temple (pictured above, but see photo album for a better look).

Ellora: from the back looking forward; temple at left, rock face and gallery at right.

The Ellora rocks are rich in minerals and crystals, a real highlight for the kids.  The kids found, simply laying on the gravel pathway, numerous pieces of malachite and quartz.  Hawkers at the entrance had beautiful collections of crystals and mineral specimens.  We bought several nice pieces and spent only a few dollars.

Andy looks for crystals and rocks at Ellora caves.

On Sunday we visited the Ajanta caves [see photos, including the panoramic video; map location].  These Buddhist caves were developed earlier, though overlap some with the earliest Ellora caves.  Both sites were on the ancient silk route, and the caves were a product of the wealth extracted by local monarchs from the silk traders. When the rein of the Vakatakas ended, their patronage ended and work stopped rather abruptly at Ajanta; there are several half-finished caves. [The trade routes shifted south, and cave-development began at Ellora.] The Ajanta caves were then lost to history for another 1,200 years.  In 1819 a British Army officer stumbled on them while out hunting.  As a result of their long isolation, they are much better preserved.  Many of the paintings, some dating back before Christ, still survive.  Flash photography is not permitted at Ajanta, but I was able to capture a rough sense of the grandeur and detail in these paintings. 

Ajanta: the caves are cut into the cliffside of this river gorge.

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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