About an hour away from Aurangabad are the Ellora Caves which are made up of 34 monasteries and temples cut into the basalt cliff dating from 600-1000 AD. The caves here demonstrate the religious harmony in ancient India where 12 Buddhist caves (500-750AD), 17 Hindu caves (600-870AD), and 5 Jain caves (800-1000AD) were created side by side. Unlike the Ajanta Caves, the Ellora Caves were never lost to oblivion because of their close proximity to the trade route. Work began at Ellora around the same time that the Ajanta Caves were abandoned. It coincided with a time in India when Buddhism was on the decline and Hinduism on the rise. Like the Ajanta Caves, the planning and precision in creating these structures from a single piece of rock are simply awe inspiring!
The most well known structure here at Ellora is the Kailasa temple which is the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world. It is carved in the shape of a chariot and dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva. The structure covers an area twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens. It is believed that construction of the Kailasa temple began around 756 AD and took over 100 years to complete by the removal of 250,000 tons of rock. The temple represents Mount Kailash which is the abode of Lord Shiva and was originally covered in white plaster to make it look like a snowy mountain.
From the Hindu caves, the Jain caves are a short bus ride from the main gates. They are not large compared to the other caves but elaborately decorated. The main Jain cave temple (Cave 32), dedicated to Mahavira and other Jain deities, is highly decorated with intricate carvings and sculptures. The 2-storey cave is created by carving and decorating the upper level first before continuing below.
In contrast to the Hindu and Jain caves, the Buddhist cave temples here at Ellora are less elaborately decorated. All the Buddhist caves except one are monasteries. The Vishvakarma Cave, also known as the Carpenter’s Cave, is the most famous of the Buddhist Caves at Ellora. It has a cathedral like hall with beautiful beams carved to look like wood and a large seated Buddha in front of the stupa.
The Ajanta and Ellora Caves were definitely my favorite stops on this journey in South India. I am actually surprised that there were very few foreign tourists and even the local visitors were mostly students on school trips. The guide said that these caves have not been publicized much by the Indian tourism department where their main focus so far has been in the Rajasthan area in the north. It is a pity that not more people know about this amazing place but I am selfishly pleased that for the most part I had the place all to myself :)
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