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Ellora Caves were declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
The region around Ellora changed hands from the Mauryan Dynasty in the third century BCE to Satavahanas who ruled from present day Paithan until the third century CE. Gautamiputra and Vasisthaputra were two very important rulers of this dynasty who defeated the Kshatrapa rulers in this region. During their reign Buddhism blossomed in this area of Maharashtra. They were followed by Vakataka rulers who made matrimonial alliances with the imperial Gupta Dynasty of the northern India. This was a period of affluence and consequently also of the development of arts in the form of painting, sculpture, music, literature and poetry. It is regarded by many eminent historians as the golden age of Indian history. After the downfall of this dynasty the region came under the influence of Chalukyas of Kalyani. The region of Ellora Caves was the capital of Rastrakuta dynasty rulers in the middle of eighth century CE. This dynasty was founded by Dantidurga. His successor was Krishna I who patronized the construction of the Hindu Kailash Temple the largest monolith sculpted monument in the world. The Yadava dynasty rulers established themselves in this region in 1187 and held vast territories in surrounding areas under the rule Bhillama, Jaitrapala and Singhana. During this period the mighty fort of Deogiri was constructed. Sultan Allauddin Khilji invaded and conquered this fort in 1295. Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq moved his capital in 1327 from Delhi to Deogiri and renamed it Daulatabad for a short period.
Ellora Caves are the most important historical site nearest to Aurangabad and are located about 16 miles north of the city. These caves extend in a north-south direction in the Chamadari Hills. The site lay on an important trade route starting on coast of Arabian Sea at Broach (called Bhrugukachha in ancient times) and passed through Paithan before reaching the site of Ellora caves. After Ellora caves the trade route extended northeast to the famous city of Ujjain in present day Madhya Pradesh. Unlike the Ajanta Caves, the Ellora Caves were never lost and rediscovered. The region was known as Verul in ancient times and Hindu, Jain and Buddhist pilgrims have been flocking to this area throughout its more than 2000 years of existence. Ellora is not only referred to in the contemporary Rashtrakuta inscriptions but has also been mentioned in the travel accounts of many Arab and European travelers.
The Ellora caves were patronized mainly by the Chalukya and the Rashtrakuta Dynasty rulers between the middle of sixth century and the eleventh century CE. The Buddhist caves are the oldest and date from 550 to 750 CE, the Hindu caves were carved out of rock from 600 to 875 CE and the Jain caves were built from 800 to 1000 CE or even later.
The caves are divided into three distinct religious groups. Altogether there are 34 caves.
The Cave number 1 to 12 at the southern end are Buddhist Chaityas (Halls of worship) or Viharas (residential monasteries) and were carved out of the face of an escarpment over a period of nearly 200 years. The sculptors of these caves were influenced by the Tantric Vajrayana or the Thunderbolt philosophy of Buddhism. This school of Buddhism preached that meditation and self-discipline were the best means to achieve Nirwana in contrast to Mahayana that envisaged that the endless grace of Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas would help the devotee to attain the ultimate goal. The Vajrayana philosophy considered the female energy (Shakti) an integral part of Bodhisattvas. The presence of the Buddhist caves at Ellora also proves that the Tantric influence of the earlier Hindu philosophy was not confined to the northeastern regions of India. The caves are numbered from one end to the other and do not represent their chronological order. The cave 1 was a Vihara with eight cells and does not have any sculptural elements at all. The cave 2 is also a Vihara but is elaborately decorated with ornate pillars suggesting Chalukyan architectural influence. The central hall is supported by twelve pillars placed in a square form. The bases of the pillars are also square. There are galleries decorated with rows of seated Buddhas. The Bodhisattva figures guarding the main entrance are of massive proportions. On the left is Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara holding a lotus in his left hand and a rosary in his right hand. On the right is Bodhisattva Maitreya with the body and crown on the head very exquisitely ornamented. This cave has seated and standing sculptures of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and also of Tara, the consort of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara.
The caves 3 and 4 are also Viharas but have not survived the weathering and erosion. They may also be older than cave 2. The hall of cave 5 is extremely impressive because of its large dimensions and its oval shape. Bodhisattvas bedecked with very decorative head gear and exquisite jewelry are carved in the niches on both sides of its entrance. This cave could have served a dual purpose of Vihara and Chaitya hall. The cave 6 is also quite elaborate. It has a central hall, two side oblong halls with cells, an antechamber as well as a shrine. The exterior façade of this architecturally interesting Vihara has disintegrated almost completely. The sculpture in the interior is very impressive. There is a very interesting figure of Tara carved into the left wall. The seated figure of Buddha is in his Jatamukuta or interlocked hair pose. Beautifully carved figures of Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshwara and Vajrapani as well as a standing figure of Mahamayuri, the Buddhist goddess of learning are the attraction in this cave. The cave 7 is simple hall with four plain pillars. The cave 8 has its entrance from the south and this is the only Buddhist cave in Ellora where the main sanctum is separated from the rear wall and there is a circumambulatory path around it. The cave 10 is the most advanced architectural structure and the only Chaitya Hall (for meditation and prayers). This cave has a Stupa carved at the back of the hall and a seated Buddha in the front. Steps lead up to the upper gallery. On either side of the entrance to the inner gallery are recesses with Bodhisattvas and female deities. This is perhaps the most unique Chaitya hall in India and has been referred to as Viswakarma or Sutar Jhopari (carpenter’s workshop). The caves 11 and 12 are also very grand in architecture with various sculptural elements.
The Caves numbers 13 to 29 in the middle area are of Hindu origin. Lord Shiva is reigning deity in all the Brahmanical caves at Ellora. Shiva is represented in Ellora in the popular phallic emblem called Linga as well as in all his other attributes as Mahakala, the manifestation of death; as Mahayogi, the eternal yogi; and as the lord of creation in his Nataraja or the dance pose. The female energy, Shakti in the form of Durga as well as the other two lords in the Hindu trinity, Brahma and Vishnu are also depicted in various sculptural panels suggesting that Shaivites were tolerant of the other religious philosophies within Brahmanism. The oldest Cave in the entire complex is the Dhumar Lena (Cave number 29). The most imposing structure and definitely the main attraction of the entire Ellora group of caves is the Kailash Temple (Cave number 16). It is the world’s largest monolithic sculpted structure. An entire full size temple with giant life size elephants is carved out of a single piece of rock.
The Hindu caves can be sub-divided into four architectural styles. The first style is manifested in caves 14 and 21. It is similar to the Buddhist cave 8 at Ellora and the Buddhist caves 6 and 7 at the Aurangabad Caves. In this style the shrine is a separate entity and has a circumambulatory passage around it.
The second style is best viewed in cave 15. It has a two story excavation that has the shrine in the center of the rear wall. The pillared hall and side walls are divided into distinct sculptural sections while a free standing Mandapa is positioned in the courtyard. This style can be seen in the Buddhist caves 11 and 12.
The third style can be viewed in the last Hindu cave 29. It has more than one entrance and its main hall is in a cruciform shape with the shrine placed away from the rear wall.
The forth and final style is best illustrated by the celebrated Kailash temple where an entire mountain has been carved from its top and an entire building is sculpted out of a single rock as the sculptors work their way down. This is an architectural structure in the reverse order. Instead of starting from the bottom to the top, the entire building is created by carving from top to the bottom. All elements of a Hindu temple are incorporated in the sculpture. It has a Gopuram, the Nandi Mandapa, the main pillared hall and the shrine placed on a raised podium in east-west direction. There were fragments of painting that decorated the walls and ceilings of Kailash temple, the Jain and Buddhist temples suggesting that the art of Ajanta caves in the painting form was continued in Ellora also. Almost all of the paintings in Ellora have disintegrated and very few traces remain.
The Jain section starts from Cave number 30 and ends with the last Cave number 34. These Caves date from ninth to eleventh century CE. Architecturally the Jain caves conform to the Buddhist and Hindu style of caves in Ellora with no stylistic innovations.
The main idols in the Ellora caves in all the three groups are larger than life-size. Ellora has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site and preserved by the Archeological Survey of India.
The Ellora Caves are open from sunrise to sunset. They are closed on Tuesdays. The entry fee for foreigners is Rs. 250 or US$ 5 per person. For children up to 15 years of age the entry is free.
There are no accommodations in the immediate vicinity of Ellora Caves. Most visitors stay in Aurangabad where a large number of hotels in various comfort category are available.
Distance from Ellora Caves in Kilometers and Miles:
Deogiri/Daulatabad: 3 Kilometers or 2 Miles
Aurangabad: 30 Kilometers or 18 Miles