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Posted by Tim on Aug 29, 2010
Exploring the Ellora Caves

One of the things that most excited us about the trip we took to India on our honeymoon was how completely unstructured it was. We had two and a half weeks to explore (not very much time for such a huge country, but enough to see a nice little chunk of it!) and we specifically didn't give ourselves any kind of itinerary while we were there. Our goal was to recreate the sort of spontaneous "where do you want to go today" freedom we had on our trip around the world, and to a great extent we succeeded in doing that.

Our India travels were similar to that trip in another way too: they had an anchor. We'd built our RTW trip around four "anchors" or absolute must-see sights: we wanted to explore the lost city of Machu Picchu in Peru; we wanted to sail among the enchanting Galapagos Islands in Ecuador; we wanted to float over the surreal landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey; and we wanted to seek out the jungle-choked temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Well, since we were trying to re-create that trip in miniature when we traveled to India, we thought it only appropriate that we designate an anchor for ourselves there. After months of brainstorming, researching, and daydreaming, we selected that anchor: the Ellora Caves.

'The Buddhist caves at the southern end of ElloraLocated a bit more than 200 miles northeast of Mumbai, the Ellora Caves are actually a collection of 34 different rock-cut temples, carved out of the stone of the Charanandri hills between 1,000 and 1,400 years ago. They lay in a row one after another along a winding cliffside path about a mile and a half in length, from the oldest Buddhist caves at the southern end to the most recent Jain temples at the north end. In between the two (both in location and age) are the Hindu temples, the mightiest of which is the mind-boggling Kailasa temple (about which more in a moment).

'Inside the cool, dark, quiet recesses of a Buddhist cave-temple at Ellora.So far as I can tell, it seems that sometime during the 7th century a bunch of enterprising Buddhists decided to carve a nice little vihara (monastery) out of the cliffside for themselves.

The resulting cave must have been a hit, because soon enough another one was being carved next door, and then another. Over the course of the next 200 years, the Buddhists carved a dozen of these cave-temples.

The initial viharas were very simple – little more than hand-carved caves dug out of the hillside. As time went along, though, they became more and more elaborate: caves would interconnect with other caves, and they would be multi-level affairs, with stone staircases connecting the floors.

'The magnificent bodhisattva of Cave 10In addition, where the older temples were spartan and bare on the inside, the newer ones began to sport elaborately-carved features and statues. Particularly popular were enormous statues of Buddha and of bodhisattvas ("enlightened beings"), and the most striking example of this can be found in the spectacular Vishwakarma (Cave #10).

Here, the ceiling of the cave has been intricately carved to look like wooden beams. In the center of the cave sits a massive statue of the "teaching Buddha" (standing next to it, we only came up to his knee!), seated before an enormous stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist monument).

Apparently this idea of the Buddhists caught on, because after a century or so some Hindus began carving their own rival temples just down the path. The earliest Hindu temples and the latest Buddhist ones were constructed more or less contemporaneously, and there may well have been a bit of competition going on, because it was during this period that those Buddhist temples suddenly got so much more complex and ornate. But they had nothing on what was coming next.

'The mind-boggling Kailasa Temple, the world's largest monolithic structureKailasa Temple (cave #16) is one of the most astounding things we've ever seen in any of our travels. It is the world's largest monolithic structure, which means it was all carved out of one enormous piece of stone.

Think about that as you read this description and look at these photos: this was all carved out of one piece of stone. Nothing was added afterwards. Every single statue and every elaborate decoration, the entire structure and all of its component parts: all of it is one piece of rock.

'Looking down from atop Kailasa TempleThe work was begun in AD 760, and continued under ten different generations of architects, engineers, and laborers. Working without scaffolding, they began at the top and started carving their way down. Over the course of nearly two centuries, they removed over three million cubic feet of rock and stone.

The results of their labor is a religious shrine that covers twice the area of Greece's Parthenon, and is nearly twice as tall to boot.

'The elephant and obelisk on the north side of the courtyardOn either side of the inner courtyard, to the left and right of the main gate, stands a full-sized stone elephant. A two-story stone building called the Nandi Pavillion is flanked by 60-foot-tall obelisks, decorated with carvings along their entire height. Inside this building is a statue of the bull Nandi, guarding the entrance to the main temple.

Stone bridges connect the second floor of the main gate to the second floor of the Nandi Pavillion, and from there to the second floor of the main temple. The U-shaped courtyard around them is surrounded by a three-story panel of galleries supported by hundreds of enormous stone columns. (These were once also connected to the main temple by their own bridges, but those have long since collapsed.)

'Yes, those people are playing badminton. :)No effort was spared in the ornate (and often vast) decorative elements adorning Kailasa. The main temple itself stands atop the backs of dozens of full-sized elephants, every one them holding a lotus in his trunk. (Or at least, that's the case for the eles who still have trunks.)

Ornate stone panels atop seemingly every surface depict scenes from India's ancient epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The amount of intricate detail in these panels is amazing, particularly since many are set so far up along the temple walls that they're difficult to make out at all.

'A depiction of the demon-king Ravanna shaking Mount KailashSome of these scenes are depicted three-dimensionally with full-size (or far bigger) statues. On the south side of the main temple, for instance, there is a marvelous panel showing a key scene from the Ramayana. In it, the demon-king Ravana has tried to visit Shiva his home atop Mount Kailash (after which Kailasa temple is named). Nandi the bull did not let him in, and an annoyed Ravana decides to show off his strength by going underneath the mountain and shaking it. Shiva responds by nonchalantly pressing on Ravana with his little toe, trapping him under the mountain for a millennium.

The temple of Kailasa is an active, "living" temple, visited by worshiping Hindus every day. The main shrine is a sacred place, so we respectfully took our shoes off and left them outside before tiptoeing in. Inside the quiet, darkened inner chamber, several people were praying to the lingham. This cylindrical icon is the center of the temple, and is considered by Hindus to be a representation of Shiva himself. (Fortunately, Nandi the bull had let us pass, so there was no need to try to shake the mountain in order to enter.)

Because Kailasa is so big, it's difficult to get a sense of the scale of the place while you're inside. Labyrinthine passages snake their way deep into the hillside, unlit and unexplored by most tourists. Whenever we wandered too far off the beaten path, we were greeted by the pungent smell of bat urine. Further along, their high-pitched calls and the fluttering of their wings around our heads was enough to convince us to retreat back out into the light.

To get a better sense of the scale of the place, we broke off the main path after exiting and climbed up the side of the hill, so we could look down upon it from above.

'Jessica stands atop the mighty Kailasa temple

In this photo, Jessica is located in the upper left. Down in the lower right is just the very uppermost rooftop of the tallest tower in Kailasa temple.

It's big.

'The path to the last of the Hindu cavesAfter exploring Kailasa, we spent the next several hours walking among many of the other Ellora caves. We spent so much time exploring them, in fact, that we completely wiped ourselves out and never made it to the Jain caves.

As the Hindu caves (#13-29) followed the Buddhist ones, so too did the Jain follow the Hindu. Jainism is a religion in India notable for its commitment to never harming another living thing. Jains are more than just vegans – the most devout wear white cloths over their mouths, to make sure they don't inadvertently inhale any insects. The more crazed and militant a Jain gets, the more peaceful he gets.

The Jain temples (#30-36) were carved in the years AD 800-1000, and while they aren't as large or impressive as the Hindu temples, the artworks they contain are exceptionally detailed. They are, however, also a half-mile away from all the other temples. After spending five hours or so exploring all of the Buddhist and Hindu caves – in 104º F (40º C) heat, no less – we were beat. And so it was that we decided to turn to Hedgehog Rule #8: "Always leave something for next time."

Because we know without a doubt that one day we'll be returning to Elora. And we will once more pay our respects to Shiva at Kailasa temple, and to Buddha at Vishwakarma temple. And then we will head north, to the Jain temples, to see what it was that we "left for next time."

'Mighty Kailasa Temple, truly one of the most astounding things we've ever seen...

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

How to Get to the Ellora Caves

How to Get to the Ellora Caves

The Walls of Kumbhalgarh

The Walls of Kumbhalgarh

An Unabashed Fan of India

An Unabashed Fan of India

Sunnie
August 30, 2010 at 1:00pm
Holy cow, those caves are AMAZING.
Rhonda
August 30, 2010 at 4:17pm
Wow… love it! Next time we're in India these are definitely on the list!
August 30, 2010 at 9:13pm

Holy cow, those caves are AMAZING.

Yeah, Ellora is definitely one of the most mind-blowing things we've seen anywhere, from any of our travels. :)

August 30, 2010 at 9:15pm

Wow… love it! Next time we're in India these are definitely on the list!

Awesome! Yeah, we definitely recommend them. Also, it's one of those things where it's super easy to go see it as a tour, but so much more rewarding to just grab the local bus out there and spend the day exploring it on your own. :)

Shana
August 30, 2010 at 10:40pm
Wow… speechless, again. Thanks for sharing even a bit of their amazing beauty and vastness.
August 31, 2010 at 9:16am
Aw, shucks, Shana. It was my pleasure. :D
missy(&derick)
September 2, 2010 at 7:11pm
wow, those are pretty impressive! thanks for all those pictures :)
September 3, 2010 at 4:58pm
You guys would love it there! It's like being inside a video game. (I kept expecting to find gold or bullets under every rock!)

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