The rock cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora near Aurangabad, are testimony of the fascinating ancient art history of India. Declared as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983, the cave monuments in Ajanta are a celebration of Buddhism where as nearby Ellora projects religious harmony. Located about 30kms outside Aurangabad, Ellora is the modified name of ancient Elapura. They stand tall after several centuries of exposure to the vagaries of nature and attract tourists from across the world. The 34 rock cut caves excavated out of the Charanandri Hills containing marvellous sculptures is a fine example of Indian rock architecture patronized by the Rashtrakuta and Kalachuri dynasties between 7th and 12th century AD. Ellora is an expression of the religious harmony of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Progressing from South to North, the 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jain Caves bring Ancient Indian Civilization alive.
It would perhaps require days to see everything. Most people like me would try to juice the maximum from a visit for a few hours. After reading through several sites and blogs, I had zeroed in on a few caves which encompass the spirit of Ellora. The 12 Buddhist Caves were excavated earliest when the Mahayana sect of Buddhism was flourishing. Cave 10 is a Chaitya Hall and popularly known as “Viswakarma” where a beautiful image of Buddha is set on a Stupa. Cave 12 is a 3 storeyed building and is a great example of craftsmanship and architectural skills prevalent during the Rashtrakuta period. It is a marvel that it was manually constructed skillfully to the extent that the floors and ceilings are smooth and leveled. Mehervada (Cave 5) is the largest of them all with low stone benches running through the hall and a shrine of Buddha in the end appearing to be a teaching hall for the monks.
Amongst the caves related to Hinduism, the main draw is Cave 16 better known as Kailashnath. This single rock, multi storeyed cave temple was designed to replicate Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. The temple is heavily influenced by the South Indian style of Rashtrakuta architecture with Gopurams, Dhwajastambhas and Nandi mandap. A lot of white paint which originally covered the temple like the snow laden Mt Kailash is still noticeable. Some of the marvelous sculptures within the temple are that of dancing Nataraja, Shiva Parvati’s wedding and Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva, with his full might. This cave is a celebration of the human genius and is assumed to have taken 100 years to complete. Cave 15 depicting the ten avatars of Vishnu is also known as the Dashavatar Cave. It is an open court with the monolithic mandapa in the centre and a 2 storeyed excavated temples behind. There are large sculptural columns and reliefs on a wide range of themes but the one depicting the death of demon king Hiranyakashyap in the hands of Narasimha (Vishnu in a human-lion) form stands out. Other caves worthy of a visit are Ravan Ki Khai(14), Rameshwara (21), Nilkantha (22) and Dhumar Lena(29).
The 5 Jain Caves (29-34) dated to the 9th and 10th century are not as large as the others but contain very detailed and intricate carvings. The most important caves are Chhota Kailash(30), Indra Sabha(32) and Jagannath Sabha(33).
On the way, about 4 kms away from Ellora, stop by at Grishneswar Temple which is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas where Lord Shiva is worshipped as a pillar of light. It is believed that Shivaji’s grandfather constructed some parts of the temple in 16th century but was later reconstructed to its present shape by Ahilyabai Holkar in 18th century AD.
Nearest City: Aurangabad, which is well connected to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi through road, rail and air
Best Time to Travel: Avoid the summer months when it gets too hot!! Ideally plan and 2-3 day trip for Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad spending time to check out the UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as the local food and culture in Aurangabad which is famous for Paithani Silks, Mashroo Weaves and Bidari work.