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World Heritage Site - Ellora Caves

Ellora Caves also known as "Verul Leni" is an arhaeological site 29 km north west of the city of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, built by the Rashtrakuta dynasty (Brahmanical & Budhist group of caves) and Yadav (Jain group of caves). Ellora Caves are World Heritage site, really impressive rock cut temples & monasteries. There are 34 caves, structures excavated out of the vertical face of the hills There are 12 Mahayana Buddhist caves (caves 1-12), 17 Hindu caves (caves 13-29) and 5 caves of the Jain Faith (caves 30-34), 22 more caves, dedicated to Lord Shiva, were recently discovered. The Ellora Caves are not only a unique artistic creation but also with its sanctuaries devoted to Budhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India.
The central attraction at Ellora is Kailash Temple (cave 16), is the most remarkable. Shaped by hand from a single massive rock, it includes a gateway, exhibition area, square, hall, hut, sanctorum and tower which bear testimony to the excellence of Dravidian art. It is believed to have taken 7000 laborers, working in continuous shifts and 150 years to build. Ever since the first European visitors in 18th Century, Ellora has attracted chroniclers, antiquarians, scholars and in more recent years, ever-increasing number of tourists.

Rashtrakuta dynasty ruled in large part of contemporary India in the 6th – 10th centuries. These powerful clans had excellent internal organisation and managed to keep control over the vast area with sure hand, wisdom and also skilled use of religion as the organising institute for society. In these times Central India experienced gradual shift from Buddhism to Hinduism, at the end of this period Jainism became more widespread. These religions rather peacefully co-existed in Central India and Ellora Caves serve as one of the best examples for this. Ellora, especially the gloriousKailasanatha Temple is the highest architectural attainment throughout the rich history of art during the time of this dynasty.
First caves in Ellora were created shortly after the previous royal shrines of this region – Ajanta Caves – were abandoned. In many aspects Ellora Caves continue the tendencies originating in Ajanta, but there are numerous influences from other regions of India and new trends in art represented in Ellora.
The first group of shrines were created by Buddhists of Mahayana branch. These are caves numbered from 1 to 12 and were built in 630 – 700 AD (some sources state that in 400 – 800 AD).
Next group was created when the influence of Buddhism vaned and Hinduism gradually became the mainstream religion. In fact some of Ellora Hinduist shrines are older than some Buddhist caves. Local rulers were more supportive to Shaivism – a trend of Hinduism devoted to Shiva – thus also Ellora got exquisite shrines devoted to Shiva. These caves are numbered 13 – 29 and built in 550 – 780 AD (other sources state that in 600 – 900 AD).
Last group of shrines was created in times when local rulers were more inclined towards Jain religion, Digambara branch. Jain caves form a distinct group, numbered from 30 to 34, created sometimes around 800 – 1000 AD.
Cave temples hewn in rock were considered to be the best possibility to go away from the reality of the material world and meditate close to the heart of the mountain. But these caves were not an another reality hidden away from the mundane world – they formed a part of political ambitions of the people of influence, they served as intellectual and arts centre of Central India.
Contrary to Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves did not recede in oblivion, they were admired by people throughout the history up to this day. Nowadays this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Maharashtra state and one of the older UNESCO World Heritage monuments.

Buddhist Caves
All the Buddhist caves were carved in the period 6th – 7th centuries CE. These structures consist mostly of ‘viharas’ or monasteries. Some of these monastery caves have shrines including carvings of Gautama Buddha and ‘bodhisattvas’.
Of these, Cave 5 is one of the most important and unique caves in India and can be dated to mid-6th century CE. It consists of a long hall with two benches running for over 18 meters in the centre. This cave was most probably used for group recitation of various Buddhist sutras. Further, Cave 10 is popularly known as Vishvakarma’s (the architect of gods) cave because of its intricate carvings. There is a huge Buddha image placed in front of the ‘stupa’ covering the base and the drum part of the stupa.One of the unique features of this cave is its rock-cut balcony.
The other two important caves are 11 and 12, known as Don Taal and Teen Taal respectively. Both are three-storied and serve as prime examples of esoteric monastic Buddhist architecture.

Hindu Caves
These caves were excavated during the rule of the Kalachuri, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta rulers. Of these, Caves 14, 15, 16, 21 and 29 are not to be missed caves. Cave 14 consists of the sculptural panels of numerous Hindu deities. Cave 15 can be reached after climbing a few steps. This cave has numerous noteworthy sculptures carved on the interior walls which still have some traces of plaster left suggesting the paintings on the sculptures. Cave 16, also known as the Kailasa is the unrivalled centre piece of Ellora. It looks like a multi-storied temple complex, but it was carved out of one single rock. The courtyard has two life size statues of elephants and two tall victory pillars. There are columned galleries decorated with huge sculpted panels of a variety of deities in the side walls. There are a few beautiful traces of paintings in the porch of the hall on the upper storey.
The Rameshwar cave i.e. Cave 21 is famous for some of the most beautiful sculptures at Ellora. On either side of the cave are images of Ganga and Yamuna. Locally known as Sita ki Nahani the Cave 29 is also unique in plan and elevation. Resembling the great cave at Elephanta in plan this cave also has some of the impressive sculptures at the site.

Jaina Caves 
These caves are clustered in five excavations and numbered 30 to 34. Apart from these, there are six more Jaina caves on the opposite face of this hill. All of these caves belong to the Digambara sect of Jainism. One caves worth a visit includes Cave 32 or Indra Sabha. The lower storey of this cave lies unfinished, while the upper storey is one of the largest and most elaborate caves with beautiful pillars, large sculptural panels and paintings on its ceiling.
Of all the caves at Ellora, the Jaina caves have the largest number of paintings still extant on ceilings and side walls.

What to see at Ellora Caves

The Buddhist cave are the earliest of the Ellora Caves, dating from 500 to 750 AD. All except Cave 10 are viharas (monasteries), which were used for study, meditation, communal riturals, eating and sleeping.
The caves become steadily larger and more elaborately decorated as they progress to the north, which scholars have explained by the growing need to compete with Hinduism for patronage. The earliest Hindu caves at Ellora date from 600 AD, right in the middle of the Buddhist period.

Cave 1 is a plain vihara with eight small monastic cells are very little sculpture. It may have served as a granary for the larger halls.
Cave 2 is much more impressive. a large central chamber supported by 12 great square pillars is lined with sculptures of seated Buddhas. The doorway into the sanctuary is flanked by a muscular Padmapani, holding a lotus, and a bejewelled Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Both are accompanied by their consorts. Inside the shrine is a stately seated Buddha on a lion throne.
Caves 3 and 4 have a similar design as Cave 2, but are in poor condition.
Cave 5 is named the Maharwada Cave because it was used by local Mahar tribespeople as a shelter during the monsoon. It centers on a grand assembly hall stretching 36 meters long, which was probably used as a refectory. The two rows of carved benches support this theory. The shrine Buddha is seated on a stool with his right hand touching the ground in the Earth Witness gesture.
Cave 6 was carved in the 600s and is home to two of the finest sculptures at Ellora. On the left is the goddess Tara, with an intense but kind expression. Opposite here on the right is Mahamayuri, the Buddhist goddess of learning, shown with here attribute, the peacock. A diligent student sits at his desk below. Significantly, Mahamayuri has a very similar Hindu counter part, Saraswati.
The magnificent Cave 10 dates from the early 700 s and is known as the Carpenter's Cave (Sutar Jhopadi) because of its imitation in stone of wooden beams on the ceiling. At the far end, a seated Buddha is enthroned in front of a large stone stupa.
Cave 11 is known as the Dho Tal or "Two Floors" cave, although a basement level discovered in 1876 brings the total floors to three. The top floor is a long assembly hall lined wit columns. It has both a Buddha shrine and images of Durga and Ganesh, indicating the cave was converted into a Hindu temple after it was abandoned by the Buddhists.
Cave 12, known as Tin Tal ("Three Floors"), also has an impressive upper hall, The walls of the shrine room are lined with five large bodhisattvas and flanked by seven Buddhas, representing each of his previous incarnations.
Created during a time of prosperity and revival of Hindusim, the Hindu caves represent an entirely different style of creative vision and skill than the Buddhist caves. The Hindu temples were carved from top to bottom and required several generations of planning and coordination to take shape.
There are 17 Hindu Caves  in all, which were carved between 600 and 870 AD. They occupy the center of the cave complex, grouped around either side of the famous Kailasa Temple.
In contrast to the serene and solemn Buddhas of the earlier caves the walls of the Hindu cave are covered in lively bas-reliefs depicting events from the Hindu scriptures. All of the caves are dedicated to the God Shiva, but there are also some images of Vishnu and his various incarnations.
Cave 14 dates from the early 600s and was converted from a Buddhist vihara. Its long walls are adorned with magnificently carved friezes and the entrance to the sanctuary is guarded by the river goddess Ganga and Yamuna. Inside, an alcove shelters sever large breasted fertility goddesses holding chubby babies on their laps. Appearing to their right is the female aspect of Ganesh and the cadaverous goddesses of death, Kala and Kali.
Cave 15 is also former Buddhist cave adopted by the Hindus. the ground floor is mostly uninteresting, but the top floor has some of the best sculpture at Ellora. Along the right wall are a sequence of panels showing five of Vishnu's ten incarnations or avatars, which give the cave its name, Das Avatara.
A panel to the right of the antechamber depirts the superiority of Shaivism in the region at the time - Shiva emarges from a linga while his rivals Brahma and Vishnu stand in humility and supplication. The cave's most elegant sculpture is in the left wall of the chamber; it shows Shiva as Nataraja, the Cosmic Cancer.
The most notable Hindu cave, Cave 16 is not a cave at all, but a magnificent temple carved from the solid rock, patterned closely on the freestanding temples of the time. It represent Mount Kailash, the adobe of Lord Shiva, and is called the Kailashnath, Kailash, or Kailasa Temple. It originally had a thick coat of white plaster to make it look like a snowy mountain. The Kailash Temple is a stupendous piece of architecture, with interesting spatial effects and varied sculpture. It is believed to have been started by the Rashtrakuta King Krishna I (756-773). The construction was a feat of human genius - it entailed removal of 250,000 tons of rock, took 100 years to complete and covers an area double the size of Parthenon in Athens.
Many more Hindu caves stretch down the hillside north of Kailash, but only three are must sees; 21, 25 and 29.
Cave 21,  the Ramesvara, dates from the late 500s and is thought to be the oldest Hindu cave at Ellora. It houses some fine sculpture, including a pair of river goddesses, two door guardians and some loving couples (mithunas) around the walls of the balcony.
Cave 25 features a sculpture of the sun god Surya driving his chariot towards the dawn.
North of this, the trail soon drops steeply down to a gorge, under a seasonal waterfall, and back up to Cave 29, the Dhumar Lena. Dating from the late 500s, it has an unusual cross-shaped plan. Pairs of lions guard its three staircases. Inside, the walls are covered in large friezes. To the left of the entrance, Shiva slays the Andhaka demon, then defeats the many-armed Ravana's attempt to shake him and Parvati off the top of Mount Kailash. Don't miss the dwarf baring his bottom to taunt the demon! On the south side, Shiva teases Parvati by holding her arm back as she prepares to throw dics in a game.
The Jain caves, dating from the late 800s and 900s, are 2km north down an asphalt road. They reflect the distinctiveness of Jain phailosophy  and tradition, including a strict sense of asceticism combined with elaborate decoration. They are not large compared to others, but contain exceptionally detailed artworks. Many of the Jain caves had rich paintings in the ceilings, fragments of which are still visible.
The most notable of the group is Cave 32, the Indra Sabha (Indra's Assembly Hall), a miniature of the Kailash Temple. The bottom level is plain but the upper floor has elaborate carvings, including a fine lotus flower on the ceiling. The tirthankaras guard the entrance to the central shrine. On the right is the naked Gomatesvara, who is meditating deeply in the forest - so much so that vines have grown up his legs and animals, snakes and scorpions crawl around his feet.

How to reach:
By Air: 
The nearest airport is Aurangabad which has daily flights to major Indian cities.
By Rail: 
Aurangabad railway station is well connected to most cities.The Aurangabad Jan Shatabdi Express is a daily fast train to Mumbai.
By Road: 
Ellora is about 30 km from Aurangabad. Buses, rickshaws and taxis ply regularly between the two.

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