Palaces will decay, bridges will fall, and the noblest structures must give way to the corroding tooth of time; whilst the caverned temples of Ellora shall rear their indestructible and hoary heads in stern loneliness, the glory of past ages, and the admiration of ages yet to come.
– Captain Seely, The Wonders of Ellora
Maharashtra’s most visited ancient monument, the ELLORA caves, 29km northwest of Aurangabad, may not enjoy as grand a setting as their older cousins at Ajanta, but the amazing wealth of sculpture they contain more than compensates, and this is an unmissable stop if you’re heading to or from Mumbai, 400km southwest. In all, 34 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves – some excavated simultaneously, in competition – line the foot of the 2km-long Chamadiri escarpment as it tumbles down to meet the open plains. The site’s principal attraction, the colossal Kailash temple, rears from a huge, sheer-edged cavity cut from the hillside – a vast lump of solid basalt fashioned into a spectacular complex of colonnaded halls, galleries and shrines.
The original reason why this apparently remote spot became the focus of so much religious and artistic activity was the busy caravan route that passed through here on its way between the prosperous cities to the north and the ports of the west coast. Profits from the lucrative trade fuelled a 500-year spate of excavation, beginning midway through the sixth century AD at around the same time that Ajanta, 100km northeast, was abandoned. This was the twilight of the Buddhist era in central India; by the end of the seventh century, Hinduism had begun to reassert itself. The Brahmanical resurgence gathered momentum over the next three hundred years under the patronage of the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta kings – the two powerful dynasties responsible for the bulk of the work carried out at Ellora, including the eighth-century Kailash temple. A third and final flourish of activity on the site took place towards the end of the first millennium AD, after the local rulers had switched allegiance from Shaivism to the Jain faith. A small cluster of more subdued caves to the north of the main group stand as reminders of this age.
Unlike the isolated site of Ajanta, Ellora did not escape the iconoclasm that accompanied the arrival of the Muslims in the thirteenth century. The worst excesses were committed during the reign of Aurangzeb who ordered the demolition of the site’s “heathen idols”. Although Ellora still bears the scars from this time, most of its best pieces of sculpture have remained remarkably well preserved, sheltered from centuries of monsoon downpours by the hard basalt hillside.