Captain Seely, The Wonders of Ellora
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.
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 two-kilometre-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 five-hundred-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.Read More
Rock-cut caves of the northwestern Deccan
Rock-cut caves of the northwestern Deccan
The rock-cut caves scattered across the volcanic hills of the northwestern Deccan rank among the most extraordinary religious monuments in Asia. Ranging from tiny monastic cells to elaborately carved temples, they are remarkable for having been hewn by hand from solid rock. Their third-century BC origins seem to have been as temporary shelters for Buddhist monks when heavy monsoon rains brought their travels to a halt. Modelled on earlier wooden structures, most were sponsored by merchants, for whom the casteless new faith offered an attractive alternative to the old, discriminatory social order. Gradually, encouraged by the example of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the local ruling dynasties also began to embrace Buddhism. Under their patronage, during the second century BC, the first large-scale monastery caves were created at Karla, Bhaja and Ajanta.
Around this time, the austere Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) school of Buddhism predominated in India. Caves cut in this era were mostly simple worship halls, or chaityas – long, rectangular apsed chambers with barrel-vaulted roofs and two narrow colonnaded aisles curving gently around the back of a monolithic stupa. Symbols of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, these hemispherical burial mounds provided the principal focus for worship and meditation, circumambulated by the monks during their communal rituals.
By the fourth century AD, the Hinayana school was losing ground to the more exuberant Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”) school. Its emphasis on an ever-enlarging pantheon of bodhisattvas (merciful saints who postponed their accession to nirvana to help mankind towards Enlightenment) was accompanied by a transformation in architectural styles. Chaityas were superseded by lavish monastery halls, or viharas, in which the monks both lived and worshipped, and the once-prohibited image of the Buddha became far more prominent. Occupying the circumambulatory recess at the end of the hall, where the stupa formerly stood, the colossal icon acquired the 32 characteristics, or lakshanas (including long dangling ear-lobes, cranial protuberance, short curls, robe and halo) by which the Buddha was distinguished from lesser divinities. The peak of Mahayanan art came towards the end of the Buddhist age. Drawing on the rich catalogue of themes and images contained in ancient scriptures such as the Jatakas (legends relating to the Buddha’s previous incarnations), Ajanta’s exquisite wall painting may, in part, have been designed to rekindle enthusiasm for the faith, which was, by this point, already starting to wane in the region.
Attempts to compete with the resurgence of Hinduism, from the sixth century onwards, eventually led to the evolution of another, more esoteric religious movement. The Vajrayana, or “Thunderbolt” sect stressed the female creative principle, shakti, with arcane rituals combining spells and magic formulas. Ultimately, however, such modifications were to prove powerless against the growing allure of Brahmanism.
The ensuing shift in royal and popular patronage is best exemplified by Ellora where, during the eighth century, many old viharas were converted into temples, their shrines housing polished shivalinga instead of stupas and Buddhas. Hindu cave architecture, with its dramatic mythological sculpture, culminated in the tenth century with the magnificent Kailash temple, a giant replica of the freestanding structures that had already begun to replace rock-cut caves. It was Hinduism that bore the brunt of the iconoclastic medieval descent of Islam on the Deccan, Buddhism having long since fled to the comparative safety of the Himalayas, where it still flourishes.