Divine India

The Guptas: Ajanta and Ellora
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Set back in a masked, isolated, steep-walled bend of a river gorge, are the fantastic facades and chiseled open faces of some 30 "caves." They're not really caves; they're entire constructions carved out of the rock - inverse buildings, where, instead of creating a protective outline for an empty space, a solid is cored to leave an outline. It's work from the inside out, leaving whole rooms with columns, passage ways, beds, temples. No new rock is ever brought in to fill a space; space is created around an object.

Work on the famous cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora probably began in the 3rd century BC when the area was under Buddhist sway. Initially, the excavations took place only at Ajanta using laborers and painters who were followers of 'lesser vehicle' or Hinayana Buddhism, a practice which did not allow for the direct depiction of the Buddha, but rather only symbolically using stupas, footprints, trees and even elephants. Later, after about 100 AD, 'greater vehicle' or Mahayana Buddhism began to take hold and larger-than-life carvings of the Buddha himself began to appear.

In 319 AD Chandragupta II cemented Gupta control over the area, and it was during this period that some of the greatest work at Ajanta was undertaken and the shift to Ellora began. Toward the end of the Gupta era, a shift in faith away from Buddhism and Jainism ushered in the Late Hindu Period (lasting from 650 to 1200 AD) also a change in architecture at Ellora.

Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta Caves were all but forgotten after the 8th century when attention had shifted completely to the work at Ellora and Buddhism was in its decline. Shrines were abandoned and fell into disrepair. It took more than a thousand years an 1819 British hunting party and someone to dig through some jungle-clad slopes for them to be rediscovered them. Located about 65 miles northeast of Aurangabad, hidden on the inside curve of a horseshoe-shaped ravine and perched one-third of the way up a 250-foot cliff-face, the caves were an ideal site for a monastic Buddhist sanctuary. Dating from between 200 BC and 650 AD, the 29 hand-hewn rooms are world-renowned not only for their architectural and sculptural strength, but also for the vivid and lively fresco-style (actually tempera) paintings which have survived, albeit damaged, to this day. The earliest six caves are 'lesser vehicle' caves while the remaining 23 are 'greater vehicle'.

The caves are of two types: chaityas or temples, and viharas or monasteries. Both early Hinayana style and later Mahayana era caves are open to visitors. All the caves, now accessible by following a stone walkway, used to have long flights of steps that reached down to the bottom of the gorge. Over the centuries, these collapsed along with the edifices of many of the actual caves.

The fresco-style paintings at Ajanta are what distinguishes the finds here from all other cave temples. There are two principal themes: Mahayana narrative scenes from the life of the Buddha and illustrations of fables. A local resource guidebook (Illustrated Guide: Aurangabad, Daultabad, Ellora & Ajanta, by Umendra Verma highly recommended for a visit to these caves), describes these paintings in inimitable fashion:

"Having seen these cave temples the visitor will perhaps wonder at the profusion of secular themes and motifs on the walls. He may be bewildered by the uninhibited vivacity of the female figures, the famous"Ajanta type" with well-curved forms, elongated eyes, attractive mien and ample adornment. The fact was that the artist-monks and their associates painted side by side and with equal zest the physical beauty of women and the spiritual beauty of the Boddhisattva."

The most famous and impressive sites are caves 1, 16, 17 and 19. Cave 1 is believed to be the last completed of the caves. The best example of vihara architecture from the 5th century, it features an ornate facade, carved columns, an impressive front hall divided by sculpted pillars and a large image of the Buddha. Both the sculpture and paintings in this cave are excellent. Cave 16 has some of Ajanta's best painting and offers the best view of the whole area. It is also possible that this was the principal entrance to the whole temple complex. Where Cave 16 may have some of the best paintings, Cave 17 has the absolute finest in terms of condition, quantity and quality. Cave 19 has been called "the sculptor's treasure chest" especially by virtue of the profusion of exquisite carvings on the facade. The horseshoe-shaped window in the facade is justly famous.

Ellora Caves

Eighteen miles north of the city of Aurangabad are the Ellora Caves. The immortal product of devout laborers, these monumental undertakings contain elaborate carvings of gods and goddesses memorializing the three great faiths of India Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The Ellora Caves are more easily accessible than the Ajanta Caves but the setting is not quite as magnificent. Similarly carved into and out of a rock face, they are not as high above the ground. Also, unlike Ajanta, although they are excavated from a sloping rock face and spread over a little more than a mile, the 34 side-by-side caves allow for a contrasting examination of the architectural styles associated with each of the three religions. Work on these caves began at around the same time it ended at Ajanta. The 12 Buddhist caverns are the earliest, from between 500 and 800 AD, whereas the 17 Hindu caves date from 900 AD and the five Jain caves, begun in 800 AD, were not completed until 1000.

All except one of the Buddhist caves are viharas (monasteries). Surprisingly unornate when contrasted with some of the work done at Ajanta, the caves are nevertheless quite impressive. There are two multi-storied structures (one with a"hidden" story) representing the apex of the architectural style used at Ajanta. These two caves (11 and 12), as well as cave 10, the only chaitya (temple) have some fine carvings. Cave 10 is commonly called the Viswakarma, named after the architect of the gods. The internal roof carvings are suggestive of wooden beams.

The true marvel at Ellora, and one of India's most famous monument caves is the Kailasa Temple (named after Shiva's Himalayan abode). It is the centerpiece of the dramatic and energetic Hindu series of caves that are the highlight of this area. Perhaps the largest monolithic structure in the world, Kailasa is unlike the neighboring mason architecture of buildings bored into the rock, in that Kailasa is cut out of the rock. As much as 3,000,000 cubic feet (2,000,000 tons) of stone was carted away to reveal a massive freestanding temple. The work began at the top of the cliff where engineers orchestrated the progressive removal of rock until a space 107 feet deep, 276 feet long and 154 feet wide was outlined. It then took decades to chisel the block of stone left in the middle into the eye-poppingly ornate carved structure that is larger than the Parthenon of Athens. The other Hindu temples in the sequence, although smaller and less overwhelming, are covered with lively depictions of the gods of the Hindu pantheon.

The last few caves, about a half mile away, are the Jain temples. Cave 30 is an unfinished mini-Kailasa. Caves 32 and 34 contain prime examples of Jain carving, especially the upstairs room of Cave 32.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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