Thursday, March 17, 2011

Enchanting Ellora

The World Heritage Site of Ellora caves are located at about 30 Kms from the city of Aurangabad. The 34 caves belonging to three religious faiths – Buddhist, Hindu and Jain, excavated out of the Charanandri hills represent the epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture.

We knew from our previous day’s excursion to Daulatabad that the buses plying to Kannad from the city Aurangabad would stop at the Ellora caves and likewise we went to the central bus stand in the morning after we had our breakfast. However, there were far too many people at the bus stand on that day, probably because it was in the morning and it became extremely difficult to board a Kannad bound bus. Although the buses were frequent, but no sooner than any one of them came, people from all directions were rushing in towards the gate and even ensuring seats by throwing luggage through the windows. On one occasion we even witnessed people letting small children into the bus through the windows. So even though I was amongst the first few persons who could board one of the buses after struggling at the gate, I found all the seats were already taken. Santu was able to capture two seats in one of the other buses but we had to persuade him to come down and wait for the next bus. Some touts approached us when we started looking for alternate transportation, but all the auto rickshaws and taxis around the bus stand were offering a packaged tour of Aurangabad, Daulatabad and Ellora which did not suit us since we were only looking for a drop at Ellora. Fortunately, two buses on the same route to Kannad came within a very short span of time and we were able to board the second one and got comfortable seats. However, when the bus ultimately started its journey it was packed to full house and the persons who were standing (including some middle aged ladies) argued that the two-seaters that we had got ourselves can be shared by three. Luckily the journey was not long and we reached our destination in just a little more than an hour.

We were looking for a guide at the entrance of the cave complex after buying tickets for ourselves. I had heard that there were not many guides available and one can only book the guide whose turn it is. Finally one guide arrived and told that the guide charge was Rs 700. But he had some conditions. He would only show us around 4 caves which we thought far too low. Though we knew that it might not be possible to visit all the caves, especially with the guide but we decided to at least cover the important ones and the number 4 seemed a lot less. Additionally, he informed that since he was booked for a large party of tourists which was scheduled to show up in a couple of hours, he could be with us only for an hour and a half. We took a call and decided to go solo without a guide. The choice proved to be proper afterwards since we spend more time than the guide allotted us for the entire tour, in the Kailash temple itself. An informative guide book purchased at much a lesser price served us well in our endeavour.

The first cave we visited was located just in front of the entrance beyond a lush green lawn. It was named cave 16 better known as the Kailash temple, the largest and most renowned of the caves of Ellora. This giant chariot shaped temple was carved out of one single rock and has no parallel in the whole world. It is an astounding fact that the artisan of that time only had chisel and hammer to carve out this outstanding piece of art. The creation of the temple which has a dominant Dravidian architectural style is credited to have started under Dantidurga (735 – 757) and major work was done during the reign of Krishna I (757 – 773), both belonging to the Rashtrakuta dynasty. It is believed to take more than 200 tears to complete the temple and required removal of 2 lac tons of rock.

A large and beautiful panel of Gajalaxmi seated on a lotus and surrounded by four elephants, symbolizing the prosperity of the Rashtrakutas, greeted us as we entered the temple.

As we started our tour of the temple from the left side, we went passed the panel of three river goddesses Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, symbolizing purity, devotion and knowledge respectively, and were taken to a wall adorned with minute carvings depicting stories of the Mahabharata.

Next we found a row of elephants and lions (resembling somewhat like the British symbol) but most of them were unfortunately worn out.

In the courtyard, on either side of the main temple, there are two elegantly carved lofty victory pillars or “Dhvajastambhas” (17 metres high) reflecting the supremacy and power of the Rashtrakutas and two giant elephants (with missing trunks) facing the pillars.

Next we strolled for a few minutes along the elevated corridors circumambulating the main temple and decorated with innumerous panels of delicately carved out structures. There was another set of panels even further up in the multistoried temple complex that we explored next. We also visited the panel depicting Ravana shaking Mount Kailash before we entered the main temple.

Finally we were in front of the main temple, cut out of a monolithic rock isolated from the surrounding rock, excavated from top to bottom and designed to resemble Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. The temple had been plastered and painted after its completion and although most of it is now worn out, the remaining white plaster especially at the top imparts increasing similarity to the snow capped Mount Kailash.

A flight of steps took us to the Nandi Mandap which is common to any Shiva temple.

After crossing a pillared hall and an antechamber we finally reached the sanctum of Shiva shrine. The parapet walls, plinth and ceilings of the sanctum, antechamber and hall are covered with intricate structures from the Hindu mythology.

We could have spent a further long time at this fascinating cave itself but we realized that we have already spent close to two hours exploring the Kailash temple and it was time to move on.

After coming out of cave 16, took the road in the left. The next important cave on that side was cave 21 also known as the Rameshwar temple. Here the Nandi bull is installed on high pedestal in front of the cave.

Two gracefully carved panels, one of Ganga and one of Yamuna are at two corners and the cave also has a panel depicting the episode of Ravana Shaking Mount Kailash. Most probably in this cave only we noticed a strange panel comprising a skeleton like structure.

Another important cave and the last of the Hindu caves is cave 29, also known as Dhumar-Lena or Sita-ki-Kahani after a beautifully cut figure of river goddess Yamuna mistakenly named as Sita. One of the imposing and finest of the Hindu caves, cave 29 stands out due to its sheer massiveness and giant sculptures with intricate details.

The main hall is divided in to a central nave and two aisles and can be entered through three porticos on three sides. Each entrance has a pair of seated lions on the steps.

Amongst the famous sculptures of this cave are undoubtedly the Marriage Ceremony of Shiva and Parvati and Ravana Shaking Mount Kailash.

There is a gorgeous waterfall on river Yelganga by the side of this cave and a flight of steps with a corridor running around it.

Caves 30-34 belong to the Jain faith and are located almost one and a half km apart from cave 29, the last of the Hindu caves. We had to speed up our pace since we were running late and the winding road was tiring us. On one occasion we even took a short cut to save some time and energy. The fact that we only had a few packs of biscuits as lunch and were running low on drinking water was not inspiring at all.

Cave 30 is known as Chhota Kailash but the excavation could not be completed. Cave 31 is also incomplete. So, the first of the Jain caves that we visited was Cave 32, also known as Indra-Sabha. This two storied cave temple dedicated to the Digambar sect of Jainism dates back to 10th-11th century and is so named because the Matanga (god of wealth) figure was mistakenly identified as Indra. There is a lofty pillar and a giant elephant at the entrance, which according to me resembled similar structures of the Kailash temple; so at first we mistook this cave to be the Chhota Kailash.

Cave 33, known as Jagannath-Sabha dates back to the same period as the earlier cave and is also dedicated to the Digambar sect of Jainism. The upper floor of the cave was skillfully carved with sculptures of Jain deities.

After completing visiting the last of the Jain caves, cave 34, we decided to proceed to the other end and start visiting the remaining caves starting from cave 1. We had to cover close to 2 Km to get to the other end, that too in brisk pace since the day was coming to the end. Thankfully, once we reached the main entrance near the Kailash temple we could rejuvenate ourselves with cold drinks from the hawkers plying around there.

The Buddhist caves are the oldest amongst the Ellora group of caves and many of them are simple monasteries without extravagant carvings. However, no one can ignore their architectural proficiency and engineering skill. For example in cave 5, the largest of the monasteries, the spacious hall has no columns supporting the ceiling and long benches are carved out of the floor for studying and dining purpose or caves 11 (Do Taal) and 12 (Teen Taal) resembling modern multistoried apartments. It is difficult to fathom the farsightedness of the architects of 8th century to come up with this kind of structural design. Interestingly although both the caves 11 and 12 are three storied, the ground floor of cave 11 was unknown for some period and hence the name Do Taal was popularized.

Cave 10 or the Vishwakarma cave is the only Chaitya-Griha (prayer hall) and the most renowned amongst the Buddhist caves and features the usual nave, apse and octagonal pillars of Buddhist caves that we were acquainted with in Nasik. The unique thing about the cave was the echo it was generating for even faint sounds.

Another important Buddhist cave is cave 6 which serves as a junction and the entrances of caves 5 to 1 and cave 9 are through this cave.

A group of monks from some South East Asian country were present in one of the other caves and while some of them were offering their prayers, others were looking around the awe inspiring artwork and were busy clicking snaps of the caves.

After completing our tour of the Buddhist caves we visited the remaining Hindu caves. Cave 14, also known as Ravaan-ki-Khai again depicts the sculpture of Ravana Shaking Mount Kailash, which is a popular theme at the Ellora caves. Cave 15, also known as Dashavatara cave, is also another important Hindu cave which is a double storied structure depicting various incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

After an exhilarating and demanding day’s tour we were looking forward to some good food and sound sleep. However, we were not that lucky as the previous day when we got hold of an empty shared auto from Daulatabad and had to opt for the crowded bus to Aurangabad. An elderly lady of foreign origin lost her shoes in one of the caves and was wandering around bare footed in search of a shop where she could buy herself a new pair of footwear. We caught a glimpse of Hotel Kailash, which is located just beside the cave complex and where unfortunately we could not stay as all the rooms were booked. It is here, where Feluda and Co. stayed in the Ray thriller Kailashe Kelenkari.

The bus ride back to Aurangabad was a pathetic experience. It was only I who got a seat for the entire journey, thanks to my friends. Still I was feeling claustrophobic with so many people in the bus and the fact that all the windows were closed, perhaps because the wind was a bit chilly in the evening. A gang of local boys were passing all kinds of weird comments mainly on the foreign tourists and one of the foulmouthed was even teasing a lady with the sleazy chartbuster “Sheela ki Jawani”. Santu was engaged in a brief altercation with the group and I was hoping back in the last seat to reach Aurangabad soon, so that we could escape this cacophony. Perhaps Aamir Khan should more often do the awareness campaign – “Aathiti Devo Bhava”.