Ellora cave temples in India, detailed information

Temple Caves of India

From today I suggest to get acquainted with similar constructions in India. Meet: Ajanta and Ellora Caves. When you look at the complex, you get the impression that it was not chiseled into the rock, but carved with one stroke of a knife in butter, and the decorative statues, rather, were imprinted with some kind of 3D-stamp. In the spring of 1819, British officers wading through the wilds of the tropical jungle in search of a tiger family happened to find themselves in the gorge of India’s Waghora River. As they made their way through the lush vegetation in front of them, one of them suddenly cried out, causing all the other soldiers to stop and literally freeze in amazement: a huge stone statue of Buddha was standing directly above them.

The statue was a statue of the Buddha, and the sight of it interested them even more: a number of passages leading deep into the depths of the mountain were opened to their eyes. Approximately so is written in a document of the XIX century about how by chance (!) was found a deserted Buddhist cave monastery near the village Ajanta. On a rocky cliff of a horseshoe shape in the bay of the river Waghora the British found 29 caves over a length of just over 500 meters. The preserved cave chaitiyas (temples) and viharas (cells), decorated inside and outside with sculptures and amazingly beautiful stone frescoes, told them that they were facing an ancient Buddhist monastery that had been abandoned by people. As it was later found out, these places were first inhabited by monks in the II century B.C. and approximately in the IX century A.D., when attention to Buddhism in India was not so great, the temple was abandoned and neglected.

Personally, I incline to the version that the temples were devastated by a powerful man-made disaster, as evidenced by the melted rock in some places on the outside.




Clearly a large piece has been torn out here.


Of course, time could not but affect the state of the monastery: the premises were gradually destroyed, overgrown with climbing ivy, and wild animals (monkeys, tigers, bears) found shelter in the underground halls for themselves and their young.

Ajanta Cave: the history of the treasury

Surprisingly, the treasury found by the British did not arouse the interest of the Indian authorities. In twenty-five years only a few scientists were sent to investigate the Ajanta caves, but they, however, also did not pay due attention to this archaeological find. In 1843, James Fergusson, an Englishman, was sent to India for a more detailed study of the Ajanta caves, whose date of construction goes back to antiquity. What he saw made a strong impression on him: 29 caves were cut into the hardest basalt, 24 halls were abandoned monasteries, and 5 more were temples.

They are surprisingly well-preserved with magnificent murals describing the various stages of Buddha’s life and sculptures of the deity. James Fergusson immediately wrote a scientific report to the Royal Asiatic Society on the results of his trip. In addition, he was concerned about the fate of this accidentally found historical monument: the local climate and the raids of looters could completely destroy this grandiose complex. After Fergusson’s report, the Indian authorities could not stand aside: to further explore and sketch the Ajanta caves, the East India Company sends British Army Captain and artist Robert Gill to Maharashtra.




The wall paintings of the Ajanta caves have been called by some scholars nothing less than an encyclopedia of the life of the entire Indian society. It gives an idea not only of how the rulers of the country lived in ancient times, but also of the everyday life of the poor and destitute. There is not a single empty corner in the underground halls: gods and people, animals and flowers “look” at the guest from everywhere. All of them narrate something to the music of the celestial spheres, many sculptures are depicted singing or dancing.

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The painting, created by monks in ancient times, is like a mysterious book of existence, which should tell the descendants that everything in the world is interconnected: people, gods, animals, heaven and earth. Besides, it is impossible not to mention that on the walls in the Ajanta caves in drawings one can trace the life of the great teacher Buddha – from his enlightenment, reincarnations and to his departure from life. Robert Gill, who visited the Ajanta caves in 1844, also tried to depict all this in his drawings.

The brilliant artist made copies of the surviving and extant elements of the mural in the smallest details, for which he practically never went out into the light, spending all his time inside the cave. Gill copied the murals onto canvas and then painted and colored them. He devoted 20 years of his life (!) to this activity requiring patience and endurance.

Many Hindus believe in the existence of the legend of the curse of the Ajanta caves. By disturbing the peace of the gods with his presence, Robert Gill seemed to incur their wrath. He could not heal from many diseases. And when in 1866 some copies of the main frescoes were collected for display in the Crystal Palace in London, there was a fire that destroyed not only all of the artist’s paintings and the palace itself, but also almost killed himself Gill. Despite this tragic fact, the artist is re-engaged in a titanic work. Five years later he falls ill again, but this time the disease has progressed, Robert Gill’s body could not cope and the artist died. He was buried near the caves, which he so admired and which ruined him.

Another dramatic story has come down to this day. A group of artists from Bombay spent a long time redrawing the rock paintings of Ajanta. The finished works were sent to a London museum, now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. But these copies suffered the same fate: they were all destroyed by an all-consuming fire.

The Ajanta cave and temple complex: our time

Around 1928, Italian scientists studying the Ajanta caves took photographs, which they eventually published in the media. The world was shocked by the art of the ancient masters, and this rock art was recognized as “the most outstanding artistic achievement of Asia.

The uniqueness of the Ajanta caves was eventually recognized by the World Organization of UNESCO, which in 1983 included them in the list of world heritage sites. Today the caves of Ajanta is a museum of Buddhist art, which can be visited by everyone, regardless of their faith. But yet, despite the opportunities that today has a modern society, and in our time there are many questions surrounding the cave and temple complex, the answers to which are still kept in the bowels of Azhanta. For example, until now, scientists can’t unravel the secret of the luminous colors, which were used even before our era by the monks to paint the walls, ceilings and columns.

All the caves of Ajanta are numbered from east to west, although they were carved by masters not in that order. The oldest of them are located in the middle of the mountain range – these are the so-called caves of the Hinayana and Mahayana periods. This was the time when Buddhism began to develop, when it was not yet customary to depict the Buddha, but only to hint at his presence among the people by mystical symbols. These caves are devoid of deity sculptures.

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In hall number 9, among the octagonal columns, you can see a huge monolithic sounding (!) stupa: according to archaeologists and historians, this is where the monks spent their time while chanting mantras. In the 26th cave there are the most interesting sculptures. For example, tourists can see the sculptural composition describing the moment when Buddha is tempted by seductive women, demons and animals. Practically next to this composition is a reclining sculpture of the Buddhist god, telling everyone about his departure into nirvana.

By the way, quite often it is here you can find people in meditation, even in spite of the presence of a large number of travelers. The largest temple of Ajanta is located in the cave number 4. The caves numbered 1 and 2 are considered popular with tourist groups. Built later than any other, they are the best preserved, allowing visitors to this Indian attraction to view ancient cave paintings, frescoes, and sculptures in detail. It is not possible for every traveler to walk around all the caves of Ajanta in one day, but the part of the Buddhist temple-monastery cave complex seen during the tour will leave the most vivid memories.

Hindu Caves of Ellora

The Hindu monasteries of Ellora are quite different from the Buddhist caves in both style and decoration. These caves were carved from top to bottom and shaped in several stages. There are a total of 17 caves carved between 600 and 870. They occupy the central part of the cliff, clustered around the famous Kailas temple. Unlike the solemn and serene Buddhist caves, the walls of the Hindu monasteries are covered with lively bas-reliefs depicting the events of the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. All of them are dedicated to the god Shiva, but there are also depictions of Vishnu and his various reincarnations.



Here one gets the impression that the entire temple was carved into the rock with one large seal.




















By the way, on the top of the Kailas Mountains (in India) there is another huge Shivaite temple called Kailasanatha. It also belongs to the Ellora cave complex. So, according to the legends of the ancient Hindus, it is believed that this temple leads to heaven, and it is in this temple where Shiva himself dwells. This sanctuary is carved out of a monolithic rock and decorated with carvings, the beauty of which is almost impossible to describe in words; even a huge construction company possessing the most ultra-modern tools would probably not dare to repeat the work of ancient craftsmen.

By the way, Kailasanatha was made under the guidance of a man, not a god or a representative of an alien civilization. This is evidenced by a plaque of copper found in one of the caches of the Shivaite temple. It reads roughly as follows: “O Great Shiva, how did I manage without magic to build such a miracle?” After deciphering the master’s address to the god Shiva, it becomes clear that Kailasanatha was built by the most ordinary people. How then in ancient times was it possible to literally carve out this temple? Alas, there is still no answer to this question: there are speculations of archaeologists, builders and architects, but they remain only theories, which have yet to be explained to our descendants.

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At the moment we can only marvel at the work of the ancient craftsmen who have brought to the world one of the most important wonders of India – the mysterious Ellora Caves. How ridiculous our historians are after all “The caves were illuminated by means of some metal screens or white sheets, and in this way sunlight entered the caves.” “Most likely it was a spontaneous construction and was made by Buddhist monks” – even though the monks themselves openly tell everyone that the gods built it all.

In February 2019, OUM.RU club instructors will visit the Ellora Cave Complex as part of the “In Shiva’s Footsteps” yoga tour. Join us, if possible!

Ellora is one of the most interesting cave temples of India

Ellora, India is a small trading village that would probably remain unknown were it not for the unique cave temples carved right into the rocks. A showpiece of ancient eastern religious architecture, they impress with their grandeur and incomparable atmosphere.

View of the Ellora Cave Temple


The Black Caves of Ellora, which date from the 6th to the 9th century A.D., are located in the village of the same name in the state of Maharashtra (central Maharashtra). The place for their erection has been chosen not casually, in fact in ancient times exactly in this point situated near Ajanta, numerous trading ways attracting merchants and travelers from all over the world converged. This complex was built on their taxes, or rather, carved in the strongest rock.

The structure, which testifies to the tolerant attitude of Hindus to members of other faiths, consists of a number of temples, divided into 3 groups – Buddhist, Jain and Hindu. For the convenience of tourists, scholars and tour guides, they are all numbered in order of erection – from 1 to 34.

From west to east, the mountain, in which the unique Ellora caves are carved, is crossed by four rivers. The largest of them, the Elaganga, forms a powerful waterfall that appears here only during the rainy season.

View of Ellora cave temple from above

Scientists engaged in the study of the cave temples of Ellora have not been able to find any scientific confirmation of exactly how one of the most unusual religious buildings of India was built. Most of the theories that exist at the moment are based on the information taken from ancient manuscripts and copper tablets. They show that the Ellora caves began to be transformed into temples around A.D. 500, when monks who fled from Ajanta moved to the area.

Today, the temples, which despite centuries of existence are in excellent condition, are included in the World Heritage List of UNESCO and are protected by the state. Today sculptures, bas-reliefs and petroglyphs carved on their walls are used to study Indian culture, mythology and history.

Structure of the complex

It will take more than one day to explore the many temples of Ellora in India. If you only have a few hours, getting to know the structure of the complex from afar can help you plan the best itinerary possible.

Buddhist temples

The Buddhist halls, which actually started the construction of this grandiose attraction, are located in the southern part of the complex. There are 12 in all – and all but one are viharas, small monasteries used for meditations, teachings, religious rituals, overnight stays and dinners. The main feature of these caves is the sculpted images of the Buddha, seated in various poses, but always looking east toward the rising sun. The impressions of the Buddhist monasteries are mixed – if some of them are clearly unfinished, the others are present as many as 3 floors and a huge number of all sorts of statues.

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To get to this part of the complex, you must overcome the narrow staircase, which goes under the ground about 20 meters. When the descent ends, the visitors can see Tin Thal, the central Buddhist temple of Ellora. Considered to be one of the largest cave sanctuaries in the world, this three-story statue looks straightforward: three rows of square columns, a narrow entrance gate and monumental basalt platforms decorated with rare carvings. Tin-Thal itself consists of several spacious halls, in the semi-darkness of which the majestic basalt sculptures gleam.

Tourists near the temple in Ellora

Equally enthralling is the Buddhist monastery of Rameshwara, featured in many tourist photos of Ellora in India. Inferior to the central structure in area and size, it far surpasses it in the richness and beauty of the interior decoration. Every inch of this structure is decorated with fine carvings resembling human hands frozen in terrible tension. The vaults of Rameshwar are supported by four columns, the upper parts of which are made in the form of large female figures and the lower ones are decorated with high reliefs on the theme of Indian mythology. Inside the temple there are many fantastic creatures that surround the entrant on all sides and give him a genuine sense of fear. The ancient masters managed to convey the plasticity of movements so precisely that the images of gods, people and animals decorating the walls of the cave look as if alive.

The 17 Hindu caves on top of Mount Kailas are an enormous monument carved out of monolithic rock. Each of these shrines is good in its own way, but it is the Kailasanatha temple that arouses the most interest. Considered the crown jewel of the entire complex, it impresses not only with its size, but also with its unique construction technology. The huge sanctuary, which is 30, 33 and 61 meters high, wide and long respectively, was carved from top to bottom.

Elephant statues near Ellora temple

The construction of this temple, which lasted for 150 years, was carried out in stages. First, workers hollowed out a deep well, removing at least 400,000 tons of rock. Then numerous stone carvers created 17 passageways leading to the large halls. At the same time, craftsmen began to create vaults and carve additional rooms, each dedicated to a specific deity.

The walls of the Kailasanatha temple in Ellora, also called “the top of the world”, are almost entirely covered with bas-reliefs showing scenes from the holy scriptures. Most of them are related to Shiva – the supreme god of Hinduism is believed to have sat on this very mountain. The patterns and designs appear three-dimensional when viewed up close. This is especially noticeable at sunset, when numerous shadows appear from the figures carved in the stone, it seems as if the picture gradually comes to life and begins to move slowly in the rays of the setting sun.

Kailasanath Temple

Scientists believe that this visual effect was invented on purpose. Unfortunately, the name of the author still remains unknown, but there is no doubt that the Hindu caves were designed by the same architect, as evidenced by a copper tablet found in one of the caves.

Due to the specific composition of the rock, the Kailasanatha temple in Ellora, India, has remained virtually unchanged since its founding. Not only that, in some places you can see traces of white paint, which gave these caves a resemblance to snow-covered mountain peaks.

Ajanta Caves - Mysteries of the Cave Temples in India

The latter, the youngest caves of Ellora, are located in the northern part of the complex. They are separated from the rest of the structures by about 2 km, so many tourists do not get here. A total of five Jain temples, but only one is finished. For unknown reasons, work on the construction of the largest Indian shrine suddenly ceased, although the Jain cult at that time was experiencing its greatest peak.

The cave temples of the Jains, decorated with carvings and exquisite bas-reliefs, are dedicated to three gods, Gomiteshwar, Mahavir and Parshwanath. In the first of these you can see a naked statue of the deity immersed in a deep meditative state – his feet are wrapped in vines, and at the base of the statue itself you can see images of spiders, animals and reptiles.

Jain temple

The second cave, dedicated to the founder of Jain philosophy, is decorated with sculpted images of formidable lions, enormous lotuses and Mahavir himself. As for the third, which is a scaled-down copy of the Shivaite temple, there are only the remains of the ceiling paintings, which are of great interest to both professional art historians and ordinary visitors.

Useful Tips

Going to visit the Ellora Caves in India, read the recommendations of those who have already been there:

  1. There are a lot of monkeys that are frolicking at the entrance to the caves and can easily snatch your camera or camcorder, so keep all more or less valuable things tightly.
  2. Many caves are semi-dark – be sure to bring a flashlight, because without it you just can’t see anything.
  3. When wandering through the halls, don’t forget the basic rules of conduct. If for the Europeans this is just an interesting tourist site, then for the Hindus it is a sacred place. For any violation you will be taken outside, not even given an explanation.
  4. When planning a trip to the stone temples, don’t forget to check their work schedule (Wed-Fri from 07:00 to 18:00).
  5. The best place to start your visit to one of India’s main attractions is Kailasanatha. You should come right before the opening, because by 12 o’clock it will be crowded.
  6. If you plan to spend at least a few hours in the caves, take a couple of bottles of mineral water with you. Despite the abundance of stone, it is very hot here, and they sell water only at the entrance.
  7. Do not even try to take a couple of stones as a memento, it is forbidden here. There are a lot of guards on the territory of the complex, and it is almost impossible to distinguish them from the guides or locals.
  8. Do not take selfies with locals – if you take a picture with at least one of them, you will be fighting off the rest for a long time.
  9. Ellora (India) is famous not only for unique temples, but also a rich cultural and entertainment program. For example, in early December there is a music and dance festival, which attracts a huge number of people. Naturally, in between performances, they all go to the ancient caves, which already do not suffer from lack of tourists.
  10. There are 2 dining rooms and many toilets, but the best one is at the entrance.

Full view of Ellora Caves (4K Ultra HD):

Author: Olga Sheiko

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