At the bus stop at Aurangabad, I meet a couple of tourists from Tamil Nadu. They ask me about buses to Ellora.
‘I am waiting for one too,’ I tell them. ‘It should be here soon. There is one scheduled to leave at eight.’
My Japanese friend from yesterday joins us. Since there is still time, he wanders off for a cup of tea. Meanwhile the bus draws up to its bay, passengers board in a hurry and we are off to Ellora. The Japanese tourist will have to wait for the next bus, whenever that may be.
My new friends from Chennai are curiously named Jai and Vijay. I am tempted to tell them these are names of Lord Vishnu’s dwarapalakas. I am instead drawn to the purpose of their visit to Ellora. They are on a mission to visit all the twelve Jyotir Lingas. Apparently Ellora has one of them. I know there is a temple here but I didn’t know that this was part of the famous group of twelve. So I decide to visit it first before my tour of the famous caves.
The Ghrishneshwar Temple was built by Rani Ahillyabai Holkar. After depositing my boots at the entrance with an old woman, I walk in. So early in the morning the temple is quiet. I am not particularly keen about the linga enshrined within. My attention is immediately drawn to the shikara. It is neither North Indian or South Indian in style. It rises in pyramidal fashion with small reliefs packing tightly on its surface. It ends in a large bulbous dome sitting on outspread petals. At the base of the shikara is a frieze of panels containing Vishnu avatars and elephants, among others.
The temple itself is stellate in design with plain plinths. Parapets bear four-foiled floral motifs. Smooth lathe-turned capitals of half pillars can be seen from outside.
There are three entrance porches to the main mandapa. Stepping inside, I can see beautiful sculptural panels on many of these pillars. There is a scene in which hounds chase after antelope in a hunt. In another scene, boars and deer are carried home on poles after a successful hunt. In another panel, a dancing Krishna dips his fingers into pots of butter while also dancing with a couple of gopis. Elsewhere a yogi is seen in a pose of Padmasana. The inside of the sanctum looks Islamic in design. I wonder if this had previously been part of a mosque or Muslim artisans were employed in its construction.
Three of us stop at a dhaba for breakfast. We chat about experiences on the road. They tell me about their frequent bike trips to Sri Kalahasti.
‘Often we spend an entire Sunday there. We have darshan and later climb up to a nearby hill,’ tells me Vijay. ‘We relax their in a shade until sunset. It is so quiet and peaceful. No rush for anything.’
We buy our tickets to the caves. In the distance I can see the magnificent Kailasa Temple cut out from the surrounding cliff. The details are lost from such a distance but I can clearly sense the scale of this creation. It must have taken them years. I hang around the entrance not knowing what to expect on the inside of this rock-cut temple. My friends have already gone inside.
The temple was chiselled out in the 8th century during the rule of the Rashtrakutas. The vimana is Dravidian in style and reminds me of the Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal. This is no coincidence since that temple was also built during the same period. I walk up a flight of stairs, through an entrance portico (one of three), through a pillared mandapa to finally access the central sanctum on a higher level. It is surrounded by five subsidiary shrines in an architectural scheme called panchayatana. Some erotic couples in relief decorate the walls.
At the base of the temple is a running frieze of elephants, lions and yalis. These would remain unnoticed because they can be found in many temples all across India. What makes them special is their enormous scale. Outer walls of the temple contain tales from Ramayana and Mahabharatha. I find it interesting to study some of these reliefs in leisure. Tour groups come and go. The place is crowded with tourists, both local and foreign.
‘How much does it cost to hire a guide?’ I ask a guide who is taking a break. His group has wandered off on their own and will assemble back in a few minutes
‘Six hundred rupees,’ he quotes.
‘That’s expensive,’ I reply.
‘If you are alone, may be,’ he agrees. He explains, ‘Actually it is not expensive because only graduates are allowed to conduct tours. I have a Masters degree in history. During season I may be able to guide three or four groups on a good day. Often it is far less than that. There are many guides here and we have to take turns.’
Around the main temple are open courtyards and then pillared corridors at the edges. These corridors are lined with huge sculptural panels. With so much around, it is really difficult to see everything to the fullest measure. Everything I see stands out as a masterpiece of Indian art. There are Vishnu avatars. There are statues of Shiva and Parvati. There is Lord Bhairav. There is Goddess Gajalakshmi. In one hall to the side are Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Elsewhere are the Saptamatrikas. None of these are to be glanced away in a hurry. Each one deserves many minutes of study. When I come of this temple, Cave 16, as they call it, I realize that I have been here for more than two hours. I have 33 more caves to cover. I climb up the surrounding cliff and take one final look at the temple from above. Not many temples afford such a perspective.
Nothing at Ellora Caves can beat the Kailasa Temple for what it is. Yet other caves too hold their own masterpieces. I think Ellora is one of those places where a serious traveller can spend a week studying and understanding. What we have here is beyond art. For that matter, it is debatable if the Kailasa Temple is art or architecture, plain craftsmanship or engineering.
Some caves contain Hindu themes. A few caves from the 9th and 10th centuries are dedicated to the Digambara sect of Jainism. The oldest ones are the Buddhist caves. While at Ajanta, paintings are the highlights, at Ellora rock-cut sculptures are their counterparts. Some caves have huge mandapas. Others contain wonderful sculptural panels. Some are multi-storeyed.
Cave 10 from the 7th century is a Buddhist chaitya vihara which has at its focus an apsidal prayer hall flanked by pillared aisles. At the apse end of the hall is a stupa decorated with a preaching Buddha. The vaulting is rock-cut but mimics wooden vaulting of more ordinary monsateries. Sculpted panels pack the architrave all along the length and apse of the prayer hall. There are cells to the sides and at a higher level. A platform facing the prayer hall from the first floor might have been used by musicians. At the entrance portico, half-cut decorations indicate that this cave was not completed.
Cave 1 is from the 6th century and has an astylar hall instead of the more common hypostylar one. Cave 14 contains a beautiful sculptural panel in which Ravana is shaking Mount Kailash. This is a theme repeated in Cave 29 in another beautiful panel. Cave 29 has huge doorkeepers, an ambulatory around the main shrine and beautiful capitals on pillars. Among the Jain caves, Cave 32 has superb work on pillars. Goddess of prosperity, Ambica, sits under a tree ripe with mangoes that tempt monkeys frolicking amongst leafy branches. Her attendants sport wonderful hair styles. Caves 32 and 33 are linked to each other in a unique manner at a higher floor.
‘What do you think of Ellora?’ I ask the Japanese tourist. It is evening and I have finally spotted him at the last cave.
‘I have been to many countries studying relics of Buddhism. I think…’ he pauses in mid sentence and nods his head. Shide continues, ‘…India is the best. From what I have seen at Ajanta yesterday and today here, nothing like this anywhere else.’
A photographer comes along trying to sell him an instant photograph. Shide wants to avoid him but the guy is persistent. He shows him his equipment snugly stored in a bag hanging by his right shoulder. He smartly ignores me, knowing that trying to get business out of Indians is not as rewarding as with foreigners.
‘See. See. I can print photo in only two minutes,’ he quotes.
Shide laughs quietly and points at the equipment, ‘This thing here, we used to have that in Japan fifty years ago.’
We finally manage to shake off the guy and walk back to the entrance. I am starving. I should have packed something for lunch. I have been here the whole day, even skipping lunch for the sake of these wonderful caves.
‘See. This is what I don’t like about India,’ says Shide pointing to an empty packet of chips right in the middle of our path.