Monolithic marvel

Published : Jul 09, 2014 12:30 IST

The main Kailasa temple with the three-storeyed vimana.

The main Kailasa temple with the three-storeyed vimana.

“WHY was it not included among the seven wonders of the world?” One cannot help asking this question loudly when one stands in front of the massive Kailasa temple complex at Ellora, Maharashtra, overawed by the audacity of the sculptors who carved it out of the Ellora hill from the top to the bottom. The three sides of the hill were cut vertically, that is, three trenches were excavated on its three sides to obtain a huge rock island. Then the sculptors went about chiselling the rock from the top to the bottom to create a monolithic temple complex, 83 metres long, 46 m wide and 33 m deep. It was named Kailasa after the mountain abode of Siva. The credit for excavating the main temple with its vimana goes to the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (regnal years A.D. 757-773).

The complex consists of several monuments. The main temple is called Kailasa or Rangamahal. Some scholars say that the temple is called Kailasa because there is a beautiful sculpture in the main temple depicting Ravana, the mythical Raskhasa king, shaking Mount Kailasa. It is called Rangamahal because it has murals. The entrance to the complex consists of a mass of rock cut into a screen wall on either side, with a crowning element called the gopura (tower). A two-storeyed gopura has been excavated here. Five monolithic shrines, carved out of solid rock, are situated in the circumambulatory path around the sanctum of the temple. There are other shrines such as those dedicated to nadi devata (goddess of rivers), that is, Ganga and Yamuna; the yagna mantapa (the hall of sacrifice); and the annexe Lankeshwar. There are three galleries of sculptures on the eastern, southern and northern sides of the temple; two stand-alone monolithic elephants; and two free-standing kirti stambh s (victory pillars).

Scholars use superlatives to describe the Kailasa temple complex. In the assessment of the late K.V. Soundara Rajan, who retired as Additional Director General, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI): “Kailasa at Ellora is an architectural piece de resistance. …The Rashtrakuta art at Ellora was destined to be immortal with the magnum opus of the Kailasa monolith of Krishna I….” In his book The Ellora Monoliths: The Rashtrakuta Architecture in the Deccan (first published in July 1972 by Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi), Soundara Rajan writes: “There are some spectacular and profound groups of monuments in India which, by their richness, evocative appeal and prodigiousness, are well-nigh unparalleled. Ellora caves are among those choice few. ”

The late P.R. Srinivasan of the ASI, in his book Ellora , says, “One is overwhelmed by the magnificent proportion and stupendous workmanship of Kailasa, regarded as one of the greatest monolithic sculptures in the world.”

It is no surprise then that Professor G.B. Deglurkar, an authority on Hindu temple architecture and iconography, is fond of narrating an incident. Deglurkar, who has visited the Ellora monuments about 100 times, said: “During one of my visits, after I showed an Englishman the Kailasa complex, he asked me what its speciality was. I told him it was not a structural temple. It was not constructed from the bottom to the top. But the Kailasa had been hewn out of rock from the top to the bottom and that one million cubic feet of rock was removed to sculpt the grand edifice. He exclaimed, ‘How wonderful!’ I sallied, ‘But you [Englishmen] have not included the Kailasa complex as one of the wonders of the world. That is more wondrous to me!’”

Deglurkar, who is president of the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, a deemed-to-be university in Pune, said no scaffoldings were erected when the Kailasa was excavated.

Carmel Berkson, in her work Ellora, Concept and Style , says: “Of the five monolithic temples, Kailasa is often considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world. Indeed, it is. There has never been so grand an enterprise of rock-cutting.”

A.M.V. Subramanyam, Superintending Archaeologist, Aurangabad Circle, ASI, is emphatic that the Kailasa complex deserves to be listed as the greatest wonder of the world. When the photographer D. Krishnan asked him to explain why it should be considered the greatest wonder, Subramanyam said: “It is a monument of perfection. While structural temples are built from the bottom to the top, this was carved out of the Ellora hill from the top to the bottom. The architects started carving from the top, from the finial portion. The Kailasa complex is a perfect temple in the Dravidian style in several respects: plan, elevation, adherence to agama texts, beauty of the sculptures, and so on.”

The rock-cut temples at Ellora are situated about 30 kilometres from Aurangabad town in Maharashtra. Ellora was originally known as Elur or Elapura since it is located near the Elaganga river, which originates from the nearby hills. There is no specific name for these hills and they are just called Ellora hills. Between the sixth and 11th centuries A.D., armies of planners, architects, sculptors, smiths and artists were engaged in cutting the basalt lava rock, which makes up the hills, into 34 caves. These 34 numbered and the several unnumbered rock-cut monuments, including the five monoliths, represent Jaina, Buddhist and Hindu faiths. In other words, they are some of the finest examples of the architecture, sculpture and murals of these three religions. While the rock-cut edifices numbered 1 to 12 are Buddhist monuments, 13 to 29 are brahminical in character, and caves 30 to 34 are Jaina. Cave 16 is the Kailasa temple complex.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, in Katha-kalpa-taru , a Marathi work datable to the 10th century A.D. Queen Elu, the wife of Rashtrakuta king Krishna I, wanted to build a temple dedicated to Siva and so she went on a fast, vowing not to break it until the temple’s finial was built. The worried king invited architects from various parts of the country, but they were not sure whether the queen would be alive to see the vimana ’s finial fashioned. An architect called Kokasa from Pratisthan (the present-day Paithan in Aurangabad district) accepted the challenge. He first cut a finial on top of the hill. The queen, on seeing it, believed that the entire temple had been completed and broke her fast. That is how the top to the bottom excavation of the Kailasa temple complex began.

“It took about 150 years to complete the entire temple complex,” said Tejas Garge, Assistant Archaeologist, Aurangabad Circle, ASI. The carving started in A.D. 755 and went on until the ninth century A.D. “Krishna I initiated the excavation. History is not clear in whose reign it ended. However, if you look closely, you can see it is still unfinished in some portions,” he added.

While the vimana with the sanctum was hewn out of rock during the period of Krishna I, Garge said, the remaining portions such as the adhishtana, the yajna mantapa , the annexes known as Lankeshwar and Paralanka, and the three galleries on the temple’s three sides might have been the work of succeeding generations.

Garge contra-distinguished the play of light on the sculptures/paintings in the rock-cut caves at Ajanta and those in the Kailasa complex. “There is only one opening to the caves at Ajanta. Thus, there is only one source of light. There is controlled light, leading to a controlled effect of shadow and light,” he said. But this is not possible in the Kailasa complex because it is created by slicing the hill on three sides and the complex is open to the sky. “There is light everywhere. It is very difficult to control the light over Kailasa. This phenomenon has resulted in the creation of low-to-high relief sculptural panels at appropriate places. It is a problem of effect,” Garge said.

At the entrance to the temple complex, massive sculptures of ashta dikpalas have been sculpted on the screen walls. Explaining their presence, Deglurkar said: “ Ashta dikpala s are the guardians of the eight directions. The king is the representative of God, that is, he is devraj. The king’s, that is, the devraj’s, residence is prasada , which requires protection. When this is the prasada, of Siva, it requires the protection of ashta dikpalas .”

On the screen wall are sculptures of Shanka Nidhi and Padma Nidhi, signifying that whoever entered the Kailasa complex will not suffer from a lack of money. In their book Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad Caves , R.B. Gupte and B.D. Mahajan explain that Shanka Nidhi and Padma Nidhi, with their pot bellies, indicate prosperity, which usually went with power. “So the two Nidhi s, holding purses out of which money is coming out, symbolise Rashtrakuta power and prosperity. They also represent the power of the chief deity.”

After one crosses the entrance and steps into the main portico of Kailasa, one can see a carved image of Gajalakshmi seated on a lotus. There are four elephants in the panel. While each of the two bigger elephants, in the upper row, is shown pouring water from a pot over Gajalakshmi, the two smaller elephants, depicted below, are shown filling the pots with water from a lotus pond. “The panel has a three-dimensional effect. For instance, the depth of the lake can be clearly seen in the sculpture. The suggestion here is that whoever is a staunch devotee of Siva will be showered with prosperity,” explained Deccan College president.

There are two inner courtyards flanking the entry passage. Each courtyard, in the north and the south, has a gigantic elephant carved out of a single rock. They also have victory pillars,eachabout 15 m tall. Elephants were the favoured animals of the Rashtrakuta kings, who are known to have won several battles with their elephant brigade. According to Gupte and Mahajan, while the two monolithic elephants “signify Rashtrakuta supremacy”, the two free-standing pillars of victory further emphasise “the great power of Rashtrakutas”.

The corridor on the left side has sculpted panels of Mahishasuramardini, Krishna lifting the Govardana hill, Vishnu on his vehicle Garuda, Rati-Manmadha, and so on. A pillared chamber has a shrine dedicated to the three river-goddesses: Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Ganga is depicted as standing on a makara (crocodile); Saraswati as sitting on a lotus flower, with plants and birds around; and Yamuna as riding a kurma ( tortoise).

The main temple comprises the vimana with a sanctum containing the Sivalinga, fronted with an antechamber; a sabha mantapa ; a maha mantapa ; a Nandi mantapa ; and a double-storeyed gopura . The Nandi mantapa and the gopura are connected by two carved bridges.

The shikara part of the vimana comprises three stages in the diminishing order. In other words, it is like a pyramid capped by a cupola. The Kailasa faces the west, unlike structural temples, which normally face the east. Hence Percy Brown, in his The Indian Architecture (volume I), considers it a fault. Deglurkar argued that it was not so for two reasons: one, the mother rock itself faces the west, and, two, even structural temples are built facing the west.

An interesting feature is that the adhishtana, that is, the main temple’s plinth, has a row of huge, almost life-sized sculptures of elephants as if they are carrying the entire burden of the edifice. Some of the elephants are shown fighting lions and unicorns. Although the elephants are sculpted in various positions, the impression one gets is that they are confident of carrying the entire burden of the Kailasa temple.

A panel in the northern gallery has a sculpture of Ravana offering nine of his 10 heads to the Sivalinga. It has been sculpted in such a way that it looks as if the Sivalinga wears a garland of these nine heads. Deglurkar said: “For me, each image/panel of sculptures in the Kailasa has some suggestion. For instance, these nine heads represent nine types of devotion, or nava widha bhakti —nine ways in which a devotee can pray to god. They include, among others, shrawanam [listening to discourses], kirtanam [describing the glories of God], smaranam [remembering the Almighty], archanam [worship] and wandanam [offering prayers]. When one offers worship in these ways and gets ready even to sacrifice one’s life, one attains salvation.”

Another panel relates to the story of Markandeya, who was destined to live only for 16 years. The sculpture shows the boy, a staunch devotee of Siva, engrossed in worshipping the Sivalinga. Since his lifespan has ended, Yama, the god of death, appears on the scene to take him away, and throws a noose around the boy’s neck. But Siva, wanting to save his devotee, kicks Yama away. Markandeya becomes a chiranjeevi (immortal). Deglurkar called it “a beautiful sculpture by any standard”.

Adjacent to the panel of Kalyanasundara , portraying the marriage of Siva with Parvati, is a panel of the sculpture of Tripurantantaka—Siva as the destroyer of the three “puras” (towns) of three asuras. Siva is shown riding in a chariot, standing with his legs apart, stringing the bow and about to release an arrow, which will destroy the three castles. Brahma is the charioteer. The four Vedas assume the form of the four horses. “It is very likely that this arresting scene depicted here formed the inspiration for the famous painting of the Tripurantaka in the Great Temple at Tanjore [Thanjavur],” says Soundara Rajan in his Ellora Monoliths .

Another panel portrays Siva performing the Nadanta tandava. There are 108 tandavas and the Nadanta tandava is important because it signifies that Siva is the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. Explaining its significance, Deglurkar said Siva is four-armed in the sculpture. The upper right hand holds the damaru, which is used to make sound and is thus the symbol of creation. The lower right hand is in the abhaya mudra, suggesting that he is the Protector. In his upper left hand, Siva is shown holding agni , which signifies destruction. The lower left hand is in the Gajahasta pose (stretched like the elephant’s trunk), which is pointing towards the demon that Siva is trampling with his foot, suggesting the fate of ill-doers. The other leg, which is raised, indicates the freedom granted to pious people. Around Siva’s entire person is the nimbus, with bunches of five flames, each bunch arranged intermittently. They suggest the five elements, namely earth, water, light, wind and sky. Siva is dancing, maintaining a perfect balance. If he tilts his body towards any side, it can lead to the devastation of the universe. “One should be proud to know that a colossal bronze image of Nadanta tandava Siva is installed at the Centre for Nuclear Science in Geneva, Switzerland,” said the Deccan College president.

In the ardhanareesvara ( half-male, half-female) panel, Parvati is shown wearing a sari in the south Indian fashion, which indicates that the sculptors were probably from south India. “This image is taken as the fusion of male and female as the agents of creation. In fact, the purusha [male] here stands for the spirit and the p rakriti [female ] for matter or nature. They together create the entire universe. The image is to be taken as a formula. Here, the image stands for the formula of the Sankhya philosophy, and if one follows the path of this philosophy, one can achieve salvation,” explained Deglurkar. Moreover, in this sculpture, Parvati is shown holding a mirror in her hand, which indicates pratyabhijnya. In other words, when Parvati looks at the mirror, she is reminded of Siva, who was her husband in her previous life when she was Sati. The images relating to the Vaishnavite pantheon in the southern gallery portray Hiranyakasipu (Narasimha tearing apart the entrails of Hiranya), Kaliyamardana (Krishna dancing on the hooded snake called Kaliya), Seshasayee (Vishnu sleeping on the serpent Sesha), and so on. There is a panel of four-armed Annapurna, who is shown with a pot and a ladle, and one hand holding the varada mudra , the attitude of giving.

On the southern side are eight rows of friezes depicting scenes from the Ramayana, beginning with Rama seeking permission from his father Dasaratha to leave Ayodhya; then his departure from Ayodhya with Sita; their crossing the river Tamasa in a boat; their days of vanavas (exile); the killing of Mareecha, the deer, by Rama; Ravana abducting Sita; Sampati, the vulture and brother of Jatayu, who could foresee everything happening with his magical eye; Sampati telling Hanuman and Jambuvana (Jambhavan) that he had seen Ravana taking away Sita; Hanuman and others searching for Sita; Sita seated under an asoka tree; Hanuman burning Lanka; the construction of Rama Setu (the bridge to Lanka); and finally the battle between Rama and Ravana.

On the southern side, there is a sculpture of Ravananugrahmurti. It is of large proportions. Siva and Parvati are seated on Mount Kailasa. They have a quarrel. Siva gets angry, and Parvati leaves him. At that time Ravana gets beneath Mount Kailasa, lifts it with his 20 powerful hands, and shakes it. The animals on Kailasa, including monkeys, run helter-skelter. The Sivaganas look scared. A frightened Parvati hurries towards Siva, who sports a Vismaya (look of astonishment) mudra .

Deglurkar said: “This is one of the best sculptures in the world. Only a master-atelier could have created this.” The nava rasas , nine emotions, suggesting the beauty of a literary composition are depicted in this panel. The facial expressions of Siva and Parvati, and the frightened monkeys, are realistic. An unperturbed Siva presses the big toe of his foot on the mountain, which makes Ravana wince in pain. Ravana realises that it is Siva who must be causing him pain. So Ravana starts singing a composition in praise of Siva, who is pleased and hands over a lyre to him.

While episodes from the Ramayana are carved on the southern side, those from the Mahabharata are sculpted on the northern side. The sculptors did this because the final battle between Rama and Ravana took place in the south of the country while the Mahabharata war was fought in the north. “All this suggested that there was planning on where a particular panel of sculptures should be located,” said DeglurkarIn the mukha mantapa, there are two huge dvarapalas . While one is seen looking inside the hall, the other is scanning the outside, suggesting that they have shared the work between themselves and are watchful.

On the ceiling of this mukha mantapa are three layers of murals. While the bottom-most layer has murals belonging to the eighth century A.D., above it are paintings of the 10th century A.D. On top are traces of murals of the 12th century A.D., as revealed by the label inscriptions on them. On the walls of the sanctum are sculptures of flying Gandharvas and Yakshas, among others. There are beautiful sculptures of a four-armed Siva, playing the ghatam, a percussion instrument typical of south India, and of Siva performing Bhujanga tandava.

In the pavilion under the bridge between the mukha mantapa and the Nandi mantapa is a big sculpture of Siva in deep meditation as Maha Yogi, surrounded by rishis and ashta dikpalas . There are musicians playing on the drums, but they are not able to disturb Siva’s meditation. There are rishis meditating; they are seated with yoga-battam (girdle) around their legs. This image is fronted by a colossal sculpture of an eight-armed Siva killing a demon who is in the guise of an elephant. These two panels show the two opposing aspects of Siva: a calm Siva, representing the emotion of sowmya, and a furious Siva, representing raudra. “In the Kailasa complex, everything is pre-planned. It is not as if the artisans carved whatever and wherever they wanted,” said Deglurkar. “Even though we do not know the names of the architects, artisans and sculptors who conceived, planned and executed this magnum opus , it must be acknowledged that this is an unparalleled architectural masterpiece, fit to be considered one of the wonders of the world,” he said.

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