Soaring spirit

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The Ellora caves, Maharashtra, 6th to 10th century A.D. The Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina caves of Ellora were made on the trade route from nearby Paithan to Ujjain in central India. -

The Ellora caves, Maharashtra, 6th to 10th century A.D. The Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina caves of Ellora were made on the trade route from nearby Paithan to Ujjain in central India. -

Ellora, near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, witnessed the culmination of more than a thousand years of the rock-cutting tradition.

The Ellora caves,

THE rock-cut caves of India are one of the most magnificent traditions in art. In ancient times, palaces of kings and buildings made in the service of ephemeral personalities were made of perishable materials such as wood. That which was made for the Eternal within us, to aid us on our journey towards self-realisation, was carved out of the heart of the mountain.

In the 3rd century B.C., Emperor Asoka and his grandson Dasratha made caves near Barabar in Bihar for the Ajivikas, a deeply ascetic sect. Thus began a great tradition that lasted up to the 10th century A.D. Hundreds of magnificent rock-cut caves were chiselled out of the hills of the Western Ghats, the Krishna Valley, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and other places. The site of Ellora, on the outskirts of the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, witnessed the grand culmination of more than a thousand years of the rock-cutting tradition. From the 6th century A.D. up to the 10th century A.D., the last caves to be made for the Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina faiths were created here. Thirty-five caves were cut out of the western face of an outcrop of the Sahyadari hills.

The caves of the three faiths were made in overlapping periods, and as everywhere in ancient India, this demonstrates the generous attitude of rulers towards the worship of all divinities. As with other sites, the caves at Ellora were created on a trade route, in this case one heading from nearby Paithan to Ujjain in central India.

One of Elloras earliest excavations is Cave 21, a Brahmanical cave called the Ramesavara of the second half of the 6th century. Nandi, the bull Siva rides, sits devotedly outside with its gaze fixed on the Siva Linga in the sanctum inside. The cave has some of the most refined sculptures of Ellora. These include shalabhanjikas as bracket figures inside the cave and river goddesses on the outside. These represent the fertility and abundance of nature and continue the earliest themes of Indic art.

On panels upon the walls are larger-than-life scenes depicting Siva. These include a fine one that shows Siva and Parvati engaged in a game of dice. In the Indian tradition, deities are made like human beings. There are depictions of their family life and their emotions. This makes it easy for devotees to relate to them. The deities are, after all, personifications of the ideas and qualities in each of us. There are ganas rollicking and playing at Sivas feet. They are mischievous, and one of them is even shown biting the tail of Nandi. These depictions create a sense of the entirety of the world. Even as we look upon Siva, we are not to forget frolicsome creatures, which are a part of the rich tapestry of life.

The cave has one of the finest depictions of Nataraja, Siva in his cosmic dance. With both knees bent, the figure is imbued with dynamic movement and yet is fluid and graceful. And even with all the movement, the face conveys a sense of stillness and sublime peace.

Cave 29 of the late 6th century is similar in plan to the great Siva cave at Elephanta and, as in that cave, Siva is presented in a grand setting. The scale of the excavation is truly breathtaking, and the sculpted panels of Siva are the most dramatic. The human being is dwarfed by the colossal representations of the deity. In the same period, the earliest Brhad, or colossal, Buddha figures were made. These began in the Buddhist tradition at Kanheri and Ajanta.

The Buddhist caves at Ellora were made in the 7th century. These are the largest Buddhist excavations to be carried out in India. They also reflect the developments that had been taking place in iconography. From the simple ethical messages of the original teachings, the doctrine had become much more complex. The qualities required for enlightenment had been studied in great detail and personified in a large number of deities. A graded path towards the Truth was evolved through deities who personified the attributes of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. The devotee meditated upon these to imbibe fully the quality personified and become the deity himself. He would then proceed further on the illumined path towards the peace at the centre.

Cave 10 is the last Buddhist chaitya-griha with a stupa to be excavated at Ellora. The stupa has all but disappeared behind the figure of the Buddha, which has become much larger than it was at Ajanta in the 5th century. The traditional large window of the chaitya has also undergone considerable change. It has become smaller and more decorative.

Meditation and worship were now conducted in the vast interior of Buddhist viharas. The caves were larger and more elaborate than ever undertaken before. Cave 12 has three vast storeys, each larger than any Buddhist excavation at earlier caves at Ajanta. The caves have many representations of previous Buddhas, called Manushi Buddhas, and also of Dhyani Buddhas, who represent qualities of the Enlightened One. Bodhisattvas are also depicted in these caves. They are beings on their way to enlightenment, who help others on the path.

With Cave 14, there is a move into the realm of Brahmanical deities. There are magnificent panels depicting Siva, Durga, Vishnu and Lakshmi carved on the walls of this 8th century cave. Cave 15, of the middle of the 8th century, has some of the finest and most expressive carvings to be found at Ellora. The cave has two floors, of which the upper one has magnificent sculptures. The left wall has depictions of Siva made with a dramatic intensity.

In a magnificent depiction on a wall panel, Siva is shown killing the demon Andhakasura. On another panel, Siva as Nataraja holds us spellbound as he performs the cosmic dance. The twist of the waist and the swing of the arm convey the vigour and dynamic energy of the divinity, beyond the world of mortal forms. There are also depictions of Vishnu, such as the scene where, as part man and part lion, he kills the demon Hiranyakashyapa.

The grand climax of rock-cut architecture in India is in Cave 16, the Kailasanatha temple. This was excavated during the reign of the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I, who ruled from A.D. 757 to A.D. 793 and had his capital at Paithan. This is the largest and most magnificent monolithic excavation in the world. The entire hillside has been transformed into a great temple, with structures carved on both the inside and the outside. The scale is breathtaking: from the courtyard the temple rises over a hundred feet (30 metres).

In concept, the Kailasanatha temple is similar to the smaller, unfinished Vattuvankovil temple of the Pandyas at Kalugumalai in southern Tamil Nadu. The two are roughly contemporaneous. The Kailasanatha temple is made in the South Indian style and has many similarities with the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakkal, which was made a few decades earlier.

The Kailasanatha temple is surely one of the great wonders of the world. It replicates a vast, multi-storey structure, all of it carved out of a single piece of rock. Several hundred thousand tonnes of rock would have been carefully cut out of the heart of the mountain and removed, all of it with precision and detailed planning. It is a wondrous feat and possible to believe only because the result is before us.

The courtyard goes 276 feet (84.1 m) into the heart of the rock and is 154 feet (47 m) wide. At the back, the vertical drop from the top of the hill is 120 feet (36.6 m). The planning of the excavation had to have been extremely sophisticated as it depended on what was cut and removed rather than on what was added, which is the case in conventional architecture.

The art historian and scientist Sharada Srinivasan writes: They would probably have begun by clearing out a vast field at the top of the cliff side, where the top of the vimana was to be. There they would have laid out, in quite elaborate detail, all the measurements and plans for the temple, on this vast level field. Then they would have probably progressed by taking certain grids, perhaps of about six feet cube at each time so that the excavators could just stand and carve out the various portions without any need for scaffolding. As they worked, they would have used rock bridges along the way to connect and to clear out the debris. They would have progressed from the back of the conceived monument to the front and simultaneously from the top to the bottom.

By now, the form of the South Indian temple had developed considerably. According to the established norms, the Kailasanatha temple was made in four basic units. There is a high entrance gate, or gopuram, which screens the sacred space from the outside world. Next is a shrine of the bull Nandi. Here at Ellora, there are also two monolithic towers flanking the Nandi shrine. They would have originally carried the trident symbols of Siva. On both sides, there are life-sized elephants.

In keeping with well-established tradition, as one enters the temple, one can see a depiction of the goddess Lakshmi being lustrated by elephants. She signifies the fertility and prosperity of the natural world and has been seen in religious edifices in India since the 2nd century B.C.

Beyond the Nandi shrine is the vast and looming volume of rock that contains the large mandapa, or hall, of the temple and the main shrine. The tower, made over the sanctum, rises to a height of 96 feet (29.3 m) from the courtyard floor. At its base, the shrine is supported on the backs of life-sized elephants. This is a tradition that began in the Buddhist caves of Pitalkhora in the 2nd century B.C.

The temple is made on two levels. The Nandi mandapa, the main hall and the shrine are elevated above the floor of the courtyard. This level is reached by stairways on either side of the assembly hall. This heightens in devotees a sense of the wonder of the sacred. Coming into a world created out of the heart of the mountain, they now ascend to a more sanctified height.

The main temple complex is so magnificent that the excavations and sculptures of the side walls do not receive the attention they deserve. Among the masterpieces of Kailasanatha sculpture is the depiction of Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa. He is made fully in the round and is shown in a dramatic, deeply shadowed setting. With his multiple arms spread dynamically about him, he attempts to shake the mountain violently.

Above the depiction of Ravana, the emotion of Parvati, Sivas consort, is expressed by showing her fearfully clutching Sivas arm. Her maid is seen fleeing into the background, creating an effect of expanding space though there is actually only rock behind. Calmly and fully in control, Siva merely presses down his toe to imprison Ravana under the mountain below. The scene expresses the unlimited power of true knowledge.

The entire temple was originally plastered and painted on the inside and the outside. Today, only a few paintings survive on the ceiling of the mandapa to display traditions that continued from earlier western Indian caves. Fragments of plaster and colour on the outer surfaces show that there were at least three layers of paint over the centuries. A contemporaneous copper-plate inscription states that the architect of the temple stood before its grandeur in amazement and said, Was it indeed I who built this? The record goes on to say that the gods who passed above the temple in their celestial chariots could not believe it was the work of mere mortals.

The 9th century saw the making of Jaina caves at Ellora. Cave 32 is called Chota Kailasa as it is a much smaller version of the grand Kailasanatha temple. The profusely decorated pillars are among the finest seen anywhere. Purnaghatas, or the vases of plenty, out of which the pillars rise, are a continuing motif in Indian art from the 1st century A.D. caves of Bedsa onwards. The veranda has the figures of Matanga, who represents prosperity, and Siddhaika, who represents abundance and generosity. The figures are made in fine detail.

The cave has representations of the Jaina tirthankaras: Mahavira, Parsvanatha and Gomatesvara. Gomatesvara is believed to have stood still in penance and meditation for so long that creepers grew around his legs and body. In the 10th century, a colossal statue of Gomatesvara was made out of a large rock at Shravanabelagola in present-day Karnataka. Surviving murals on the ceiling of the Caves 32 and 33 are very valuable as they mark the beginnings of the stylised medieval idiom in Indian paintings. Cave 33, known as the Jagannatha Sabha, is similar in style to Cave 32.

These caves mark the end of the great tradition of rock-cut temples in India. For 1,200 years, sanctuaries were hewn out of the rock. These took us far from the clamour and anxieties of the material world. Deep in the heart of the mountain, the devotee could meditate upon the symbols and personifications of the finest qualities within each of us. The aim was to come out of oneself, with the realisation of the grace that is in all of creation.

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