The great UNESCO world heritage site of Ellora, about two hundred miles east of Mumbai, India’s largest city, sprawls along a hill side. The site comprises thirty four caves that were dug between sixth to eighth century AD. I say ‘dug’ because these are man-made caves that thousands of laborers made by hand from the hard basaltic plateau that forms much of the peninsula of India. On the orders of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, spectacular works of art were carved in the hillside, some devoted to Hinduism, others to Buddhism or Jainism.
Each of the caves is unique in construction scale, form and embellishments and an interested visitor can spend days visiting them – most choose a few hours instead, visiting the major caves only. The prime attraction rightfully is the cave called Kailasa – number 16 in the group. It stands in the center of the spread out site. At first sight, it seems a bit of stretch to call it a cave – for it is a three story tall free standing granite temple.
Delving into its background, one learns that the temple was constructed not by masonry, but by hewing the rock from top to down! Thus, the topmost structure (shikhara – seen near the tree at the top) was built first and then the artisans chiselled away slowly at the rock, inch by hard inch, for decades. All this over fifteen hundred years ago – before many famous monuments elsewhere were built.
There is a part of Ellora complex though, which is often overlooked by visitors but provides fascinating clues as to how the main Kailasa and similar other caves were built. It is the Chhota kailasa (little kailasa) – called thus due to its outward resemblance to the bigger one. On the day I was at Ellora, I had trouble finding it, the guards themselves vaguely pointed in the direction away from the main cave complex and the guidebook (sold at counter) had the numbers off. The numbers painted at the site were changed a few years ago, and the books do not reflect the new numbers.
Near closing time (sunset), I was at the Jain complex – caves 32-34 – marveling at all that I had seen but Chhota kailas was not found. The watchman on duty said, oh, it’s right behind. That was a bit vague to say the least since the only ‘thing’ behind are the Charanandri hills themselves. Undeterred, I walked out and back towards the main complex and then quickly diverged from it along a path that led me up the mountain.
The plateau of Deccan is windy, dry and hot – even in December. The harsh sun had left me dehydrated by the time I reached the top of the path – about two floor equivalent higher than the ground level. In the near horizontal light of the sun, on my left I saw the first rock clearing that led to a structure and was elated. I had reached!
Moments later the joy turned out to be short lived, this was cave 31, a smaller unfinished shrine with little more than a four pillared portico like structure. Alarmed at the length of my shadow, I moved quickly along the paved path looking for the last, elusive one. In a few minutes I was there, the door dead ahead, dying grass on either side.
A bit unsure if this really was the place, I walked over the grass on the right side, entering the complex from where there should have been a chain or a fence of some kind. At that time, there was only the gentle wind, dying sun and the rising mountain behind. So, instead of entering the main chamber straightway, I walked around the structure as it stood. This was an incomplete structure but the first look at it reveals what the sculptors intended – they started chiselling it top down.
The shikhara (finial of a temple) was completed and we can see the decorated smooth stone. The gap between the rock ‘wall’ created by removal of material from top down was not very generous, but large enough for perhaps two men to pass through. There was however, no entrance here as a three side opened temple would warrant.
I walked further and from the point that stands diametrically opposite the entrance but at the back of the unfinished temple – got this photograph. I saw the side entrance to the temple (on the left), and on the right another separate cave chamber that would complete the temple. The unfinished ground and the rough-hewn walls were testimony to what the sculptors intended, but could never come to be.
A further 90 degree angle from that point, and I was now to the immediate left of the entrance with my back to the rock wall. A pigeon flew overhead and I ducked a bit, fearful he might dirty my head. It was not warranted, but I almost slipped into the duckweed and algae infested water. These pools are not intentional – they are signs of unfinished work. Had the sculptors completed chhotta kailasa, this would have become the space between a wall on the left and the main temple to the right. The temple structure we see today, is the second floor – the first (or ground – depending on which side of the Atlantic you went to school) was never dug out.
I then gathered enough courage to walk inside the abandoned structure. To be clear, I love exploring abandoned places and have done my time in places as diverse as Hampi, Death Valley, Fatehpur Sikri, etc. Even then, this place had the strange air of decay – like something happened here and the people left overnight.
I walked inside and the rays of sun lit the first set of pillars – they were wonderfully smooth, though not carved elaborately but the edges were all finished. However, as I turned around I found the ante chamber as well as the main prayer chamber to be exceptionally dark. Using flash I got a reasonable image of the inside – there are sixteen pillars in all, each with a water pot like top.It would have looked great had this place been completed as the sculptors and their patron intended – perhaps rivaled kailasa in detail though not in scale.
At the end of this chamber lies the sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha), that housed the principal deity in any Indian temple. I walked closer aided by my phone’s meager light. It was quite dark but with flash i got something visible – the inside of the chamber (beyond the open door) appeared to be empty for the most part.
Moments after I pressed the shutter, there was a sudden flutter and I felt something hit my head. Almost instinctively, I kneeled below and let a clutch of bats fly out of the open doors. Heaving, I lifted myself up, wiped my brow and then thought if I should stay or leave. The smell of decay made perfect sense now – it was their droppings. At this point, unsure if I would find anything major inside, I walked out to find out if I could get some better idea of who this place was built for or if anyone was around. No luck. Looking back at the main entrance I got a slightly better idea of the scale – the porch like structure is perhaps twelve feet high, and supported by thick pillars that are finished with water pot like structures. On the right (near the door) was a laxmi (goddess of wealth) statue.
I was about to leave but my curiosity got the better of me, and hence I went back inside, this time my head covered with my large white handkerchief. I dread bats and wasn’t going to take any chances. As it happened there were none. To my right was something I had missed, and then in the dim light of my mobile phone I could make out there were similar carved statues all along the wall – here’s a single photo that I looked at later.
So it was a Jain cave after all – each of these seated men without any clothes are representations of the Tirthankaras (great teachers) of Jainism – the religion that gave the world a concept called Ahimsa (nonviolence). Chhota kailasa was to be dedicated to these teachers of the ancient religion. Twenty two of the twenty four are represented in this unfinished temple. My photograph shows perhaps two along the corner of the sabha mandap (gathering chamber of devotees). The main chamber was never finished and therefore the principal idol never installed.
There was no way and still is no way for me to find out the events that happened over a millennia ago. There are no written descriptions of the reasons why the patron dynasty abandoned construction of Chhotta kailas; or indeed what happened to the thousands of artisans who chiselled away day in and out creating a temple out of volcanic rock. Sometimes we have no choice but to leave the things we leave behind. One can only imagine what it would have looked like, when completed. In this perspective photo taken shortly before I left, once again is seen the entrance porch and on the left the side entrance – high above a modern wall that defines site’s perimeter.
Near the entrance of the structure, a beautiful ten armed Nataraja (dancing shiva) stands. As I was leaving, I looked back at him – perhaps its my imagination but I thought he was smiling – maybe he knew that I had questions in my mind, but that I found a few answers that day.
It was a quarter to six pm, and I could hear the whistles coming from farther away. The watchman literally shooed me out of the complex. I went back to my temporary home (a hotel) with a smile on my face.
I’d write more about the historical and cultural treasures of India, more, later. Please leave a comment if you’d like for me to continue writing such pieces!