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Ellora Caves

The magnificent Ellora Caves of India

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Tolerance is a value that seems to be in short supply in modern society. Nowadays, differences in ideology, political allegiance, and religious belief, are seen as good enough excuses for not tolerating, and even hating, other groups of people. Yet, there are numerous instances where different sectors of society have been able to co-exist in harmony despite their differences. One such example can be found in the archaeological site of Ellora, India.

Ellora is situated not far from Aurangabad, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. This site is home to 34 monasteries and temples, extending over a distance of more than 2km. These structures were dug into the wall of a high basalt cliff. It is unclear when these caves were built, and estimates range from between 200 B.C. and 600 A.D. to between 600 A.D. and 1000 A.D. The oldest caves can be found on the southern side of the cliff and are of Buddhist origin. It has been claimed that they were built between the 5 th and 7 th century A.D., during which there was a flourishing of the Buddhist Mahayana sects in the region. The Buddhist caves comprised of monasteries and a single large temple (Cave 10). A lot of effort was put into these structures. For instance in Cave 12, the three-storied building is believed to have been built entirely by human hands and hard labour. The rock-hard floors and ceiling of this cave were made level and smooth, reflecting the immense skill and craftsmanship of the builders.

Entrance to Ellora Caves

The entrance to Cave 12. Photo source: Wikimedia

Moving north from the Buddhist group, one reaches the Hindu Caves. These 17 caves belong mainly to the Saivite sect, and date to the Rashtrakuta period in the middle of the 8 th century A.D. For instance, Cave 16 is said to have been built by the Rashtrakuta king, Krishna I, and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. This cave was named ‘Kailasa’ after the deity’s mountain home in the Himalayas, Mount Kailash, and consists of a shrine with a lingam at the rear of the hall with a sikhara, a flat-roofed mandapa supported by 16 pillars, and a separate porch for Nandi surrounded by an open court entered through a low gopura. In addition, there is also a sculpture of Ravana, the Rakshasha king of Lanka, attempting to lift Mount Kailash with his full might. This is said to be one of the landmarks in Indian art. 

Cave 16 - Ellora Caves

Cave 16. Photo source: Wikimedia.

The last four caves belong to the Jain group. These were said to be built between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1000 by the Digambara sect. These caves are massive, well-proportioned and decorated. For example, there are delicate carvings of lotus flowers and other elaborate ornaments in Cave 32. In addition, the builders of these caves are said to have drawn their artistic inspiration from the pre-existing structures at Ellora. For instance, certain features of Cave 32 are noted for their resemblance to the ‘Kailasa’.

Lotus Flower - Cave 32 Ellora Caves

A lotus flower on the ceiling of Cave 32. Photo source: WebUrbanist.

Unlike past examples in history, where the dominant religion of a time and place has pulled down the temples and structures of other groups, replacing them with their own, the Ellora Caves demonstrate respect and acceptance of other religions. There was no need for the followers of one religion to convert the sacred space of another into their own. They simply moved along, found an empty spot, and built their own sanctuaries.  The Ellora Caves, therefore, not only bear witness to three great religions, but they also illustrate the spirit of tolerance, characteristic of ancient India, which permitted these three religions to establish their sanctuaries and their communities in a single place.

Every year, large crowds of pilgrims and tourists visit the Ellora Caves. For some, it is the sacredness of the site that draws them there, while for others, it is the site’s artistic value that attracts them. On the 3 rd week of March each year, the Ellora Festival of Classical Music and Dance is held at the Caves, breathing life into this ancient site. Finally, the significance of the Ellora Caves can be seen in the fact that they were inscribed by UNESCO into the World Heritage List in 1983. This is a heritage that hopefully will be preserved for many generations to come.

Featured image: The Ellora Caves. Photo source: Wikimedia.

By Ḏḥwty


Archaeological Survey of India, 2011. World Heritage Sites - Ellora Caves. [Online]
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[Accessed 25 April 2014]., 2014. The Ellora Festival. [Online]
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[Accessed 25 April 2014]., 2014. The Ellora Caves. [Online]
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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. Ellora Caves. [Online]
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UNESCO, 2014. Ellora Caves. [Online]
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[Accessed 25 April 2014].



Tsurugi's picture

Agreed. I have a fair amount of construction experience. As such, the whole "a bunch of monks with chisels and lots of spare time built these" theory sounds ludicrous to me. You don't get something like these amazing rock-cut structures by going in there and wingin' it.
The entire thing, from top to bottom, inside and out, would need to be meticulously planned down to the tiniest details before you even start construction. You'd need to survey, measure, and range every angle, every surface, and every corner, and check them constantly as construction progresses. Because if anything gets off the slightest bit, you're in trouble fast. If a corner line is just a half a degree off, in 50 feet(15.2 meters) that corner will be close to half a foot(15.2 cm) out of position. And since these structures are carved out, rather than stacked only get one chance to get it right.
When constructing normally, you start with a flat pad and stack everything up from there. This means we can lay out the walls to get them just right, using string and stakes, lasers and levels, framing squares and measuring tape, etc., before laying a single brick.

How do you do that when your future walls are buried in solid rock?

You don't. Which means you have to get it right the first time, almost from scratch, and it has to square up with all the other walls, floors, and ceilings.

So I can't really get behind the idea that this was done by monks as a hobby in their spare time. This was pro from the start.

In order to have built the structure in the time suggested (18 years), it would have taken the removal ot 6 tons of rock an hour from the mountain every day, 24/7: A feat simply not possible without machines. This doesn’take into account the precise and detailed sculpting, engineering and arial alignment of the temple. Advanced civilizations? Certainly. Human beings can’t build this type of structure today.  We can slap up Walmart’s in 3 weeks though….maybe that counts for something.

so amazing how this was build all those many years ago...

So, people carved these from a mountain? Took rock hammers and chisels and went crazy on the mountain? It's very interesting to now wonder if the building was done through slavery, paid for by the rich, if it was done by very devoted monks, even, or as a community whereby a whole village or more than one village is organised into a system to build the caves - if not villages then possibly religious groups coming together to celebrate the divine by building the temples. However it happened, the comment above me about the Egyptians or Chinese coming over and building is also a very interesting idea - do the dates match up for Egyptian help? Do we need to even think that a separate culture couldn't have their own skilled stonemasons? Or that the skills were taught by those who had perfected it? Still, 'magnificent' is definitely the word I'd use! Wonderful caves and temple system.

Did you know that on the lowest level of the Kailasa temple are carved the signatures of the people who carved this temple. These include a Chinese dragon and the Egyptian Spinx. Can you imagine skilled artisans coming all the way from China and Egypt to work on these caves, centuries back! It is also unlike any building on earth, being built from the top down.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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