Ajanta and Ellora Caves
A little less than three months ago, Susannah and I visited one of the hidden gems of India: the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. These are two different locations outside of the dusty city of Aurangabad, where Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain devotees carved dozens and dozens of temples into cliffs of solid rock. These man-made religious sanctuaries are centuries old, and are simply awesome.
I first heard about these caves within a few months of moving here; I noticed that those who had been here talked about their experience with similar awe about their experience. They also in no way captured what it was like to actually be there for what you feel being there is far more profound that what can be imagined. Getting to Aurangabad from Chennai is logistically challenging, so we had to commit part of our spring break trip to make the flights work. I think because it can’t be easily visited in a weekend fewer people visiting India see the miracles carved into the side of the cliffs. There are two separate locations — Ajanta is one, Ellora is the other — each with a network of temples that stretch along separate rivers. For the geologists among us, the rock in both locations is solid basalt, which was formed during at least one massive volcanic eruption more than 70 million years ago.
At Ajanta, a cliff was formed when a river wore it’s way between softer rock surfaces: the cave temples follow the river in a horseshoe contour that stretches out over close to a mile. Along this stretch, 30 caves are lined up next to each other. From the outside, the entrances are similar — they each have a large rectangular entrance along with massive rectilinear windows to allow in light.
Inside each of these caves is sight of wonders. In Ajanta, the caves are all temples, carved into the solid rock, all honoring Buddha. The ceiling in many of them is more than 10 feet high, there are commanding pillars with different levels of ornamental carving, and a giant Buddha statue in what later architects would call the apse. In the first few, the walls are painted with murals of buddhas and bodhisatvas and lay people. There a several temples which are narrower, perhaps three times as tall and feature large stupas along with sitting buddha sculptures. One has a sleeping Buddha, similar in style although much shorter than the famous one in Bangkok. Stone columns have some remnants of painting, and in the tall ceilings, ribbed patterns on the ceiling look like wooden support beams — the looks are deceiving as all of this is stone. Construction on these cave temples began more than 2000 years ago. Some took hundreds of years to complete.
The Ellora caves are nearby and follow a similar story — temples carved into basalt, construction began around the same time on the oldest temples although more recent ones were started only 1000 years ago. There are more than 100 caves in Ellora, spanning a greater range of sizes than Ajanta, and the caves fall into three categories — Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain. There are single-chamber caves, there are monasteries which have multiple floors with balcony windows, and there is one temple that was carved not from the side of the cliff, moving into the center of the rock, but rather construction was started at the top, and the carving went down into the basalt. This is Cave 16, Kailasha Temple to Shiva, which is renown for being a monolithic sculpture where 3 million cubic feet of rock were excavated in its construction. For me, I kept saying to myself, aloud: “negative space!” This single-rock-carved temple was built by making the negative space in this cliff visible.
These temples are wondrous. They’re beautiful in their own right. Mystical, too. The story around the caves in both locations are hard to imagine — some of these temples took hundreds of years to complete, and then they were “lost” for centuries. In the 19th century a British man stumbled upon them while hunting tigers. The last known reference scholars can piece together about these caves comes from the Mughal empire.
I remember being in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, where the tomb for King Tut is, as well as the tombs for 61 other pharaohs. Those tombs are multi-chambered subterranean mausoleums, created to be hidden from grave robbers (it was unsuccessful — a community of bedouin homes nearby is commonly called the “valley of the thieves”). I was struck when I was there by the complex mapping of the underground construction — some of those caves had chambers that came very close to the chambers of the neighboring tombs. I wondered how the engineers knew how not to crash into the adjoining chambers.
The caves at Ajanta and Ellora aren’t as close in proximity, nor are they underground, but there’s a similar vision and craftsmanship displayed in each location that is worthy of our awe. I wondered here how the designers of these temples decided when to stop building one temple, and when to start on another. I wonder why they chose so many that are both different from each other and yet were quite similar. We often think of the people in the ancient world as just struggling to survive the elements or hostile neighbors, but places like this weren’t built to survive a bad storm or invasion. These miraculous caves should remind us of the indubitable human desire for artistic articulation and expression of faith.