Videoconference by Gilles Béguin, Honorary General Curator of Heritage, former director of the Cernuschi museum.

This iconic Indian site is located in the state of Mahārāshtra. The place has over two kilometers of numerous monasteries, shrines and temples entirely carved into the rock. Rock architecture is indeed one of the great originalities of Indian art and Ellora constitutes its peak. Paradoxically, this grandiose achievement is less well known than its rival Ajantā, located a few tens of kilometers away. This point is surprising since Ellora juxtaposes places of worship belonging to the three great Indian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. These thirty-four sanctuaries, dug between the 5th  and the 10th  century, characterized by great architectural and decorative richness, house thousands of sculptures, some of the finest achievements of Indian heritage, emblematic of postgupta aesthetics, mixing movement and passion.
Although the dating of the caves is still a subject of discussion due to the few inscriptions, it seems that the first caves are of śaiva obedience and date back to 6th s.
Despite the few traces still visible, the sculptures and architectural elements were painted while the walls bearing the reliefs do not have enough space to develop painted cycles as in Ajantā.

Ellora sitemap
Cave 29. Detail of the cella. Two of the eight dvārapāla. © Iago Corazza.
Cave 29. North exit. Śiva Lakuliśa.
© Iago Corazza.

Cave 29 (Dumar Lena), which could be the first (middle of the 6th s.), presents an extremely original plan. A large hypostyle hall open on three sides with, in the axis of the central bay, a cella open on four sides housing a linga. This plan is not unlike that of the Elephanta Cave, located off Mumbai. This suggests that these caves were commissioned by the Kalacuri dynasty (mid 3th s. at 7th s.) who reigned over the region. The four entrances to the cella are protected by guards (dvārapāla) door accompanied by goddesses. These statues which were to be identified by devotees of the time, present an extended gupta aesthetic with a great sense of majesty. Large bas-reliefs occupy the walls, as in Elephanta, appearing Śiva in its various forms and the couple Śiva and Pārvatī. If we compare the relief representing Śiva performing the cosmic dance with that of Elephanta we can note a certain provincialism in its execution. Significant relief shows Śiva Lakuliśa, who would have incarnated as a yogi at the beginning of the 2th s. and would be at the origin of the sect of Paśupata, particularly active in the Dekkan. It should be noted that the architectural details such as the capitals of the columns are of a quality equal to those of Elephanta.

Cave 21. Detail of the columns of the porticoes. © Iago Corazza.

Cave 21 (Ramesvara), dating from the same period, is also dedicated to Śiva. From a traditional plan, it is remarkable for the quality of the treatment of the columns and, more particularly, those of the portico which are adorned with secondary goddesses standing on lotus flowers, reminiscent of the arches of wooden architecture. The cella, in the axis of the entrance, is preceded by two very elaborate columns. The entrance to the cella is guarded by two dvarapāla, as in Elephanta or cave 29, accompanied by assistants. They cross their hands over their breasts in a gesture of submission (vinayahasta mudra), a rare gesture found at several points in Ellora. Attested in the Gupta period, it fell into disuse during the medieval period. The large reliefs that adorn the walls of the main hall and the two side chapels present the main themes of śaiva iconography. Their plastic quality places them among the masterpieces of Indian sculpture. A depiction of Skanda, eldest son of Śiva, shows him accompanied by a strange bird (peacock or rooster) and no less strange assistants with animal heads. The ram-headed helper could be related to an ancient Hindu sheep-headed deity called Harigenamesin, who is considered a faithful companion of Skanda-Kumāra (Kārttikeya).

Cave 21, dvarapāla and assistant.
© Iago Corazza.
Cave 21. Marriage of Śiva and Pārvatī. North side chapel. Detail of the central part. © Iago Corazza.

The most beautiful relief represents the marriage of Śiva and Pārvatī in three parts: the talks on the left, the mortifications of Pārvatī in the Himalayas to attract the attention of the god on the right, and, in the center, the marriage proper. The whole is treated with great elegance in a simplified gupta aesthetic. A relief depicting the goddess Cāmuṇḍā, who reigns over the mass graves, announces the medieval aesthetic. She is accompanied by the Seven Mothers (Saptāmātṛkā) and by Ganesa, younger son of ŚIva.

Cave 21. Skanda-Kumāra (Kārttikeya). © Iago Corazza.

Cave 2, Buddhist, (middle of 6th s.) presents the plan of a Buddhist monastery preceded by a collapsed porch. The facade is opened by two large windows and a door guarded by two bodhisattvas (in the manner of dvarapāla). The peculiarity of this cave is that where the cells should open we find reliefs. It is therefore a place of worship and not of residence. Thus, on the two side walls, ten large niches shelter a seated buddha with dangling legs (pralambapadasana) supervised by assistants.

Cave 2. Avalokiteśvara.
© Iago Corazza.

The cella door is guarded by two bodhisattvas who can be identified as Avalokiteśvara on the left and Maitreya on the right. The cella houses a large seated buddha, legs dangling, making the gesture of turning the Wheel of the Law (dharmacakramudrā). The treatment of the sculpture follows the gupta aesthetic but in a heavier, less refined way. An important particularity, here as in all the Buddhist sanctuaries of the site, is that there is no relief with narrative or hagiographic scenes while we are in a Mahāyānic context.

Cave 2. Side wall of the central room. Buddha preaching. © Iago Corazza.

At the beginning of 7th s., the Kalacuri dynasty will be replaced by that of the Cālukya of Vātāpi (current Bādāmi) who will reign over the region through the intermediary of feudal lords.
Cave 5 (Mahārwādā) which dates from the middle of the 7thth s. presents an interesting plan. The large central hypostyle hall is bordered on its long sides by monks' cells and, in the center, two long benches carved into the rock constitute an original arrangement whose destination is unknown.
For cave 6, from the same period, there is a hypostyle hall flanked by two spaces onto which the monks' cells open. At the end of the central room, a vestibule, with rich sculpted decoration, precedes the sanctuary. The entrance to the cella is flanked by two bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara Padmapāni on the left and Vajrapāni on the right. These two sculptures are treated with great majesty and greater elegance than before. On the side walls of the vestibule, two large reliefs shelter goddesses. The worship of the goddesses will gain importance in Buddhism at this time. The one on the right, accompanied by a peacock, figure Mahāmāyūrī, one of the oldest representations of which is found in Ellora. She will be part of the group of five protective goddesses from various illnesses and accidents. A shaven-headed monk seated in the lower left corner appears to be performing a sacrifice.

Cave 6. Mahāmāyūrī. © Iago Corazza.

Cave 10 (Visvakarma), from the beginning of 8th s., is a large Buddhist assembly hall (caitya). A portico occupies the three sides of the courtyard; supported by a colonnade, a large balcony provides access to the side chapels and the gallery. The parapet with the carved decoration testifies to the presence of devotees in this place. The triple access door to the gallery presents an imposing three-lobed composition with rich decoration which announces subsequent developments. The large nave is delimited by half-sided pillars which support a projecting frieze from which runs a sarabande of dwarves overhung by cartouches illustrated with sermon scenes.

Cave 10. Courtyard and facade. © Iago Corazza.

The impressive vault cut in the stone imitates a wooden frame. The apse is occupied by a large dagoba on the front of which is a high relief: Sākyamuni preaching, seated on the throne to the lions, is flanked by the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya. This cave seems simpler than the caverns N ° 19 or N ° 26 of Ajantā but the presence of small protomes of snakes supporting the arches constitutes a refinement absent from Ajantā. As in Ajantā, a tribune occupies the back wall of the facade and communicates with the portico, but its function remains uncertain.

Cave 10. Interior. © Iago Corazza.

Cave 12 (Tin Thal), from the beginning of 8th s. and which is the last of the Buddhist caves, is developed over three floors: on the ground floor, a large hypostyle hall, on the second level, a room lined with monks' cells and, on the third level, a large hypostyle hall divided into five bays parallel to the facade. The decoration of this cave is interesting because it presents a real evolution of iconography. Several diagrams show Śakyamuni surrounded by eight other bodhisattvas who could announce the mandala complexes of esoteric Buddhism. An astonishing bas-relief, on the first floor, shows Avalokiteśvara framed by two goddesses who could be identified with Tārā. The quality of the treatment of the bodies and the jewels is remarkable in terms of finesse and sensitivity and to be contrasted with that of the lotus plinths which seem only sketched out. On the top floor, the entrance to the cella is guarded by two bodhisattvas, the one on the left of which has the rare position of crossing the hands on the chest, as a sign of submission. On either side, two large reliefs are occupied by twelve female deities which are the oldest example of the multiple forms of Tārā.

Cave 12. First level. Diagram on the exterior wall of the cella. © Iago Corazza.

At the beginning of 8th s., the Cālukya dynasty will be replaced by that of the Rāṣtrakūta, a local dynasty that had existed since the 6th s. and who will found a great empire in the Dekkan which will last until 10th s. These dynasts will return to the traditional śaiva cult with representations of Viṣṇu and no longer follow the purism of the Paśupata. Moreover, it is the only dynasty of which we find inscriptions in Ellora.
The style of the sculptures is of a high quality and we see many representations of the great goddess with angry expressions, theatrical gestures, exacerbated movements.
Cave 15 (Dāś Avatara), mid-8th s., spans two levels and is preceded by a pavilion housing Nandin, the mount of Śiva. If the state of conservation is mediocre, it presents interesting reliefs by their diversity and renewed iconography. We see a very beautiful dancing Siva, but also Viṣṇu under different aspects: Kṛṣṇa supporting Mount Govardhana, Nārāyaṇa resting on the serpent Śeṣa in the middle of the primordial ocean, Narasiṃhā with the head of a lion, etc. If the quality of the sculptures seems lower, this is partly due to the flow of water and other attacks of time, but, above all, we must imagine that all these reliefs were stuccoed and painted.

Cave 15. Second level. South wall. Kṛṣṇa supporting Mount Govardhana. © Iago Corazza.
Cave 15. Second level. South wall. Narasiṃhāvatāra. © Iago Corazza.

The huge complex 16 (Kailāsanatha) which dates from the third quarter of 8th s. presents a colossal temple, like the palace of the god Śiva in the Himālaya, totally excavated from the cliff and which constitutes the largest rock monument in the world. The facades receive the same ornamentation as a real building with many details copied from the wooden architecture. The stepped plan allows a structured distribution of niches, pilasters and moldings. The roof of the main sanctuary (maṇḍapa) is crowned by a large lotus with triple petals. That of the cella is made up of superimposed layers animated by reductions of buildings, as we see in South India, and is topped by an eight-sided dome. This set is also copied from the wooden architecture transposed in stone.

Le Kailāsanatha, general view from the top of the cliff.
© Iago Corazza.

The “lower floor” constitutes an immense base on which the worship parts are located. The different buildings (porch, temple of Nandin and maṇḍapa) composing the temple are connected to each other and to the south cave by monumental bridges preserved in stone during the excavation. The courtyard surrounding the plinth, decorated with elephant protomes and leogriffs, allows circumambulation and gives access to chapels. At the rear of the courtyard, a portico runs on three sides, sheltering reliefs arranged in the columns.

Le Kailāsanatha, south side view. © Iago Corazza.

On either side of the central axis, on either side of the temple of Nandin, two high commemorative pillars were reserved and were to exalt the military victories of Kṛṣṇa I (around 756-before 1775) to whom the excavation is attributed. of the complex. Past the porch, we find ourselves in front of a large relief carved in the base of the temple of Nandin depicting the sprinkling (abhiṣeka) by elephants from Śrī, aspect of the goddess Lakṣmi. On either side of the panel, stand two guards (davarapāla), armed with clubs, which are aspects of Śiva: on the right Bhairava, looking fierce, and, on the left, Nandīśa much more amiable. These davarapāla are found on the second floor, protecting the entrance to the mandapa. The two massifs sheltering the stairs giving access to the terrace of the sanctuary from the courtyard are decorated with the illustration of the two great epics, the Mahābhārata in the north and the Rāmāyana in the south.

Le Kailāsanatha, base of the Nandin pavilion, west side, abhiṣeka de Ślaughed.
© Iago Corazza.

The walls of maṇḍapa are decorated with reliefs reproducing the most common Hindu iconographies with, however, some innovations such as the representation of Śiva in its appearance Ardhanārīśvara (half-man - half-woman) or that of Sūrya. Some of these reliefs still bear traces of stucco and paintings such as the one illustrating the abduction of Sitā by the demon Rāvana. These traces of the painted decoration are clearly visible under the entrance porch of the mandapa and it seems that the temple received at least two polychrome campaigns. The interior, square in plan, includes a hypostyle hall supported by sixteen finely carved pillars.

Le Kailāsanatha, south facade, the abduction of Sitā. © Iago Corazza.

scenography make this monumental relief unique and make it one of the masterpieces of Indian statuary. In addition, it must be imagined in color. The fact that it is the only relief dug in a niche and its exceptional size suggest that it would have been carried out in the last phase of the work. Some lengthening of the bodies could come from an influence from South India.

Le Kailāsanatha, south facade, Rāvaṇānugraha mūrti. © Iago Corazza.

On the south wall of the courtyard, accessible by a small staircase, is the Lankeśvara. This temple consists of a large hypostyle hall and a cella surrounded by an ambulatory like the main sanctuary. Likewise, the pillars are arranged so as to leave two wide cross passages. The columns, broad and squat, present a great typological variety and a very refined decoration of openwork volutes adorn those which are more in the center.

Court of Kailāsanatha, the Lankeśvara, first southern bay. © Iago Corazza.

North of the courtyard is a small cave dedicated to the three goddesses symbolizing the sacred rivers of India
Above, on the north wall of the courtyard, opposite the Lankeśvara, the Paralaṅkā cave extends over two floors. The vestibule communicates with a modest sanctuary, known as "the hall of sacrifice". The chapel is dedicated to the saptāmātṛkā, a group of minor, fierce and formidable deities, who surround the great goddess in her form of Durgā or Kālī. The sculptures, totally detached from the wall, have a particularly expressive, even dramatic character.

Southern part of the courtyard Kailāsanatha, hall of sacrifice, fierce goddesses including Vāgheśvarī and Cāmuṇḍā. © Iago Corazza.

The Jaina caves, grouped together to the north of the site, are the last to have been dug at 9th s., some remaining unfinished.
The great cave 32 (Indra Sabha) is protected by an enclosure open in the middle by a monumental door. The courtyard, having at its center a maṇḍapa richly decorated, serves various chapels and the main grotto which extends over two floors in the main axis. The maṇḍapa contains representations of four of the tirtāṅkara including Riṣabanātha, the oldest of the twenty-four tirtāṅkara and Mahāvira, the last of them, seated on a lion throne.

Cave 32, facade of the second sanctuary west of the courtyard. © Iago Corazza.

The facades of some caves present a rich decoration of elephantomachy, couples in love, reductions in buildings, animated scenes, but the whole lacks logic.

Cave 32, main sanctuary, upper level. © Iago Corazza.
Cave 32, main sanctuary, upper level, detail of a pillar. © Iago Corazza.

The main cave is developed on two levels. The large room on the first floor still has significant remains of paintings, especially on the ceiling. The central space is bordered by twelve pillars with diverse and high-quality decor and those of the major axis are brilliantly openwork. The walls are lined with small reliefs depicting tirtaṅkara around a large panel. The cella, whose door is abundantly carved, houses, like the one on the lower level, a statue of Mahāvīra. The west side sanctuary has retained its painted decoration                                   

Cave 32, main sanctuary, upper level, cella of the western annex sanctuary still having its paintings. © Iago Corazza.

Cave 33 (Jagannatha Sabha) would date from the first half of the 9th s. if we base ourselves on the inscriptions in old Canares characters. A vestibule precedes the room supported by four pillars with a rich ornate decoration. In the vestibule, Indra seated on his elephant and his companion Ambikā, perched on the lion, face each other on the side walls. These two sculptures are of very high aesthetic quality.

Cave 33, entrance portico, Indra.
© Iago Corazza.

Two sanctuaries occupy the first floor; the largest, protected by a parapet, opens onto the facade. The central room is surrounded by twelve pillars whose capitals display variant shapes and proportions. Halfway up the shaft, a thimble is adorned with large knots made up of vegetal foliage, the ultimate metamorphosis of vases of abundance from earlier periods.

Cave 33, upper sanctuary, detail of the columns. © Iago Corazza.

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