Monday, March 5, 2012

The cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora - Part 1

    There is a deep and appealing notion in Hinduism that the Universe is indeed the dream of the Gods. Our ancient history shows that at times religious ideas are transcended by art. The sculptures and paintings of Ellora and Ajanta are an expression of the ideal that men may not be the dreams of the Gods but rather that the Gods are the dream of men.

     Ajay just wanted to get out of town every weekend. In an attempt to make his plan more concrete, he hit upon the idea of visiting all the UNESCO world heritage sites in India in the current calendar year and invited a few of his friends to take part in the challenge. There are 28 world heritage sites in India. The sites cut across religions, time-periods and dynasties - temples, mausoleums, churches and forts, a few caves that were excavated Before Christ, a few national parks including the man-eater tiger infested Sundarbans, one railway station (CST), another a rail network. Also they are spread across the country from the Qutb Minar in the North to the great Chola Temples of the South, from the Kaziranga National Park in the East to the Elephanta caves in the West.

    So we definitely have our tasks cut out for us if all these sites are to be visited in one calendar year. The marathon season ended with the Auroville marathon on Feb 13th; so when Ajay invited me to this, I was more than looking forward to a new challenge. Just to make things a bit more formal, Ajay set up a web-site to track activities of participants and remind them frequently that they have plenty more places to visit - here. 

Bibi Ka Maqbara: 
    Ajay and I decided to visit the famous Ajanta-Ellora rock caves during the weekend after the Auroville Marathon. Such impulsive travel is difficult in India because it's not easy to get train tickets at the last moment. But Tatkal and a 10 Mbps internet connection made this trip possible. We reached Aurangabad at 8.30 am, had a quick breakfast in a nearby hotel and then took an auto to Bibi ka Maqbara (meaning wife's mausoleum), around 7 kms from the railway station.
Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad
      This structure was constructed between 1651 and 1661 A.D. by Prince Azam Shah, son of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, in memory of his mother Rabia-Ul-Durrani. Not sure how he managed to do this since the wikipedia says that he was born only in 1653. The kid was all of 7 years old when this mausoleum was completed (in 1660) making him India's very own Bob the Builder... The Maqbara is a poor imitation of the Taj mahal, perhaps indicative that the prince just wanted to build a mausoleum better than his grandfather Shanjahan but ran into financial difficulties midway. It is part marble and part plaster and the interior decorations are nothing when compared to the Taj Mahal; but the place has its own grace and charm. Unfortunately, the ASI (Archeological Survey of India) is 'scientifically' rebuilding parts of the structure using cement making it look like one of those partially constructed residential complexes you find in big cities these days. 
Daulatabad Fort:
    We then hopped onto a jeep to go to the Daulatabad Fort- a pyramidal fort that's about 600 feet tall and around 15 kms from Aurangabad. The place had its moment under the sun when Muhammad Tughlak ordered his capital to be shifted here in 1338 A.D. I wonder what Tughlak saw in this dusty little town to shift his capital here and what he disliked in this place to transplant the entire population back to Delhi. Needless to say, the arduous to-and-fro journey killed thousands en-route. The climb uphill was tough and we were definitely not aided by the steep and narrow steps built to confuse invaders, stinking dark tunnels full of bats and a scorching sun that showed us little mercy.
Ramparts of the Daulatabad Fort
Plenty of howitzers and bronze cannons at Daulatabad Fort
      If you wish to study the various types of cannons used by the Mughals in war, this would be the ideal place to start off. We found large to heavy guns to medium howitzers, most made of iron and a few of bronze. We reached the top to find a bastion with a large bronze cannon and plenty of school children perched upon it encouraging their class mates below to click pictures. Attention seeking langurs were patiently waiting for handouts, scrambling and fighting when one of the kids threw down a banana. We rested for a few mins at the top, got down what was once the most powerful fort in India and again took a jeep to Ellora, around 13 kms from the fort (28 kms from Aurangabad).
    By the time reached Ellora, I felt exhausted and had no idea if I had energy left to cover Ellora that day. Somehow I had always imagined that I was tougher than most people, being a runner and all. So it was a bit of a reality check that maybe I had overreached myself during the running season. The only reason I managed to walk miles in Ellora was because of a short nap at the hotel after lunch. I still don't know what Ajay what doing when I indulged in that cat nap. A word of caution - the Ajanta Caves are closed on Monday and Ellora Caves are closed on Tuesday, so plan accordingly.
The majestic Kailashanatha Temple in Ellora
     The caves of Ellora are a product three religious systems – Buddhism, Brahmanism and Jainism and each one of them brought in its own individual style in architecture. Ellora has around 34 rock cut caves, the first twelve Buddhist, the next sixteen Brahmanical and the last four Jain. All the caves have been excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills.

The Buddhist Caves:
    The Buddhist caves are the earliest (500-700A.D.) and the caves are either Viharas (dwelling place for wandering monks) or Chaitya(Prayer) Halls. Cave 2 has an interesting sculpture of Buddha on an iron throne; perhaps he was king as well as an ascetic. A sculpture of Saraswati – the Hindu goddess of learning adorns cave 6. Cave 12 is a three storey structure hewn out of rock! The simple facade outside does not betray the rich sculptures of Buddhist Gods and Godesses inside. Cave 10 is a proper Chaitya Hall and has a sculpture of Buddha in stupa along with attendants. The ceiling has been carved to give the impression of wooden beams. 
Buddha sitting on throne at the Buddhist 'Carpenter' cave.
Carpenter Cave - Long shot
Cave No. 10 - Teen Taal,  3-storeyed structure hewn out of rock
     The art forms are so similar to later Hindu sculptures and designs that there must have been very little trouble naming Buddha as one of the Hindu Gods leading to the virtual extinction of Buddhism in the land of its birth. That the Buddhist caves remain is testimony to the fact that the war was fought in the debating halls rather than in the battlefield.

The Brahmanical Caves:
    A smile, a word of thanks and joy in the eyes of the beholder is perhaps the vindication of an artist’s genius, dedication and years of hard work. The symmetry, precision and grace of sculptures hewn out of rock mean that generations of sculptors spent their entire lives in the confines of these caves. What was their motivation? I always wondered what the Rashtrakuta kings of the yore bestowed to the Picasos and the Ravi Vermas of their age. Anyways that era is clearly a sharp contrast to present day IT industry where you are termed a failure if you stick to the same job for more than two years.

    The Brahmanical caves, excavated between the seventh and ninth centuries are glimpses of an era when Buddhism was on its wane and Hinduism on a resurgent second coming. Lord Shiva and the Dash Avatars of Vishu replace Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. Most of the Rashtrakuta temples in history are based on the same motif – the richness of Hindu Mythology. Frescos and scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata adorn the walls and the temples are as a rule multi-layered. The bottom layer is made generally carved with elephants indicating the strength of the Rashtrakuta Empire. Amorous couples in various states of undress adorn the upper layers hinting that perhaps our present-day Victorian-based society is a legacy of 400 years of British rule.
Kailashanatha Temple - Shiva Dancing.
      Cave No 16 or the Kailashanatha Temple is the unrivalled masterpiece of Ellora. This muti-storeyed temple that would cover two-thirds of a football field is hewn out of a single monolith and is meant to mimic the appearance of Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. The temple resembles other south Indian temples built by Rashtrakuta rulers based on the Dravidian style architecture like Pattadakal or Halebid. The temple is richly carved with pilasters, windows and niches and various master pieces of Hindu Mythology adorn the walls of this temple. Sculptures of the Natya(Dancing) Shiva and a scene depicting the wedding of Shiva and Parvathi and another depicting Ravana trying to lift Mount Kailasha are a few of the highlights.
Ajay and me at the entrance of the Kailashanatha
Kailashanatha Temple - Ravana lifting Kailasha
     The other Brahminical caves contain very little note-worthy when compared to the great Kailashanatha temple. Sculptures of Brahma (a rare sight in Hindu Temples), Indra lording over the heavens, Goddess Durga killing the buffalo demon and Varaha Avatar of Vishnu are a few notable sculptures in the other caves.
Cave 16 - Durga killing demon.
  The Jain Caves:
    The four Jain caves were excavated between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Cave 32 is a two-storeyed cave that is a smaller version of the Kailashanatha Temple and called the Indra Sabha. There are figures of Mahavira and other Tirthankaras of Jain religions lore. The statue of God Parshvanath being guarded by the Serpent King is an example of a historical personage elevated to the status of God.
Jain cave no 34 - Mythical creature or aggressive fat lion?
     At 6 pm the ASI guards began shouting out and loudly blowing whistles to clear the caves of persistent visitors like me who were intent on not missing out even a single sculpture. Ajay and I took a jeep to Aurangabad and the driver filled in around 15 people into a 9 seator vehicle and insisted on us paying him in advance. He must have worked as Mumbai local train driver before taking up this job, I thought. We were least surprised when he managed to squeeze in a few more people into the back seat on the way. We were done for the day; it was time to rest our tired bodies and sated minds in Aurangabad. The Gods of Ajanta would have to wait for another day.


Subramanian R said...

Hi Bharat,

Very nice account of ur visit. Any parallels you could draw to our Badami visit..if any you can write in Part II.

Bharath K said...

Thanks Subbu. Have added a few parallels between these early caves and the later ones excavated by the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas in the next part.

Kislay Verma said...

Excellent post. Shall be used!

Swathi said...

Thank you for sharing your experience of Ajanta and Ellore Caves.It is really awesome reading your blog. Universal Travels