Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ellora caves (वेरूळ Vērūḷa)

My dreams were as black as the Indian night, as they fell from my sleep before I had a chance to remember them and scattered along the highway from Mumbai to Aurangabad.

I woke up with the bright morning sun shining on my face through the bus window as we pulled into the central bus terminal. My eyes didn't adjust in time to get a good sight of the streets but it felt clean and open, with lots of yellow, and orange, and cream colored walls. I didn't have to wait long for the bus to Ellora, which was only another thirty kilometers away. I slept most of the way then crammed in a few pages of reading about the caves before arriving.

The bus let me off at a big open cross-road with a small row of restaurants, shops, and boarding along the left side. The first thing I did was get a room to drop my bag in, then had some food an a lassi and made my way up the hill to the caves.

The caves are numbered from 1 to 34, starting in the south, then stretch two kilometers across the hill. The southern most group, 1-12, are Buddhist caves, the central group, 13-29, are Brahmin (Hindu), and, separated to the north, are the Jain caves, 30-34. They were carved out of the side It's generally believed that the Buddhist caves were carved between the years 600-800 CE, the Brahmin caves between 600-900 CE, and the Jain caves coming later, between 800-1000 CE. What I find really interesting is that the three religions all shared the same area in religious harmony.

The caves are mostly impressive as a whole than individually, but a few stand out as amazing examples of religious architecture. The path leading to them enters in the middle, right in front of the Kailasanatha Temple, dedicated to Shiva. This is by far the most remarkable temple of all in Ellora, carved not as a cave but a free standing structure. Carving began at the top and worked down to the ground until the temple was entirely exposed. The temple is extravagant, inside and out, covered in elaborate bas-relief images of Hindu deities and mythological events. The central piece of the main shrine is Shiva's 'Lingha' . The Linga is a symbol of Lord Shiva's infinite energy, but is also blatantly phallic, the counter part of the Yoni, a symbol of female creative energy.

The only problem with starting at the Kailasanatha Temple is that the next caves seem dull in comparison. I started south, towards the Buddhist caves, most of which were monasteries, two of them being massive three-story structures. The shrines had larger than life images of Buddha, seated which hands positioned in various mudras. Despite the musty stench of the dark spaces, they retained the powerful presence of practice that's lingered throughout the centuries. I imagined the generations of monastic community that sat in these caves meditating, chanting, studying the Dharma. Standing in front of one Buddha, I hummed a faint, timid "Ommmm..." and the space answered, filling with a powerful reverberation, happy to have been stirred from its sleep.

The most phenomenal of the Buddhist caves is cave 10, the "Carpenter's cave", carved to resemble rounded, wooden beams supporting the ceiling. In the center sat a beautifully carved seated Buddha, a Bodhisattva standing on each side. A man stood outside, holding a big mirror over his head, directing sunlight onto the Buddha's face. It looked like a painful way to spend the day, but he must have strong shoulders by now!

Reaching the southern end, I turned back to the north, and made my way through again, passed Kailasanatha, towards the Jain temple. It was quite a walk along the cliff, with the path narrowing as the hill turned into a steep cliff but worth it once I arrived at the first Jain temple. The finished Jain caves are the most refined and ornate of all the temples, with the exception of Kailasanatha. The iconography is very similar to that of the Buddhist caves to the point that I thought I was looking at Buddhas sitting in meditation, until I realized these ones don't have any robes, which was conspicuously "pointed out" by a standing figure. Actually, Jainism and Buddhism are similar in many ways, except that Jainism emphasizes atman, the existence of a soul, whereas Buddha taught anātman, that individual identity is ephemeral, though he did sway if he saw the individual was not prepared to accept this. Jainism could also be considered more extreme in some cases than the Buddha's middle way. Jainism out dates Buddhism by a few hundred years, but its most well known figure, Mahavira, was a contemporary of Buddha.

From the Jain temples, I was able to take a cycle-rickshaw back to Kailasanatha, where I explored some more. I met a couple of American girls who'd just come out of Vishnu's Linga shrine and asked if I had any clue why the Indians were laughing so hard when they sat on top of it to pose for pictures. I could barely hold back the giggles myself as I explained the symbolism of the rod-shaped stone and they admitted it should have been obvious to them by the shape. I'm sure it didn't help with the reputation of western girls any, either!

After seven hours, I was just about exhausted (and so was my camera, it was starting to fire the flash while it was closed, causing a bit of smoke to rise from the cap. maybe it was from the heat?) but I wanted to see the Carpenter's Temple one more time. The last bit of rich golden sunlight crept along the pillars, lighting up the space. It was quite spectacular. I sat for a bit, until the last bit of sunlight had dimmed then made my way back towards the guesthouse.

By the parking lot, a group of macaques crowded the sidewalk, hoping to get some bananas from the tourists. Capitalizing on the opportunity, a man sold bunches of small bananas from them, and I gave into the urge to feed them, though I didn't expect them to be grateful and I have no illusions that they were.

I had some biryani then headed back behind the building, to the row of rooms over-looking a small dump. As I passed the open door of the room next to mine, I noticed a group of Korean bhikkhuni, Buddhist nuns, so I bowed to them, with palms together, and said, "Annyeong hassaeyo." Surprised, one inquired, in Korean, "Huh? How do you speak Korean?" I told her I teach English in Korea and am here on vacation." The guesthouse owner had come to their room for something, so she asked, again in Korean, "How much did you pay for your room?" I told her 200 rupees, and she immediately asked the owner, now in English, why my room was cheaper than theirs. He looked at me, a bit upset, and said, "Don't tell them how much you pay for your room. You are one person, so your room is cheaper." then I realized he was in their room to negotiate the price and I was a bit sorry except I knew that the Bhikkhuni were probably on a tight budget and I didn't mind helping them out...

The rooms were pretty much cement cells, with cracks and patches of mold. Before going to bed, I chased a couple of big bugs into a big hole in the wall (I'm sure they managed to crawl back during the night) and put a little frog outside. What ever discount the Bhikkhuni ended up with because of me, they definitely deserved!


  1. Great! Love to see there! Thank you for your post and photos.

  2. Nice post!
    But you've made one mistake. The lingam is of Shiva and not Vishnu. Kailashnath literally means lord of Kailash (meaning Shiva).
    Shiva is worshipped in the form of the lingam in Hindu temples.

  3. Thanks Nat!

    & thanks you Anon, for pointing that out, too. I actually knew that, but my brain said one thing and my fingers typed something else... One of the troubles of being a slow typer, my hands are always a few words behind my thoughts, leads to lots of typos... haha