Thursday, September 21, 2023


There are few man-made structures that have made me feel as if the air was sucked out of my lungs —the first sight of the Taj Mahal or the Brihadeshvara temple at Thanjavur, or when, at the end of walking through a narrow canyon in Petra, the Al-Khazneh suddenly comes into view. I had that same feeling when I saw the Kailasha temple at Ellora. But more on that later.

Ellora has a series of rock-cut excavations built over a period of nearly 500 years, starting around the 6th century CE. The end result is a series of 34 caves representing three great traditions of pre-Islamic India—Buddhism, Jainism, and Brahmanism—that were healthily jostling for civilizational mindspace in that period. The first twelve caves, also the oldest ones, are Buddhist in nature and reminiscent of the Ajanta caves. The last five represent Jainism, somewhat similar to the Buddhist ones, but most Indians will identify the Jain motifs in the exquisite details. Almost as a symbol of the hegemony that Brahmanism eventually claimed in this land, the middle caves are dominated by the Hindu excavations.

Most of the 16 caves in the middle section are special in their own way, and I realized the single day I had budgeted for Ellora was woefully inadequate. Cave 15, for instance, depicts the Dashavatara, and each carving is a story unto itself. But the real showstopper is cave 16, the Kailasa temple.

Michelangelo said this about his most famous creation in marble: “I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.” The unnamed architects of the Kailasa temple, commissioned by the Rashtrakuta kings, did something similar to a whole temple. They took a whole rock mountain and chipped away everything that wasn't a temple and left us a wonder that stands at 32m at its highest. I had read quite a bit about the temple before visiting it, and yet that didn’t prevent the feeling of awe from descending on me. It’s not enough to “see” the Kailasa temple. Monuments that combine scale and aesthetics have this way of modifying the very nature of space-time around them. It’s important to soak in that atmosphere, and that’s what I did.

1 comment:

Uma Rajanna said...

Beautifully written, especially the description that leads is to Michael Angelo's saying!๐Ÿ‘Œ