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Ellora – Medieval Indian Art, Architecture and Culture

Introduction: Ellora, Ajanta and Mamallapuram

  • Aurangabad district in Maharashtra is the centre of the groups of caves in Ellora and Ajanta.
  • The Ellora group of caves are famous for sculptures while the Ajanta group of caves are famous for paintings.
  • The dates of these temples range from c. 500 to c. 950 CE.
  • But the activity of creating cave temples may have started two hundred years earlier.
  • The first cave temple was created for the Ajivikas.
  • Some of the temples are incomplete.


  • The rock-cut cave temples in Ellora are in 34 caves, carved in Charanadri hills.
  • Without knowledge of trigonometry, structural engineering, and metallurgy, the Indian architects could not have created such exquisite edifices.
  • The patrons of these caves range from the dynasties of Chalukyas to Rashtrakutas.
  • The heterodox sects first set the trend of creating this model of temples.
  • Later, orthodox sects adopted it as a medium of disseminating religious ideologies.
  • These temples were linked to Ajivikas, Jainism, Buddhism, and Brahmanism.
  • The earliest temples are modest and simple with no artistic claims.
  • But, the later temples are elegant edifices.
  • Mural paintings in Ellora are found in five caves, but only in the Kailash temple are they preserved.
  • Some murals in Jain temples are well preserved.
  • Not only animals, birds, trees, flowers are pictured elegantly, but human emotions and character – greed, love, compassion-are depicted with professional skill.

The Ellora caves were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Heterodox I / Buddhist caves

  • There are 12 Buddhist caves.
  • Every Buddhist cave temple is of a unique model in architecture.
  • Some are modest; while others are doublestoreyed or triple-storeyed.
  • The plans of the caves demonstrate that these were designed as religious centres where monks stayed and the disciples were trained in religious treatises and scriptures.
  • The main hall in the centre and the cubical rooms on either side were used as monasteries for teaching and preaching.
  • This is attested by a figure, in cave number six, of man reading a manuscript on a folding table.
  • The panels in these caves portray scenes from the life of the Buddha.
  • Three different characters are indentified by the sculptures in the caves.
  • The central figure is Buddha found in three sagacious postures:
    • meditating (dhyana mudra),
    • preaching (vyakhyana mudra) and
    • touching the earth by index finger of right hand (bhumi-sparsha mudra).


  • Buddhist caves represented goddesses by way of the carved images of Tara, Khadiravanitara, Chunda, Vajradhat-vishvari, Mahamayuri, Sujata, Pandara and Bhrikuti.
  • In cave twelve, a stout female figure is depicted wearing a waistband and headgear of a cobra.
  • Khadrivani-tara also holds a cobra in one of her hands in the same cave.

Heterodox II / Jain caves

  • A few Jain caves are also seen in Ellora group and are distinct from others.
  • But they are incomplete.
  • The figures of Yaksha-matanga, Mahavira, Parsvanatha, and Gomatesvara are surrounded by attendants.

Caves of Vedic Religions

  • The earliest caves in these groups are modest and simple.
  • Mostly, they are square-shaped except Kailasanatha cave (cave-16), which is a massive monolithic structure, carved out of a single solid rock.
  • This temple is said to represent Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva.
  • The temple is two storeyed and the Kailasa temple is on the first one.
  • The lower storey has carved life-size elephants, which looks like they are holding up the temple on their backs.
  • The temple exterior has richly carved windows, images of deities from the Hindu scriptures and Mithunas (amorous male and female figures).
  • Most of the deities to the left of the temple entrance are Saivite and the deities to the right of the entrance are Vaishnavite.
  • The courtyard has two huge pillars with the flagstaff and a Nandi mandapa.
  • The wedding ceremony of Siva-Parvati, the attempted lifting of the Kailasa mountain by Ravana, and the destruction of Mahisasura by the goddess Durga are beautiful specimens.
  • Weapons and musical instruments of the gods are also depicted through the panel sculptures.
  • An interesting sculpture is that of the river goddess Ganga mounted on a crocodile and the river goddess Yamuna mounted on a tortoise.

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