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Visiting caves in Maharashtra 

Hello, everyone. My name is Raghavan. I and my family went on a vacation to Maharashtra this summer (May 2022). We visited many places, but the most prominent places we visited were Elephanta, Ellora, and Ajanta caves (in this exclusive order).  

ELEPHANTA CAVES 

Shiva-Linga guarded by Dwarapalakas
Shiva-Linga guarded by Dwarapalakas
A comparison pic to illustrate the height of the Dwarapalaka.
A comparison pic to illustrate the height of the Dwarapalaka.

To get to Elephanta caves, we had to go via the ‘Gateway of India’ in a boat to reach the island containing these caves. Elephanta Caves is famous because it is mainly dedicated to Lord Shiva. Dating back to the 3rd century, the Elephanta caves stand as testimony to the Gupta and the Chalukyan art. The island of Elephanta, originally known as Gharapuri, derives its name from a massive stone image of an elephant excavated here. Now the elephant is displayed in ‘Veeramata Jijabai Bhosale Garden’ in Mumbai. This site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

As we entered through the northern entrance of Cave 1, we encountered three massive sculpture panels of Lord Shiva in various forms. Since this cave is also a temple, there is a Shiva-Linga placed inside a shrine in the cave. The Linga is heavily guarded by 8 huge guards also known as Dwarapalaka/Dwarapala on all four sides. These guards are each about 30 feet tall. The guards are shown wearing crowns and jewellery including earrings, armbands, necklaces, and belts.  

Sadashiva
Sadashiva

Now coming back to the three sculpture panels, one of them shows Lord Shiva with three heads. This specific Shiva is known as the Sadashiva. Each head of his stands for one role, they are The Creator, The Protector, and The Destroyer. This sculpture, like the Shiva-Linga, is also guarded by 2 huge guards. This sculpture is famous and is the state symbol of Maharashtra. The sculpture present on the left side of the Sadashiva is Ardhanarishvara /Madhorubagan (half Shiva and half Parvathi). The sculpture present on the right side of the Sadashiva is that of Shiva and Parvathi’s marriage. This grand sculpture shows the ceremony being celebrated by the Devas, Brahma, Vishnu, and Ganas. 

Ardhanarishvara
Ardhanarishvara

The other sculptures present in cave 1 are; Nataraja (the Lord of Dance) present on the right side of the entrance. We could also see the sculpture of  Andhakasura Vadh (Shiva in a frightful avatar named Bairava, who is shown killing the demon Andhaka with his sword). In this sculpture, Shiva has eight arms. He is seen wearing a crescent and a necklace. His rage is seen through his expressions. In one of his eight hands, he holds a bowl in which to catch the blood of the demon Andhaka with a cobra coiled around the hand. Another famous sculpture present in the Cave 1 is that of Parvathi and Shiva playing chausar / Dhaya-Kattai/ Dice. Shiva is seen wearing a crown and a Janeu (sacred thread) in this panel. Parvati is also dressed with good accessories. This sculpture shows Parvathi being upset with Lord Shiva, so she looks away as she loses the game of chausar. The other caves in Elephanta were either damaged or unfinished and do not contain many significant sculptures. 

ELLORA CAVES

Whoever is reading this, is in for a treat. Ellora Caves which is also in Maharashtra is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built between the 6th and 8th century, these caves are a combination of temples dedicated to the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina religious beliefs. The ancient name of the village was Elapura. The name Elapura also occurs in the Chalukyan and the Rashtrakuta copper plate inscriptions. As there were 34 caves in Ellora, we chose to visit specific caves which are beyond extraordinary. Join us in our splendid adventure. 

CAVE 16 

Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora
Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora

We got the tickets to visit the Ellora caves and went through the gates of the Ellora enclosure. The moment we entered; we were welcomed by ‘The Kailas temple’ (CAVE 16). Completely mind blown by its beauty, we rushed towards it. The temple was built in the 8th century during the rule of the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (757-72 CE). Some parts of this temple were constructed by other rulers in the later periods. This temple is a monolithic temple, it is also the largest monolithic temple in the world. The beauty of monolithic temples is that it was built vertically from top to the bottom, cutting away the unwanted pieces of rocks. This temple is on the ground level and has high walls at the entrance guarded by the Dikpalas (guardians of directions). The entrance is flanked by goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on either side riding their respective vehicles (vahanas) crocodile and tortoise. 

Mahisasuramardhini
Shiva saving Markhandeya from Yama
Shiva saving Markhandeya from Yama

As we entered the shrine, we saw a Gajalakshmi panel facing the entrance. In this panel, Gajalakshmi is seated on a full-bloomed lotus in the midst of a lotus pond while the elephants near her pour water on her.  

The Gopuram is double-storeyed and the sanctum sanctorum is on the first floor. There are steps on either side to reach the first level. A rock bridge connects the Nandi Mandapa to the front of the temple. The shrine contains pillars, inner and outer rooms, gathering halls, and an enormous Shiva-Lingam. 

Kailasa is an explosion of sculptures. Most of the stories from Hindu mythology is depicted here through sculptures including a miniature panel covering the events of Ramayana.  Some of my favourite sculptures are the one where Ravana is seen lifting Mount Kailash, Shiva saving Markandeya from Yaman, Durga killing the demon Mahisasura, Bhairava killing Anthakasura, Shiva playing dice with Parvathi, and Narasimha tearing the body of Hiranyakashipu. 

It is sad to see several sculptures in Ellora disfigured and mutilated because of the Muslim invasion of Ellora in the 17th century when emperor Aurangzeb invaded the Deccan region.  

CAVE 15 

Trivikrama
Trivikrama

Also known as the Dasavatara Cave, this one is another wonder. This cave depicts Lord Shiva & Lord Vishnu in various forms. This is a two-storeyed mandapa. The first storey of this temple has a large courtyard and has nothing but plain pillars, whereas the second storey of this temple is more like a gallery of sculptures. There is Sanctum Santorum with Shiva – Linga. A huge monolithic Nandhi stands in front of the linga at the centre of the hall. The remaining three sides house some sculptures of Vishnu from the Dasavatar like Trivikrama, Narasimha, Bhuvaraha, Krishna, Rama, and a splendid sculpture of Ranganatha. This cave also has sculptures from Shiva Purana. Since many avatars of Vishnu are there in this cave, it is called the Dasavatara cave. 

CAVE 14 

Bhuvaraha
Bhuvaraha

It is a modest cave known as Ravana Ka Khai and dates back to the 7th century. The doorway is guarded by the river goddess Ganga and Yamuna. This cave has a huge pillared courtyard, a mandapa with 16 pillars, and a shrine containing a Linga.  Other panels in this cave are of Goddess Durga with her foot over a lion and armed with a trident, BhuVaraha, a boar-like avatar of Vishnu, with his foot on Shesha (a great serpent) and holding Prithvi/Bhudevi, the goddess of Earth whom he had saved from destruction

CAVE 29 

Andhakasura Vadham
Andhakasura Vadham

It is magnificent and is among the largest excavations in Ellora. The construction of this cave took place in the sixth century. It is said to be influenced by the design of the Elephanta caves. In fact, many of the sculptures here are similar to that of Cave 1 in Elephanta, but for the absence of the colossal Sadashiva. 

This cave is known as Dumar Lena. It was built by the side of Sita-Ki-Nahani, a pool created by a waterfall from the Elaganga river. The Dumar Lena consists of a shrine located within the cave. The shrine has a huge Shiva-Linga with four entrances and is guarded by eight huge Dwarapalakas. River goddesses Ganga and Yamuna guard the Northern and Southern entrances of the cave. This cave also has two sculpted depressions which might have served the purpose of a Yaga Kundam (a place where a fire is started for a ritual). The halls contain huge sculptural panels showing various episodes connected with the lives of Lord Shiva similar to Elephanta.  

CAVE 10 

Chaitya with Stupa in centre
Chaitya with Stupa in centre

The Vishwakarma Cave also locally known as the Sutar-ka-jhopra (Carpenter’s hut) is the only chaitya in Ellora. It was constructed around the 7th century. There are stories about how the local carpenters visited the cave frequently to worship Buddha, the patron of their craft. And hence the name carpenter’s hut. The cave is entered through a gate, cut in the natural rock, which leads into a courtyard, with cells on both sides arranged in two storeys. Through the courtyard, one reaches the shrine of Lord Buddha. At the far end of the cave stands a huge stupa nearly 27 feet in height. It has a simple circular base with a large Bodhi tree carved at its back.  On the wall above the pillars are Naga queens, dwarfs, and entertainers, dancing and playing musical instruments. 

CAVE 32 

Dravidian style vimana
Dravidian style vimana

It is also known as Indra Sabha (Assembly Hall of Indra). It is the finest of the Jain temples in Ellora. Cave 32 is actually a series of shrines dedicated to Mahavira arranged in two storeys. As we enter the temple, we see a temple similar to a South Indian temple, with a Dravidian-style vimana in the centre. On its right, there is a huge monolithic Elephant and on its left, there is a stone Dwajasthamba (It is interesting to note that even the Kailasa Temple in Ellora has an elephant and a stone Dwajasthamba in the courtyard before the temple). 

A two-storied mandapa is behind the shrine. The ground floor of this mandapa is blank, but the upstairs has intricate carvings. The important sculpture here is Ambika, the mother goddess, with a child seated on her lap and a lion beneath. The ceiling is carved with a massive lotus at the centre. Paintings on the ceiling of the upper mandapa show couples and maidens flying through the clouds. This is very beautiful. 

 

AJANTA CAVES 

We had a wonderful experience in Ellora mainly because the caves were widespread and we could have a taste of caves from various beliefs.  But Ajanta was different, it consisted of only Buddhist caves. The paintings of Ajanta are still visible after 2000 years.  They are intricate and are the most beautiful and realistic paintings I have ever seen. These caves are either a vihara (Buddhist monastery) or a chaitya (a place of worship).  Ajanta is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Vihara: In a vihara, one can see a colossal Buddha shrine in the centre, similar to the Hindu Sanctum-Sanctorum. There is a pillared square hall in front of the shrine and on the sides of the hall, there are small rooms, which were used by the Buddhist monks. The walls of the vihara are filled with exquisite paintings from either the life of Buddha or from the Jataka tales (Buddhist folk tales).  

Chaitya: Of the 30 caves here, only four are chaityas. Chaityas are apsidal in shape with a stupa at the centre. These stupas were supposed to have either ashes or remnants of Buddha’s body at the base and were built on top of it. The stupa takes the form of a hemisphere and it is elevated on a circular or square base. Earlier stupas were plain with a circum-ambulatory path (Pradhakshina path) around them. The later versions of stupa did not have the pradhakshina path around them. These stupas also have an idol of Buddha in front of them. The oldest Chaitya in Ajanta is cave 9. 

These caves at Ajanta date back from the 2nd Century B.C.E. to the 7th Century C.E.  Join us in our marvellous adventure. I am highlighting some important caves here for your reference. 

A complete view of the Ajanta Caves
A complete view of the Ajanta Caves

CAVE 1 

The cave formation in Ajanta practically looks like a horseshoe. This location begins with Cave 1 on the north side of the horseshoe. Cave 1 is one of the best caves in Ajanta. It is a Vihara. Cave 1 has 20 painted and carved pillars. On the walls, there are paintings depicting the life of Buddha. There is a shrine in the centre. On its left side there is the famous painting of Padmapani, who is a bodhisattva (the Sanskrit word Padmapani translates into ‘the one who holds the lotus’). On the left side of the shrine, there is Vajrapani (the Sanskrit word Vajrapani translates into ‘the one who holds the lightning’). 

CAVE 2 

This cave is also a vihara. But this cave is quite different from Cave 1 and is better preserved than the previous cave. The pillars of this cave are strong and well carved. The painting on the ceiling and the wall depicts the stories of Jataka Tales. The Buddha is seated inside the shrine in the  Dharmachakra pravartana mudra.   

Remnants of the beautiful paintings from Ajanta
Remnants of the beautiful paintings

CAVE 4 

It is the largest vihara planned on an impressive scale but was never finished. This cave has a hall, a sanctum sanctorum, and a veranda which have 8 octagonal pillars. This cave was built in the 6th century. The back wall of the veranda contains the panel of Vajrapani. Flying characters, maidens, guards, dwarfs, and images of Buddha are present at the entrance of the cave. It makes the cave more beautiful. Inside the shrine, there is Buddha in a preaching pose flanked by bodhisattvas and celestial spirits hovering above.  

Cave 7 

It was also planned to be an enormous vihara, but unfortunately, it wasn’t completed. This monastery consists of a sanctum sanctorum, a large open hall with two small porticos supported by heavy pillars and eight cells. Buddha is seated inside the shrine in his preaching pose. This cave is known as the miracle of thousand buddhas (thousand small buddha sculptures are seen on either side of the shrine). This temple also has colourful paintings of Buddha. 

CAVE 9 

Plain stupa found in Cave 9
Plain stupa found in Cave 9

Cave 9 is an apsidal chaitya built in the 1st century BC, the oldest cave in Ajanta. The chaitya consists of an entrance door, a central hall, and the stupa. The cave consists of two layers of paintings, the first layer was painted in the 1st century BCE and the second layer was painted in the 5th century CE. 

CAVE 16 

Two elephants are present at the entrance of Cave 16 to welcome the visitors inside. It also contains some famous paintings. The cave consists of a hall and 14 rooms on each side of the hall. This cave is a Vihara. The shrine has a huge statue of Buddha seated on a throne which is supported by wild animals. In this shrine, Buddha is sitting with the Abhaya mudra pose which is translated as the teaching gesture.   Bodhisattvas stand behind him. The portrait of the ‘Dying Princess’ present in this cave is one of the famous paintings in Ajanta. 

CAVE 17 

It is a vihara with well-preserved paintings present on the wall. This vihara contains a big hall, a room next to the outer door of the vihara, and a shrine containing Buddha. The Buddha inside the shrine is seated and holds the Dharmachakra mudra. The panel above the doorway of this vihara depicts the seven Manushi Buddhas (Buddhas in human form). 

This vihara houses some of the best paintings.  One of the paintings is that of Vessantara Jataka (a huge and gigantic wheel representing the ‘Wheel of Life’). It has Buddha preaching to a congregation. This cave also has a panel that tells of Prince Simhala’s expedition to Sri Lanka.  

 
CAVE 19 

It is a chaitya that was built in the 5th century CE. This cave is the house of some of the perfect Buddhist rock-cut sculptures at Ajanta. There are 17 interior pillars in this cave. The hall has paintings of Buddha in various postures. This cave has a huge stupa, where Buddha is standing. There are strong yaksha guards flanking the right and the left side of the main arch.  

 
CAVE 24 

It is an incomplete vihara. This cave is also the second-largest excavation at Ajanta. The plan consists of a hall with a veranda and a sanctum sanctorum.  however, this cave is completely unfinished and has boulders of rocks scattered around. This version gives us a picture of how such caves were carved out from rocks. 
 

CAVE 26 

This chaitya is similar to Cave 19. It dates back to the 5th century. This chaitya contains a hall and a stupa with Buddha seated on his lion throne. There is also a space to walk around the stupa.  
The most striking sculpture of this cave is a huge statue of the Buddha lying (representing his moment of death). Another attraction in this cave is the carving of Lord Buddha seated in the Bhumisparsha mudra under the Bodhi tree at the centre.  

References: 1. Ellora by MK.Dhavalikar, 2. Ajanta by Amina Okada, Jean Louis Nou.

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