Ellora and Ajanta

ElephantsIt was a sepia-tinged 1923 charity-shop find, Wonders of the Past that did it. Grainy monochrome photographs depicting “marvels of ages now remote” had an almost Indiana Jones feel to them, complete with pith-helmeted archaeologists and white-robed assistants posing stiffly next to their latest dig. But the obvious delights of the newly-discovered tomb of Tutankhamen and the ancient pyramids of the book’s 854 pages paled next to an ancient wonder I’d never even heard of.

rock cut caveAn entire mountain, cut by hand into palaces of worship, held from collapse by elaborately carved columns and decorated with superb, colossal statues from three major religions. It seemed hopeless to assume that, if even still accessible, the caves at Ellora, in the Maharashtra province of India, could still offer that undiscovered, Agatha-Christie-esque feel, but I have spent the last seven years trying to find out.

Perhaps it’s the fact that to this day the caves are relatively remote, perhaps it’s the wealth of other attractions that India has to offer that keep the 34 caves at Ellora a comparative secret. We have hired a cab from the nearest city, Aurangabad, and are already grateful we paid those extra few rupees for air-con. It will take most of the day to explore the caves even at a superficial level. We’re also glad we remembered some water…Stone god

Cave from the inside The caves were created mainly between the 5th and 10th century AD by, successively, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks and, weirdly, they were carved from top to bottom – the priests hollowed out the ceiling first, and worked their way down, working out the maths for where to put the pillars as they went. They didn’t always get it right, as we find out later…

Kailasa, less romantically known as Cave 16, is the first, staggering structure we see as we enter the site. Deservedly the best-known, it’s cut from a single rock, a 3-D, three-storey temple to Shiva – carved from both in and outside the rock face.

Imagine, instead of Wren’s building St Paul’s Cathedral from the ground up, his taking a mountain and removing all the bits that aren’t St Paul’s. Outer walls open into an airy courtyard, surrounded on three sides by columned chambers recessing deep into the cliff. In the centre is a freestanding, delicately-carved temple, smothered in sculptures depicting scenes from the Ramayana, the classic (and surprisingly easy to read) Hindu epic set in the Maharashtra region, and flanked by rows of life-sized elephants, most of whose trunks, sadly, have not weathered centuries of vandals very well.

CandlesEither side of Cave 16, the massive fault line of rock is riddled with more caves, some rivalling Kailasa in both size and intricacy, often boasting several more legends each and recessing deep into the mountain. The Buddhist versions are the simplest – austere, barrel-vaulted hollows with giant representations of Buddha, still lit by the odd candle, visited by monks in flowing gold and burgundy robes.

The Jain temples are the most elaborate –every inch decorated in flowers, animals and gods with a rococo flair, but the Hindu caves are definitely the sauciest. Hewn long before today’s more severe interpretations of the holy texts, the giant statues here are of voluptuous gods and goddesses doing even more voluptuous things to each other in the dark recesses of inner sanctums. Not a few of the sundry breasts and buttocks cheerily depicting the fruitier moments of Hindu myth have developed a shiny patina from 1500 years of appreciative hands…

AjantaWe have kept our cab for the day. Although it’s possible to walk between the caves, the odd rockfall has made it unsafe to take some of the direct routes and, in the heat, it’s a long walk around to the furthest examples.

Each one has something to offer and after seven years of trying to get here I don’t want to miss any of them; I am almost as fascinated by a couple of duds tucked round the back, that were begun by some poor unknown monk who clearly got his calculations wrong and had to abandon the exercise (after what was probably years of work) but now showing exactly how the structures were created.

Monk with cameraThe next day, we have to travel a little further afield. The rather more famous Ajanta Caves are often lumped together with Ellora, despite the fact that they’re about 65km apart. Unlike Ellora, they were lost for hundreds of years, only rediscovered in the 19th Century by a British army captain hunting tiger (no, really…) and they remain relatively unspoiled, their intricately chiselled shrines and seductive murals still fresh despite their great age.

Hidden, even today, in a horseshoe-shaped canyon, the walk up the hill to where the best caves are is quite a climb, though not bad enough to tempt me to use the ‘sedan chairs’ offered by enterprising locals – ordinary kitchen chairs tied to broom handles…

Ajanta’s Unique Selling Point is the extraordinarily detailed (and often sexually explicit – sex wasn’t considered salacious at the time, merely a part of human life) wall paintings. Originally Ellora would have been similarly brightly decorated, and traces of paint do remain there, but centuries of occupation have largely worn them away. The paint in the deepest caves at Ajanta is still vibrant and exquisite.

I have no idea how the hell they were accomplished; it’s so dark in there. Scholars have many theories, mainly involving mirrors and candles, but I’m guessing the gods themselves had a hand in it. Every temple is both sensual and emotive; sometimes moving, occasionally even funny, but the last, which is left as bare rock, houses a monolithic sculpture of a reclining Buddha, captured forever in the precise moment of Nirvana, whose beauty brings tears to my eyes.

Snowy God

This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…

sandra@ sandralawrence.com


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