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Ellora’s Kailasa: The 1200-year-old temple carved from a single rock

Cave 16 at the Ellora Caves complex features the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world -- the Kailasa or Kailashnath temple with a chariot-shaped monument dedicated to Lord Shiva

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Team 30 Stades
29 Jan 2023
The 1200-year-old Kailasa temple at Ellora has been carved from a single rock

The 1200-year-old Kailasa temple at Ellora has been carved from a single rock

Ellora in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra is one of the largest rock-cut Hindu temple cave complexes in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is home to over 100 caves of which 34 are open to the public.

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All the caves have been excavated from the basalt cliffs in the Charanandri Hills. Known as the Ellora Caves collectively, caves number 1 to 12 are Buddhist caves, 13 to 29 are Hindu caves and Jain caves are number 30 to 34. The Hindu and Buddhist caves at Ellora were built during the Rashtrakuta dynasty (753-982 CE) and the Yadava dynasty which ruled from 1187 to 1317, constructed most of the Jain caves.

While all of them are examples of exquisite craftsmanship, Cave 16 features the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world -- the Kailasa or Kailashnath temple with a chariot-shaped monument dedicated to Lord Shiva. 

Also Read: Udaigiri caves: A repository of ancient shrines and mythological tales

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Rock-cut architecture

Kailasa Temple has been built from a rock which was 164 feet deep, 109 feet wide, and 98 feet high. 

Apart from its size, the rock-cut cave temple stands out for its detailed architecture, sculptures of Hindu deities and relief panels summarizing the Hindu epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The Kailasa temple epitomizes the rock-cut phase of Indian architecture. The single rock slopes downwards from the backside of the temple to the front. The top of the superstructure over the sanctuary is 107 feet above the level of the court below.

he single rock slopes downwards from the backside of the temple to the front. Pic: Wikipedia

Two epigraphs link the temple to Rashtrakuta king Krishna I, who reigned from 756 to 773 CE. The Vadodara copper-plate inscription mentions Krishnaraja as the patron of Kailasanatha. However, historians are not fully certain about king Krishna I having constructed the structure because the land grants issued by Krishna's successors do not contain any references to the Kailasa temple.

The carvers of the temple started at the top of the original rock and excavated downward, resulting in vertical excavation. 

Also Read: Chand Baori: India’s biggest & deepest stepwell built in the 9th century for water conservation⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠

The legend of Kailasa

Legend has it that when the local king fell severely ill, his queen prayed to Lord Shiva and vowed to build a temple if her husband was cured. She promised to observe a fast till the top or shikhara of the temple was built.

After the king was cured, the queen wanted to have the temple’s top built at the earliest. However, all the architects said it would take months to build the temple with its shikhara. 

An architect named Kokasa agreed to take up the task, promising the construction of the top within a week. He started by carving a rock to build the temple from the top and finished the shikhara within seven days, enabling the queen to end her fast. 

based on the Virupaksha Temple of Pattadakal and the Kailasa temple at Kanchi but is not their replica. Pic: Flickr

Many inscriptions dated between the 11th and 13th centuries mention architects born in the illustrious family of Kokasa. It was built to represent Mount Kailasha, Shiva's Himalayan abode. Kailasa temple is said to be based on the Virupaksha Temple of Pattadakal and the Kailasa temple at Kanchi. 

The temple architecture has southern influence as Chalukya and Pallava artisans were involved in its construction.

The temple has a low gopuram (entrance tower). The deities to the left of the gopuram are affiliated with Shiva (Shaivaite) and on the right-hand side are the deities affiliated with Vishnu (Vaishnavaites). 

Also See: In pictures: Morena’s Chausath Yogini temple that inspired the Indian Parliament’s design

The 82m x 46m courtyard is U-shaped and is edged by a columned arcade. These arcades have sculpted panels and alcoves with sculptures of many deities including Shiva’s forms as the ascetic, the dancer, Shiva being warned by Parvati about the demon King Ravana, and river goddess Ganga.

The central shrine in the courtyard is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and also has an image of his vehicle Nandi, the sacred bull. The central shrine with the enormous lingam has a flat-roofed mandapa which is supported by 16 pillars, and a Dravidian shikhara. The base of the temple hall features scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana, making Kailasa temple a unique architectural marvel that has withstood the tests of time.

(Lede picture through Flickr)

Also Read: Masroor: Himachal’s exquisite rock-cut temples known as the Himalayan pyramid

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