Buddhist Caves of Ellora

Buddhist Caves of Ellora

in Interview
Published on: 09 November 2016
Interview with Shrikant Ganvir, Pune, January 2016

Ellora is a group of 34 major rock-cut caves associated with three major Indian religions, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, and more than 25 to 30 small excavations. The ancient name of this site, Elapura, is mentioned in inscriptions. The site has been mentioned by saints as well as travellers who visited it in the medieval period.


Cave 16, the famous monolithic shrine Kailasha, is mentioned as Manakeshwar in Jnaneshwari, a commentary on the Bhagvada Gita composed by the well-known Marathi saint Jnaneshwar in the 13th century of the Common Era. Mahanubhava saint Chakradhar Swami also stayed at Ellora for some time. So it seems that Ellora has been of religious significance for many centuries, even till the late medieval period. Caves 1 to 12 are associated with Buddhism, Caves 13 to 29 are Hindu caves, whereas Caves 32 to 34 are Jaina caves.


Besides 17 major Hindu caves, there are more than 25-30 smaller Hindu caves which form the Ganesh Leni group and Jogeshwari group. Earlier it was thought that Buddhist caves were excavated first, followed by Hindu and Jaina caves. But recent studies show that some Hindu caves, that is Caves 21 and 29 were excavated earlier followed by the Buddhist caves. After that the remaining Hindu caves were excavated and finally the Jaina caves.  So from 6th century of the Common Era till the end of 10th century or early 11th century Ellora was an important religious centre, mainly engaging in rock-cut activities.



Buddhist caves at Ellora


Cave 6 is considered to be the earliest cave followed by Cave 5, Caves 2, 3, 4, and then Caves 11 and 12. Cave 11 and 12 are three-storeyed and are considered to be the latest excavations in the Buddhist complex at Ellora. Ellora was an important centre of tantric Buddhism. We do not get any concrete evidence of the existence of Theravada or Hinayana at Ellora. Standard Mahayana caves, that is shrine-cum-monastery, seen in Caves 1, 2, 16 and 17 at Ajanta, are missing at Ellora. Ellora was developed as an important seat of tantric Buddhism. When we talk of tantric Buddhism in the western Deccan, Ellora is the most significant centre, along with other supporting centres such as Kanheri and Panhalakaji caves, both located in the coastal region of the western Deccan. The religious imagery at Ellora shows that tantric Buddhism was very much developed by this time in the western Deccan and flourished from the 7th century onwards till the early 10th century. The tantric Buddhist imagery which we get at Ellora is quite interesting as some of the icons do not match with the textual description. So it can be suggested that tantric Buddhist icons at Ellora were excavated even before standard Buddhist tantric texts were codified or were being circulated. This shows that Ellora was an important centre of tantric Buddhism. Mahasidha Sarahapada is credited with spreading tantric Buddhism from eastern India to the western Deccan, especially at Ellora.


So Ellora is probably one of the earliest Buddhist sites in India where we get Ashtabodhisattva mandala where a Buddha is surrounded by eight bodhisattvas including Avalokitesvara, Vajrapani, Manjushri, Maitreyi, Akashagarbha, Kshitigarbha and others. This schematic arrangement of bodhisattvas in a specific order is a special feature of the Buddhist caves at Ellora. In tantric Buddhism, the worship of Buddha and Bodhisattvas through specific diagrams or mandalas is considered as important. This shows that by the mid or late 7th century tantric Buddhist rituals were standardised, and this is for the first time seen in Ellora. Thus the Ashtabodhisattva mandala or Buddhist iconography at Ellora deserves special attention in understanding early tantric Buddhism in India.


In tantric Buddhism, the female counterpart or Shakti plays a vital role. That is why the 12 Dharinis seen in Cave 12 are important. Some of the Dharinis have been identified as Janguli, Chunda, Tara and Bhrikuti. This suggests that by the end of 7th century female deities had occupied a significant place in Buddhist rituals and were worshipped alongside Bodhisattvas. In Ellora we have the earliest evidence how female Buddhist deities were placed and how their imagery developed. The entire process of ritualistic development can be seen at Ellora in proper context.





Tara, the most prominent Bodhishakti, who is a female counterpart of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, got an important place in the imagery of the Buddhist caves at Ellora. She is the most prominent among all Buddhist female deities at Ellora. Mid-7th century onwards Tara got an important position in the Buddhist pantheon and was worshipped as a goddess of mercy, as a goddess of karuna, that is compassion, along with Avalokitesvara. She was also worshipped by traders, monks, merchants and lay people. There is only one sculpture of Ashtamahabhaya Tara in the entire western Deccan and that is found in Cave 9 of Ellora. Like Avalokitesvara, she is also shown protecting the traders from various dangers such as shipwreck, fire, ferocious animals, snakes, captivity etc. This suggests that by this time she was considered as a goddess of protection by common people. Interestingly, images of Tara protecting from devotees eight dangers (ashtamahabhaya), are commonly found in the Buddhist art of eastern India. Some of them have been reported from Ratnagiri and other Buddhist sites in Orissa.





Avalokitesvara is the most significant Buddhist deity after Buddha in the religious imagery of Ellora. More than 100 images of Avalokitesvara have been reported from the Buddhist caves of Ellora. Interestingly we also get various iconographic forms of Avalokitesvara in Ellora, such as Ashtamahabhaya Avalokitesvara, Rakta-Lokesvara, Shadakshari Lokesvara etc. which confirm that the worship of Avalokitesvara in different iconographic forms was popular at Ellora.


The presence of Rakta-Lokesvara in Ellora is very interesting because images of Rakta-Lokesvara are very rare in the Buddhist iconography of ancient India. Rakta-Lokesvara is mainly associated with shringara rasa. In Buddhist caves he is shown along with Tara and Bhrkuti. According to Buddhist texts, that is Sadhanamala and others, he represents red. His images are to be painted with red colour. Unfortunately, the images of Rakta-Lokesvara at Ellora have not retained any colour. But it seems that all Buddhist images at Ellora were once painted and the Rakta-Lokesvara images were painted in red.


Shadakshari Lokesvara is associated with teaching. This form of Avalokitesvara is basically the personification of the mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is of six aksharas (syllables). Interestingly images of Avalokitesvara as Shadakshari Lokesvara are also found in the Buddhist sites of eastern India. Generally Shadakshari Lokesvara is accompanied by Shadakshari Mahavidya, the female personification of his mantra, representing great knowledge, and Manidhar who is associated with akshamala, a symbolic representation of continuous activity or continuous cycle. The presence of images of Rakta-Lokesvara and Shadakshari Lokesvara, one representing shringara rasa and the other a highly philosophical meaning, suggests the presence of complex and highly evolved imagery in Ellora.


Buddhist pantheon in Ellora

Buddhist caves at Ellora are full of images of different deities, both male and female. We find images of Bodhisattvas, Bodhishaktis and other deities alongside that of Buddha. Maitreya, Vajrapani and Manjushri are three important Bodhisattvas depicted in these caves. The presence of Bodhisattva Maitreya in these caves suggests that he retained the same importance in contemporary Buddhism as Avalokitesvara. Vajrapani is another Buddhist deity frequently depicted in the Buddhist caves of Ellora. The philosophy and symbolism behind the figure of Vajrapani is an interesting one. The figure of Vajrapani is of great importance in tantric Buddhism. Tantrayana is also called Mantrayana. The use of mantras or mystic formulas representing a particular deities is an important worship ritual in Mantrayana. It is also called Vajrayana. Vajra represents thunderbolt. It cannot be destroyed, burned or broken down. Vajra thus represents the indestructibility of Buddhism. So in this context the presence of Vajrapani in the Buddhist caves at Ellora is very interesting. He is seen flanking the Buddha in triads and in Ashtamahabodhisattva mandalas, and is represented individually too. Manjushri is another important Bodhisattva who has been commonly depicted here. The two iconographic forms, Sthirachakra Manjushri and Siddhaikavira Manjushri which are associated with tantric or esoteric Buddhism, are also depicted in the Buddhist caves.


In Ellora we find a special shrine or chamber where Hariti and Panchika are depicted. We also find more than six to seven sculptures of Jambhala, the Buddhist god of wealth.



Hariti and Jambhala


Hariti was a yakshini who used to eat children of Rajgriha. Later on Lord Buddha converted her and she became his disciple. Buddha promised her that she would be offered food by the monks and lay people everyday. Not only in structural monasteries but also in rock-cut monasteries, we generally find a separate chamber allotted to Hariti and Panchika which reminds us of this episode of Buddha’s time. Their worship and the presence of their imagery in these caves show how Buddhism was supported by local cults in the 7th century. Even in the late 7th century Buddhists incorporated deities associated with local and folk cults in mainstream Buddhism. What we have in Ellora is a very interesting evidence of this trend being continued till a late period.  Presence of Jambhala in the Buddhist caves of Ellora strongly suggests that Buddhism was still patronised by the trading community.  



Architecture of the caves


Buddhist caves at Ellora are rich in architectural pattern and form. There is only one chaityagrha, that is Cave 10, among the Buddhist caves of Ellora. The cave is locally known as Vishwakarma cave and is the last Buddhist chaityagrha in the western Deccan. It is very interesting that here a typical Buddhist chaitya plan has been merged with tantric Buddhist ideals. Cave 10 is the only chaityagrha among the Buddhist caves of Ellora. The rest are either monastic caves or viharas or shrines. Although the cave has retained the basic principles of earlier chaityagrhas, such as the presence of a chaitya arch on the façade, but due to the presence of rich imagery, the concept of Buddhist chaityagrha is seen at its zenith here.


Cave 5 is another significant excavation in this group. The plan is altogether different from standard Buddhist caves. Parallel to this cave is the only other durbar cave at Kanheri. The central rectangular hall has two raised platforms which are meant for educational purposes. On the basis of the presence of this cave we can say Ellora was an educational centre, at least when it was an active Buddhist centre.


Caves 11 and 12 are triple storeyed caves which are huge monasteries. All three storeys are full with images of Bodhisattvas, Bodhishaktis, Buddhas, Gandharvas, Bharvahakas and decorative motifs. Massive pillars in both the caves give them a majestic look. We do not have any parallel to such huge monastic caves, that is Caves 11 and 12. Their plan, arrangement of pillars, stairs, halls etc. strongly suggest their function as educational centres. So Caves 5, 11 and 12 suggest that Ellora was probably functioning as an important centre for Buddhist education during the 6th-7th centuries of the Common Era. The remaining caves are shrines meant for worship of Buddha and other deities. Some caves are shrine-cum-monasteries of the early tantric period of which we find parallel examples in Caves 6 and 7 in Aurangabad.




The inscription in Cave 10 is a famous Buddhist mantra. 'ye dharma hetu prabhava'. Inscriptions mentioning donations from royal families, traders or lay people, like those found in Hinayana or Theravada period, are missing here. Most inscriptions here are associated with Buddhist mantras.





We have remains of paintings in Kailash cave, that is Cave 16 and also in a few caves of the Ganesh Leni and Jogeswari Leni group. They are also seen in the Jaina caves. So it is confirmed that Hindu and Jaina caves were painted. Although no remains of paintings have been preserved in any of the Buddhist caves, if we however consider the presence of painted remains in Hindu and Jaina caves, it is possible that the Buddhist caves too were painted. 


Secondly, tantric Buddhist icons cannot be worshipped or are not considered pure for tantric rituals unless and until they are painted. Their mantras or sadhanas provide detailed information about their colour. Each deity is associated with a specific colour which has a special significance or functional aspect. Considering these factors, it seems that all Buddhist  images at Ellora were once painted. Unfortunately remains of such paintings have not been preserved. But remains of plaster can be seen in some of the caves.


Decline of Buddhist excavations at Ellora


By the early 8th century Buddhist rock cut activity was discontinued at Ellora. The presence of Buddha images on the top portion of the walls of Cave 15, the Dasavatara cave provides some clues in this context. It seems that Cave 15 was started as a Buddhist cave but perhaps due to the lack of political support or patronage from royal families or traders, the activity suddenly stopped. We do not have any evidence, epigraphic or textual, to verify why the work discontinued. But it looks like rivalry between various sects or religions was responsible for the discontinuation of patronage from traders or royal families. Hence Cave 15, which started as a Buddhist excavation, was later converted to a Hindu cave.


We do not have any evidence of continuity of the caves as active centres of Buddhism after that. Later on Swami Chakradhar of the famous Mahanubhava sect stayed in these caves. Today Caves 11 and 12 are worshipped by the followers of Mahanubhava sect.