Ellora Caves: Carvers, Techniques and Influences

Ellora Caves: Carvers, Techniques and Influences

in Interview
Published on: 28 December 2016

Jayaram Poduval

Jayaram Poduval is a professor at the department of Art History and Aesthetics, M.S.University, Baroda. He specialises on the subject of Indian architecture.

In Conversation with Jayaram Poduval, Baroda, February 2016

When you look at Ellora in the context of Indian cave temple architecture, it is very significant since it is a kind of culmination—the zenith of cave architecture in India. As we know, cave architecture in India began with the Lomas Rishi cave in Bihar. Then you have all the activity in western India. It started from Bhaja, Kondavite and Karla.  Caves were continuously being carved from say 100 BC to almost the third century AD, especially during the Hinayana phase. Though the terminology may differ, we usually refer to this period as the Hinayana phase. Cave architecture progresses from there, and it culminates again or reaches the zenith in the case of Ajanta. Then from Ajanta it disperses, and again it comes back to Ellora. The most interesting aspect of the Ellora Kailashnath temple is that it combines a lot of traditions—it is almost a kind of encyclopedia on the development of Indian temple architecture. When you examine the architectural tradition, for example the Hinayana caves, structures in Badami and Mahabalipuram, all these  traditions culminate back in Ellora, specifically in the Kailashnath temple. So I actually prefer to call it a national style of architecture, in the sense that artisans from all over India visited Ellora and worked specially on the Kailashnath temple.


Ellora can be used as a reference while tracing the development of cave architecture traditions from the fifth to the twelfth century AD. Presently we are not very sure about the date of the caves. Caves 17, 28 and 27 have been identified as the earliest caves at Ellora. They may be contemporaneous to Ajanta or may even pre-date it. When you look at the style in which the caves have been carved, the carving techniques, or the way the space is conceived in those caves, especially in Caves 28 and 27, you can see that it is very similar to the caves at Malwa, the Udayagiri Caves, and others.


We have a tradition, or rather a tendency, to see cave architecture from a very religious point of view. For example, we see the earliest caves as Buddhist, followed by Brahminical activity, and then Jaina activity, which is actually a wrong way of looking at it. In certain areas, the Brahminical activity came first, sometimes contemporaneous to the Buddhist activity.


Ellora is  a nice reference book for art lovers or  students of architecture. One can see all the innovations in sculpture and architecture that unfolded between the fifth and twelfth centuries. For example, when you look at certain sculptures or architecture at Ellora, it may be possible to trace a link to the Chalukyan style, or to the Pallavas. I have to say that Ellora actually influenced the Chalukyan style. Then of course it matures and comes back to Ellora again. So Ellora acts as a fountainhead as well. Usually a place serves as a fountainhead of a style that then culminates in another place. For example, the Badami caves, it is a fountainhead of Chalukyan activity. But then it culminates in another area, like Pattadakal, it doesn’t come back to Badami. This is why Ellora is a very interesting subject. It starts as a fountainhead, and also serves as a culmination point. And another very interesting aspect of Ellora is that at least in terms of cave temple architecture, it completely turns it around. In the sense that Ajanta has a kind of unity, but Ellora has been a site of continuous activity for almost 700 years. Nowhere in India can you can see this kind of continuous activity. Of course, not all of it was under one dynasty. That is another very interesting aspect: why did all the dynasties choose this site; why did the ruling powers build in and around this place? This area or the site had some kind of importance. Now there is only one village there.


But I can also say that Ellora activity did not stop with the Rashtrakutas. You have Maratha activity in Ellora, if you include paintings, etc. You have Maratha architecture in Ellora as well—Ahalyabai Holkar has built something there. Then you have Islamic architecture in Ellora. So we always take students from the university to Ellora, since it gives them a complete picture of what was happening in those 700 years.


When you look at the development of cave architecture in Ellora in reference to other sites, the fifth century was when it clearly began. The fifth century is a very crucial period since it saw the revival of cave temple architecture in western India, at sites such as Junnar, Karla or Bhaja, especially Junnar, since it has more than 150 caves. Whenever there is architectural activity, I always try to see it in relation to economics. If somebody wants to make a sculpture, it can be easily done, but architecture is not like that. Somebody has to sponsor it. It is a huge activity and takes a lot of money. People are not going to invest in areas that are not of much significance, political or economic.  If it is on a trade route, people would have been visiting the place already, and not just for the architecture. So the architecture is built to enhance that visit. For example, Ajanta had a market next to it. When you look at the architecture at a particular site, you also have to look at the geography and topography to understand why the site was chosen. In the case of Ellora, it is very close to Aurangabad and to Daulatabad, and Daulatabad was politically significant, which is why people were attacking it or building forts there. So it is part of the trade route. And Khultabad, which is also nearby, was a centre of Islamic activity as it was a sacred place. So you have Aurangabad, Khultabad and Daulatabad, and when you go slightly away from Ellora, around 40 kms, you have Pitalkhora. So the site was probably important for trade reasons which was why every dynasty wanted to show off by building temples here.


The rulers also chose Ellora for a particular reason. At Ellora we can see a teertha or a sacred pond. It is a waterfall that pours into a pool known as Sita ki Nahni, the place where Sita took bath. Of course, in India, we have 121 places where Sita took bath and Rama did something or Bheema did something. So it makes it a ritual site.There is a copper plate inscription by Dantidurga, dated to 742 AD, even before Dantidurga actually built anything at Ellora. The inscription doesn’t exactly mention Sita ki Nahani, but it refers to the sacred pond at Ellora or Verul. According to the inscription, he gave a land grant to a Brahmin from Navsari or a similar place. Now the important point is that here is not a king, but an aspiring emperor or an aspiring king, who is giving a land grant to a Brahmin. That means that the river was important then. And of course, as far as Ellora’s status as a religious site goes, situated in Ellora village is the Grishneshwar Mahadev temple, which is considered to be one of the Jyotirlingas. Jyotirlingas as we know, are said to be swayambhu (self-manifested)—nobody installed them. They are said to have emerged naturally. Of course, the present-day Grishneshwar temple has nothing to do with this legend, because it was built completely by the Marathas, or is at least said to be renovated by Ahalyabai Holkar. This kind of sacredness characterises Ellora. So that is why cave temple architecture started at Ellora, because of Grishneshwara temple and the river that flows through Ellora.


Once Prof. Kannal and I—this was maybe a few years back—were working on Ellora for some other project. Ellora is considered to be a Rashtrakuta site, so we were making notes on who built what and in which time period. And we realised that very few of the caves had actually been carved by the Rashtrakutas. There are Brahamanical, Buddhist and Jaina caves in Ellora. Most of the activities prior to Cave 15 at Ellora do not seem to have been carved in the Rashtrakuta phase. They are dateable to a pre-Rashtrakuta period. The caves can be dated from the late fifth or sixth century up to the eighth century. So at Ellora, out of the 34 caves maybe 15 or 16 were built by rulers before the Rashtrakutas.Then of course we have the Rashtrakuta activity at Ellora. Ellora is an important site since you can also see this transformation from the Buddhist tradition to the Brahminical tradition here. But I belong to a group of scholars who don’t equate the architecture tradition with religion.  But of course, each religion has its own plan and style, especially in the context of early Buddhist caves, like chaityagrihas.


But if you want to distinguish between the Jaina activity and the Brahminical activity, especially in relation to architecture, it is slightly problematic. The pillars are same in the Brahamanical, Buddhist and Jaina traditions.  The superstructures may be different, but after the sixth and seventh centuries, all these buildings look the same. If you look at the Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur, and the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya, they look the same from the outside, but it is two different styles. When you look at the Jain and Hindu temples of Rajasthan, they look the same. So by looking at the architecture you cannot exactly define what belongs to which religion as most of these elements are shared.  


When we look at Ajanta, we can see this shift in architectural pattern and a kind of unification of all the architectural traditions. In the post-Ajanta phase we continue to see the unification of all religious traditions in terms of architecture. You can see this kind of unified architecture pattern in Ellora, particularly in Caves 12 and 11, which are known as Do Tal and Tin Tal. One of them has the Buddha figure placed in a teerthankara space, in Cave 11, if I remember correctly. When you look at it from the outside, it could be a Jain cave temple, a Buddhist temple, or a Brahminical temple. We see the same in the case of the Dasavatara cave also. Cave 15 follows the same pattern. So it becomes a unified style. For example, you can see the influence of Ajanta in Cave 21, that is, the Ramesvara cave. In the later caves of Ajanta, particularly the Ashmaka caves of Ajanta, you have this pattern where there is a small veranda, a circumambulatory path and the upavanakas. This kind of pattern is repeated in Cave 21. Then you have new architectural patterns in Ellora, especially from the fifth to ninth centuries. That is another reason why Ellora is very interesting. Experimentation is to be seen everywhere. Sometimes you can actually feel or see that  craftsmen from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh have worked on the caves. Of course I am mentioning the present-day Indian states, but at that time they were known by different names.


So you have these different craftsmen, and whenever we talk about architecture or sculpture, we don’t realise or acknowledge this movement of craftsmen or ask why they were moving. Now we have evidences that the craftsmen, stonecutters mostly, migrated from one place to the other, largely looking for jobs. So the craftsmen carried the tradition with them. While working at a particular site they acquired a particular knowledge. Then when they travelled to a new place they carried this knowledge with them. So instead of just seeing the style as bequeathed by rulers, it is better to look at it as carried by the craftsmen. So if you want that kind of pillar, you call that craftsman. That was the kind of approach that was followed there. And again, the two stakeholders in this are the patrons and the craftsman. The patron has the right to call any kind of craftsman. The craftsmen don’t necessarily have to be locals—in the case of Ellora Kailashnath, we know that the craftsmen definitely came from Mahabalipuram. You can actually see the south Indian or Mahabalipuram tradition or Pallava tradition in their work. There are some sculptures which you can identify as being from Pattadakal or Mahabalipuram. Carvings of the abduction of Sita or Sita-Haran and Jatayu-Vadh seen in Ellora Kailashnath are a ditto copy of the work seen in Pattadakal. That is one side of Ellora Kailashnath. On the other side, you have the Mahishasur-Vadh sculpture that is very similar to, but is not a ditto copy of the Pallava version. Sometimes people say that only the sculptors came. No, there is no distinction between the sculptor and the architect. The architects were also from different places. So you have this travelling of different styles. Whenever there is work to be done, the craftsman will come and work there. After the work is done, they may go back home or some may go somewhere else, to another site.


Recently, I was watching a documentary which claimed that ancient aliens had carved the caves at Ellora. They said that it could not have been humanly possible to do that work at that particular time. And they also said that mathematics and engineering were not advanced enough at that time to build it. However, when you look at Ellora, it is very clear who carved it. There is no mystery about Ellora Kailashnath—Indian architecture had achieved the same much before Ellora. But what you see in Ellora is two traditions, because there are two approaches to the Indian cave architecture. One is known as crest carving. Crest carving is a kind of rock carving from the outside. Mahabalipuram is a good example. This external carving style can also be seen in the Khandgiri and Udayagiri caves in Orissa. I would also call it an eastern tradition. It is harder to carve rock in the eastern parts of India as you have slightly harder rock. In the case of Mahabalipuram, we know that the rocks are granite. It is not easy to carve as in the case of western India.


Western India on the other hand, is more suitable for what we call core carving. Core carving involves carving out from the inside. It is also called inside-out carving or outside-inside carving, which is not the right terminology. Now this approach is suitable for western India since the rock here is softer, and because of the rains, carving the exterior rock is always problematic. So in the case of the Karla-Bhaja caves and other western Indian Hinayana caves, the core carving technique has been used. But on the other hand, on the eastern side, you have a carving technique which is basically external carving, which is suitable for monoliths and other such structures. In the case of Ellora, except in the Kailashnath temple and Cave 15, that is, the Dasavatara nandimandapa, the rest of the caves are all carved using the core carving technique. Of course, the Dasavatara cave features core carving as well as crest carving. You can also see excellent core carving and crest carving in one of the monoliths that has been created there. Of course, that work was created later. But most of the western Indian caves like Ajanta do not have monolithic structures. And that is probably why the Rashtrakutas preferred to do this monolith carving in Kailashnath.


But for monolith carving where are you going to get the craftsmen? It requires a very different kind of approach. You have to have proper planning and measurements to do monolith carving. You have to have a whole idea about what you are going to make. Later, in the ninth and tenth centuries, there was an aesthetician from Kashmir who said, much before Michelangelo, that when you look at the rock, you see the elephant inside, and so you just have to remove the rock which is not elephant. Michelangelo said the same thing, of course, without knowing this poor guy. But Kshemendra the aesthetician actually says that this is what we call deductive carving. So in the case of Mahabalipuram, you can actually see that this is what they did. Some rocks must have looked like Arjuna Ratha or Draupadi Ratha. So they removed the rock which is not Draupadi Ratha. But in the case of internal carving or core carving, you have a flat surface. You go inside it and then you create different areas and spaces. One is based on space, and the other is based on form.


For the Ellora Kailashnath, they had to use the core carving technique, because unlike eastern India and sites like Mahabalipuram, cave architecture in western India posed a problem because of the incessant rains and of course the structure of the rock itself. There are a lot of vesicles in the rock, and so the water passes through those channels. You have to remove those parts and come to the core of the rock. That is why in Ellora Kailashnath they have removed around 80 feet of rock.


The myth is that a king fell sick so his wife decided to build a temple for Shiva. The king was cured, but the queen refused to eat food until she saw the kalash of the temple. This posed a conundrum: how to build a temple and come to the kalash before the queen dies? So you do it in reverse and start with the kalash. You show her that the kalash is done, and she can eat food. This is a myth of course. Removing 80 feet of rock would have taken a long time—she would have died by that time. So the thing is, you start with the top and then you come down.


In the case of Kailashnath certain alterations have been done that are very interesting. When you look at the portion behind Kailashnath, you have a huge rock surface that seems to have been cleaned up. This is because they were looking for the right rock or the right quality of rock. The quality of the rock is very important for architecture, since durability is a must. You cannot have non-durable structures for a project like Ellora. So you have to have that kind of high quality rock.


The nandimandapa of Cave 15, Dasavatara, has an inscription by Dantidurga. You can see that they were playing with this. When you look at Rashtrakuta architecture, you can see that there is a certain shuffling of  architecture traditions. If a certain structure is of 'A' type, they will  just insert an 'X' type there. So a person looking at it as an A-type structure all of a sudden comes to the X type and says, 'Oh! This is a different kind of temple. What happened?' So they liked playing up the difference. For example, in Ellora, all the caves have been made with the core carving technique, and then all of a sudden you have this monolith. So that kind of surprise is present there. They do the same thing in Pattadakal—all the temples are built in the so-called Dravida style, and then comes the Kashi Vishweshwara temple. All of a sudden, you see that this temple has been done differently, and wonder if it is somebody else who has made it.


So this kind of distinction of architecture can be seen in Ellora. Two types of carving techniques are used in cave architecture in India. One is the tunnel style. In this style you carve a tunnel and leave the rock. In Cave 24 at Ajanta, you can actually see this process. You have two tunnels, and in between them you have a thin layer of rock. In each tunnel there is space for only two people to do the carving. You can then knock down the layer in between and do the carving. This is the style that was followed at Ajanta. Probably this was also the style used in the earlier Hinayana caves. I wouldn’t say this about the Udayagiri caves in Malwa though. The other style is the blocking style. In the blocking style you make  blocks and then you cut and chop around it. This is what the Mahabalipuram artists did. At Mahabalipuram, you can also see the mesh style of carving. In the mesh style, you create a mesh and you carve the borders on it. You then create a block, and you knock off that block. That is how it is done.


In the case of the Ellora Kailashnath temple, you can actually see this mesh type carving on the floor. People who are used to seeing granite carving think that this is not humanly possible, because the heavy rocks must have been hard to remove. Yes, it would have taken time, no doubt, but for artists who have worked with granite, working with softer stone like in Ellora would have made it very easy for them to remove it fast. And of course, this was not entirely done by artists and artisans, it was done by technicians. As we jokingly say—the engineer of Ellora Kailashnath was a Pallava person and the architect was a Chalukyan person. So this technique used in Ellora was much faster and it was possible to remove huge blocks, and these blocks were not exactly carried down—they were rolled down.


So my point here is that you can actually see the work of the Pallava carvers, that is, the so-called ‘south Indian’ artists. Then you have a Deccan tradition, that is the Chalukyan tradition. Then you have the western Indian tradition, that is the style of the earlier cave artists. And of course, these cave artists had joined as cave architects. So caves such as Cave 10 at Ajanta, which is a huge cave as far as space is concerned, was carved between the first century BC and first century AD.  Ellora came much later. I also want to emphasise that the stone quality at Ellora was much better and much softer compared to the Deccan trap. The craftsmen coming from that region even had a different way of holding the chisel. For example, at Mahabalipuram, a person working with a chisel will hold the chisel in a particular way, and bang it. But a craftsman doing marble carving in Rajasthan will hold the chisel differently. The chisel and the chisel tradition, or the way tools were used in Ellora, was more advanced compared to Ajanta, and the Rashtrakutas had that particular tradition. There is a kind of amalgamation of western Indian traditions as well as eastern Indian traditions at Ellora.


The Kailashnath temple at Ellora is one of the greatest monuments built in India. There is no doubt about it. Though it may not be listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is definitely one of the greatest monuments ever built. Carving of the temple started around 750 AD, probably conceived by Dantidurga. Dantidurga died by 756 or 757, but the activity must have been started or initiated by him. Ellora Kailashnath exhibits a national style of architecture. I call this a national style because it represents a culmination of most of the art activity of India from previous eras. You see Ajanta, Badami and Mahabalipuram there. We also know that the artisans of western India, of Badami or the Chalukyan region, and of the Mahabalipuram region, definitely worked there. We know that Dantidurga and Krishna were on friendly terms with the Pallavas. They even had a marital alliance with the Pallavas. They were enemies of the Chalukyans, and the Chalukyans were enemies of the Pallavas. There are references to Dantidurga’s daughter, Reva, marrying one of the Pallavas, and the son from that relation is known as Dantiverman. When a king gets into a marital alliance, sometimes even the craftsmen travel along with the dowry. For example, when Prabhavatigupta, the daughter of Vikramaditya, the Gupta king, was married to somebody in the Vakataka court, a group of craftsmen accompanied her. And as far as the Chalukyan craftsmen were concerned, they realised that not much activity was going to happen here. When the activities were happening in the Chalukyan empire, during the war or prior to the war, the greatest building, the Virupaksha temple and the Mallikarjuna, were being built.


In Ellora, based on the detailing on the pillars, a lot of similarities to the Virupaksha temple can be seen. Now these three temples, the Kailashnatha at Kanchipuram, the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, and the Kailashnatha temple at Ellora, can be considered victory temples. Rajasimha defeated his opponents and built the victory temple, that is the Kailashnatha temple at Kanchipuram. Vikramaditya II probably attacked Kanchipuram as revenge. You have an inscription by Vikramaditya at the Kanchipuram temple which says that when the soldiers started demolishing the temple the emperor came on the scene, looked at the temple, and made the statement, ‘I like the temple, don’t break it.’ So he made some repairs to whatever areas were broken and he inscribed a pillar saying, ‘I spared this temple’. And then he constructed the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal and said, ‘I built this temple because we were victorious over Kanchipuram.’ There is a lot of confusion about two craftsmen who were working in the Virupaksha temple. The inscription mentions ‘Tengana-deshanam’. If you read it as ‘Tengana Desha’, then it seems that the craftsmen came from the south. You can also read it as ‘Tengana Dishanam’, which means the southern side of the temple, meaning that they were local craftsmen. But we can see lot of similarities between the Kanchipuram Kailashnatha temple and the Virupaksha temple. For example, the niches are made in this pattern which is known as the tritiya pattern, tripati, or the three-tier pattern. In this pattern, there is one small sculpture on top, then there is a makara torana, and then you have a major sculpture. Then the lower portion again will have a smaller sculpture. This pattern can be seen at Ellora Kailashnatha and Virupaksha temple. This kind of indirect influence of the Pallavas and the Pallava engineers who worked there can be seen.


Now what is interesting about Kailashnatha is that a huge amount of rock was removed. In Mahabalipuram, the pattern of the rocks is different. In the case of Ellora Kailashnatha, it is a flat rock. You have to clean it up by removing the rock, like in the core style of carving. Now if you look at it, there is this canopy of rock which is coming out. If it comes down it will actually touch the base. What makes Ellora Kailashnath different from the Virupaksha temple? Monumentality, definitely. The lower portion of the Ellora Kailashnatha is very interesting. It is a block you cannot go inside. You actually go into the first floor and the lower portion is a block. If they had made only that first floor, the temple would not have been as exciting as it is today. If you calculate the rock surface projecting out, you will see that there is a small passage which is left out. But you have to have a space around. So what they did is that they cut the block from the rock, and they cut the rock from here to create some space around it. And then the block is created and how do you go about it? I mean you can have either a two-storeyed structure like in the case of the Brihadiswara temple, or a three-storeyed wall, bhitti, which was not the style at that time. We always go for one wall. That was the style of course. Later, they would have done something like that. Then they thought, what do we do?


Then the architect—this is something that only happens in Ellora—said, ‘Fine, I will create this huge space’. In a temple you usually have a gajadhara, underneath the kumuda or above it, and it is very small. He says, ‘Fine, we are not changing the iconographical details of the temple. We are not deviating from the text. I am only going to increase the size of the elephants'. So instead of a miniature elephant, they made a huge elephant, magnificent. So you can see this kind of problem-solving architecture in the case of Ellora. They had to do this kind of huge expansion. Probably they never thought about it, but you have to come up with a new thing.


At the Kailashnath temple it is a three-mantapa plan. It is a cruciform plan. It is not exactly cruciform in style, but you have three mantapas and then the shrine. Now this kind of cruciform pattern is typical of Karnataka. For example, if you look at the Hoysala structures, you have one mantapa and three shrines. That is also a cruciform plan. In later Chalukyan and Hoysala structures you can see this. So in Ellora you enter from the Nandi mantapa side, then you come to the navranga mantapa where you have 16 pillars arranged in groups of four. So you have again two mantapas on both the sides, the lateral mantapas, the main shrine and the circumambulatory path.


Now this pattern is a typical Chalukyan pattern. You don’t see it in Mahabalipuram or in any Pallava structures. So you can see that the whole space was conceived by a Chalukyan architect. But the Chalukyans were not exactly great carvers. They moved away from rock-cut architecture soon after Pulakesi came to power. They started making structural temples. And in the case of the Pallavas, they sustained the tradition a little longer, but cave architecture did not continue after a particular period in both traditions. For example, in Mahabalipuram, after Mamalla you don’t see much of cave architecture. They shifted to structural temples. Usually, in the beginning the cave carvers are emulating structural architecture. They are copying that in the cave architecture. What do you see in the case of the Hinayana caves? You can see lots of detailing of wooden architecture—it is like palace architecture. But then they began focussing on cave architecture alone. From the experience acquired through cave architecture, they started building structural architecture. You can see this in the case of the Chalukyans and Pallavas. And now, in the case of Ellora Kailashnath, those structural architecture techniques returned to cave architecture.


When you enter the temple, on the left there is Agastya, which reveals the iconographical connection to south India, then you have Mahishasurmardini, which looks like a Chalukyan Mahishasurmardini. Then you come to a Gajalakshmi, which looks like a western Indian Gajalakshmi. Then on left side, you have some sculptures that look like Chalukyan sculptures, and next to them are Pallava sculptures. You will never get the monumentality of Ellora in a photograph, because the two pillars that actually create that, break the view. But when you realise the height of the pillars, you actually realise the monumentality of it. It was a humongous activity. But the question is, why are these pillars so huge? We realise that if you leave certain things, there is less carving to do, and the faster the work is. The more carving there is to do, the more work there is.


The main structure reveals the influence of the early Rashtrakutas, and if you look to the left, you can see the Lankesvara Cave, which also reveals this. The Lankesvara cave and the Parlanka cave were actually linked by what we can call bridges, but at that time, I am sure, they were not exactly devised as such, but probably they were viewing galleries for the temple. And so, when you look the nandi mantapa you can see a lot of detached pillars. When we say detached pillars, they usually are columns in the sides. So you have these undercuts that are used a lot in the nandi mantapa. The nandi mantapa exterior was done slightly later. There is no doubt about it. So the question is whether you can consecrate a temple without finishing it. I have a feeling that, leaving out certain areas, they consecrated it. The plan of the Kailashnath and even its elevation has actually had a far-reaching influence in the sense that if you look at the later activity of the Thirumalai Nayakas or even the Pandyas, there are traces of it. For example, there is one temple very close to Madurai known as Kalugumalai. The Kalugumalai temple is a ditto copy of Ellora Kailashnath. So everybody wanted to make magnificent structures like that. Even the later Rashtrakutas tried that in Madhya Pradesh—we have a site which is known as Masani, which is a Rashtrakuta site very similar to Ellora, but they never finished carving the structure. Then you have the famous Dharmarajeshwar temple at Dhamnar, which is near Mandsaur, which features this monolithic structure, but not in the south Indian style or the so-called Dravidian style. It is a nagara style temple. So the influence of Ellora extends quite widely—there are certain medieval elements that are present there, a propensity for over-decoration, complexity, and grandeur, which is a kind of watchword; there is a baroque quality to it. The style originated with Ellora Kailashnath, except for perhaps the pillars and in the nandi mantapa, and continued for dynasties later.


The key factor that an architect takes into consideration is how the structure is to be used. For example, architecture can determine its relation  with the different people coming in. For example, in the case of Kerala architecture, there are layers of walls and doors. In earlier times, each door was actually a deterrent for a certain group of people or a certain caste—to stop them from coming inside. So architecture is designed on the basis of its social function. For example, in the case of the Chola temples and the Vijayanagara temples, direct entry is not permitted for everybody. So you are supposed to use the side entries because the straight entry is only given to the emperor. For example, a stupa is for circumambulation while a square space is for congregation. When a  tradition requires both circumambulation and congregation then you have a shrine like a chaityagrha.  But in the case of Ellora, there were no separate entries or anything like that. Either everybody could enter or nobody could enter.  And then you have a circumambulatory path around the shrine. In the case of church architecture, you have a congregation, but in the case of Brahminical architecture or Hindu architecture, there is no need to have that congregation. This public congregation is much more common in the case of medieval temples. So you have this congregation element, which is not there in Ellora. The mantapa it is not a congregatory space in Ellora.


Later in the medieval period you have these small, open, congregatory spaces. In the case of Ellora, it is basically just one entry that leads to the mantapa, which  leads to the shrine. The antechamber of the shrine is not equipped to hold more than 25 people. That the circumambulatory path is the key element is made clear by the two doors flanking the main shrine. So you walk around the shrine. This plan comes from the Virupaksha temple, where you have a circumambulatory path which is already defined.  Another very important aspect of Ellora is that the circumambulatory path features sub-shrines. There are three sub-shrines which are very similar to Kanchipuram Kailashnath. However, in the Kanchipuram Kailashnath  temple, you enter these sub-shrines from the outside. But in the Ellora Kailashnath they are in the inside where the veranda opens out into the circumambulatory path. One reason for this design is its ritualistic purpose. The second is that when you have a building, and when you have an extended circumambulatory path, the size increases and so the monumentality increases. But when you see it from a lower position, it almost looks like there is nothing in between. Only the huge shikhara is visible. But in between, there is this path. These sub-shrines were dedicated to Ganapati or Saptamatrakas. The longer one was probably used to house the Saptamatrakas. But as far as Ellora Kailashnath is concerned, I don’t think these sub-shrines were used that much since not much soot deposit can be seen. They must have been used for some time. Since there were so many people visiting the temple, and other extended sub-shrines were constructed, the sub-shrines must have been used for about 100 years. And even the soot deposit seen in Ellora Kailashnath doesn’t mean that it has been used. There is a soot deposit because it was used by Sant Gyaneshwar (Dnyaneshwar) who actually lived in Ellora. That a lot of people misused Ellora from the 13th century onwards can be gleaned from the references to Ellora. Interestingly, the first person to write about Ellora was Gyaneshwar, after which it was the daughter of Aurangzeb, who  praised it as a great monument.


When a French traveller visited it in the 14th century, it was almost abandoned. We know that around the 14th century, or when Daulatabad or the Yadavas were there, no one took a keen interest in Ellora. There is also a possibility that the caves were used in a different manner. Another important point to note is the relation with the river. There were a lot of waterfalls and nallahs. Now you get a completely different picture of Ellora because of the renovation and the efforts of the archaeology department, but you can actually see from Cave 6 that there was a waterfall, and the waterfall was supposed to join with this main waterfall. Of course you can see it during the monsoons.Then between  Caves 16 and 17 there was another waterfall. Then Cave 22 had a kind of waterfall niche, but now it is not there. Then between Caves 27 and 29, we have the waterfall and pool called Sita ki Nahani.


Kailashnath is now not on the level in which people saw it earlier. The entry to Ellora is now almost on ground level. But that was not the original entry.  Earlier there was a rivulet, and on the other side of the riverlet, there was the temple. So the elevation that we see now is actually around 15 feet or 20 feet above the real elevation, the real visual form of Ellora, and that would have been very different.