Jaina Caves at Ellora

in Article
Published on: 15 August 2016

Viraj Shah

Dr. Viraj Shah is an archaeologist, specializing in ancient Indian art, architecture, iconography and socio-religious history. Her doctoral dissertation has been published under the title,‘Jaina Rock-cut Caves of Western India’. Her post-doctoral research has been on temple institution in medieval Maharashtra and on archaeological remains in coastal areas of Konkan. Currently she is working as Associate Professor at FLAME University, Pune.


Away from the bustle of pilgrims and tourists around the famous Buddhist and Brahmanical caves at Ellora lies a cluster of five Jaina caves, right at the northern end of the hill range. These caves, excavated in the 9th century CE, signify the last major phase of religious and artistic activity at Ellora, celebrating the ascetic character of the Jaina sect.  


These caves are clustered in five excavations and numbered 30 to 34. Apart from these, there are six more Jaina caves on the opposite face of this hill, which were excavated during Yadava period in the 13th century CE (Shah 2008).


Early caves


Cave 30 or Chhota Kailash (Fig. 1) is situated a few meters away from the main group of Jaina caves and can be reached following the road from Brahmanical Cave 21 or 29. Tucked away in the thicket of vegetation, this cave is usually missed by tourists. But it is a fine monolithic structure, carved in imitation of the Brahmanical cave Kailash (Cave 16), hence the name (Fig. 2). Like Kailash, it is also a monolithic shrine, excavated in a pit with a rough gopura and executed in Dravida style, but is without nandimandapa, elephants or free-standing pillars. This cave is left unfinished from outside, while only the interior along with the icons are finished.


Fig.1. Chhota Kailash


Fig. 2. Chhota Kailash


Cave 30A (Fig. 3) is a small unfinished cave with a monolithic veranda and roughly laid out hall. Cave 31, with a hall and shrine is another small cave outside the main group of caves.  



Fig. 3. Cave 30A


Fig. 4. Indra Sabha or Cave 32


Cave 32 or Indra Sabha is a double storied cave with a monolithic sarvatobhadra shrine, a manastambha or pillar and a free-standing elephant in the court, all enclosed by a prakara wall with a gopura (Fig. 4). The lower storey of this cave is unfinished, while the upper storey is the largest and most elaborately decorated cave in the group with beautiful pillars, large sculptural panels and paintings on ceiling (Fig. 5). There are seven more caves excavated at different heights on the sides of the courtyard, which were added later on, as is clear from their haphazard placement at different levels and different sizes.


Fig. 5. Upper story, Indra Sabha (Cave 32)


Fig. 6. Caves 33 and 34 


Cave 33 or Jagganatha Sabha is also a cluster of few independent caves, excavated on three sides of the rock face. This group of caves is not enclosed by any prakara wall unlike the Indra Sabha (Fig. 6). Though the cave at the back appears to be double-storied, both the stories are actually independent caves as indicated by different sizes, iconographic programme and style.


The last cave of the group, Cave 34 (Fig. 6), is a small excavation with veranda, enclosed hall and shrine.


Fig. 7. Kamatha attacking Parshvanatha


Fig. 8. Baahubali in penance


Most of these caves are architecturally very fine with decorative pillars, ceilings, doorways and façade. These are covered with icons of the Jinas and yaksa-yaksis, and some of these, especially J18, J19, J20 and J21 carry a number of paintings on ceilings as well as sidewalls. Of these, J18 or the upper storey of Indra Sabha is the largest and grandest, though the lower storey, J15, is left unfinished with only the shrine icon finished. 


Fig. 9. Meditating Jina figures


Veranda ends, sidewalls of halls and shrines are covered with icons of Jinas and yaksha-yakshi. The scene depicting Kamatha attacking meditating Parshvanatha (Fig. 7) and Bahubali in penance (Fig. 8) are the most popular themes represented with minute details and experimentation by the Ellora artists. The Jina figures do not carry srivatsa or lanchhana. They are mostly shown seated in ardhapadmasana on a throne under a tree with a halo and triple chhatra, and are attended by chauri-bearers, garland bearers and musicians (Fig. 9). Since lanchhanas are not depicted, only Rishabhanatha with hair falling on the shoulders and Parshvanatha with snake-hood above the head can be identified.


Fig. 10. Yaksha Sarvanubhuti, Cave 32


Fig. 11. Yakshi Ambika, Cave 32


The yaksha Sarvanubhuti and yakshi Ambika pair has a significant place in the iconographic program of the Jaina caves at Ellora. They are carved in every cave in large sizes in veranda ends or flanking the main shrines (Figs. 10 & 11). Additionally, there are other goddesses like Chakreshvari (Fig.12), Padmavati and Sarasvati, and unusual figures such as dancing Indra (Fig. 13). Most of the sculptures are in very high relief and well proportionate with supple movements and beautiful facial features. The costumes, ornaments and hairstyles are depicted in great detail.  


Fig. 12. Chakreshvari (Cave 32)


Fig. 13. Dancing Indra, Chhota Kailash


The scene depicting Kamatha’s attack on Parsvanatha is executed with energy and vigour, achieved by various boldly conceived postures, a lot of animation and movement (Fig. 7). There are a few innovations like the hair spread around the head, third eye and forceful postures, which convey the idea of attack effectively. 


Of all the caves at Ellora, Jaina caves have the largest number of paintings extant on ceilings and sidewalls. The ceilings, including stone beams running between pillars as well as niche ceilings, uncarved portion of sidewalls above and below icons and pillars and pilasters were painted. However, the largest number of paintings have survived on ceilings, while a few traces remain on sidewalls and pillars. The paintings at Ellora, both in the Jaina caves as well as in the Great Kailash, are within square or rectangular frames with thick borders running along all four sides. Thus, each frame is more or less an independent painting depicting a theme. However, the exception is the ceiling of the central mandapa in J21, which has a painting within a large circle. It was done to execute a single theme. The paintings primarily depict flying celestial beings amidst clouds. They are mostly in pairs engaged in various activities such as dancing, playing musical instruments, carrying patra with offerings and garlands or paying adoration to Jinas with hands in anjali mudra. Otherwise they are shown in different postures and attitudes such as in close embrace, looking at each other, offering flowers to each other etc. Among them only Indra, on the hall ceilings of J19 and J20, is definitely a god of the Jaina pantheon, while the rest are semi-divine beings without exact identification. All these celestial beings are meant to participate as attendants or devotees in the iconic representation of Jinas in the cave, carved both in the shrine and the hall (Figs. 14 & 15).



Fig. 14. Paintings, Cave 33


Fig. 15. Paintings on shrine ceiling, Cave 32


In spite of the display of architectural, plastic and graphic art, the Jaina caves essentially focus on the ascetic tradition of the faith. The apparent monotonous iconographic programme with rows of Jina figures in meditative postures contrast starkly with the vibrant and varied iconography of Brahmanical caves. But the steadfast meditation of Parshvanatha against the attack of evil Kamatha, and of Bahubali against physical pains emphasise the virtue of non-violence and non-attachment in Jainism. The focused prominence of meditating figures of tirthankaras in these caves clearly shows the devotees and visitors the path of liberation through conquest of senses and renunciation. 



Later Caves


Compared to these caves, the caves excavated in the same hill, but at a higher level and at a much later date are small, plain and crude. A path behind Cave 30A leads up to top of the hill, where a 5 meter high icon of Parsvanatha is carved on the rock face (Fig. 16). Originally the icon was in open and must have been visible from a distance, but it has now been enclosed in a structure that was built by Jaina community from Aurangabad in 18th century. Below it there are three more caves and a few icons carved on the rock face. The largest of the caves is flanked by a figure of elephant.


Fig. 16. Collossal icon of Parshvanatha


A specific reference to the Jaina caves of the site comes from a Marathi Jaina text, Jambusvami charitra (Akkole 1968:192–93), which refers to Yarulanagara as one of the tirthas, the main icon being Dharanendra-Padmavati-Parsvanatha. It, obviously, is the colossal icon of Parsvanatha on top of the hill. This icon was worshipped in the late 17th century CE as Muni Silavijaya (Premi 1956a:465).





Akkole, Subhashchandra. 1968. Prachin Marathi Jaina Sahitya (Marathi). Nagpur-Pune: Suvichar Prakashan Mandala


Premi, Nathuram. 1956a. Hamare Tirthakshetra in Jaina Sahitya and Itihas (Hindi), Second Edition, pp. 422–51, Bombay: Hindi Grantha Ratnakar Ltd.


Shah, Viraj. 2008. Jaina Rock-cut Caves in Western India. New Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan.


Select Bibliography


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