Kailasa Temple: Cave No. 16

In ancient times, it was a royal fashion to construct temples and other architectural landmarks to commemorate one’s complete victory over one’s predecessor. However, the structures had very practical purposes and far outlived the monarchs. These exploits represent the multi-layered, multi-dimensional and multi-cultural artistic, architectural and sculptural magnificence, which comprises our national heritage.


 Image Courtesy Mayur Pawar on Wikimedia Commons


The history of southern India from the sixth to the eighth centuries revolves around the long and continuous power struggles between the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pallavas of Kanchi. In the beginning of the eighth century, when the Pallavas reigned from the western Deccan to present-day Tamil Nadu, they built the Kailasa Temple at Kanchipuram. By circa 1740 AD, the Chalukyas had ousted the Pallavas from the Deccan region.


The Chalukyas were nevertheless impressed by the Kailasa Temple and invited the Pallava artisans to build the similar-looking Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal in northern Karnataka. However, the presence of the Chalukyas was shirt-lived in the region as Dantidurga of the Rashtrakuta dynasty from Gujarat established his suzerainty in the region around 1750 AD and commissioned several new temples in the region.


Dantidurga died soon after and was succeeded by his uncle Krishna I, whose turn it was to celebrate his kingship by constructing a new temple. His inspiration was none other than the Virupaksha Temple, which he knew was made by Pallava architects, who were again invited to build his new temple. However, Krishna I went a step ahead and also invited Chalukya artisans who had also worked on the Virupaksha temple.

Image Courtesy Henry Cousens on Wikimedia Commons


The result was a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, which is a global landmark for its majesty, architectural sophistication, abundant sculpture, intrinsic carvings. The Kailasa Temple is the most notable temple of the Ellora Caves complex and remains the largest rock-hewn structure in the world.


Cave No. 16


There was an era, in which all of humanity resided in caves. Caves have been venerated in India since times immemorial. Early Jain monks used them as monasteries and the tradition continued with Hindu temples. Caves came to be excavated out of solid rock because of their durability and eventually attained architectural finesse. The Ellora Caves were created by various Deccan dynasties between the 7th and 11th centuries AD and features Hindu, Jain and Buddhist monuments and artworks.


Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-cum-temple complexes in the world. The caves were excavated from basalt cliffs in the Sahyadri Hills in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. It attracted pilgrims from various places and was also a major commercial centre. The Ellora Caves complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The Ellora Caves are also under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). There are more than 100 caves, all numbered, out of which only 34 are open to the public. Cave No. 16 is the temple built by Krishna I, (according to indirect sources) the Kailasa Temple, the largest and most striking monument of the Ellora Caves and by far the most popular.


Art & Architecture


Kailasa Temple was made to replicate Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. The temple features various style of architecture, most notably the Pallava and Chalukya schools. The artistic diversity and sheer scale of the monument has led scholars to think that the construction of the temple spanned the reigns of several descendents of Krishna I. Some historians even suggest that it was Dantidurga who commissioned the temple and that Krishna I consecrated its first completion. It was much smaller than now and his successors expanded the temple, including later non-Rashtrakuta rulers. In fact, one art historian theorised that the last layers of paintings in the cave were commissioned by the female ruler Ahilyabai Holkar as late as the eighteenth century.


The most important sculpture of the Kailasa Temple depicts the demon god Ravana (of the Ramayana) shaking Shiva’s Kailash mountain. The sculpture is considered one of most exemplary examples of Indian art. It is thought that it was carved 3-4 decades after the completion of the main shrine and it is possible that the temple came to be called Kailasa after it was created.


The entrance to the elaborate temple courtyard has a monumental, ornate tower above it. The entrance itself consists of a two-storeyed gateway, which leads to the U-shaped courtyard. A pantheon of Hindu deities are carved inside the courtyard. Columned arcades at the edges of the courtyard rise three stories high and are punctuated by large friezes. The arcades also contain huge sculptures of river goddesses, Shiva and his consort, Parvati. There are other shrines dedicated to the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Originally, there were elevated stone bridges that connected these galleries to the structures of the main temple, but they have now collapsed.

Image courtesy Ramana Kumar B. on Wikimedia Commons


A huge statue of Shiva’s scared bull Nandi looms over the courtyard like a guardian angel. Within the courtyard, a flat-roofed outer hall leads to the central, which houses the ‘lingam’, the phallic symbol representing Shiva. The outer hall is supported by 16 ornate pillars and is topped by a magnificently-carved tower. The shrine is also supported by pillars and contains windows, rooms and assembly halls. The outer hall and the main shrine reach a height of 7 metres and are built over two storeys. The base of the main temple was carved to suggest that the temple was being held aloft by elephants. There are also intricate carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.




Excavation & Construction


Katha-Kalapataru, a text by noted 15th century writer Krishna Yajnavalki mentions a Marathi legend, which refers to the construction of the Kailasa Temple. According to the legend, the local king suffered from an incurable disease. His queen prayed to Shiva at Ellora and vowed to build a temple in his honour and to observe a fast till she could see the top of the temple. The king got cured, but all his architects told him it would take months to build a complete temple. There was one architect called Kokasa who assured the king that the queen will see the temple’s top in one week. He started carving out a rock temple at the top and true enough, finished the ‘shikhara’ in a week. Kokasa, who belonged to an illustrated dynasty of architects, may have been the chief architect of Kailasa Temple.


The Kailasa is noted for its vertical excavation. The rock carvers started sculpting the top of the temple and continued downward. These were the traditional rock-carving methods of the time and the same results could not have achieved by sculpting from the front. It is an understatement that the commission was not only dangerous but structurally daunting as well. Three huge trenches were vertically carved into the sheer face of the cliff. The excavation included cutting away about 200,000 tons of rock manually, with chisel and hammer before the temple could even begin to be carved.

Image courtesy VK Vikas on Wikimedia Commons


Other Attractions


Since the Kailasa Temple is a part of the famed Ellora Caves, you can visit and explore many of the other Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples and monasteries in the complex. Ellora has a sister-cave complex not very far called the Ajanta Caves. There is another cave complex in the region called the Elephanta Caves. It might be a good idea to take some days to visit and explore the erstwhile phenomenon of cave temple worship in stunning artistic environments.


Like many architectural marvels in the world, the Kailasa temple is a testimony to the vision and creative greatness of the artisans of those times. A group that remains lost in the shrouds of history.






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