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Ellora Caves

The Ellora caves, locally known as ‘Verul Leni’ is located on the Aurangabad-Chalisgaon road at a distance of 30 km north-northwest of Aurangabad, the district headquarters. The name Ellora itself inspires everyone as it represents one of the largest rock-hewn monastic-temple complexes in the entire world. Ellora is also world famous for the largest single monolithic excavation in the world, the great Kailasa (Cave 16). The visit to these caves is enjoyed maximum during monsoon, when every stream is filled with rainwater, and the entire environ is lush green. The monsoon is not only a season of rains in this part, the local visitors are attracted to visit these ideal locations to have a glimpse of the mother nature in full bloom. The caves are hewn out of the volcanic basaltic formation of Maharashtra, known as ‘Deccan Trap’, the term trap being of Scandinavian origin representing the step like formation of the volcanic deposits. The rock formation, on weathering has given rise to the appearance of terraces with flat summits. At Ellora, one can also have a glimpse of the channels (near Cave 32) through which the volcanic lava once flowed.

These channels, due to overheating, have a characteristic brownish red colour. Similar rock was used in the construction of the Grishneshwar Temple nearby and also utilised for the flooring of the pathways at Bibi-ka-Maqbara. The hills in which the caves are hewn, forms part of the Sahyadri ranges of the Deccan and dated to the Cretaceous era of the Geological time scale (about 65 million years ago). The hills rise abruptly from the surrounding plains on the south and west, the western surface being extensively utilised for hewing the cave complexes. The hill also supports several streams, the prominent among them being the Elaganga, which drains into the Shiv, a stream of the Godavari river system. The Elaganga is in its full vigour during the monsoon, when the overflowing waters of a barrage in the upstream near Mahismati allows the gushing waters to land at “Sita-ki-nahani” near Cave 29 as a crashing waterfall. The volcanic lava flowed during different periods, gave rise to extensive horizontal flows alternating with vesicular trap beds. The vesicular traps formed the upper portion of each of the massive trap beds. The different lava flows also gave rise to vertical as well as horizontal joints in the rock formation. Depending upon the nature and mineralogical content of the lava flow, the rock formations also varied in character and texture, giving rise to various qualities like coarse grained, fine grained formations. The ancient builders at Ellora, like other places, particularly chose the fine grained formations of the Deccan trap, ideal for sculpting and rock hewing. In addition to this, the ancient builders also traced the horizontal and vertical joints in the rock formation to minimise the labour and time during excavation and rock splitting.

The basaltic rock is also ideal for rock hewing, as they are soft during the initial excavation and hardens on exposure to environment. The epitome of ancient Indian rock-cut architecture, these caves were chipped out laboriously over five centuries by generations of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks. Monasteries, chapels,temples – the caves served every purpose,and they were stylishly embellished with a profusion of remarkably detailed sculptures. Unlike the caves at Ajanta, which are carved into a sheer rock face, the Ellora caves line a 2km-long escarpment, the gentle slope of which allowed architects to build elaborate courtyards in front of the shrines, and render them with sculptures of a surreal quality. Ellora has 34 caves in all: 12 Buddhist (AD 600–800), 17 Hindu (AD 600–900) and five Jain (AD 800–1000). The grandest, however, is the awesome Kailasa Temple (Cave 16), the world’s largest monolithic sculpture, hewn top to bottom against a rocky slope by 7000 labourers over a 150-year period. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is clearly among the best that ancient Indian architecture has to offer.

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