Friday, 30 December 2011

Preview: Kailasanathar Temple in Ellora

"Its excellence is beyond the power of description."

So says the late Indian historian, Pandit Bisheshwar Nath, about Ellora's Kailasanathar Temple, in his book, "The History of the Rashtrakutas", and perhaps if I followed his example then I could save myself a lot of writing. Not just about the caves of Ellora, but about all my Wonders: "Beyond the power of description again, sorry guys," and I can focus my energies on finding some cheap beer. A picture tells a thousand words anyway - I'll just take five photos and let them do the talking.

Of course, I know that Mr Nath was using a figure of speech rather than just stating a plain fact, and his book wasn't about Ellora and its caves, it was about the people who built them, the Rashtrakuta Dynasty. Rashtrakuta is a bit of an unwieldy-looking name, but break it up and it becomes a little more manageable. In Sanskrit, "rashtra" means "region" or "area", and "kuta" means something approximating "chieftan". These regional chieftans operated between the 6th and 10th Centuries AD, and as a powerful empire from the mid-8th Century. The word "regional" misleads; at their peak, the Rashtrakuta Empire dominated what we know as India now, stretching from just above the southern tip all the way up almost to Nepal. In 973 AD, they came to an end when a rival power invaded their capital and overthrew them.

Like most powerful empires from the past, and partly through necessity, the Rashtrakutas enjoyed their fair share of warring and conquering - indeed this was a generous source of income for them. However, they also had some culture to them. Art and education were seen as important, and they left a significant architectural legacy behind. No better can this be seen in the caves of Ellora, which can be found 30 kilometres from the central Indian city of Aurangabad (named, incidentally, after the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb, the son of Shah Jahan - the builder of the Taj Mahal). This series of 34 caves is seen as the epitome of a thousand years of Indian rock-cut cave-carving tradition, with the magnificent, "beyond the power of description" Kailasanathar Temple not just being the very finest example, but going a whole improbable step further to become something that boggles the mind.


Dimensions, first of all. Kailasanathar, or "Cave 16", is 84.1 metres long, 47 metres wide, and 36.6 metres at its highest. Doesn't mean that much, does it? Well, how about it being twice the area of Athens' Parthenon, and 50% taller? This is pretty big. But here's the killer fact: Kailasanathar is a rock-cut temple, therefore this is not a building. This is an excavation. Kailasanathar was not built, it was removed. The temple we see now used to just be a rock cliff. And 1200 years ago, for the hundred-year period between 760 and 860 AD, the cliff was chipped away from top to bottom to form this fantastically elaborate structure. Nothing had been added, the entire structure has been carved top-down from the cliff, including the temple interior, with between 200,000 and 400,000 tons (sources vary) of stone removed. It's the largest monolithic - that is, made from a single piece of stone - structure in the world.

The name Kailasanathar simply means "Lord of Mount Kailash" and refers to it being the supreme Hindi god's, Shiva's, temple. Indeed, it's not the only temple in India to be given the name, although it's certainly the most celebrated. The temple is designed to resemble the sacred (and real - it's in the Himalayas, 6638 metres tall) Mount Kailash, home of Shiva, and in its time was covered with white plaster so as to give the impression of snow. It was also painted, though as with the plaster not much of this remains today. What fortunately does survive, even if it has been worn over the years, are the detailed sculptures that decorate the temple. These are exquisite works of craftsmanship, made all the more impressive by knowing that there was no second chance; these were being carved from the cliff itself and one screw up would be a disaster, much in the way that any mistake sculpting Mount Rushmore couldn't be remedied. My favourite decorative feature, from the photos I've seen, has to be the elephants carved into the base of a temple "building", giving the illusion that the elephants are supporting the structure itself.


A copper plate inscription referring to Kailasanathar states that the architect stood before the temple in amazement and said "Was it indeed I who built this?" It says also that the gods who passed by couldn't believe it was work of mortals. There isn't much in the way of written history of Ellora and the Rashtrakuta dynasty, most of it being derived from archaeological studies, inscriptions, contemporary literature, and accounts from Arab traders, but it's probably fair to say that they were pretty impressed with it. It wasn't a slow burner that took a while to capture people's attention, even the architect was saying, in his own way, "I've pulled a blinder." And Kailasanathar and the whole Ellora Cave complex has never gone away. This isn't something that has been lost in the mists of time then rediscovered, as its precursor, the nearby Ajanta Caves, were. Since its construction, it has been continuously known about. The Rashtrakuta Empire was religiously tolerant, and the 34 caves are a chronological mixture of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jaina, with Buddhist worship still going on today.

The only surprise is how Ellora isn't more world famous. Petra in Jordan is a similar type of deal, being buildings/structures carved into the rock, only slightly taller than Kailasanathar and not nearly with as much depth: Petra is effectively decorative features carved into the cliff, with just small bare interiors, albeit there are numerous such large structures whereas most of Ellora's caves are smaller, with Kailanathar being by the far the most dominant. Petra is often regarded as a World Wonder, appears in Indiana Jones films, and is globally recognised. Ellora... well, I hadn't heard of it until a chance meeting with two Englishmen on a Vietnamese train. Why is this? Perhaps I'll find out when I visit it, if it's rubbish. Or perhaps it just hasn't got a very good publicity machine: set the next Indiana Jones film there (Indiana Jones and the Ogre of Truth is my suggestion - Spielberg, my services as scriptwriter are available for a fee) and see if the world starts to take notice.

I'm looking forward to visit Kailasanathar Temple, and all of the Ellora Caves, as it's a late and somewhat surprise addition. I'm not sure how it passed me by during my couple of years of list-making, but then it seems to have passed the world by also. Fortunately, although it has meant some late changes to my itinerary, it is just workable, even it means a fair bit of time in trains to get there. It has also meant that it now makes logistical sense to fly out of India (going to China) via Mumbai, and the cheapest flight strangely enough happens to pass through Sri Lanka. Thus, as an expected bonus, we will now have a couple days in Sri Lanka. So Ellora has already justified its addition to my list.

I'll be visiting Kailasanathar Temple in early February, and will give a more detailed account of it, plus my own impressions, then. Careful if you Google, or especially Amazon, for "Ellora Caves" - it is the name of a publisher of erotic novels: I've already bought three hundred under the mistaken belief I was purchasing historical accounts.

Reviewed 14th February 2012.

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