Sunday, 5 February 2012

17. Wonder: Kailash Temple in Ellora

(For the Kailash Temple in Ellora preview, please click here.)

You'll be a bit disappointed the first time you see Kailash Temple. It's not an instant hit. Although fairly large, it doesn't stop you in your tracks; although with some exterior decoration, it looks a lot plainer and primitive than guidebook descriptions will have you believe. Entirely excavated from the cliff-face, the effort over a hundred years was considerable and this you don't doubt as you look for the first time upon it, but the sense of awe hoped for in a Wonder is not initially there. On our first visit, Burness just looked at me and said "Not a Wonder", and suggested that the additional expense and time tacked onto our travels for a late addition to my list wasn't really worth it. I found it hard to disagree. Kailash Temple (also called Kailasanathar, Kailasanatha, Kailasa Temple, or Kailasha Temple) just didn't look that impressive. Blocky, crude, and just a little boring. These aren't words associated with Wonders.

But like all the best Wonders, Kailash Temple in Ellora has hidden depth. In this case, quite literally.

Get past the plain facade and you have something else entirely. Plain face, fascinating interior, Kailash Temple is a secretive beauty, waiting to reveal itself. As our local guide, the very scholarly Ali, said when not on wild tangents about European history or Greek architecture, the exterior seems unfinished compared to the elaborate interior. Why was this, he mused. Perhaps after a hundred years of construction, the money just ran out. Perhaps disease or invasion stopped work. Abandoned before it was ever finished? We just don't know, as records from the era are scarce, but he also came up with another theory that, to my ears, sounds the most likely. Perhaps the exterior is plain by design. It was deliberately left unfinished-looking, so not to attract looters. The architectural evidence somewhat supports this - rock-cut temples such as Kailash are created by excavating the rock from the top down. Only after they are finished are they plastered and painted: Kailash was once plastered and painted. Therefore it would appear that unless there were later plans for an elaborate facade, Kailash was always intended to be about the inner beauty.

Kailash Temple is just one of 34 caves gathered together alone a two kilometre stretch of basalt rock cliff-faces called the Ellora Caves. In fact, as Ali reminded us, they aren't really caves at all, at least not natural ones. Possibly there may have been some kind of natural alcove or dent in the rock face before mankind in the 1st millennium got stuck in, but what we see now is entirely the endeavour of man. These are not caves adapted for worship, they are man-made caves, or more accurately, temples and shrines cut from the rock. They were carved from anywhere between the 5th and 13th centuries; again, this is something nobody really knows with any precision. Some inscriptions in just a few caves suggest rough dates for scholars based upon their style, but generally it's all guesswork. Barely any of the caves can be dated even to the century. In the end, the dates attributed are usually done by the sculptural style; just as you can give a rough date to Western styles of art whether Realism, Cubism, or Pop Art, ancient sculpture can be roughly dated by style by people with a far greater understanding than me. Thus Kailash Temple can be dated from the mid-8th Century for the main temple to the 8th or 9th Centuries for the outer galleries. By this estimate, the initial construction of Kailash temple would match with the reign of the king of the ruling Rashtrakuta dynasty, Krishna I, and this is further confirmed by copper plate inscription describing his commissioning of the temple. These shreds of evidence match up nicely, but are far from conclusive - as with much of uncertain history, the truth may be entirely different. Would you base a history of, say, Mount Rushmore only on how it looks and a single document written decades later?

Nonetheless, we must work with the scraps that we have. What is certainly more clear is Kailash Temple's function, as a Hindu place of worship, more particularly one dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Ellora's caves features three different religions: the oldest being Buddhist, then Hindu, and finally by around the 11th Century there are a handful of caves belonging to the smaller Jain religion. The evidence here is pretty much uncontested - the caves are all abundantly decorated with figures and motifs from the respective religions. This area of India was pretty relaxed regarding faith, so it seems, back then, and religions co-existed and merged, with Hinduism gradually succeeding Buddhism and then Jainists getting a late look-in. In the manner of the other Hindu temples I've seen on these travels, ranging from Prambanan to Angkor Wat to the modern Akshardham, the decoration is extensive and ornate, and although faded by over a thousand years, still enough to impress.

And impress it does. Because once through the main entrance of the unassuming facade, it feels like you've entered a different realm. Over the course of three days, I wandered into Kailash Temple several times, and the impact never waned. Suddenly you are surrounded by walls, three of them being a sheer rock face, and the other being the rock-cut facade. The cliff the temple was cut from was not a sheer vertical face, rather it was a gradually steepening hill - escarpment is the word - and thus the rock face to the rear is substantially higher than the facade, approaching forty metres. It is suddenly apparent that you are inside the cliff. All this was once solid rock, all this was excavated by sheer human endeavour.

This is probably one of the big wonder moments about Kailash. Really, there isn't much mystery about how it was built - or excavated, more accurately. Following the methods developed from over a thousand years of man-made caves, it was simply the product of a bunch of men and their chisels. Finding a nice spot, they began at the centre-top and worked their way down in a pyramid-like manner (some say from the back to the front), every day chipping way. There was no rough forming of the entire temple then going back to give the details, full detail was carved as they went. Somewhere between 150 and 300 men would have worked on it at one time - or so modern estimates go - and it likely took over a hundred years. Just a bunch of men slowly chipping away. Simple, yes, but no less awesome, because this is the single largest monolithic structure on earth. A straightforward recipe of man, chisel and time, with that vital and indefinable ingredient of genius add, to create a wholly amazing space.

That Kailash was once all just a huge chunk of rock is something that never really leaves your mind as you meander the temple area. The cliff faces loom above, and the chisel marks scraping down them are still clear. At the base of the three rock faces are galleries, carved horizontally into the face and supported by pillars, which are also just part of the original carved-away rock. Steps lead up to these, one in two storeys, and they make for a good wander round the dim outer edge of the excavated space, admiring the Shiva carvings on one side and the temple that the entire excavation pivots around on the other.

To be honest, if the temple didn't exist, the space that would be more prosaically known as Cave 16 would still be an impressive piece of excavation, with galleries cut into the base and sheer rock faces stretching up. But the temple is what makes the Wonder here, and set deep within the rock it is amazing to behold. The form itself isn't original, based on traditional Hindu designs, comprised of four basic units: the high entrance gate, the shrine of the Nandi the bull, a prayer hall, and the inner sanctum in which the Shiva linga resides (a linga is basically just a stumpy stone penis). Our guide, Ali, told us that it would have been based on a model of an existing temple, naming older rock-cut temples in the east coast town of Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram) as the guide. I think this is conjecture, but it's clear that Kailash is not original in its exact design. But like many of the great buildings around the world - the Pyramids is a particularly notable example - it takes an existing template and makes it much, much grander.

Happily, unlike many ancient monuments, Kailash is still open for exploration. Its steps can be climbed, and the upstairs accessed. Even better, with shoes off and inside the dark central shrine, where Shiva's linga lingers, there are two doors. Both lead to a rear upstairs terrace that few people ever seem to walk. Ellora, and especially Kailash temple, are extremely popular with Indian school groups, which arrive by the busload and attack in swarms. Some are disciplined, some are on the rampage: all are noisy. Fortunately, Ellora's many caves are spread out enough that it is easy to dodge them and even Kailash is large enough to soak them up, but fully escaping them on this rear terrace is a pleasure. The upper level sculpture can be appreciated up close, and on one occasion the power of the ancient imagery lifted me not just spiritually but quite literally too...

Another great way to appreciate Kailash is to climb the hill it is cut into. Here, Burness and I agreed that Kailash Temple is highly unusual for being the only Wonder we've seen to date that can be viewed from above. Short of strapping on a jetpack, seeing great monuments from above and up close isn't terribly easy, but by virtue of being inside a hillside, a wholly different perspective is possible. There are future Wonders that this will be likewise possible - the Leshan Big Buddha, Petra, and the Ethiopian Rock-Cut Churches spring to mind - but this was our first to date. As well as again being free from the crowds, it is fascinating to look down at Kailash, seeing the massive gouge out of the escarpment that has been made. Don't get too close to the edge, mind.

Started in the mid-8th Century and probably taking around a hundred years to complete, as Ali had said earlier, there's no definite answer to what led to the decline, or possible early abandonment, of Kailash Temple and Ellora. There is a Hindu tradition that a broken statue is no longer of use, so if Kailash was looted and the statues broken then it would have fallen out of favour. The statues these days are certainly on the broken side, although in decent condition overall, although time and not war might be responsible for this. Nonetheless, Kailash Temple was never entirely lost or forgotten. It was remained a place of worship, given a 12th Century repainting, the small remainder of which by the entrance of the prayer hall is of very high quality. It was again repainted, at slightly lower quality, in the 18th Century by a Shiva-devotee queen of the Holkar dynasty.

Miraculously, despite being just 30 kilometres away from Aurangabad, once the capital of the Mughal emperor under the Islamic fundamentalist emperor Auragzeb, Kailash and Ellora survived the destruction Aurangzeb wreaked on many Hindu structures. However, by the 19th Century it was no longer used for worship, and suffering again the ravages of time - and early British tourism, which saw some early graffiti and "souvenir" collecting. Some early attempts as preservation were also attempted around then, though. As proper tourist site, it kicked off in the 1960s, and its preservation for some time was more-or-less secured when UNESCO listed it as a Heritage Site in 1983. A general restoration is ongoing today, conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India, with the steps particularly being more freshly cut through necessity.

A quick word on the other caves of Ellora. Obviously, Kailash is the most grand of all, but there are a number of other very impressive ones. The interlinking Jainist caves, a short distance from the main stretch, are detailed and attractive, with Cave 32 being regarded as a mini-Kailash. My favourite, or a close second to Kailash at least, was Cave 10, also called Visvarkarma. A Buddhist hall predating Kailash, it is certainly too small to be considered a Wonder but it almost had the impact of one. At the back is a large seated Buddha, facing all who enter, and on the ceiling, there are stone beams carved to mimic wooden beams, which seemed to me to be like the ribs of a whale. There was something alien about the room, as though a small stone cathedral built on a different planet, and with the light filtering through the entrance and an upper balcony door, it was superbly atmospheric and peaceful. Except when 150 schoolchildren barged in.

To be honest, if Kailash Temple was a construction rather than an excavation, and simply a temple plonked in the middle of a town or city, it would still be impressive but not outstanding. However, it is not a construction, it is the epitome of a millennium of rock-cut architecture in India that was never again surpassed, or even attempted. After Kailash, the focus went onto the less taxing approach of building temples rather than removing hillsides to create them. Nestled in rock, sheer faces around it, it looks incredible. As part of a two-kilometre line of caves, spanning three religions and hundreds of years, it is part of an amazing complex to visit.


It almost passed me by, had it not been for a chance meeting on a train in Vietnam with two English fellows, Steve and Luke, who enthused about it. I too, after a brief initial disappointment, am enthusiastic. It is a great site, worth a couple of days of wander, and worth viewing at different times of day, as being a west-facing hillside it looks quite different in morning and evening lights. It has what exactly what a Wonder needs: wonder. Standing at the base, looking up at a 40-metre face and an area once entirely rock, you wonder how on earth a bunch of men with chisels could create this. It just seems so... improbable. And improbability is at the core of many of the world's best structures.

Some criteria then.

Size: It's not-infrequently mentioned that Kailash is twice the area of Greece's Parthenon and 50% taller. But compared to other large Hindu temples - Prambanan, Angkor Wat, Akshardham - it's a bit dinkier. Nevertheless, standing at the top of the excavated rock looking down, or at the bottom looking up, the overall scale of the hillside excavation is large.
Engineering: It blows the mind. Men, chisels, and time collaborating to chip away a rock face, top down, over a hundred years, to create a fully-formed two-tier temple with a large interior, and elaborately carved. No room for error, no second chance. The epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture over a thousand years. Wow.
Artistry: Although with a (deliberately?) unassuming facade, as with other great Hindu temples the rest of it is filled with elaborate and high quality sculpture, albeit rather worn these days. When originally painted, it would have looked fabulous.
Age/Gravitas: Around 1200 years old, it's firmly in the "old" league.
Fame/Iconicity: Within India it's rated fairly highly, but doesn't have a high profile. It's not at all well-known worldwide.
Context: Part of a complex of 34 rock-cut shrines stretching two kilometres, even if you're tired of Kailash there are plenty of other interesting caves to look at.
Back Story: Sadly little known, and based largely on supposition. Maybe built on the order of a king, but little of its history is known today.
Originality: The form is derived from other Hindu temples, and so is built from a rough template, although on a much more grand scale.

Kailash Temple "is surely one of the great wonders of the world." So claimed Benoy K. Behl for the magazine Frontline for Indian national newspaper, The Hindu. But perhaps to claim it as one of the actual Seven is a bit of a stretch. Kailash Temple is fantastic, but it is not world-beating fantastic. I suppose what it ultimately comes down to is size. At its tallest, the rock-cut temple itself is just a little over 29 metres - this is big, sure, but it is not massive. If it was twice as large, then maybe we'd have a contender. Outstanding beauty or fame would maybe make up for that, but it doesn't reach these heights either. So Kailash Temple never threatens to break into the Seven, but is still an enthralling place to visit. A temple cut away from the rock, it is an improbable site, and part of a great series of caves. Despite a poor first impression, it reveals itself brilliantly as a place very much worth the time and effort to see. I've not visited anywhere quite like it. And it inspires awe. All this adds up to a candidate Wonder being placed near the top bunch of sights I've seen so far, a good bit ahead of its fellow Hindu (-esque) temple, Akshardham, and just sneaking in a little behind Borobudur.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Angkor Wat
3. Sydney Opera House
4. Borobudur
5. Kailash Temple in Ellora
6. Akshardham
7. Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple


  1. Interesting. I'd never heard of this place and it is probably the most engaging one for me in terms of how much they grab me via your reviews.

    Perhaps it's the fact it's little known, or the sheer effort that went into it, or the fact that it seemed quiet when you were there (apart from those school children). No massed crowds like in the photos you've taken of other places.

    Had you visited it at a particularly quiet time, or just struck lucky with your photos, or did you sense that it was always like this?

  2. The site is big enough to soak up most of the tourists. There are quite a few people, and an alarming number of school groups, but as soon as a school groups left, it was usually peaceful. The best times seemed to be early morning - maybe half an hour to an hour after opening, by which all time all the school groups had moved away from Kailash temple. Shortly before sunset closing was also good.

    Like most tourist sites I've been, it's usually not difficult to find a quiet spot. In this case, I'd a bit of luck getting easy photos without crowds, but the crowds weren't thick enough to ever make this difficult. Anywhere other than Kailash would have been very easy.

    I was there on a weekend, so likely it's much quieter during the week. I've been to much quieter Wonders - the Burmese Buddha (Laykyun Setkyar) and Ayutthaya spring to mind - but it was one of the quieter ones so far, especially for somewhere in India.

  3. Kailasa Temple, the most impressive of all the temples of Ellora and one of the wonders of India. Kailash Temple in Ellora

  4. Really good observation, but you missed the important facet about kailasha is the carvings on the wall which show scenes from Mahabharta and Ramayana. Thats all beautiful.

  5. why the local gov or authority, aercelogy doest do anything to build back this tradisi

    1. do not know

    2. Instead of questioning.. I like what this gentleman did.. visited it, took pictures, wrote about it.. Kudos Friend

  6. I have heard that Emporer Aurangzeb (Last of the great Moghuls) ordered the destruction of the the temples & statues of Ellora, but had to give up as 'progress' was excruciatingly slow, due to the ineffectiveness of chisels on hard mountain rock. Could anybody substantiate this as fact & offer proof?

  7. I have not visited this place. But it is an unbelievable fact to my mind that it cut out of rocky hill. Even if 300 people carved this out of a rocky hill for more than 100 years, is this really possible for normal minds? Imagine people using chisels and work it out. Perhaps they have used other tools like crow bar, hammers to make their way grossly first, then chisel to carve out to finesse. What amazes my mind is the engineering mind, the planning, the continuity of purpose (for several decades??? Imagine projects in this modern age, the teams lose purpose with longer intervals), the leadership...just amazing!

  8. The article was going good till you reffered to 'linga' as just a stumpy stone penis.. lol.. It represents the entire 'Creation'- the union of Shiva and Shakthi.Good job vid d write up though.. just get the little details right.

  9. Just a correction man...
    Hinduism is the oldest religion...

  10. Chandana Art Foundation is interested is organising a seminar on " Comparitive study of Monolithic and structural temple of India with respect to Kailashnath temple and Virupaksha temple - Hampi. [ detailed study of construction details ]
    kindly if anybody has done research on comparitive study on scientific aspects, architectural construction aspects, probalble drawings used and the method of planning , techniques adopted materials, tools, used with visual evidences if available please contact K.Venkatesh, +91 80 9449994930, or by email :

  11. I am fan of kailash nath. The planning part is i think more superior then tajmahal. To my mind Taj Mahal is big but not great as kailash.


  13. Your article is very good. Except, there is a correction, " Hinduism is older than Buddhism.". Please correct it.


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