Give a man a hammer and chisel, and he’ll create art for posterity. Come to the World Heritage Site Ellora cave temples, located 30km from Aurangabad, and you’ll know exactly what we mean. 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) – though the exact time scales of these caves’ construction is the subject of academic debate. Undoubtedly the grandest 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 period of 150 years. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is clearly among the best that ancient Indian architecture has to offer.
The established academic theory is that the site represents the renaissance of Hinduism under the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasties, the subsequent decline of Indian Buddhism and a brief resurgence of Jainism under official patronage. However, due to the absence of inscriptional evidence, it’s been impossible to accurately date most of Ellora’s monuments. Some scholars argue that some Hindu temples predate those in the Buddhist group. What is certain is that their coexistence at one site indicates a lengthy period of religious tolerance.
Official guides can be hired at the ticket office in front of the Kailasa Temple for ₹1070 (up to five people). Guides have an extensive knowledge of cave architecture so are worth the investment. If your tight itinerary forces you to choose between Ellora or Ajanta, Ellora wins hands down it terms of architecture (though Ajanta’s setting is more beautiful and more of a pleasure to explore).
Ellora is very popular with domestic tourists; if you can visit on a weekday, it’s far less crowded. The whole complex is in desperate need of a reorganising: currently the car park is far too close to the temples so expect plenty of background honking and beeping as you tour the caves. Trash is also a big problem.