If and when the wonders of India are recorded, Kailash Temple cave or Cave no 16 of Ellora caves is bound to be there. Tourist attractions of Maharashtra these heritage caves in Aurangabad are must visit world heritage sites. The best place to read all the technical and historical details on these caves is the ASI website. The most authentic source for this UNESCO world heritage site. Let me tell you my rendezvous with Ellora caves, twice in my life separated by two decades.
Ellora Caves – Kailash Temple Cave no. 16
In the early 90s, my father was posted in Aurangabad, the town closest to Ellora caves. Our house was just a few kilometers from it. It became the default place to take all the guests and that meant numerous visits to these caves. I was still a student then and that too of an upcoming field then called computers. I had no visible interest in history and very limited knowledge of caves in India, having grown up primarily in North India. Looking back maybe I never got exposed to art and history as a subject that can be studied. It was years later that I would start studying it out of sheer interest that ironically came from my travels.
With this backdrop too, I vividly remember the first time we went to Kailash Cave. An elderly gentleman, a local colleague of my father explained how the cave was excavated. When he told us that it was excavated upside down and the whole temple is carved out of one single stone. I looked up and the temple revolved around me and I was trying to imagine the precision with which it had to be done. Especially, when you look at the huge rocks jutting out above the pillared corridors. With the extreme limitation on the art side, my scientifically trained mind was looking at it as an engineering marvel. On top of it, my eyes were used to seeing temples in white marbles with towering Shikharas. And this Chalukyan style temple did not fit in that frame of reference.
Our uncle, who was playing the guide to us, explained the carvings on the stone. He showed us scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana. I clearly remember the carving of Ravana shaking the Kailash Parvat. The expression on the faces along with the fine balance in the image that depicted the scene perfectly. I had never seen such huge elephants carved out of stone. He did explain many other figures saying this is Ganga, this is the Yamuna, etc. But honestly, I was wondering how does he know, it could be anything for I had no idea that there is something called iconography. He then took us on top of the temple roof and showed us the temple from a distance where you get to admire its shape. In some intuitive way that was difficult to decipher then, I admired it.
Earlier this year, I again got to visit these heritage caves. The caves were the same, 2 decades may be a very small time in the lifetime of caves but it was a fairly large part of my life. I had changed – I had traveled in these years. I had developed a craving for history and I appreciated art more than ever before. Awe in my eyes was still the same, this time, it was as much for art as for the engineering bit.
A recent visit
This time without being shown I saw the chipped paint on the walls of the temple. Tried to visualize how beautiful the temple would have been when it was painted all over. I wanted to know if there is a way to re-paint it and bring it back to its original glory. This time, I noted the unfinished parts of the cave. I wandered around identifying the carvings knowing a bit of iconography. And having an understanding of the cultural and economic value of temples. I walked through the corridors admiring each and every carving. Going up and down the stairs, and trying to observe everything from all possible angles. This time, instead of trying to verify what the guide is telling, I was probing him to tell me more.
I sat and looked at a painter who was sitting at an angle and drawing the temple on paper, oblivious to the rest of the world around him as if re-creating the temple in his own mind.
Jain & Buddhist caves
I did visit Jain and Buddhist caves there, but Kailash cave blinded me. I was stunned to the extent that I could not admire the other brilliant caves. That ideally I should have seen some other day. Built around 8th CE, these caves fit into my fantasy period in the Indian history around 8-9th CE. When there were carved temples all around, still painted, still being worshiped with not a single stone chipped. With the population of those times, it might just have been what the heavens are supposed to look like. As the Zen saying going ‘This too shall pass’, that era passed but thankfully left some glimpses for us to remain inspired.
Highly recommend you to visit these heritage caves, they are the places to visit in Maharashtra.
Recommend you to read following Maharashtra Tourist places.