Hidden in the hills of western India lies an ancient temple, carved into the rock face more than a thousand years ago. Towering at more than 65 feet tall, it’s a feat of engineering that remains remarkable to this day. But how did the builders create such a staggering work of art? The answer will blow you away.
Few places on Earth have a history as rich or as diverse as India. Over the centuries, many different cultures and dynasties have left their mark on the country, resulting in a landscape littered with architectural gems. And from the famous domes of the Taj Mahal to the pink-tinted city of Jaipur, many of those still draw millions of tourists to this day.
But it is over in the western state of Maharashtra that one of India’s most incredible treasures lies. Set in the Charanandri Hills some 18 miles outside the city of Aurangabad, Ellora is home to a sprawling network of cave temples – one of the most extensive of its kind in the whole world.
Scattered across a distance of more than a mile, the network consists of more than 100 caves, some dating as far back as 600. Used as temples by members of the Jain, Hindu and Buddhist religions, the structures are filled with carvings and sculptures depicting the rich tapestry of beliefs that were prevalent in the region at the time.
As well as serving as monuments to the various religions, the caves were also used as monasteries. In fact, some of them were designed to incorporate cells where visiting monks could rest. And while the Buddhist structures boasted minimal ornamentation, the Hindu temples featured far more elaborate decorations.
The jewel in Ellora’s crown is the Kailasa Temple, a Hindu monument considered to be one of the most impressive in all of India. Commonly known as Cave 16, it is built in the shape of a chariot and dedicated to Shiva, a deity revered as the Supreme Being within the dominant Shaivism tradition.
Although there is some debate over when the Kailasa Temple was first founded, most believe that is was constructed during the reign of Krishna I, a king of the Rashtrakuta dynasty who ruled across much of India from from 756-774. However, it features many varied architectural styles, leading some to conclude that it was added to by different rulers over the years.
According to some experts, the Kailasa Temple was based on two different structures elsewhere in India – one of the same name in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and another, Virupaksha Temple, some 430 miles south in Karnataka. Apparently, craftsmen from these regions were put to work in Ellora when the Rashtrakuta Empire conquered their homelands.
Covering some 46,000 square feet, the temple was designed to symbolize Mount Kailash, the sacred Tibetan mountain believed to be the home of Shiva. However, perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is its construction – a painstaking process that makes its size and scale all the more impressive.
Apparently, Kailasa Temple was built from the top down, with a team of carvers digging vertically through the rock. According to experts, it was the only way that the master architect could achieve the desired effect. Moreover, the structure was carved from a single piece of rock – making it the largest monolithic excavation ever created.
First, workers chipped away at the rock surrounding the temple. Eventually, they excavated some 200,000 tons to create a series of three trenches. And from there, they carved out the main structure – a process that, even according to the most conservative estimates, must have taken at least five-and-a-half years.
According to the Indian historian M. K. Dhavalikar, an old legend from the Marathi people talks of the Kailasa Temple and why it was built. Apparently, there was once a king who was suffering from a terrible disease. And when his wife prayed for a cure, she promised Shiva that she would build a temple in return.
But that wasn’t all that the queen promised. According to the story, she also swore that she would observe a fast until she had seen the very top of this temple constructed. Miraculously, the king was cured, and he soon set about delivering on his wife’s promise. However, his architects predicted that the task would take many weeks – far too long for the queen to go without food.
Luckily, one architect came up with a cunning plan. By starting at the top of the temple first, he was able to present it to the queen in just one week. Having met the conditions of her promise, she ceased her fast. And even though this story had likely been embellished over the years, Dhavalikar maintains that there is real evidence linking it to Kailasa Temple.
Inside, the temple is a veritable treasure trove of artistic and architectural wonders. When visitors first arrive, they are greeted by depictions of Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites – followers of the deities Vishnu and Shiva – carved in detail on either side of the entrance. Meanwhile, a series of vast stone columns flank the interior courtyard, while a towering spire in the shape of Mount Kailash dominates the scene.
At the edges of the courtyard sits a three-story arcade containing a vast array of sculptures and intricately detailed panels. At one point in time, a series of stone bridges would have spanned the space far above the ground, connecting the structure to other buildings. However, these have long since collapsed.
At the heart of the courtyard sits a shrine to Shiva, which in turn is decorated with more elaborate motifs. In fact, it’s one of five similar structures scattered throughout the temple complex, three of which are dedicated to the goddesses of great Indian rivers: Saraswati, Ganga and Yamuna.
Among the motifs carved in intricate detail throughout Kailasa Temple are depictions of elephants and other members of the animal kingdom, as well as various erotic and mythological figures. However, perhaps the most remarkable of all the works is the sculpture featuring the demon Ravana – which some regard as one of the best examples of traditional art in the entire country.
In the sculpture, Shiva can be seen sitting at the summit of Mount Kailash, while Ravana attempts to lift it from beneath him. According to legend, the deity scuppered the demon’s plans by trapping him under the mountain for a thousand years, before Ravana finally managed to persuade Shiva to set him free.
Amazingly, all of these details remain – more than a millennium after they were first carved into the basalt of the Charanadri Hills. Today, the caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected for many generations to come. With that in mind, it can be hoped that the Kailasa Temple might continue to tell its stories for another thousand years.