Kailash Temple, Ellora Caves – A marvel of devotion, art, and tradition



Mahadev, Kailashnatha, Rudra, Natraja, Vishwanatha- all refer to the one Hindu deity – Lord Shiva, who is seen as one of the powers in the Trimurtis. He is considered to be the father of the whole universe. People pray to him as the divine, limitless, transcendent, unchanging, formless, and without beginning or end. Worshipping Lord Shiva brings good fortune in the form of the perfect life partner and job, especially worshipping him on Monday is considered very auspicious. There are numerous temples at various places where devotees in huge numbers gather to bow before the Lord and seek his blessings.

One of the most amazing Hindu temples is the Kailasa temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, which is located in the western region of Maharashtra at Ellora caves. The Ellora Caves which were excavated in the 6th century, are a collection of 34 cave temples and monasteries. The Kailasha or Kailashanatha temple (cave 16) is considered one of the most remarkable cave temples in the world because of its size, architecture, and sculptures.

History of Kailash Temple-Ellora Caves

This temple of ancient India generally attributes it’s construction to the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I, based on two epigraphs that link this Hindu temple to “Krishnaraja”. One is the Vadodara copper-plate inscription which mentions Krishnaraja as the patron of Kailashnatha and that he constructed a wonderful temple which made even the Gods wonder in awe. The Kadaba Granth is also credited to Krishnaraja. However, these epigraphs are not explicitly connected to the caves and have no dates that indicate Krishnaraja’s reign.

Some of the temple reliefs feature the same style as the one used in the Dashavatara cave (Cave 15), which is located next to the temple. An art historian- Hermann Goetz theorized that the construction of the Kailasa temple began during the reign of Dantidurga. Dantidurga’s role in the temple construction must have been deliberately suppressed, as Krishna sidelined Dantidurga’s sons to claim the throne after his death. According to him some later Rashtrakuta rulers also worked on the construction of this ancient temple along with Paramara ruler Bhoja and Ahilyabai Holkar. It is analyzed that the major part of the temple was completed during the reign of Krishna I.

 Pallava-Chalukya influence           

The main shrine is said to be very similar to the Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal. This Temple was commissioned by the Chalukyas of Badami to commemorate their victory over the Pallavas, who had constructed the Kailasa temple at Kanchi. It is theorized that after defeating the Chalukyas, Krishna must have brought the sculptors and architects of the Virupaksha Temple (including some Pallava artists) to his territory, and engaged them in the construction of the Kailasa temple at Ellora.

According to a medieval Marathi legend, the local king suffers from a severe disease. His queen prays to the god Ghrishneshwar (Shiva) at Elapura for his recovery. She vows to construct a temple if her wish is granted, and makes a promise to observe fast until she can see the top of this temple. After a while, the king got cured and wanted to fulfill the vow of his queen but multiple architects shook their heads saying that it will take months to construct a temple complete with the top. But, there was this one architect Kokasa who assures the king and starts building the temple from the top and was able to finish it within a week. The temple was later named Manikeshwar after the queen.

Kailash Temple, Ellora Caves- Paragon Of Asian Architecture

The rectangular shape of the Kailasa temple is oriented in four directions, with the entrance as west-facing unlike other temples at Ellora caves. It consists of the vimana (superstructure over the garbhagriha), gudhamandapa (closed hall) and mukhacatuski (four-pillared entry porch), surrounded by an astaparivaralaya (sub-shrine deities around the central shrine). Also there is a nandimandapa (pavilion for Nandi) and prakara (enclosure wall) with a gopuram (a monumental tower at the entrance of a Hindu temple).

 The entrance is 50m long, 30m broad with a height of 29m. Most of the deities at the left of the entrance are Shaivaite (affiliated with Shiva) while on the right hand side the deities are Vaishnavaites (affiliated with Vishnu). A two-storeyed gateway opens to reveal a U-shaped courtyard. As is traditional in Shiva temples, Nandi sits on a porch in front of the central temple. The Nandi mandapa and main Shiva temple are each about 7 metres high, and built on two storeys.

A sturdier path takes one to the top perimeter of the ‘cave’, from where one can get a bird’s-eye view of the entire complex. Among all other temples at Ellora caves, this temple stands out and one can see it while flying over it.

This Indian temple has bridges that connect towers (some of which are said to be fallen), rainwater harvesting systems , drainage systems , hidden underground passages, secret peepholes that can show people walking in, elaborate balconies in different areas and complex stairways that connect multiple levels.

Intricate Sculptures and Carvings

Almost every inch of the interior structure contains sculptures and carvings which display artistic richness, a blend of multiple religions and philosophies making the caves a major landmark of ancient Indian civilization. Among the most noteworthy are monolithic elephants and victory pillars at the entrance, the image of Nandi, sculpted elephants at the base of the temple which gives the viewer an impression that the whole structure is being supported on the backs of these creatures. Furthermore, various intricately carved panels can be found in the Kailasa Temple like scenes from the two major Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The circular design studded with four lions that create a huge X mark –it might have been created as a signal for extraterrestrials who can spot the location from afar.

At the doorpost, on the left side of the entrance, a small shrine is dedicated to the river goddesses- Ganga and Yamuna who represent purity, devotion, wisdom, and renunciation. Then as one proceeds, she comes to meet the creators of the legendary epics Mahabharata and Ramayana – Saint Vyas and Saint Valmiki. On both sides of the door, there are idols of Lord Kuber( God of money and abundance). One also finds goddess Durga -Dushta-nashini , and Lord Ganesha – Saubhagyadata.

 On both corners of the temple there are 2 Columns (16m long) which are said to bear the weight of  Lord shiva’s Trishul. Further, we find Goddess Laxmi – Goddess of money and prosperity, the prince of desires and attraction- Lord Kamdev whose 5 arrows are our Indriyas. Extracts of Mahabharata are picturized mesmerizingly along with the description of Krishna Leela, in which  Lord Krishna can be seen stealing makhan, the incarnation of Vishnu-Narsinha, Vishnu in the anant shayan (endless sleeping),  Vishnu as a Palankarta , Lord Vishnu flying on his vehicle  “Garud” ( eagle in a human body), Jatayu’s wings getting chopped by Ravana when he was trying to protect Sita during her abduction. Also, we are blessed by Goddess Annapurna – Goddess of prosperity, efficiency, and welfare.

 Exquisite illustration of Lord Shiva

Shiva is also known as the destroyer. In Kailash temple, only five of the 12 aggressive forms of Shiva can be seen which are Tripurantaka, Andhakasuravadhamurti, Gajantaka, Kalarimurti, and Bhairava.

One of the most depicted fierce forms of Shiva in Kailash temple is Andhakasuravadhamurti, which shows Shiva as the destroyer of the demon Andhaka who had abducted Parvati. In Kailash temple, this tale is also placed with the story of Gajantaka (slayer of the elephant demon, Gajasura).

Shiva’s Tripurantaka form portrays him as the destroyer of the three cities of the demons Taraka, Vidyunmali, and Kamalaksha.

Kalarimurti is found twice in the temple. In Shaiva mythology, Shiva emerged from the linga to save his great devotee Markandeya from Yama. A four-armed Shiva, who has emerged from the linga, kicks Kala (the god of death) on his chest. Markandeya is shown seated near the linga. Though the theme represents Shiva in an aggressive form, his face adorned with a smile is anything but that.

One of the panels shows Bikshatana Shiva, who is a gentler form of Bhairava. He is a four-armed Shiva, who in this panel stands with his front right hand on his waist. Dandapani Bhairava is also shown standing with a snake in his front right hand. His front left hand is placed on the waist and his back left hand is holding the vessel filled with water.

Shiva in his Benevolent Forms

Shiva’s benign forms are known as Anugrahamurtis (the one who bestows boon). Ravananugraha is a milestone in the history of Indian architecture. The upper half of the panel shows Kailash mountain, with Parvati, Shiva, and his attendants. The four-armed Shiva is seated with one leg downwards. Shiva is shown reassuring Parvati who is scared because of the tremors caused by Ravana trying to lift Kailash. The fear is palpable in the posture of Parvati and her attendant, then lord Shiva with a step of his foot again rejuvenates everything .

Shiva as Gangadharamurti is placed in the eastern gallery. According to Hindu mythological texts, Bhagiratha is the name of a king who performed penance to bring Ganga to the earth. To bear the force of her descent, Shiva received her stream on his head, and she descended through his Jata (Thick strands of hair).

Shiva as a giver is also present in the northern gallery. In this episode, a kneeling Ravana is shown to offer his head to Shiva for the boon of immortality. There is a huge linga on a pedestal surrounded by nine heads of Ravana.

Shiva- The yogi and guru

Shiva is the great yogi, the expounder of the Shastras. It is said that Shiva got the name Dakshinamurti because he sat facing south when he taught yoga and bestowed knowledge.

Mahayogi Shiva is illustrated in the form of an eight-armed Shiva seated in padmasana at the center, on a double-petalled lotus pedestal supported by lions. Above his Jatamukuta, there is a tree that touches the top of the panel. He is surrounded by devas, rishis, and attendants.

The dance of Shiva

In his Natesha form, he is mostly shown multi-armed and stands in a dance posture, with his body gracefully twisted. There are also sculptures which portray Goddess Parvati accompanying Shiva along with musicians.

Various other Aspects of Shiva

Apart from the ones already mentioned, there are other aspects of Shiva depicted at Kailash temple which include Harihara, Shiva and Parvati playing chess, Shiva testing Parvati’s love, Shiva with Rama and Laxmana, Brahma uprooting the lingam and many more.

Ardhanarishvara is depicted in different places. The right half of his body is of Shiva and the left is of Parvati.

Harihara is the composite form of Vishnu and Shiva. In the image of Harihara, Vishnu represents materialism occupying the left half and Shiva the right half.

 All the themes in this Hindu temple reflect a pattern. As one goes further inside even these do not find entry and the final space is occupied only by Shiva who resides in complete darkness in the form of linga.

 Vedic Architecture                                    

Before starting the construction of this ethnic temple at Ellora caves, the sculptors performed a Mahayagna and asked for permission from the rock to build the temple. The priests sanctified and energized the rock by chanting mantras. The way sound moves and vibrates among the walls and pillars of the temples is an indication that the place was blessed by the great Indian sages.

Facts about Kailash Temple, Ellora Caves

The architecture of Kailasa Temple is notable for the vertical excavation that makes it the only structure in the world carved from top to bottom. Everything must be planned very accurately as once its cut there was no chance to change it by adding any extra stone or piece of rock.

As per the calculations done by archaeologists it would have taken more than a hundred years to finish the temple construction. But, in reality, it took only 18 years to complete it.

About 2, 00,000 tonnes of rock was scooped out of a vertical basalt cliff in the Charanandri Hills. Everyone is trying to gauge how this was possible without using any modern technology within that short period of time. Though the Vedic texts mention of equipment named “Bhaumastra ” which helps to quickly drill the rocks without much manpower.

About 145 feet wide, 195 feet long and 90 feet high, Kailash Temple covers an area twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

Certain archaeologists and historians believe that few tunnels, at the site, are a path to the underground city situated there. Hence, these tunnels are closed for the common man. This could be further evidence that Lord Shiva has a connection with the Great Flood.

Mughal King Aurangzeb tried to destroy this temple of Lord Shiva along with many others that were to him a hindrance to his propagation. His soldiers shed their sweat for 3 years but could disfigure only a few statues before giving up to the one of the most amazing temples of India.

The architecture of the temple resembles the sacred Mount Kailash, which as per the Puranas is the mystical abode of the presiding deity. Maybe, this structure was coated with white plaster to make it appear as if covered with snow or it is a redevelopment of the heavenly description given to Mount Kailash.

Kailash temple- an Eternal Architecture

When visiting the Kailash temple in the silence before dawn, one can’t help but, bow down in gratitude towards the ones who designed and built this majestic reminder of a surreal past. One may leave the senses behind to feel the REAL and communicate in solitude with what is beyond the mind.

Nothing here is meant just as decoration, all bears a message to tell. Each pillar speaks the divine language and comes with a legacy. But only the heart can read it. There are keys, some are easy to find, others are only for the time when mankind is ready to understand, accept, and realize the mystic nature of Life. Angels are all over Maharashtra’s ancient sites, but nowhere else can one find so many compared to this marvel of ancient India.

Officially, it is a Hindu (Brahmanic) temple but it is more than that. It may well be one of the holiest sites on earth, a keeper of wisdom, a preserver of the lost knowledge of life. It is there for all who come and want to learn. While there are many impressive structures on-site, it’s the Kailasa temple that is perhaps the most well-known. Among all the incredible temples of India, this magnificent temple of Lord Shiva has fascinated countless and is worth paying homage.

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