Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ajanta & Ellora - Ancient India Rocks

Excuse that pun, I was referring to some images we produced a couple of months back of Ajanta & Ellora. I had vague memories of visiting these cave shrines as a kid and it saddened me that I didn’t remember their magnificence. I was viewing the images in high resolution and the detail left me flabbergasted.

Ajanta & Ellora are the definition of the term ‘cave shrines’. Located near the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, India, these caves have been hand carved and built as far back as 200 B.C. These caves comprise of two sets, Ajanta caves and Ellora caves. Both are equally significant due to their history, architecture and message. The caves were discovered as early as the 19th century during a hunting expedition. All these centuries they lay hidden under the rocky landscape of the Sahyadri hills. They are called ‘cave shrines’ because they are essentially temples. Hand carved temples in man made caves, the sheer task seems enormous and near impossible for the era of their supposed construction. The granite these hills constitute of are still considered a construction nightmare but the faith involved in the Ajanta & Ellora caves seems to be the driving force behind this Herculean task. The rock is considered ‘living rock’ because the formations are a still in a process of development. The structures are prayers halls and monasteries where monks could meditate and pray in complete seclusion. These structures are also a symbol of religious tolerance and harmony. Here Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism co-exist and share their teachings. All three religions were founded in India and this is the only place in the world where their history conjoins. The Jain and Buddhist caves are places of peace and quiet while the Hindu caves exude more energy and divinity. The three construction styles found here are stupas, chaityas and viharas. ‘Stupas’ are generally built of stones or bricks to commemorate important events or mark important places associated with Buddhism or to house important relics of Buddha. ‘Chaitya’s’ are meditation or prayer halls built out of rock and brick and ‘Vihara’s’ are monasteries usually made in excavated rocks to provide a haven away from the rest of the world.

The Ajanta caves are a set of 29 caves, hand carved tediously by Buddhist monks. Presumably the only tools available to these hermetic people had to have been hammers and chisels. The figurines depict the tales of ‘Jataka’, ancient text of Buddhists which tell stories about the various incarnations of the Buddha. The craft is definitely impressive but the physical effort involved enhances the beauty of the carvings. It is no wonder that the Ajanta is chosen as a ‘World Heritage Site.

The Ellora caves are 34 in number. They are more ornately carved and the structures are more adorned. There are magnificent facades and examples of Indian temple architecture. These caves are carved in the basaltic sides of the hills. The most amazing feat in these caves is the ancient ‘Kailasa temple’, devoted to Mount Kailash which is the seat of Lord Shiva. This temple is carved out of solid rock and is a free standing structure comprising of pillars, podiums and spires, all intricately carved by hand. A website about World Mysteries has listed this temple under ‘mystic places’ because “it is the largest monolithic structure in the world, carved top-down from a single rock. It contains the largest cantilevered rock ceiling in the world.”

The best time to visit Ajanta & Ellora caves is from October to March, although the monsoon months of July-August are also highly recommended for the heightened scenic beauty of the area. Indian tourism offer a lot of excursion trips and tourists can engage tour guides locally at Ajanta and Ellora as well as from Mumbai, the closest metro to the caves.

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