Carved into the volcanic cliffs at Ellora, this series of 34 cave shrines transform Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain beliefs into three dimensions. The sculptured designs are highly elaborate and even include freestanding structures. (For comparison, try to imagine a European church carved out of solid stone.)
The work was done in three stages, starting with 12 Buddhist caves created between A.D. 600 and 900. Most are monastery halls, called viharas, where monks once meditated, worshipped, and studied. The halls contain statues of the Buddha, often flanked by guardian figures such as the two bodhisattvas -- Padmapani (the lotus bearer, symbolizing purity) and Vajrapani (holding the thunderbolt of esoteric knowledge).
The temples were carved out of 100,000 cubic yards of rock. Stone
provided an ideal building material in a place regularly hit by
monsoon rains. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
Another 17 Hindu caves from A.D. 650 to 1000 are packed with dynamic carved scenes focusing on Shiva, god of destruction. The famous Kailash Temple is a colossal model of Shiva's home on a peak of the Tibetan plateau. It was carved from the cliff itself, starting from the top and working downward through solid rock. The temple measures 165 feet long and 96 feet high, an astonishing achievement for craftsmen so long ago.
The carved stone entry screen signifies the threshold between two worlds -- the profane and the sacred. Within is a shrine for Nandi, the bull that is Shiva's vehicle, an assembly hall, and a sanctuary topped with a squat pyramidal tower. Everywhere are carved images of river goddesses, sages, and gods such as the elephant-headed Ganesh, bringer of good fortune, and the bowman Kama, god of desire, whose five arrows represent the senses. For worshippers through the centuries who have been unable to read, carved mythological scenes take the place of religious texts in offering instruction.
The last five caves (A.D. 800-1000) are dedicated to Jainism, one of the world's oldest religions. These caves, not nearly as spectacular as the Hindu caves, are carved with simple Jain images such as the potbellied Mahavir, lions and elephants, and a ceiling that resembles a huge lotus.
And so, in a single location, the Ellora Caves offer a course in comparative religion and Asian art.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.