Caves: A Misnomer?

Caves… Elephanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Ajanta Caves.

Adam and I had envisaged something like this, some sort of natural cave that was then added to by the priests or followers or whomever, making the caves notable and exciting.

Ling Bua Cave

Instead, they were more like this:

<3 acoustics

Chaitya hall at Ajanta

Adam and I agree that calling them “caves” leaves us with certain impressions and we think it’s a bit of a misnomer, but we’re not sure what a better name would be. They are certainly notable and exciting, and well worth visiting all three different sites. The sites are all very different, despite some of their similarities in construction and architecture; you can’t mistake Elephanta for Ajanta or Ellora.

Elephanta is a single cave of note, a massive temple to Shiva (later used by the Britishers as target practice), known for its Trimurti (three-faced) statue. There are a variety of Shiva-related stories told by the walls of the cave, and the trimurti itself is a massive stone carved in such a way as to show the three facets of Shiva very distinctly. There was a statue of Nandi (Shiva’s vehicle, a bull), but that is no longer there. The cave is called “Elephanta” because the Portuguese saw a large elephant statue outside — and that elephant statue is now at the Mumbai Zoo. Its original name (and what the signage says) is Gharapuri, or “place of caves”.

The Ellora Caves are a complex of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves (oldest-youngest), and the Buddhist section is dominantly monasteries with a pair of assembly halls. The Jain section is temples with intricate carvings and (to my surprise) paintings – and many of the paintings are still intact or partially preserved. The most impressive (and perhaps daunting) of the sections at Ellora, however, is the temple to Shiva, made to mimic Mount Kailash. It is the world’s largest rock-hewn monument, taking over 150 years and 7,000 workers. All of us mentioned, at one point or another, how one of the lines of trim (elephants accompanying clearly Chinese-influenced dragons and lions) reminded us of Akshardham Temple in Delhi.

Ajanta is an entirely different creature, a series of exclusively Buddhist caves hewn from the side of a gorge. There are several large assembly halls here, too – and a vast number of paintings. The caves were all painted, once – and in many of the caves, you can see the remains of the paintings, in various states of disrepair. One thing we did not see anywhere else was the paintings set with pearls and semi-precious gemstones, allowing light to strike them and add just a bit more detail and intricacy to the work. The pearls/gemstones were set usually in necklaces and hair ornaments, and one of our guides had a guard show us the inset pieces by using a flashlight.

While Adam and I expected to see caves you’d maybe need spelunking gear to properly explore, we are extremely pleased and grateful to have had the opportunity to explore them as they are.

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