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Carved Out of a Mountain: The Ancient Rock-Cut Temple Cave Complex of Ellora

The construction of only ONE temple required the removal of three million cubic feet of stone, weighing more than 200,000 tons.

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Located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes in the world: the Ellora Caves.

Although the caves were used as monasteries, temples, as well as rest stops for pilgrims, the Ellora caves were also an important commercial center in the Decan region, thanks to their location on the South Asian trade route.

The exact age of the cave temples is debated. The ancient site has been studied by archeologists and scholars since the British Colonial Rule.

Experts have had a hard time establishing an accurate timeline of the construction of the temple due to the numerous overlapping styles between Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina architecture.

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Nonetheless, experts usually agree that the Ellora caves had three important building periods: an early Hindu period (~550 to 600 CE), a Buddhist phase (~600 to 730 CE) and a later Hindu, and Jain, phase (~730 to 950 CE).

Shikhar of Indra Sabha. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Shikhar of Indra Sabha. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

The cave complex is an ancient mixture of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain monuments, all of which can be traced were intricately carved into the mountainside.

It is a true wonder of the ancient world, and not many people know of its existence.

The site is home to more than one hundred caves, all of which were excavated in ancient times, without the use of modern technology, from the basalt cliffs of the Charanandri Hills. Only 34 of the 100 caves are currently open to the public.

Ellora Caves, general map (the rock is depicted as dark green). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ellora Caves, general map (the rock is depicted as dark green). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Of the 100 caves, there are 12 Buddhist caves, 17 Hindu, and 5 Jain caves.

The Ellora caves are also home to what considered the largest single monolithic excavation on the surface of the planet, the so-called Kailasha temple, an intricate chariot shaped monument dedicated built in ancient times to honor Shiva.

An image of the Kailasha Temple. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
An image of the Kailasha Temple. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.5.

And while it was crafted to honor Shiva, Kailasha is also home to a plethora of sculptures depicting various gods, goddesses, and mythologies found in Vaishnavism, Shaktism as well as relief panels summarizing the two major Hindu Epics; the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Mount Kailasha inspired the most notable cave, cave 16, known as the Kailasa Temple.

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View from Cave 29, Ellora. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
View from Cave 29, Ellora. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The temple is a multi-level complex which covers an area twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens.

To build the Kailasa Temple, the ancient builders are estimated to have removed three million cubic feet of stone, weighing approximately 200,000 tons to excavate the temple.

A part of the Carpenter's cave (Buddhist Cave 10). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A part of the Carpenter’s cave (Buddhist Cave 10). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The temple is believed to have been built using a vertical excavation technique, meaning that the builders started at the top of the original boulder and made their way downwards, eventually carving one of the most fascinating ancient temples in the world.

Today, both the Ellora caves as well as the nearby Ajanta Caves, are a significant tourist attraction in India.