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Kailash Temple: Poetry in Stone

The Kailash Temple in Ellora left a lasting impression on me. After our enthralling visit in the afternoon, I decided to go back and explore it again the next morning. I duly arrived at 5:55 am. To my great delight, I was the first visitor and apart from a few stray dogs and sleepy security guards, there were no one to be seen. It seemed surreal and I felt like entering the time machine that transported me to an India, that was once known for building architectural wonders that even to this day are considered as engineering marvels.

A few moments later I stood inside the Kailash Temple. The pillars, corridors, towers, intricate structures reminded me that it is not just a temple. It is ‘sculpture in poetry’. It dawned on me why Percy Brown, the renowned scholar, historian and archaeologist had said “The Kailasa is an illustration of one of those rare moments when men’s minds, hearts and hands work in unison towards the consummation of a supreme ideal.” 

History, as a subject has always fascinated me. However, I have never been enticed by the grandeur of the kings and queens of ancient India. On the contrary what has appealed to me is the extraordinary skills of common people and their ability to create with limited resources. Using rudimentary tools, they created architectural masterpieces which are reflections of their creative expressions and their passion for the work they were doing. And of all the architectural wonders that I have seen, none evoked the same sense of fulfillment as the Kailash Temple.

The Kailash Temple is truly unique in many respects. It is an example of cave architecture that traces its roots across the country. Empirical evidence suggests that some of the craftsmen for the Kailash Temple came from South India. The carvings of ‘Abduction of Sita’ and ‘Jatayu-Vadh’ appear to be replicas of the works that you get to see in the Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal which was built by Vikramaditya II. The legend goes that the emperor, struck by its beauty, spared the Kanchipuram temple from demolition. He built the temple in Pattadakal instead commemorating his victory over Kanchipuram. The ‘Mahishasur Vadh’ carving too at the Kailash Temple shows elements that resemble the Pallava cave architecture styles.

Traditionally, Indian cave architecture followed two disparate approaches. Crest carving was extensively used in South and East India. The fundamental principle of crest carving was to carve the rock from the outside. Some notable examples include the Mahabalipuram temple, the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves in Orissa. The second approach, which was popular in the Western parts of the country was core carving. The artisans applying this approach, carved rocks from inside. The rationale for their choice was dictated by the amount of rainfall received in places where Bhaja, Kondavite and Karla caves are located. Rainwater made the rock softer and hence more difficult to carve from outside.

The Kailash Temple in Ellora is located within a few hours’ distance from Bhaja and Karla. And it is not surprising that all the caves in Ellora except the Kailash Temple (cave 16) and Dasavatara nadimandapa (cave 15) used the traditional core carving approach. The Dasavatara cave exemplifies the use of both the crest and core carving techniques and happens to be the first monolithic structure of Western India.

But the Kailash Temple is an astonishing example of amalgamation of different styles and traditions. It is a temple that has been fully carved out of solid rock from top to bottom. To create the Kailash Temple, the artisans needed to dig a deep trench on all four sides to identify a massive block of rock. It is estimated that the rock was 80 ft high. This was then chiseled to magically transform it into an architectural wonder.

As I stood on the spacious court that circles the main temple, I reminded myself of all the unique attributes of the Kailash temple. The setting was sublime as the first rays of the sun started peeping in and the friezes on the humongous monolithic columns appeared unearthly.  I closed my eyes and visualized artisans working to fix the broken trunks of the two three-dimensional elephants. I listened to the sound of chipping of rocks as the motifs were designed. I tried following the different languages being spoken by the artisans as they carved the elephants gathering lotus with their trunks and the lotus with the four striding lions embossed on it. I wondered if the artisans had an invisible magic wand! My modern mind could not fathom how these artisans, who never went to design schools and had no access to modern engineering tools and techniques created artifacts that were structurally of the highest quality. Not only that, they added a dimension of poetry on that.

The Kailash Temple reminded me of our glorious past. It reiterates our ‘unity in diversity’ in the truest possible sense. Artisans from the South, Deccan and the West collaborated together to create this masterpiece. Inspiration was sought from the Chalukyas for the architectural layout, while the carving approach of the Pallavas influenced the artisans’ techniques to carve the rock. It is indeed a poetic expression of rock cut carving that is testimony of the skill, ingenuity, hard work, persistence and perseverance of artisans, the names of whom we would never know.

On that fine morning, I decided to bow down and pay my homage to these unsung heroes who gifted us an architectural gem that we will never be able to create again despite all our technical prowess and advancement in engineering skills.

Fast facts

The Kailash Temple within the Ellora complex is a short ride from Aurangabad. The city has an airport and is connected to most major cities by rail. By road, one can reach Ellora in four-five hours from Pune.

There are many hotels in Aurangabad city which is a destination by itself. However, if you want to explore Ellora and the Kailash properly, opt for Hotel Kailas, which is strategically located opposite the caves. Most rooms offer a view of the caves. Sit back on the balcony, sip your tea, transport yourself to an ethereal world and listen to the story of common, unknown Indians creating poetry with rock.

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“The journey not the arrival matters.” – T.S. Eliot I am a Knowledge Manager by profession and traveler by heart. I travel to explore the human narrative and enrich myself as a human being. I think travel makes one modest and helps to appreciate the finer things in life. I have traveled extensively in India and through my blog, I try to share the beauty of my country. I attempt to showcase the spirit that makes us a truly incredible travel destination. I focus not just on the destination but also on people and culture. Mountains enthrall me! Nothing gives me more joy than a walk or a trail run on the mountains. I consider myself fortunate that the mighty Himalayas are always a train ride away. And I spare no opportunities to run away from my mundane city life and 'wander lonely as a cloud'.

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