Buddhism Ellora Caves
Suraj Pandit
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0118


Ellora (20° 1′ 35″ N, 75° 10′ 45″ E) is one of the important rock-cut cave sites in Maharashtra, India, where a total of thirty-four caves were excavated in the span of 500 years from the 6th century CE to the 11th century CE. This is one of the exceptional cave sites where caves of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain affiliations are seen. There are twelve Buddhist (caves 1–12), seventeen Hindu (13–29), and five Jain caves (30–34). Among the Buddhist caves, cave 5 and caves 10 to 12 are architecturally important. Cave 5 is a unique hall with two parallel low benches in the center; there are only two such caves in India, the other being from Kanheri (cave 11). Cave 10 is popularly known as the Vīśvakarmā Cave, which is the main Buddhist prayer hall at the site. Caves 11 and 12 are three-storied caves which iconographically show their Vajrayana affiliation. Cave 16 (the Kailasa Temple) is the most important of the Hindu caves, being technically a cave but conceptually a temple. This is an architectural masterpiece of the Rashtrakuta period. Cave 30 is locally known as Chotā Kailāsa (“small Kailasa”), which is a very elaborate Jain cave. Ellora has an affinity with Eastern Indian Buddhist sites and shows evidence of developed esoteric Buddhism. Most of the Hindu caves are Shaiva, and originally affiliated to the Pāśupata sect. All the Jain caves are of the Digambara sect of Jains. Ellora, which has been considered one of the most important religious centers since the 6th century CE, shows the development of Mahayana Buddhism through various cults to esoteric Buddhism and of various Hindu cults, including Pāśupata, Natha, and Mahānubhāva in western India, as well as of Digambara Jains at one site. The stylistic journey of art from Ajanta to Ellora via Aurangabad, Kanheri, Jogeshwari, Elephanta, and Mandapeshwara is very clearly seen in Spink 1967 (under Ellora in Relation to Other Caves). Studies on Aurangabad caves (Qureshi 1998, cited under Ellora in Relation to Other Caves) describe the stylistic parallels of these two sites. Ellora exhibits influences from eastern Indian sites like Nalanda and Bodha Gaya and western Indian sites like Shamlāji. Ellora is a link between eastern and western Indian Buddhist traditions. A few sacred texts also were composed on Ellora in the 15th–16th centuries CE with the titles Ghusūmeśvaramahātmya, Veruļmahātmya, and Ghŗşņeśvaramahātmya, specifically on Kailasa, the sacred shrine of Shiva. Ellora marks the living tradition of being a sacred place for Hindus as well as Jains in India. Few of the Jain caves even today have a living tradition of around 700 years. Ellora is located on an ancient trade route and was known as one of the important commercial and administrative centers in ancient India. The medieval capital of the Deccan, Devagiri or Daulatabad, is not far from Ellora. Various references to the site occur in the literary as well as oral traditions of the region. Ellora is located near the medieval city Aurangabad and is around 98 km from Ajanta, another World Heritage Site. Other cave sites around Ellora are the Buddhist caves at Aurangabad (around 33 km), Jain caves at Daulatabad (around 16 km), and Buddhist caves at Pitalkhora (around 40 km).

General Overviews

Three phases can be seen in the studies of cave architecture of Western India. The first is the descriptive phase, the second is the study of understanding the process of change in architectural forms, and the third is the study of the forces working behind these changes. Phase one is represented by the works of the pioneering art historians like James Fergusson and James Burgess (Fergusson and Burgess 2009, Fergusson 1845, Burgess 1883) in the last half of the 19th century. Their methodology and classifications were followed by three generations of scholars. Scholars like K. V. Soundara Rajan tried to understand the process of change. His work Soundara Rajan 1981 comprises a comprehensive study of the Hindu rock-cut architecture of Deccan. His very elaborate entries on Ellora and on Kailasa are noteworthy. He studied various architectural and decorative forms and attempted to give a chronological framework to the Hindu caves in Deccan. The third phase is represented in Pereira 1977 (cited under Epigraphy) and Malandra 1993 and Shah 2008 (cited under Religious Studies). Current research on sites like the Ellora Caves aims to understand various cultural forces bringing specific changes in aesthetics, art, and architecture. General overviews of the site have been made by various scholars in their works on Indian architecture, like Fergusson 1845, Huntington 2006, Mitra 1980, and Kail 1975. Rajan 1962 is an extensive survey of the region that reports other cultural material in the form of microliths.

  • Burgess, James. Report on the Elura Cave Temples and the Brahmanical and Jaina Caves in Western India: Completing the Results of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Seasons’ Operations of the Archaeological Survey, 1877–78, 1878–79, 1879–80: Supplementary to the Volume on “The Cave Temples of India”. London: Trübner, 1883.

    This book gives us the text and translation of Ellora inscriptions with a complete description of all caves for the first time. As the name itself suggests, this is a survey report, and very useful for the students of epigraphy and art history. The work comprises numerous line drawings.

  • Ellora Caves.

    This website, created by Dr. Deepanjana Klein of Christie’s, Professor Emeritus Walter Spink of the University of Michigan, and Amro Klein of Colombia University, gives the basic documentation of the Ellora Caves, with useful descriptive notes by Prof. Spink.

  • Fergusson, James. Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India. London: John Weale, 1845.

    This is a book with numerous illustrations from Western Indian rock-cut caves, including Ellora, with descriptive notes. There are illustrations of the architectural elements and sculptures; these help us to understand the site before conservation work taken up by the Archaeological Survey of India.

  • Fergusson, James, and James Burgess. Cave Temples of India. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2009.

    First printed in 1880 (available online), this book is the first attempt to classify caves and propose a framework for the systematic study of caves in India. Both authors are considered pioneers in the study of cave architecture in India. They give detailed descriptions of a few of the caves from Ellora, with classification and religious affiliations of the caves.

  • Huntington, Susan L. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. 2d ed. Boston: Weatherhill, 2006.

    This book covers Indian art in general and was first published in 1985. In the course of understanding Indian art, the author has shed light on the Ellora Caves.

  • Kail, Owen C. Buddhist Cave Temples of India. Mumbai: D. B. Taraporewala, 1975.

    A chapter in the book on Buddhist caves in Western India is dedicated to the Buddhist caves at Ellora. The work is more descriptive than analytical.

  • Mitra, Debala. Buddhist Monuments. Calcutta: Sahitya Samsad, 1980.

    The book gives a list of Buddhist monuments in India, with a detailed entry on the Buddhist caves at Ellora discussing their place among the Buddhist monuments in India; it includes some archaeological insights.

  • Soundara Rajan, K. V. Cave Temples of the Deccan. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1981.

    This book helps the reader to understand the chronological development of Ellora in the light of other Hindu cave temples in Deccan. The text is supported with good line drawings and photographs. Though the relative chronology of the caves at Ellora is acceptable to some extent, the general placement of the Hindu caves at Ellora in the framework of overall cave architecture has changed and so not acceptable anymore.

  • Soundra Rajan, K. V. “Microlithic Industries from Ellora.” Marathwada University Research Bulletin, 1962.

    Deals with the results of an archeological survey conducted by author in the Ellora Caves region.

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