Kailasa Temple: A Golden Inscription on the Pages of Indian History

Rock cut architectures, especially from the bygone eras, are awe inspiring pieces of excellent craftsmanship and structural engineering. The sheer amount of details and size of some of the best examples of this art form can leave the people dumbstruck. It is unimaginable for many minds as to how such extravagant monuments and structures were carved with the tools that were available during their creation. These architectures are a reflection of how human beings can create even with limitations, which again, is a relative term with respect to time. 

India has a special relation with rock cut architecture, as for the country has the most variety and abundance of these structures across the world. Most of the rock cut structures in India are religious in nature. Amongst all, the Kailash Temple, which is a part of the Ellora cave series is considered to be the pinnacle of this category of architecture. So, what makes it special? Let’s see…


Rock cut architecture mainly refers to carving out of structures from a solid natural rock. The large amount of surplus rock pieces that were produced during this process were presumably shifted somewhere else for other economic purposes. To prevent the rocks from falling over the workers, the interiors were carved starting from the roof and then working downwards.

Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery- temple complexes, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is situated at a distance from 29 kilometres north-west of Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India and features Buddhist, Jain and Hindu monuments, dating back to 600 CE. This complex was constructed over a large period of time, spanning from 600-1000 CE. They were built during the reign of Rashtrakuta dynasty (constructed the Hindu and Buddhist caves) and Yadava dynasty (added quite a number of Jain caves). Over 100 caves were excavated in this site from the basalt cliffs in the Charanandri Hills. Out of them, only 34 are open for the public. 12 Buddhist (caves 1-12), 17 Hindu (caves 13-29)and 5 Jain (caves 30-34) make up the public accessible attractions and also display the religious harmony that was the binding cultural fabric of ancient India. The legendary Kailasha temple is featured in cave 16, and holds the honour of being the largest monolithic rock excavation in the world.

Glory of the Bygone Era

Kailasa or Kailashanatha temple is the largest rock cut Hindu temple in the Ellora cave complex. It is a megalith (stone from which a structure or monument is created, alone or along with other stones) shaped like a chariot, carved from a rock cliff face, ranging across 2 kilometres along the sloping basalt cliff. Its construction is estimated to have started in between 756-773 CE and was completed around the 8th century CE. Though there is a lack of dedicatory inscription, but on the basis of two epigraphs (the Vadodara copper plate inscription of Karkaraja II, a ruler of Rashtrakuta branch of Gujarat and the Kadaba grant of Govinda Prabhutavarsha), it is considered that Krishna I, a Rashtrakuta ruler has commissioned the creation of Kailasa temple. Though there are some specks of uncertainty due to various irregularities in the timeline and other historical documents. This magnanimous structure is dedicated to Kailashanatha (Shiva), but there are various sculptures of deities from Vaishnavism and Shaktism, along with relief panels depicting the two major Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Due to the size, architecture and sculptures, it is considered to be one of the  most exceptional cave temples across the world.  One of the highlight worthy fact about the construction of this temple is that it has been excavated vertically, that is, the carving started from the top of the original rock and moved downwards, in contrast to the established method of carving from the front. The architecture defers from the earlier style attributed to the Deccan region. The southern influence is considered to be due to involvement of Chalukya and Pallava artisans. Based on a Marathi  legend, an architect named Kokasa is theorized to be the chief architect of Kailasa temple. It has some resemblance to the Virupaksha temple, Pattadakal and Kailasa Temple, Kanchi.

Exploring the Culture

The temple courtyard entrance has a low gopuram. The deities on the left side of the entrance belong to Shaivism and on the right side, deities of Vaishnavism are more prominent. This gateway leads to U shaped courtyard, which is edged by a three storey high columned arcade. The arcade and the complementary alcoves are decorated by sculptured panels and relief carvings of various deities. Some of the famous sculptures are ascetic Shiva, dancing Shiva and Shiva being warned by Parvati about Ravana.
The central shrine is dedicated to Shiva and has an image of Nandi (the sacred bull), and is situated within the courtyard. The temple encasing the lingam, also include a flat-roof mandapa, held up by 16 pillars and a Dravidian shikhara. Throughout the entire shrine, carvings of niches, windows, images of deities and mithunas are in abundance. As the tradition, Nandi sits on the porch in front of the primary temple. The Nandi mandapa and the main Shiva temple is situated on a height of 7 metres, and built in two storeys. The base of the temple is carved as such to project that the elephants are holding the temple aloft. The Nandi mandapa is connected to the main shrine via a rock bridge. The lower levels, upon which the temple is standing, depicts various mythological scenes and sculptures. Five detached shrines in the compound are also a notable feature, three of which are dedicated to Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.

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