The Kailasha Temple, Ellora

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The Kailasha or Kailashanatha Temple is the largest of the rock-cut Hindu temples in the Ellora Caves, Aurangabad District, Maharashtra, India. A megalith carved out of a rocky cliff face, it is considered one of the most remarkable rock temples in the world for its size, architecture and sculptural treatment, and “the climax of the rock-cut phase of Indian architecture”. The top of the superstructure above the sanctuary is 32.6 meters (107 ft) above the level of the courtyard below, although the rock face slopes down from the rear of the temple to the front. Archaeologists believe that it was made from a single rock.

Kailasa Temple (Cave 16) is the largest of the 34 Buddhist, Jain and Hindu temples and monasteries known collectively as the Ellora Caves, which stretch for more than two kilometers (1.2 miles) along the cliff of tilted basalt at the site. Most of the excavation of the temple is generally attributed to the 8th century Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (rc 756 – 773), with some items completed later. The temple architecture shows traces of the Pallava and Chalukya styles. The temple contains a number of large-scale free-standing reliefs and sculptures equal to the architecture, though only traces of the paintings that originally decorated it remain.



The Kailasa temple lacks a dedicatory inscription, but there is no doubt that it was commissioned by a Rashtrakuta ruler. Its construction is generally attributed to the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (r. 756-773 CE), based on two epigraphs linking the temple to “Krishnaraja”:

  • The Vadodara (c. 812-813 CE) copper plate inscription of Karkaraja II (a ruler of a Rashtrakuta branch of Gujarat) records the grant of a village in present-day Gujarat. He mentions Krishnaraja as patron of Kailasanatha and also mentions a Shiva temple at Elapura (Ellora). He claims that the king built such a marvelous temple that even the gods and the architect were amazed. Most scholars believe that this is a reference to the Kailasa Shiva temple in Elora.
  • Govinda Prabhu Varsha’s Kadaba grant appears to credit Krishnaraja with the construction of the temple.

However, the attribution of the temple to Krishna I is not entirely certain because these epigraphs are not physically connected to the caves and do not date from Krishnaraja’s reign. Furthermore, the land grants issued by Krishna’s successors do not contain any reference to the Kailasa temple.

The Kailasa temple features the use of multiple different architectural and sculptural styles. This, combined with its relatively large size, has led some scholars to believe that its construction spanned the reigns of several kings. Some of the reliefs in the temple are in the same style as that used in the Dashavatara cave (Cave 15), which is adjacent to the temple. The Dashavatara cave contains an inscription of Krishna’s predecessor and nephew Dantidurga (c.735–756 CE). Based on this, the art historian Hermann Goetz (1952) theorized that the construction of the Kailasa temple began during the reign of Dantidurga. Krishna enshrined the first complete version of it, which was much smaller than the current temple. According to Goetz, Dantidurga’s role in the construction of the temple must have been deliberately suppressed, as Krishna sidelined Dantidurga’s sons to claim the throne after his death. Based on analysis of the different styles, Goetz further hypothesized that later Rashtrakuta rulers also expanded the temple. These rulers include Dhruva Dharavarsha, Govinda III, Amoghavarsha, and Krishna III. According to Goetz, the 11th century Paramara ruler Bhoja commissioned the elephant and lion frieze on the lower plinth during his invasion of the Deccan, adding a new layer of paintings. Finally, Ahilyabai Holkar commissioned the last layer of paintings in the temple.

MK Dhavalikar (1982) reviewed the temple architecture and concluded that most of the temple was completed during the reign of Krishna I, although he agreed with Goetz that some other parts of the temple complex can be dated to later rulers. . . According to Dhavalikar, Krishna completed the following components: the main shrine, its gateway, the nandi-mandapa, the lower story, the elephant-lion frieze, the court elephants, and the victory pillars. Dhavalikar admits that the most important sculpture in the temple, depicting Ravana shaking Kailasa Mountain, seems to have been built after the main building. This sculpture is considered one of the greatest pieces of Indian art, and it is possible that the temple came to be known as Kailasa after it. Dhavalikar theorizes that this sculpture was carved around 3-4 decades after the completion of the main shrine, based on its similarity to the Tandava sculpture in the Lankeshvar cave. H. Goetz dated this relief to the reign of Krishna III. Like Goetz, Dhavalikar attributes some other structures in the temple complex to later rulers. These include the Lankeshvar cave and the sanctuary of the river goddesses (possibly built during the reign of Govinda III). Dhavalikar further theorizes that the excavation of the Dashavatara cave, which began during the reign of Dantidurga, was completed during the reign of Krishna I. This explains the similarities between the sculptures in the two caves.


Pallava- chalukya influence

Dhavalikar noted that no major part of the monolithic temple appears to have been an afterthought: architectural evidence suggests that the entire temple was planned early on. The main shrine is very similar (although much larger) to the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal, which itself is a replica of the Kailasa temple in Kanchi. The Pattadakal Virupaksha Temple was commissioned by the Badami Chalukyas to commemorate their victory over the Pallavas, who had built the Kailasa temple in Kanchi. According to Virupaksha temple inscriptions, the Chalukyas brought the Pallava artists to Pattadakal after defeating the Pallavas. Dhavalikar theorizes that after defeating the Chalukyas, Krishna must have been impressed by the Virupaksha Temple located in his territory. As a result, he brought the sculptors and architects of the Virupaksha Temple (including some Pallava artists) to his own territory and hired them for the construction of the Kailasa temple at Ellora.

If the architects of the Virupaksha temple are supposed to have helped build the Kailasa temple at Ellora, the construction of a massive temple during the reign of a single monarch does not seem impossible. The architects already had a blueprint and a prototype, which should have significantly reduced the effort involved in building a new temple. Also, removing a monolithic temple would have involved less effort than transporting large stones to build a new temple of similar size. Assuming that one person can cut around 4 cubic feet of rock every day, Dhavalikar estimated that 250 workers would have managed to build the Kailasa temple at Ellora in 5.5 years. The presence of non-Rashtrakuta styles in the temple can be attributed to the involvement of Chalukya and Pallava artists.


construction method

The Kailasa Temple is noted for its vertical excavation: the carvers started at the top of the original rock and dug down. Traditional methods were rigidly followed by the master architect, which could not have been achieved by digging from the front.

A medieval Marathi legend seems to refer to the construction of the Kailasa temple. The oldest extant text mentioning this legend is Krishna Yajnavalki’s Katha-Kalapataru (c. 1470-1535 CE). According to this legend, the local king suffered from a serious illness. His queen prayed to the god Ghrishneshwar (Shiva) at Elapura to cure her husband. She promised to build a temple if her wish was granted, and she promised to observe a fast until she could see the shikhara (top) of this temple. After the king was cured, she asked him to build a temple right away, but several architects stated that it would take months to build a complete temple with a shikhara. An architect named Kokasa assured the king that the queen would be able to see the shikhara of a temple within a week. He started building the temple from above, carving out a rock. He was able to finish the shikhara in a week, allowing the queen to quickly give it up. The temple was named Manikeshwar after the queen. MK Dhavalikar theorizes that Kokasa was in fact the main architect of the Kailasa temple, which was originally known as Manikeshwar. Multiple 11th-13th century inscriptions from central India mention architects born into the illustrious Kokasa family.



The architecture of the Kailasa temple is different from the earlier style prevalent in the Deccan region. As stated above, it appears to be based on the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal and the Kailasa temple in Kanchi, but it is not an exact imitation of these two temples. The southern influence on the temple’s architecture can be attributed to the involvement of Chalukya and Pallava artists in its construction. Indigenous Deccan artisans appear to have played a subservient role in the construction of the temple.

The entrance to the temple courtyard features a low gopuram. Most of the deities to the left of the entrance are Shaivaites (affiliated with Shiva) while on the right side the deities are Vaishnavaites (affiliated with Vishnu). A two-story gatehouse opens to reveal a U-shaped courtyard. The dimensions of the courtyard are 82m x 46m at the base. The courtyard is bordered by a colonnaded arcade three stories high. The arcades are punctuated by huge carved panels and niches containing huge sculptures of a variety of deities. Originally stone suspension bridges connected these galleries to the central temple structures, but these have since collapsed. Some of the most famous sculptures are Shiva the ascetic, Shiva the dancer, Shiva being warned by Parvati about the demon Ravana and the river goddess.

Inside the courtyard, there is a central shrine dedicated to Shiva and a mount image of him Nandi (the sacred bull). The central shrine housing the lingam features a flat-roofed mandapa supported by 16 pillars and a Dravidian shikhara. Complete with pillars, windows, internal and external rooms, assembly halls, and a huge stone lingam at its center, the sanctuary is carved with niches, plaster casts, windows, and images of deities, mithunas (male and female erotic figures), and other figures. As is traditional in Shiva temples, Nandi sits on a porch in front of the central temple. The Nandi mandapa and the main Shiva temple are each about 7 meters high and built on two floors. The lower floors of the Nandi Mandapa are solid structures, decorated with elaborate illustrative carvings. The base of the temple has been carved to suggest that elephants hold the structure aloft. A rock bridge connects the Nandi Mandapa with the portico of the temple. The base of the temple hall features scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

There are five separate shrines in the temple premises; three of these are dedicated to the river goddesses: Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.

There are two Dwajasthambams (flag pole pillars) in the courtyard. A notable sculpture is that of Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailasa.

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