Through the waves of heat, through the illusions of pooling water, through the thick, churning air, emerges the form of Kailasa Temple. It’s the largest monolithic building in the world. An entire temple, and surrounding forecourts – one hundred metres in length, forty metres in width, thirty metres in depth (making it roughly twice the size of the Parthenon) – all carved from a single piece of rock. All carved from the side of a mountain. All still connected to the mountain.
This showcase of cut-stone architecture is slowly eroding away, and has been doing so since its construction in 700CE. The temple’s hand-chiselled features are decaying, discolouring, disintegrating; the elaborate carvings are wearing away, the delicate formations breaking, the planed surfaces blotting, streaking, staining. The colossal monument is slowly succumbing to natural forces, transforming from the extraordinary temple it was at the time of its creation, returning to its original form, that of a mass of weathered rock. From a distance it is already difficult to separate Kailasa Temple from the neighbouring cliff walls.
But time has not defeated Kailasa Temple just yet. The rock-cut temple still stands proud; it still rises twenty to thirty metres out of the ground. Every surface is still ornately carved, still beautiful, still marvellous. The whole structure still beggars belief.
Kailasa Temple was not built from the ground up; it was excavated into being, a feat that took seven generations of workers to complete. In total over two hundred thousand tonnes of rock was whittled from the hillside to create this one monument. Try as I might I cannot fathom the complexity of this structure. My brain prefers to imagine this Hindu sanctuary as a creation of tens of thousands, or millions, of individual pieces, rather than a single unit. But a single unit is exactly what it is.
Even the courtyard, essentially just a void between the cliff face and the temple, is staggering when you think about it. This space is also part of the carving. It too had to be chiselled from the bedrock using only the most rudimentary of tools.
An elephant, in statue form, guards the entrance to the temple. The animal is missing its trunk, and its ears, but it is life-sized, and from atop its plinth the statue towers over those who wish to enter Kailasa Temple.
Beyond the elephant a fifteen metre tall obelisk rises from the ground, its sides etched with geometric patterns and frieze carvings, its zenith decorated with a broken trident. Past that is the mandapa (subsidiary temple), which, like the obelisk and elephant, is fused to the bedrock, and still part of the mountain.
The mandapa leads to the main shrine, whose exterior walls are covered with depictions from the Ramayana, an ancient saga of the gods. Other walls feature half carved animals, including the forequarters of elephants, and the lateral cross-sections of lions.
An external structure nearby hosts a human-sized carving of four-armed Shiva, the destroyer of the universe. Deeper in the mountain the temple base is sculpted with a line of stone elephants, the pachyderms carved in such a way as to appear to be hoisting the shrine on their backs. At the very top of Kailasa Temple rests a Dravidian pyramid.
Practical information and how to get to Kailasa Temple:
There are 34 cave temples in total at Ellora Caves, seventeen of which are Hindu temples, twelve Buddhist, and five Jain. Kailasa Temple is the only cave temple to have been excavated out of the mountainside in entirety, the rest of the temples more closely resemble actual caves.
Ellora Caves are located 25 kilometres away from the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra state. There are frequent buses running between the two. More transport info here.
Read more on Kailasa Temple and Ellora Caves in the UNESCO World Heritage listing
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Or visit my awe-inspiring rock-cut architecture page.