Mysterious Kailashnath Temple : A Photo Essay

‘‘Its excellence is beyond the power of description.’’— Pandit Bisheshwar Nath in his book ‘The History of the Rashtrakutas’ about the Kailashnath Temple
‘‘The Kailasa Temple, it is safe to say, is one of the most astonishing ‘buildings’ in the history of architecture.’’—G.E. Kidder Smith, American architectural writer and photographer, in ‘Looking at Architecture’

The first impression of Kailashnath Temple from outside is misleading
The sculpted walls outside the cave 16 : Kailasanatha Temple

Younger son Anshuman reminded me that his first memories of the Kailashnath Temple are from a Satyajit Roy novelette. Yes, ‘Kailashe Kelenkari’, later made into a Bangla movie by Ray’s son Sandip Ray. Otherwise too, heard and read so much about the temple, we were expecting an spectacular structure. But, high expectations were somewhat dampened as our first look was a bit disappointing. It doesn’t stop one in tracks. It looked just another cave front, not very awe-inspiring. The entrance looked crude, unfinished and blocky. But once we entered inside, it was sheer wonder. Grand and mysterious.

Sculptures near the main gate
Mesmerizing workmanship on the walls.
A Vishnu sculpture near main gate and sculptures inside the temple

Kailasha Temple certainly has a hidden depth, like a secretive beauty, waiting to reveal itself. Wonderful, intricate and fascinating. The exterior seemed incomplete and uncomplicated compared to the delicately carved and elaborate interior. The structure itself is an architectural wonder—created by excavating the rock from the top down—Kailasha is a living example of sheer human will, endevour and the inner beauty. It is estimated that about 400,00 tons of rocks were cut and scooped out over a period of 20 years to create this exquisite monolithic structure.
The Kailasha temple was not built. It was delicately cut and carved from the top down in a U-shape form out of a gigantic piece of basalt rock. The temple was hewn out of the Charanandri hills of the Sahyadri range of the Deccan Plateau at Ellora village (earlier known as ‘Elapura’). Architects call this astonishing technique as ‘cut-out monolith’.

The intricate and detailed panels carved into the temple wall tell the stories from epic Ramayana
View of the back portion of the temple
Another inside view

The fact that Kailasha was once a huge chunk of rock is always lingers in the mind as we saunter inside. The cliff faces loom above, and we can clearly see quite a few chisel marks on them. At the base of the three rock faces are long galleries, carved horizontally into the face and supported by pillars, which were also part of the original carved-away rock.
The Kailasha temple—is just one of 34 caves gathered together on a two km stretch of basalt rock cliff-faces—known as the Ellora Caves, near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. The temple (or the cave 16) symbolizes Mount Kailash, the home of Lord Shiva, one of the most important ancient Hindu deities. None of these 34 caves are natural ones; they all are created with ordinary hammers, chisels, and picks thousands of years ago. From the chisel marks found on walls of this temple, archaeologists assume that the carvers used three types of chisels pointing to three different periods of the Rashtrakuta dynasty.
The Kailasha temple is believed to be built by Krishna I (757-783 AD) of the Rashtrakuta dynasty. The main body of the temple occupies a parallelogram, 45m×33m, with sections of its sites projecting at intervals. It stands on a high plinth which is carved with sculptures of elephants and lions. The larger halls of the temples are decorated with images of Gods. The alluring 28.5m high tower of the temple is in three diminishing tiers and is crowned by a cupola. Around the base of the tower there are five shrines dedicated respectively to Ganesha, Rudra, Parvati, Chand and Saptamatri.

Base of the main temple, now stands almost ruined
A portion of the cupola of Kailashnath temple
A view of the side gallery around the temple
A portion of the side gallery

Some fascinating facts about Kailashnath Temple Complex:
• The carving was done from top to down digging a single basalt cliff rock and scooping out the cut rocks and debris.
• The temple has largest cantilevered rock ceiling in the world.
• The temple is believed to be about 1100-1200 years old.
• The entire complex and temple structure might be created using only rudimentary hand tools. Men, chisels, and time collaborating to chip away a rock face, top down, over a hundred years, to create a fully-formed two-tier temple with an elaborately carved large interior. No room for error, no second chance.
• Work happened only during the day. The reflection of sun rays from mirrors was used as no other source of light was available. There are so many inner parts of the structure where sun rays cannot reach even after using multi-layered mirror arrangement. It is difficult to understand how delicate and intricate designs were carved in such places.
• Kailasha temple is twice the area of Greece’s Parthenon and 50% taller. But compared to other large Hindu temples it’s smaller.
• The facade may be rather plain, but the temple itself is filled with elaborate and delicately carved sculpture.

Closer view of the obelisks (pillars)
A side wall of the main temple
One of the two 17m high monolithic obelisks (pillars) asituated on the side of the main temple. The pillars are well decorated and inscribed with ‘‘Elura Pillars in Mall Kailas’’ (right), ‘‘Elura Pillar in Lankesvara’’(left)
A portion of the sculpted side wall inside the temple

M.K. Dhavalikar, a notated historian, and archaeologist, author of the book ‘Ellora’, suggests the shrines and the Kailasa temple were not excavated at the same time but are the result of a construction process that belongs to a number of different periods.
In doctoral thesis ‘Genesis of monolithic architecture at Ellora with special reference to Kailash Temple’ researcher Kushal Parkash notes, ‘‘It is difficult to say how long it took to create the main temple and its surroundings elements or the precise sequence of the excavations. Most scholars today feel that the major portion of the monument, including the central temple and Nandi shrine as well as the gateway belong to the reign of the Rastrakuta king Krishna I, who ruled from around 757 to 773 AD. However, it may be possible that the temple was planned and begun under his predecessor, Dantidurga. It is evident from the cave prior to the Kailaśa temple cave no. 15 which bears an inscription of the earlier king reigned from 735 to 757 CE.6 These two cave temples are very similar in terms of stylization.’’
Few historians find some relation between Kailaśa temple and the Virupaksha temple of Pattadakal and Kailaśanath temple at Kanchipuram. But archaeologist K.V. Soundararajan, who retired as a Joint Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, opines, ‘‘Undeniably, all the three are of the same genre—the southern architectural style—but perhaps the resemblance almost ends here.’’ Soundararajan also notes that ‘‘The Kailaśa temple was conceived and carried out when structural temple architecture in the stone medium had already developed. It is also interesting that there was no contemporary monolithic architecture to take immediate inspiration except for Rathas of Mahabalipuram.’’

View of unique architecture of Kailasa Ttemple pillar

Percy Brown, the British scholar and archaeologist, whose two-volume ‘Indian Architecture’ is indispensable to any study of Indian culture, wrote about the shrine in glowing terms, “The temple of Kailasha at Ellora is not only the most stupendous single work of art executed in India, but as an example of rock architecture it is unrivalled . . . . The Kailasha is an illustration of one of those occasions when men’s minds, hearts and heads work in unison towards the consummation of a supreme ideal. It was under such conditions of religious and cultural stability that this grand monolith representation of Shiva’s paradise was produced.

The Kailasha temple of Ellora from a sketch from the Illustrated London News (1876): Unknown artist

Useful links:,_Ellora/

Kailasa Temple,_Ellora
The Awesome Monolithic Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora, India.

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2 Comments Mysterious Kailashnath Temple : A Photo Essay

  1. Santanu Roy July 14, 2018 at 10:33 pm


  2. Santanu Roy July 14, 2018 at 10:34 pm

    Charming !


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