Ravi Valluri

The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings is synonymous with the field of study of architecture.

“Architecture is a visual art and the buildings speak for themselves”, writes Julia Morgan the iconic American architect who designed more than seven hundred buildings in California. The prodigious architect is best known for her work on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.

The exploration of Indian architecture and sculptures presents a tripper with a variegated bouquet and involves travelling to destinations in India that provide an opportunity to witness its abundant heritage.

Such an expedition offers an aperture to reconnoitre unique places, some of which are classified as world heritage sites. These include the mystique of Elephanta Caves and the exotic Ajanta and Ellora caves which showcase Indian history laced with its spiritual underpinning, as it evolved in the western and central parts of India.

Upon arriving at the financial capital of India, Mumbai, a tripper is received by the officials of IRCTC and checked into an upmarket hotel.

The following day the guests inhale the crisp air over the Arabian Sea during an hour-long ferry ride from the Gateway of India to the Elephanta Island in the Mumbai Harbour. This opens the globe trotter to a hidden world of rock-cut caves.

The caves are tucked away on island of Gharapuri or City of Caves. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, historians and scholars attempted to zero in on the exact period of their origin. Deeper studies, numismatic evidence, architectural style and inscriptions have traced the cave temples to King Krishnaraja from the Kalachuri dynasty around mid-6th century, and the Buddhist Stupas to the Hinayana Buddhists who had settled on the island around the 2nd century BCE, much before the advent of the Brahmans on the island.

It was the discovery, perchance, of a gigantic rock-cut sculpture of an elephant on the island which prompted the Portuguese invaders to christen the cave as Elephanta Caves. Sometime in 1661, the East India Company overpowered the Portuguese armies and the area became part of their dominion.

Over time, these caves suffered significant damage and destruction by Persian invaders, Christian Portuguese soldiers, the Marathas as well as the British rulers. In 1909, the British India officials initiated major attempts to safeguard the caves from further wreckage. Subsequently the Government of India carried out restoration works at the site in the 1970s and converted the place into a heritage site.

Singularly there are two sets of caves on the island, each bearing the imprint of rock-cut style of architecture. The caves are carved out of solid basalt rock and span an area of 60,000 sq. ft. The larger of these two groups has five caves which are populated with numerous Hindu sculptures. Besides there are a few Buddhist caves at the site which comprise the smaller group along with water tanks and a stupa.

Each cave has been carved as a rock-cut temple, with one principal gargantuan chamber, courtyards, two lateral chambers, and minor shrines. Cave 1 or what is also called the Grand Cave is the largest one, spreading across 39 meters from its entrance to the back. This cave temple is mainly dedicated to Lord Shiva and is blessed with numerous structures and carvings celebrating the deity and His different forms.

After a sojourn to Elephanta Caves, tourists take it easy, with a walk along Marine Drive. The next spot to drop anchorage are the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in the vicinity of Aurangabad, about 365 kilometres from Mumbai.

Unlike the Elephanta Caves, the formidable Ajanta Caves have been prominently mentioned in the memoirs of several medieval-era Chinese Buddhist travellers to India and by satraps of Mughal Emperor Akbar in the early 17th century.

These brawny caves were once covered by jungle wilderness, until quite fortuitously they were “discovered” and drew large scale Western attention and acclaim in the year 1819. It was British officer Captain John Smith who discovered them when he was on a tiger-poaching expedition. The caves are in the rocky northern wall of the U-shaped gorge of the river Waghur, in the Deccan plateau.

Commencing with the 2nd century BCE and continuing into the 6th century CE the paintings and sculptures in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, were inspired by Buddhism and its compassionate teachings and unleashed a surge of artistic excellence unmatched in human history. These Buddhist and Jain caves are ornately carved, yet appear silent and meditative while exuding divine energy and power.

These caves comprise Chaitya halls or shrines, dedicated to Lord Buddha and viharas or monasteries, used by Buddhist monks for meditation and the study of Buddhist teachings. The paintings which adorn the walls and ceilings of the caves depict incidents from the life and times of Lord Buddha and other Bodhisattvas.

Among the most beguiling paintings are those of the Jataka tales, illustrating diverse stories relating to the previous incarnations of the Buddha as a Bodhisattava, a saintly being who was destined to become the Buddha. These elaborate sculptures and paintings stand tall in impressive grandeur in spite of the ravages of time. Amid the beautiful images and paintings are sculptures of the Buddha, soothing and serene, in a deep state of cogitation.

The cave temples and monasteries at Ellora, were excavated out of the vertical face of an escarpment, are 26 km north of Aurangabad. Sculptors, inspired by strains of thought of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, created elaborate rock carvings. Extending in a linear arrangement, the 34 caves contain chaityas, viharas and Hindu and Jain temples.

Spanning a period of around 600 years between the 5th and 11th century CE, the earliest excavation here is of the Dhumar Lena (Cave 29).

This three day package suffuses the minds of the tripper with amazement at the skill of ancient Indians. They are left awestruck as to how aeons ago Indian architects and sculptors created works of such marvel.

”If a building becomes architecture, then it is art,” writes Danish architect Arne Jacobsen known for architectural functionalism.

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