The Ellora Caves are a World Heritage Site consisting of 34 cave temples carved into the bare rock of a hillside near Aurangabad. They date from three separate periods, from the 6th to 11th centuries CE, and are arranged in three groups, representing the dominant religion of each period.
Which means the good thing about the Ellora Caves is that they’re multi-genre. Just as you’re starting to get bored with Buddhist devotional sculpture, it switches to Hinduism, and then again to Jainism for the final act.
It also means you get to see how superficial those differences are. The symbols change slightly from group to group, but the basic elements remain the same. At the front, the focus of worship, awing the faithful: Buddha becomes Shiva becomes Mahavira. Along the sides, in supporting roles, more approachable sub-deities, ready for specific prayers and requests: Bodhisattvas become the Hindu pantheon become tirthankaras. And everywhere, at all times, the wide-hipped, slim-waisted, balloon-boobed naked girls: Taras, Parvatis, and… I’m not sure where the naked ladies figure in Jain mythology, but they must do somewhere, as they’re just as well represented here.
Religion doesn’t change people, or raise them to better things. People change religion, bringing it down to meet their basic, timeless needs. Something to be afraid of. Something to plead to. Something to get off on.
Meanwhile, Sulim, my autorickshaw driver, waited in the car park, treating everyone to his full-volume hooj choonz. I could even hear them from the caves, which ruined the serenity somewhat, until he switched them off – whether of his own accord, or because a guard had told him to stop it, I don’t know.
I especially liked the frieze of the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. The bride, Parvati, and all her bridesmaids are naked except for jewellery, and there are a troupe of dwarves providing entertainment. I know several couples getting married next year, or likely to in the near future. Take note: this is how you throw a party.
The Hindu sculptors certainly know how to toy with your emotions. In one cave, you walk happily along a line of voluptuous beauties, thoroughly enjoying yourself, then turn a corner to be confronted by a horrific skeletal Kali, grinning down at you.
The Jain temples are a bit more equitable than the others, in that the male idols are all naked too, so there are just as many dongs on show as lady bits. Throughout all the caves, the more prominent, reachable female statues have had their breasts and crotches worn smooth and polished by the greasy hands of many visitors. I notice that no-one’s been touching the Jain idols’ penises in the same way, poor guys.
While I was standing outside one of the Jain temples, up a short flight of steps from the main group, a teenage boy walked up beside me and looked at it. “It is interesting,” he said. “Yes,” I replied. He started to walk back down again. “Aren’t you going to look inside?” I asked. He raised one palm to the air and made a clicking sound with his mouth, as if to say, “Why bother? I’ve seen 33 already.” Ellora is a bit like that. It’s an amazing place and definitely worth seeing, but even with the masala genre-switching, you can get a bit cave-temple-blind by the end of it.