The Ellora Caves, locally known as Verul Leni, is located on the Aurangabad-Challisgaon road at a distance of 30 km north-northwest of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, India. Ellora, famous for the largest single monolithic excavation – the great Kailas, represents one of the largest rock-hewn monastic temple complexes in the entire world. In monsoon, these caves together with the adjacent areas provide a full bloom image of nature.
Ellora caves are cut from the volcanic eruptions of the Deccan Trap. The Scandinavian term ‘trap’ denotes the step-like formation of the volcanic deposits. The rock formation, on weathering has given rise to the appearance of terraces with flat summits. At Ellora, one can also have a glimpse of the channels through which the volcanic lava once flowed. These channels are now brownish-red in colour due to overheating. Similar rocks are utilized in the construction of Grishneshwar Temple and the pathways at Bibi-ka-Maqbara.
The hills in which the caves are hewn, forms part of the Sahyadri ranges of the Deccan and dated to the Cretaceous era of the Geological time scale (about 65 million years ago). The hills rise abruptly from the surrounding plains on the south and west; the western surface being extensively utilized for hewing the cave complexes. The hill also supports several streams, the prominent among them being the Elaganga, which drains into the Shiv, a stream of the Godavari river system. The Elaganga is in its full vigour during the monsoon, when the overflowing waters of a barrage in the upstream near Mahismati allows the gushing waters to land at Sita-ki-nahani near cave 29 as a crashing waterfall.
The volcanic lava flowed during different periods, gave rise to extensive horizontal flows alternating with vesicular trap beds. Depending upon the nature and mineralogical content of the lava flow, the rock formations also varied in character and texture, giving rise to various qualities like coarse grained, fine grained formations. The ancient builders at Ellora, like other places, particularly chose the fine grained formations of the Deccan trap, ideal for sculpting and rock hewing. In addition to this, the ancient builders also traced the horizontal and vertical joints in the rock formation to minimize the labour and time during excavation and rock splitting.
The basaltic formation of the Deccan is ideal for rock hewing, the technique widely understood during ancient times. This induced the religious followers of various creeds to establish their settlements in them. By a rough estimate, there are nearly 1200 caves of varying sizes in the entire Maharashtra, out of which nearly 900 alone belong to Buddhism.
The region has been inhabited since time immemorial as shown by the stone tools of Upper Paleolithic (around 10,000 to 20,000 years ago) and Mesolithic age (less than 10,000 years ago). The Chalcolithic remains (2500-1000 BC) in the vicinity also indicates the continuity of human occupation in this region.
The importance of Ellora during the early centuries of the Christian era is also understood by the findings of coins of Satavahanas, the ruling dynasty during the period. Ellora being located on the ancient trade route connecting the western ports on the Arabian sea like Sopara (Surparaka, the Supara of Greek; Subara of Arab writers; the ancient capital of northern Konkan), Kalyan a thriving port; Chemula, the Samylla of Greek geographers, Chemula of Silaharas, on the island of Trombay and the inland cities like Paithan (Pratishtana), Ter (Tagara), Bhokardan (Bhogavardhana) etc. The fact that Satavahanas traversed this region is attested by their inscriptions at Nasik caves and donor inscriptions of their times at Pital Khora caves, located at a distance of 40 km west of Ellora. Ellora is located directly on the ancient trade route, which traversed from Pratishtana via Aurangabad, Ellora, Pital Khora, Patne, Nasika (modern Nasik). Nasik is at the crossroads of an ancient trade route connecting centres on the west to east and those on the north to south.
As the multiplication of the religious establishments took place in every nook and corner of Maharashtra, the ideal location of Ellora was unavoidable. Thus grew one of the largest cave excavations at Ellora, that too of three different religious creeds, viz., Buddhism, Brahmanism and Jainism. The caves are datable from circa 6 to 7 century C.E. and 11 to 12 century C.E. In total, there are nearly 100 caves in the hill range out of which 34 caves are famous and visited by many tourists. Of these, caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist; caves 13 to 29 are Brahmanical and caves 30 to 34 are Jaina. Two more groups of caves are noticed on the Elaganga and on an upper terrace, namely, the Ganesh Leni and Jogeshwari Leni.
The Great Kailasa (cave 16) is attributed to Krishna I (c. 757-83 C.E.), the successor and uncle of Dantidurga. A copper plate grant from Baroda of the period of Karka II (c. 812-13 C.E.) speaks about the greatness of this edifice. The inscription tells us that this great edifice was built on a hill by Krishnaraja at Elapura (Ellora) and even the celestial beings moving in the sky were struck by its magnificence, as though it was self-existent, and even the architect who caused it was wonder struck that he could build it.
The initiation of religious establishments at Ellora coincides with the departure of the tradition at Ajanta. It is well known that the excavations started here before the Rashtrakutas arrived on the scene and the caves 1 to 10 and cave 21 (Ramesvara) were definitely constructed before them. These excavations are generally attributed to the Kalachuris of Mahismati, appeared to have gained control of the region around Nasik and parts of ancient Asmaka (region around Aurangabad) including Bhogavardana (modern Bhokardan) and the Chalukyas of Badami who held their sway in this region for a brief period before their feudatories, the Rashtrakutas took over.
The majority of the Brahmanical establishments and the remaining Buddhist ones can be attributed to the Rashtrakuta times indicating the religious tolerance in that period. The Jaina caves definitely post-date the Rashtrakutas as indicated by the style of execution and fragmentary inscriptions. This region was under the control of Kalyani Chalukyas and Yadavas of Deogiri (Daulatabad) during this period. The patronage towards Jainism under the Yadavas is also known by the findings of several sculptures of Jaina faith from Daulatabad.
There have been numerous written records to indicate that these caves were visited regularly by enthused travelers and royal personages as well. The earliest is that of an Arab geographer Al-Mas‘udi of the 10th century A.D. In 1352 C.E. the approach roads to the caves were repaired on the ensuing visit of Sultan Hasan Gangu Bahmani, who also camped at the site and visited the caves. The other important accounts of these caves are by Firishta, Thevenot (1633-67), Niccolao Manucci (1653-1708), Charles Warre Malet (1794), Seely (1824). During the 19th century C.E. these caves were owned by the Holkars of Indore who auctioned for the right of worship and leasing them for religious as well as a form of entrance fee. After the Holkars, these caves passed into the control of Nizams of Hyderabad, who through their Archaeology Department carried out extensive repairs and maintenance of the caves under the guidance of Archaeological Survey of India. The caves are under the maintenance of the Archaeological Survey of India after the reorganization of states and the dominions of erstwhile Nizams merged into the state of Maharashtra.