Before you head for Ellora, do yourself a favor by the way of some homework. Ellora is a lot larger and overwhelming than you would have imagined. A little preparation can make your excursion a lot memorable,insightful and satisfying.
So were do you start?
Well, like mentioned above, Ellora is a huge archeological site with some complex themes. Your preparation broadly falls into two categories – understanding the themes of Ellora and getting yourself organized to the tour.
Let’s take the first part to begin with. This is going to a tough one especially if you are new to the Indian heritage and its belief systems. The whole of the Ellora Caves are centered around three religious themes – Hinduism, Budhism and Jainism. A large number of caves are richly carved with images from mythology and concepts related to these three religion.
If you are new to it , get a basic understanding of these religions. More specifically the iconography relating to them. For example you’ll find image of Buddha in a meditating position with many celestial figures and followers around. In Buddhism the concept of meditation is an important (rather the central ) aspect in attaining enlightenment. Buddha attained the enlightenment through meditation. So an overwhelmingly large part of the Buddhist caves are portrayed with images of Buddha in meditating form. Also try to understand the other philosophical and mythical aspects of Buddhism.
Similarly in Buddhist Chaitya (shrine/ cathedral ) you will find a dome shaped pillar as the focus point, called Stupa. In the earliest school of Buddhism these Stupas were plane and devoid of any icons. In the later phases of Buddhism, the image of Buddha is added to the Stupa as the object of worship.
Thanks to the abundance of mythological themes, the Hindu caves are a lot more difficult to comprehend than say the Buddhist or Jaina caves. For example you can see the image of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati siting on the mount Kailash, while Ravana , the ten headed,20 armed demon king, tries to shake the mountain. This is a snap shot from the Hindu mythology.
Hindu goddess Mahishasura Mardini. Shakti, the consort of Shiva as the Slayer of Mahisha, the Buffalo demon.
The Jaina caves looks a lot similar to the Hindu and Buddhist Caves. But the concepts of Jainism is a lot different than either. The naked figures you see often in the standing postures are the images of Tirthankar (Fordmaker or Saints ) in Jainism.
Panels from a Jaina cave in Ellora
There are 24 Tirathankars in Jainism who achieved the status of enlightenment through asceticism. On the images you can see creepers growing around the body or even with a snake hood over the head.
In short get a quick grip of these mythical themes and concepts as a preperatory work for your forthcoming Ellora tour. You will not regret the efforts. Even if you can hire a guide at Ellora , having a bit of prior understanding of the concepts related to the three religions put you in a far better position to understand what is Ellora is all about.
The second part of the preparation is related the more practical aspects of your excursion. For example understanding the layout of the site, plan the tour, fine-tune the itinerary etc.
Be prepared for a long walk. The caves are accessed through a long path approximately 2km (1.5 miles) along the face of the hill. In all probability you would have walked much more than that considering the circuitous nature of the tour. Baring a few steeps steps to access certain caves , it is not a hard trek. Some caves (the Jaina group) is located a bit far end of the tour path. You have the option to walk or hire an auto rickshaw ( local taxi) to get dropped. So based on your interest, time in hand and stamina(!) fine tune your itinerary for the caves.
If you are hard pressed in any of these departments, trim drown the list to a manageable level. Add only the most significant and easy to access caves. The Happy news for those who are looking for a truncated tour of Ellora is that major caves are easily accessible. The flagship of Ellora tourism, the majestic Kailashanatha Cave Temple is located right next to the place where the bus/cab has dropped you!
A point or two about the climate of Ellora. Days are hot and dry in general. But once inside the cave, it is cooler even during the peak of the summer. The trouble is when you come out of one cave and go towards another one. Bring along that wide hat. Resting your luggage to a simple rugsack you can carry easily. Keep a bottle of water. A trick to beat the heat is to reach the site well before the day hots up. And its hots up fast. If you are staying in Ellora itself, it is pretty easy. Otherwise if you are traveling from Aurangabad, it’s a 1 hour journey.
If you are into photography, understand when you get the best lights. The caves are on the western side of the north-south oriented hill range. That means entrance to the caves in general face west and the inside is well lit for photography during the afternoons. Also keep in mind tripods are not allowed inside the caves.
For those who wants to do the tour at their own style take a taxi or catch a bus to Ellora. Otherwise opt for on of the organized tours. Both has its own merits and drawbacks. Yon can ‘cover’ Ellora in a few hours. But a serious visitor to Ellora makes it as a full day venture.
Keep it in mind that Ellora is closed on Tuesdays!