Kailāsanātha — The World’s Grandest Artistic Conception

Kailāsanātha — The World’s Grandest Artistic Conception

by Subhash Kak - Thursday, May 18, 2023 12:03 PM IST
Kailāsanātha — The World’s Grandest Artistic ConceptionKailāsa from the ground
  • When the king Krishna I was dangerously ill, Queen Maṇikāvatī prayed at the Ghṛṣṇeśvara Temple at Elāpurā (Ellora) for a cure for her husband, promising to build a temple dedicated to Śiva, and vowing to observe a fast until she could see the shikhara of the temple.

The Kailāsanātha Temple at Ellora is perhaps the world’s grandest artistic conception in which the entire structure, together with its ornamentations and sculptures, was carved out of a single rock.

The temple, which is enclosed within a mountain, has large and dynamic carvings that creates a dramatic effect.

This architectural marvel was constructed in the reign of the Rāṣṭrakūṭa king Krishna I (r. 757–772 CE), also called Krishnarāja, which is confirmed by the 812 CE Baroda grant inscription of the Gujarat king Karkarāja.

It is a free-standing multi-level temple structure that covers an area twice the size of the Parthenon in the Acropolis, a citadel on a rocky outcrop above the city of Athens.

But whereas the Parthenon was assembled, Kailāsanātha was cut from the mountain, which is multifold complicated.

According to a story in Kathā-Kalpataru by Krishna Yājñavalki (c. 1500), Kokasa, the architect (sthapati) of the temple, was a famous śilpi from Pratiṣṭhāna and he worked with a team of 7,000 craftsmen.

When the king Krishna I was dangerously ill, Queen Maṇikāvatī prayed at the Ghṛṣṇeśvara Temple at Elāpurā (Ellora) for a cure for her husband, promising to build a temple dedicated to Śiva, and vowing to observe a fast until she could see the shikhara of the temple.

The king recovered, and to fulfill the queen’s promise, he summoned many architects, who declared that it would take at least 16 months to build a temple complete with a shikhara.

In stepped Kokasa, who assured the king that the queen would be able to see the shikhara in a week’s time.

He carved out the shikhara from the top in the designated period, and thereafter the work proceeded in this direction. The temple was named Maṇikeśvara after the queen and this is how it was remembered for several centuries.

Kailasanath Temple Ellora. James Fergusson’s Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India. Lithograph by Thomas Colman Dibdin, 1839
Kailasanath Temple Ellora. James Fergusson’s Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India. Lithograph by Thomas Colman Dibdin, 1839

Although India had a long tradition of rock-cut temples, it is hard to imagine how the drawings were made and executed for in its construction from a single rock there could be no margin of error.

It has been speculated that three large trenches, two each of (270 x 50 x 100 ft) on the sides and one of (150 x 30 x 100 ft) at the back were made in the mountain to isolate a cubic mass of rock in the middle.

Roughly two million cubic feet of rock had to be excavated before the carving in the middle could proceed.

Another view of the temple
Another view of the temple

An Embodiment of the Fifth Veda

The fundamental idea in Indian thought is that of a churning between the poles of materiality (asuras) and awareness (devas), which informs intuition and brings happiness.

The same also holds for lived life where it can be fulfillment of desire after a period of suffering, when a person is caught in circumstances beyond control.

In the worldly sphere, it is to enact the drama of the contest between good and evil forces in mythic stories or through plots involving characters in real life.

This process is true not only of philosophical inquiry but also of artistic and architectural creations. The story goes that with the passing of the Kṛta Yuga, people fell into despondency.

Seeing this, Brahmā thought: “I shall make a fifth Veda on the Nāṭya based on itihāsa, which will inspire people into dharma, wealth (artha) as well as fame, with good counsel and guidance enriched by the teaching of science (śāstra) and review of arts and crafts”.

The building of the temple with its halls to perform drama is a part of the larger project of the Fifth Veda.

The enduring inspiration behind the arts is Viśvakarmā, विश्वकर्मा, the divine engineer and architect of the devas.

Two whole hymns of the Ṛgveda (10. 81–82) are devoted to his praise. He is shown as being four-faced and four-armed. He crafted the chariots of the devas and weapons including Indra’s Vajra. He was also the architect of cities like Lanka, Dvārakā, and Indraprastha.

The building of the temple may be seen as an embodiment of the fifth Veda with its eternal themes that touch upon time and self. Kokasa, the architect, is in popular accounts called Viśvakarmā’s son.

The temple as the abode of Śiva and Pārvatī replicates the pyramid of Mount Kailāsa in the Himalayas.

Kailāsanātha and Rāvaṇa

One of the remarkable sculptures in the temple is the depiction of the story of Rāvaṇa’s shaking of Mount Kailāsa, which gives the temple its popular name.

The background to this story from the Rāmāyaṇa is that Rāvaṇa has defeated his half-brother and god of wealth Kubera (their father was Viśravas but they had different mothers) and looted the city Alakā that is situated near Mount Kailāsa.

After the victory, Rāvaṇa is returning to Lanka in the Puṣpaka Vimāna (stolen from Kubera), when he spots a beautiful place that the chariot is unable to fly over. Rāvaṇa alights from the Vimāna, and asks Śiva’s attendant Nandi the reason behind this.

(The inability to cross Kailāsa is due to the fact that it is the axis of consciousness and no material object can pierce a transcending principle.)

Nandi explains that since Śiva and Pārvatī reside on the mountain, no one is allowed to pass. Rāvaṇa mocks Śiva, and Nandi in response curses Rāvaṇa that monkeys would destroy him.

Enraged, Rāvaṇa decides to uproot Kailāsa. He put all his twenty arms under Kailāsa, and starts shaking it.

Rāvana shaking Kailāsa
Rāvana shaking Kailāsa

Pārvatī is alarmed and she approaches Śiva, who realizing that Rāvaṇa is behind the shaking, presses the mountain down with his big toe, trapping Rāvaṇa beneath.

Rāvaṇa gives a loud cry in pain and having learnt of the power of Śiva, he sings hymns in praise of him for a thousand years. Finally, Śiva forgives Rāvaṇa, and also grants him an invincible sword. According to one etymology, since Rāvaṇa cried, he was given the name “Rāvaṇa” (one who roared).

When juxtaposed with the meaning of Kubera’s other name Vaiśravaṇa (one who hears distinctly), this seems to indicate his absorption into the worldly and material as compared to his half-brother’s ability to hear the subtle (and remain connected with the devas).

This story is not only about how the power of evil cannot surpass the greatness of good; it is also about Śiva’s compassion towards Rāvaṇa.

View from above
View from above

Some Temple Details

The temple has a tritala (three-tiered) design with an imposing front which consists of a storied entrance gateway of the gopura type with the enclosure wall having niches divided by pilasters.

The niches have huge images of the divinities that include the aṣṭa-dikpālas, Śiva, Naṭarāja, Narasiṃha, Trivikrama, Viṣṇu as Varāha, Garuḍa, Brahmā, and others.

The entrance doorway is flanked by Gaṅgā & Yamunā. At the base are rows of elephants, lions, and vyālas (mythological creature, with the head and the body of a lion, the trunk and the tusks of an elephant, that also has equine characteristics).

The plan
The plan
The gateway, the Nandi shrine, and the main temple complex (side view)
The gateway, the Nandi shrine, and the main temple complex (side view)

On entering through the gateway, on a slightly raised level, there are rooms on both sides. The front door is flanked by Śaṅkhanidhi and Padmanidhi, the guardians of wealth.

Facing the entrance is a huge panel of Gajalakṣmī, who is shown sitting on a lotus and bathed by elephants. Most of the deities to the left of entrance are Śaivite and those to the right are Vaiṣṇavite.

In the open court on either side are free standing life size elephants carved in the living rock. On the left wall of the gopura are carved panels showing Mahiṣāsuramardini (shown in a style similar to the one at Mahabalipuram), Krishna lifting Govardhana, and Kāma and his consort, Rati.

The temple has the typical Dravida śikhara and appears similar in design to the Virupaksha (Virūpākṣa) temple at Pattadkal that is half its size.

The structure stands on an inordinately high plinth on which are carved life size elephants and lions.

On either side of the temple there are steps that lead up to the next tier.

Around the garbhagṛha is a small antarāla to which is joined a large sabhā-maṇḍapa which can be described as the navaraṅga maṇḍapa because the four sets of four pillars divide the space into nine square areas.

It has ardha-maṇḍapa on the sides and the agra-maṇḍapa at the front.

The nandi-maṇḍapa is carved in between the gopura and the agra-maṇḍapa of the shrine, and all the three parts are joined by a rock cut bridge.

Śiva destroying Andhakāsura
Śiva destroying Andhakāsura

On either side of the nandi-maṇḍapa are huge monolithic pillars, about 56 ft high. They are similar to the pilasters inside the sabhā maṇḍapa and were once crowned by tridents.

Some have suggested that the subsidiary shrines in the scarp on either side or the gallery at the back are perhaps later additions.

The Rāmāyana frieze
The Rāmāyana frieze
The Mahābhārata frieze
The Mahābhārata frieze

On the lower exterior walls, there are extensive narrative friezes from the Rāmāyaṇa (on the southern side) and the Mahābhārata (on the northern side).

The Rāmāyaṇa registers narrate the story from Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā going to the forest after requesting permission of King Daśaratha to leave the kingdom to their exile, the heroic deeds of Hanumān, to the scene of Lakṣmaṇa killing Rāvaṇa’s son Indrajit.

Below the Mahābhārata registers is a narration of the life of Krishna.

The temple has many remarkable sculptural scenes including the one of Śiva and Arjuna fighting (from the Mahābhārata) at the end of which Arjuna receives the weapon Pāśupatāstra as a boon from Śiva.

Śiva and Arjuna fighting
Śiva and Arjuna fighting

This temple in its style shares many details with the Virupaksha Temple at Pattadkal sponsored by Queen Lokamahādevī and dated to about 740 CE (which is about half the size of our Kailāsa temple), and the Kailāsanāthar temple at Kanchipuram which was built about 700 CE by Narasimhavarman II with additions by Mahendra III.

Durgā, at right with lion, another goddess at center, and Kāla at left
Durgā, at right with lion, another goddess at center, and Kāla at left

The most compelling images in the temple include Śiva as destroyer of Andhakāsura, Rāvaṇa shaking Mount Kailāsa (traditionally called Rāvaṇānugraha), and a group of goddesses on the second level in an excavated hall on the right wall of the temple enclosure that is dedicated to the saptamātṛkās.

Three of the best-preserved images on the western wall show Durgā at the right with a lion, a goddess seated upon a lotus pedestal in the center, and Kāla (Time), a male skeleton with the bodies of two naked, dying men, one across his lap and another next to the feet.

On Perfection and Beauty

The idea of fashioning an entire temple out of a rock in a mountain is so daring that it is a miracle that it was even attempted.

It is the largest monolithic structure in the world and nothing like this has ever been made anywhere else.

It has elements that required balancing opposites at many levels of engineering and also a balance between aesthetics and the power of the mountain in which it is enclosed; it is beautiful in its symmetry, and its artistic imagination is of the highest order.

Śiva and Pārvatī
Śiva and Pārvatī
The plinth shown as if being on the back of elephants
The plinth shown as if being on the back of elephants

Its intricate vision and ingenuity and the beauty and the variety of its sculptures and its meticulous architectural details reflects timeless ideals of grace and knowledge, making it truly one of the greatest creations ever to have been made by man.

Karkarāja’s famous inscription speaks of how the gods were awed and amazed by the temple and the architect, Kokasa, could not believe that he was behind its creation:

On seeing the wonderful temple on the hill at Elāpurā, the best of immortals who move in aerial cars are struck with astonishment and say: “This temple of Śiva is self-existent (etasya [sva]yambhu śivadhāma); in a thing made by art such beauty is not seen.” The architect expressed the inability in constructing another such work, for when it was done, he was amazed and said: “Oh, how was it that I built it!”

This piece was first published on Medium, and has been republished here with permission.

Subhash Kak is Regents professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oklahoma State University and a vedic scholar.
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