Kailash Temple at Ellora Represents Pinnacle of Hindu Temple Architecture: It is an ancient YOG TEMPLE – Part 1

I have just returned from a visit to Shiva’s abode in the south- Kailash Nath Temple.

A visit to KAILASH TEMPLE or KAILASHNATH TEMPLE at Ellora in Aurangabad can be a lifetime experience for anyone. The magnificence of the architecture, its proportions, symmetry and sheer brilliance of work done is unique in the world. There is no other rock-cut structure of this size anywhere that has been carved out of a solid rock mountain.

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View from the hill-top
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Front view of the temple at the entrance showing the U shaped carved mountain
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picture courtesy- Haribhakt.com. It show the entire temple complex in perspective from a height
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a view of the temple complex from top of the mountain
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temple perspective from the right corridor. Right side Dhwaj stambh is seen

The master craftsmen have exhibited such brilliant skills as to carve out a lava rock mountain flawlessly and meticulously, from top to down, and created a temple so exquisitely amazing that one may start believing in Vishwakarma, architect of the gods. The caves of Ajanta and Ellora may be superb examples of rock “cut-in” style but, Kailash Temple is unique for its rock “cut-down” technique. The carving of the temple started from the top (shikhar) of the mountain and moved down. This mountain has been treated by temple architects as if it was just a mound of clay! They didn’t add anything to the structure rather, just removed rocks from it with extreme precision and supreme accuracy to leave behind a marvel of human accomplishment that can easily be described as the biggest architectural wonder of the world. It is said that it took more than 100 years to carve out the temple. But, nobody really knows how many years it took to complete this mammoth undertaking. There are remnants of white coated material on the temple which have eroded over the millennia. This was a very light yellow, almost white natural ochre paint job, first done by Krishna 1 of Rashtrakoot dynasty and later by queen Ahilya Bai Holkar. One may visualize that when it was carved and freshly coated in white, it must have looked as resplendent as Mount Kailash in Himalayas during daylight. Perhaps, that was the purpose of making this Kailash temple, to create an abode of Shiva in the South!

Mount Kailash
snow covered mount of Kailash, abode of Shiva
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Faded remnants of white ochre paint on top. Originally it would have appeared as snow covered.

Kailash Temple is a monolith! Every statue, pillar, carving, passage, floor, ceiling or rooftop, halls and the magnificent Shiva lingam in the main temple are ONE SINGLE PIECE! Nothing has been added to it. Only rocks have been removed to reveal a beautiful Shiva temple.

I will not write much but let the pictures speak for themselves. I will try to carry you on a divine journey. While I was enjoying the marvels of the temple, I felt great sadness and anger at the sheer uncalled for, deliberate disfigurement of many statues of human and animal sculptures. The religious zealots who inflicted this damage didn’t realize that they were striking at unique irreplaceable ancient human heritage. How I wish, they had first tried to create even 1% of the magnificent structure before attempting their mindless destruction. Despite all the disfigurement, the still standing beautiful Kailash temple is a living testimony to the pinnacle of temple architectural achievement of ancient Indian civilization.

For years, I had wanted to visit Kailash temple at Ellora but, it didn’t happen. Then, while sitting over coffee with some friends, a quick program was made and off we went. It is said that good things happen only when the time is ripe. We rushed to the call of Shiva.

Kailash temple is isolated from the surrounding rock both from the outside and inside. The scholars tell us that it was constructed during the reign of Krishna-1 of Rashtrakoot dynasty, in the period 756-773 CE, that is, in just 18 years. These estimates are based on some obscure plaques of that period where there is mention of the magnificence of Kailash temple but there are no plans, orders or any plausible details of its construction. On the contrary, there are overwhelming and convincing arguments that the time of its construction lies much before in antiquity. I will discuss them later. Renowned scholars agree that it is not known how long it took to carve out the temple and whether such a task could be accomplished using only chisel and hammer. It is the culmination of an art form which must have taken ages to develop to this level of maturity.

It Is a Yog Temple made for Adi-Yogi Shiva

YOGIC PLAN OF KAILASH TEMPLE

A visit to Kailash temple is a spiritual journey. Every spiritual journey takes the seeker from मूलाधार चक्र to सहस्रार चक्र, that is the way of Indian thought and practice. Kailash temple has been made in a very Vedic way. It is in the tradition of Hindu temple architecture. In its layout, as seen in a south elevation (picture below), one can see all the elements of a Hindu temple architecture. Lengthwise it represents the body of the deity. Every part of the temple has its own significance. Nothing has been carved without a meaning. The lengthwise elevation represents the Chakras in human body as seen in the pictures below. It is of immense importance to understand this basic planning as we try to understand the plan of Kailash temple.

Hindu Temples take their cue from the structure of Human body. The vast Hindu literature on Agamic texts, देवालय-वास्तु / Devalaya-Vastu (Temple Vastu astrology) and sacred geography, describe the temple as a cosmic man, the पुरुष or ‘Purusha’ (cosmic man). Before we proceed further, let us briefly discuss the concept of the वास्तु पुरुष मन्डल / Vastu Purusha Mandala.

The knowledge, that Earth is a living organism, throbbing with life and energy is fundamental to the Vastu Shastra. That living energy is symbolized as a person- the वास्तु पुरुष  (Vastu Purusha). The site for the proposed construction is his field – Vastu Purusha Mandala. In fact, the Vastu Purusha Mandala, the site plan, is his body and it is treated as such.

In olden days, there were only Shiva temples. A Shiva-lingam (lingam means sign, logo, representation) by its shape, represents the elliptical form of cosmos at the time of creation and at the time of its dissolution into Shiva. Concept of Shiva-lingam is a subject matter for discussion some other time. Shiva temples were not meant for worship of Shiva but were centers of meditation, gaining positive energy and practicing Yog. Temples were places to discover one’s spiritual potential and help in enlightenment. As we know, there are seven energy centers in our body in which energy moves in a circular way, like a spinning wheel. Some Yogis say that there are 114 chakras in our body. But, since we commonly know the seven, we will confine our discussion to that. The chakras are triangular in shape and the energy in these centers moves in a pulsating rotation that is why these energy centers are called ‘chakras’. They are named in an ascending order. The activated energy of ‘kundalini’ in a Yogi, moves upward from the base of the spine, penetrates each chakra one after the other and activates them.

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picture courtesy: Isha Yog Foundation. Showing seven chakras in a yogi

These are – मूलाधार चक्र, स्वाधिष्ठान चक्र, मणिपूर चक्र, अनाहत चक्र, विशुद्ध चक्र, आज्ञा चक्र and सहस्रार चक्र. Every activated chakra empowers the Yogi with its specific powers. A Shiva temple is constructed to represent the chakras of ‘Shiva’ in his ‘human’ body.

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Chakra pictures superimposed on deity body are courtesy Sreenivasarao’s blogs. Side elevation of Hindu temple is explained against the lying down deity
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south elevation plan of Kailash temple is Plate LXXX11 from the book “Cave temples of India” by Ferguson, James and James Burgess

The visitor enters the temple at its lowest level, moving from one stage to the next and finally reaching the ‘Sahasrar’ chakra (a resplendent blooming lotus with a thousand petals). In a temple, it is the place where Shiva Lingam has been consecrated. It is also called, the Sanctum Sanctorum. The Kailash Nath temple is a योग मन्दिर. It has been designed and carved to represent the seven chakras of Shiva! The parts of a temple according to this Yog plan are the following.

GOPURAM or गोपुरम्

गोपुरम् / Gopuram, represents feet of deity. This is also the entrance of the temple.

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Gopuram of Kailash temple
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Gopuram. It is the entrance to the Kailash temple

Dhwaj Stambh / ध्वज-स्तंभ (मूलाधार चक्र)

ध्वज-स्तंभ / Dhwaj-stambh is the pillar which represents the ‘muladhar chakra’. In Kailash temple there are two, one on each side of the temple.

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This is a massive pillar with intricate carvings and a very large ‘trishul’ on the top

बलि-पीथम / Bali-peetam (स्वाधिष्ठान चक्र)

बलि-पीथम / Bali-peetam is a place where offerings are made – the offering is usually flowers and cooked rice. Besides, the devotees are expected to leave behind ego, impure thoughts and superficial knowledge and enter the temple with a pure unattached mind to sit in Yog meditation. This is the purpose of ‘bali-peetam’. It is situated at ‘swadhishthan chakra’.

नन्दी /Nandi (मणिपूर चक्र)

नन्दी /Nandi the Bull or Adhikar-Nandi resides in Nandi-mandapam at ‘manipura chakra’. One enters Nandi mandap from Bali-peetam. Nandi mandap leads to the Maha-mandapam. The picture shows stairs leading to Nandi Mandap.

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Nandi always faces Shiva. Nandi above, is facing Shiva lingam which is reached through the Maha-mandapam, right in front.

महा मन्डपम / Maha-mandapam (अनाहत चक्र)

महा मन्डपम / Maha-mandapam is the main hall where people sit to learn and meditate. From Nandi mandapam, the passage leads to Maha-mandapam or the main hall.

South elevation of kailash temple -Fergusson, James and James Burgess Plate LXXX11 - Copy (3).jpg
Maha-mandapam / महा मन्डपम्
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from Nandi mandapam one enters maha-mandapam
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there are massive intricately carved pillars in this main hall of meditation

Maha-mandapam is usually exquisitely designed with beautiful sculptures, carvings and paintings. It sits on ‘Anahat-chakra’. On the roof top of Maha-mandapam of Kailash temple, there are four beautifully carved lions in attack mode. The heads of each pair of lions is turned towards each other. These lions are carved in South Indian temple architecture style.

It is important to note that a giant blooming lotus with three rows of petals has been carved on the roof top of Maha-mandapam. This is typical of a Yogic temple as lotus represents ‘Sahasrar’ chakra.  The four lions are standing within the middle cusp. Right in the middle there is a rectangular decorative structure, beautifully carved on all faces. Each side of roof-top has barrel style carvings with beautiful sculptures on them.

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four exquisitely carved lions standing on a giant lotus on the roof top of maha-mandapam

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Passage from Maha-mandapam to Shiva lingam, the neck portion (विशुद्ध चक्र)

The portion of the temple that joins Maha-mandapam with the main place where deity is present, is the neck, as in the body. It is the place for ‘vishuddha chakra’

शिव लिंगम् / Shiva Lingam (आज्ञा चक्र)

The place of main deity, Shiva-lingam or garbha-graha is the place for ‘Aagya-chakra’.

South elevation of kailash temple -Fergusson, James and James Burgess Plate LXXX11 - Copy (4).jpgIMG_7174.JPG

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sitting on the steps to Shiva lingam with friends

Sitting on the steps to ‘garbh-grah’ where Shiva lingam is present. It is the purpose of the Kailash temple. Standing next to this massive Shiva lingam fills one with pure divine energy. The thoughts and feelings are difficult to put in words. They have to be experienced by oneself.

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It is a massive stone structure. Its designing is a subject of separate discussion

Beautifully carved blooming lotus, right above Shiva lingam (सहस्रार चक्र)

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The seventh chakra is ‘sahasrar-chakra’ which is always recognized as a full blooming lotus with a thousand petals, is situated at the top of the head. Therefore, it was carved above the ‘lingam’, on the ceiling.

Vimanam (Tamil) विमानम्

Vimanam (Tamil) विमानम् / Aakasha (Kannada/Hindi/Sanskrit)- is the term for the tower above the sanctum-sanctorum or the ‘garbh-griha’. The term Vimana, according to scholars, should refer to the structure above the कपोता or Kapota (the flat roof over the sanctum). The northern temple texts call it ‘prasada’ which has a curvilinear shape. Vimana is pyramid like according to south temple architecture. Vimana has differently name parts which are shown in the schematic diagram below. However, this plan is just representative of south temple architecture and not of Kailasha temple.

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Picture courtesy: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. showing ‘kutina’ style architecture with ‘shikhar’. This is not of Kailash temple

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Vimana / विमाना of Kailash temple

In Kailash temple one may see four levels of carvings and platforms until the ‘griva’ or neck of Vimana. Griva is where Vimana meets the Shikhar or the top dome. At neck level four beautifully carved Nandi Bulls are sitting facing each direction. The Vimana resembles ‘Kutina-type’ tower which is characterized by gradually receding stories in a pyramidal shape. Each story is typically delineated by a parapet of miniature shrine carvings, square at the corner and rectangular with barrel-vault roofs at the center. This style is seen in a more recent Colisvara temple at Kilaiyur, Tamil Nadu. But, recent is also a thousand years old.

Shikhar / शिखर

Shikhar or top dome! Shikhar is also called the peak of a mountain. It is the most prominent structure in a Hindu temple. The Shikhar of Kailash temple is just above the ‘griva’ or neck of Vimana where four Nandi bulls are sitting.

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This Shikhar is remarkable because it has EIGHT faces which represent eight directions of a compass. Delicate pairs of pillars have been carved on each face to show as if they are holding up the Shikhar. Just above each pair of pillars, there are intricate and very detailed carvings.

अमालक / Amalaka with a मंगल कलश

An अमालक / Amalaka, is a stone cap which is usually in the form of an inverted lotus symbolizing Yog energy coming from the deity or has deep ridges on the edge to symbolize rays of the sun as is commonly shown behind the head of gods or enlightened saints. In Kailash temple, amalaka is carved as an inverted lotus.

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From the center of Amalaka, the top is crowned with a large finial and a मंगल कलश / ‘mangal-kalash’ which is commonly used in Hindu sacred rituals.

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A ‘mangal-kalash’ is usually a copper or brass open vase adorned with a coconut sitting on leaves of mango tree. The Amalaka of Kailasha temple has eroded over millennia or damaged but, still one can make out the inverted lotus and lower part of ‘mangal kalash’.

Kailash temple is such an amazing structure that words fail to describe this marvelous creation. It represents a uniquely glorious chapter in Indian ancient temple architecture. Creation of a marvel like this requires an understanding of advanced knowledge of spacial geometry, mathematics, calculus, system of precise measurements, proportions and weight bearing, understanding of composition of rocks and soil, building architecture and other knowledge systems. The architects of this magnificent temple must have drawn detailed drawings and models of finished temple before starting their work. The team of laborers, skilled workers, architects and dexterous stone carvers of that time seem to have put in every bit of their dedication, expertise and devotion to carve out a mountain to create a structure which has no equal in the world.

I have covered only a small portion of the temple complex. In this blog I have focused basically on the fundamental purpose and schematics of the temple. I have barely touched the superficial layers of the design because I am not a temple architect or an expert in this field. I hope my small attempt will at least give an idea of the overall concept of Kailash temple to my readers. In the next blog I will cover a different aspect of this great Yog temple.

3 thoughts on “Kailash Temple at Ellora Represents Pinnacle of Hindu Temple Architecture: It is an ancient YOG TEMPLE – Part 1”

  1. Thank you so much for this incredibly inspiring knowledge of Kailasa Temple. I am so sorry to have missed seeing it when I went to India. I was mostly focused on learning Bharata Natyam with Shyamala Mohanraj in Madras. Traveling was limited. I had learned a lot though about the structure of the Hindu temple – and how it’s representing a person’s finally entering the innermost sanctum of the temple. I’m so grateful. Thank you!

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    1. Lindsi, you should plan another visit to Kailasha Temple. This time read about it and explore the majestic mountain carved marvel of human achievement. It is thousands of years old. Nobody knows how old. Can we make a temple like this in the modern times, with the best of laser cutting technology available at our disposal? I doubt very much. It is a Vedic Temple and there is lot lot more that we need to understand about it.

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