Making a Mountain out of a...... Mountain!

A stone sculptor is very much like a magician – he produces something out of nothing! They say that when a sculptor looks at a raw block of stone, he can already see his creation in it.

When he sets to work with his hammer and chisel, he is merely releasing the figure within! Many sculptors speak of being guided by divine inspiration. They believe the gods guide their hands while working. This is not hard to believe when you see the amazing stone sculptures we have in India.

Right from ancient times, carvings and statues have covered the walls of temples and palaces, been perched on top of pillars or turn up free-standing. Some are intricate and beautiful; others huge and intimidating. They range in size from tiny birds and animals to the gigantic Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola, a whopping 57 feet tall and sculpted out of a single block of granite.

But have you ever heard of an entire temple complex that has been sculpted out of a single block of stone? Sounds quite unbelievable, doesn’t it?

Truly special

Cut to the 8th century CE.  A Rashtrakuta king named Krishna I was at the height of his glory. He had defeated all his enemies and ruled over practically the whole of central and western India. This made him not only very powerful, but also very rich. Krishna was an ardent devotee of  Shiva. One day he instructed his architects to re-create Mount Kailasa (Shiva’s mountain abode) at Ellora, near Aurangabad.

At this time, there were already some magnificent temples in south India built in the Dravidian style.  Krishna I’s architects could have simply copied those designs, maybe added some special finishing touches of their own. But they wanted to do something unique. Instead of constructing a temple, they decided to carve it out of a solid rock! Mount Kailasa was going to emerge out of a mountain.

It is one thing to have a bold idea, but quite another to put it into action. That takes much planning, preparation and painstaking attention to detail. Luckily, Krishna I was enthusiastic and also generous with his funding. So skilled workmen were employed from all over; sculptors came from as far away as Pallava country (present Tamil Nadu).

Finally, work began. First, a suitable stone hill was found. Then, with no earth movers, stone cutters or bulldozers, three huge trenches were hand cut vertically at right angles reaching the very base of the hill. This detached a large mass of rock – 200 feet long, 100 feet wide and 100 feet high – from the hill. Now those incredible sculptors had their ‘canvas’ to work on.  They began at the top of the rock mass. Bit by bit, they chipped and chiselled their way down.

Krishna I took a personal interest in the whole process. As a devotee of Shiva, he had all the right rituals and prayers performed on site for the success of this most unusual project.

Magicians or sculptors?

Imagine for a moment that you were part of his entourage, visiting the place to inspect progress on the ‘building’. Since there was no construction from ground level, there would have been no scaffolding. Instead, all you would have seen were thousands of workers, perched on top of a shapeless hill, tap-tap-tapping away with their hammers and chisels, slowly shaping the dark stone. The skilled artisans would have made it look as though they were working with soap rather than with brittle rock. Within months, the first tier of the tower or vimana and the roofs of the halls and shrines would have come into view.

Then slowly, brackets and pillars would have emerged, followed by images of gods and goddesses. And as the years went by, steps built from the top coming down and finally, the plinth or platform on which the temple rested. Like a stone scroll slowly unrolling its treasures to a stunned audience.

The temple complex had four main parts: a double-storeyed entrance gateway, a Nandi shrine, the main temple, and five minor shrines ranged around a large central courtyard.

The huge main shrine was set on a high platform carved with elephants and prancing lions. The stately elephants appeared to be supporting the whole temple on their backs. There were pillared halls, shrines, gateways, covered paths and seats for pilgrims to rest on.

Almost every surface was carved with delicate designs of exquisite beauty, stories from the Ramayana, scenes from mythology and intricate sculptures of gods and goddesses.

Shiva himself was depicted in 64 different poses. Two pillars on either side of the Nandi shrine were each a jaw-dropping 51 feet! They were works of art in themselves. Can you imagine chiselling those downwards out of solid rock without having them snap? Rising above it all was the 95 foot tower or vimana in three diminishing tiers. Remember top-down?! Workmen would have had to carve the smallest tier first!

Work went on for more than a hundred years – after all, perfection takes time. The engineering involved in excavating the hill and getting the proportions of the building right were of an advanced level. The grace and intricacy of the carvings showed off the supreme skill of the craftsmen.

What finally materialised out of that huge mass of rock was one of the world’s largest monolithic (made out of one stone) structures. And as the king had instructed, it did indeed resemble the Himalayan abode of  Shiva — Mount Kailasa. Legend has it that it was even coated with thick layers of white plaster so that it looked like it was covered with snow!

The Kailasanatha temple at Ellora is not just a temple but a colossal work of art; truly one of the wonders of the world. It was produced by the devotion of a king and the skilled hands of thousands of anonymous artisans.

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