Towering creation

Towering creation

A friend of mine recently asked, “What’s the best place you have ever been to?” For many, this would be a tough one to answer. Just think of all of the answers that could be given. Venice, with its winding canals and its array of Baroque, Renaissance and Byzantine architecture, would be near to the top of the list, as would Prague and Amsterdam. In Asia, there is Kathmandu, with its rose brick temples and Newari buildings, and, of course, there is India, with the Taj Mahal. The list is almost endless. But one place that has left a lasting effect on me has to be the Kailasa temple at Ellora in Maharashtra.

I recall that on seeing the Taj for the first time, I realised that it looked the same as it did in the pictures I had seen of it over the years. So when I finally got to see it, I kind of felt a sense of déjà vu, which took the gloss away from my visit. I had known what to expect. In fact, I think I got more enjoyment from seeing the watered down version of the Taj — Bibi ka Maqbara, in Aurangabad. As I had not seen photos of it before, I lacked any feeling of over familiarity when I saw it in person. It was a totally new experience and quite a surprise to find a poor imitation of the Taj Mahal. Similarly, prior to visiting Ellora, I had not seen an image of the Kailasa Temple. So when I did actually see it, I was awestruck in a way that I may have been if I had never seen the Taj before.

Astounding architecture
The Kailasa temple, it is safe to say, is one of the most astonishing ‘buildings’ in the history of architecture. This shrine was not constructed but carved and sculpted from the volcanic hillside. The mass in the centre is a freestanding, two-story Hindu temple of dazzling complexity. The temple, dedicated to Shiva, stands on an elevated plinth to attain greater presence in tight surroundings. The complex consists of a Nandi shrine, open porch, main hall and inner sanctum. Variously scaled panels, friezes, and sculpture highlight the many walls and surfaces.

An estimated 2,00,000 tons of rock was excavated, reputedly using one inch chisels. Carved to represent Mt Kailasa — the home of Shiva in the Himalayas, is the largest monolithic structure in the world, carved top-down from a single rock, and contains the largest cantilevered rock ceiling in the world.

The temple covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and is 1.5 times as high. About 7,000 labourers took 150 years to complete the site. Virtually every surface is embellished with symbols and figures from the puranas. These facts are pretty staggering, so, quite fittingly, I was pretty staggered when I first set eyes on it.
I always try to imagine what people used to feel on first encountering the various wonders of the world prior to the advent of mass media. Well, delve into the literature and we we don’t have to imagine. In 1663, Francois Bernier, a Frenchman from Angers, spent ten years in India and was very enthusiastic in his description of the Taj, saying that it is artistically wrought with its own beauty and possesses unimaginable delicacy and taste.

 The present day traveller may or may not be spellbound by the great sites of the world, but he or she more or less knows what to expect. A huge array of brochures, postcards, websites and TV programmes provide wide exposure to them. So, on arriving at these places, I suspect the déjà vu feeling can kick in and provide an experience that is not all it could be.

It has already been lived by the visitor, albeit in a second hand manner, through the pages of a brochure, the images of the TV screen or the screen of a computer. So, when the person actually arrives, the sensation of being there is strong, but is somewhat diluted. It’s new, but perhaps not brand-new. It’s different, but somehow familiar. It’s good, but maybe not as good as it could have been.

Thankfully, this is not always the case as, just now and then, we may be lucky enough to stumble on a true wonder and be overwhelmed in the process, regardless of whether or not the site has been photographed to death and has appeared in the pages of endless, glossy brochures or elsewhere. Many people I meet say that the Taj has this effect on them, despite them having experienced it a 100 times before through the various mass media. In my case, it was at Ellora that overwhelmed.

I now regularly see the Kailasa temple through photographs, but even then the site still strikes at a raw nerve. If I ever get the chance to revisit in person, I am sure the experience would still cut deep. I guess that some sites never get blunted through the symptomatic over-exposure of the modern age. The Kailasa temple is the best that I’ve seen.

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