Sanchi, the stupa village, is situated 45 km away from Bhopal. The ancient trade route connecting Ujjain with rest of the ancient north India passed through it. In course of time few more stupa villages such as Andher, Murel-Khurd and Sonari sprang in the vicinity of Sanchi.

During Sunga times, several edifices were raised at Sanchi and its surrounding hills. The Asokan stupa was enlarged and faced with stones and decorated with balustrades, staircases and a harmika on the top.

It was accepted that the structure at Sanchi are the most organized construction which went into the engineering of Buddhist monuments at Sanchi. The carvings here are done with the precision of Jewelers. Despite the damage and restoration work done the great Stupa of Sanchi is the most evocative and attractive Buddhist site in India. The fact Sanchi Stupa is primarily a place of Stupas and pillars but the gorgeous gateways add grace to the place. These gateways are beautifully carved and carry scenes from the life of Buddha or Ashoka. The images carved on the pillars and the stupas tell moving story of the incidents form the life of Buddha.


The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (an ancient Buddhist text describing the last days of the Buddha) claims that after the Buddha passed away, his followers divided his cremated remains into eight portions. Each of the eight kingdoms in which the Buddha had lived received one portion of the relics, and a stupa was erected in each kingdom in order to house the remains. Buddhist sources claim that during the 3rd century BCE, the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Great ordered these eight stupas to be opened, further distributed the relics of the Buddha into 84,000 portions, and had stupas built over them all over the expanding Buddhist world.


The relics of the Buddha were not merely considered a commemorative symbol by the Buddhist community; they were believed to be the living presence of the Buddha, a depository of his protective powers and living energy. Early in the Buddhist tradition, clergy and laity alike practiced the veneration of stupas and the relics in them in order to gain spiritual merit. The importance of the stupas gradually increased as a result of both the emphasis of the Buddhist relic-cult and their multiplication during the time of Ashoka.

It should be noted that the veneration of stupas is not unique to Buddhism. This practice had its origin in Indian traditions pre-dating the emergence of Buddhism. From pre-historical times, burial mounds containing the remains of the dead were a common funerary practice in some Indian societies: in these mounds, the living paid homage to their dead, just like Buddhists would do for their saints centuries later.


The earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of stupas in North India dates to the late 4th century BCE. These are all pilgrimage stupas, which means that they were built outside the domains of monastic complexes, at pilgrimage sites. Although we have no material evidence of earlier stupas, Buddhist scriptures claim that stupas were built at least a century earlier. It is possible that before this time, stupas were built with non-durable materials such as wood, or even as burial mounds, in which case archaeological detection would be nearly impossible.

The earliest evidence of monastic stupas dates back to the 2nd century BCE. These are stupas that were built within Buddhist monastic complexes. It is possible that these stupas replaced older stupas made of wood: some of their architectural components were shaped imitating wooden parts. Unfortunately none of these left any visible trace.

The 'Great Stupa' at Sanchi


During early Buddhist times, stupas were composed of a semi-spherical dome with a parasol placed on top. The dome covered a square base with a small receptacle in the centre containing relics, while a space for circumambulation was defined around the dome. This basic format underwent changes as stupas were introduced in other cultures.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi

The Great Stupa at Sanchi

Why build a stupa?

There are many reasons people build a stupa. From creating a place people can gather to give respect to Buddha a central area people can practice their faith.

Many others create stupa’s to either be born again at a higher level eg from peasant to royalty. Others still believe it will give them clairvoyance to understanding Buddhism. Perhaps one of the more popular reasons is to remove all signs of negative karma from ones life by building a stupa.



The Ellora caves, locally known as ‘Verul Leni’ is located on the Aurangabad-Chalisgaon road at a distance of 30 km north-northwest of Aurangabad, the district headquarters. The name Ellora itself inspires everyone as it represents one of the largest rock-hewn monastic-temple complexes in the entire world. Ellora is also world famous for the largest single monolithic excavation in the world, the great Kailasa (Cave 16). The visit to these caves is enjoyed maximum during monsoon, when every stream is filled with rainwater, and the entire environ is lush green. The monsoon is not only a season of rains in this part, the local visitors are attracted to visit these ideal locations to have a glimpse of the mother nature in full bloom.

The caves are hewn out of the volcanic basaltic formation of Maharasthra, known as ‘Deccan Trap’, the term trap being of Scandinavian origin representing the step like formation of the volcanic deposits. The rock formation, on weathering has given rise to the appearance of terraces with flat summits. At Ellora, one can also have a glimpse of the channels (near Cave 32) through which the volcanic lava once flowed. These channels, due to overheating, have a characteristic brownish red colour. Similar rock was used in the construction of the Grishneshwar Temple nearby and also utilised for the flooring of the pathways at Bibi-ka-Maqbara.

The hills in which the caves are hewn, forms part of the Sahyadri ranges of the Deccan and dated to the Cretaceous era of the Geological time scale (about 65 million years ago). The hills rise abruptly from the surrounding plains on the south and west, the western surface being extensively utilised for hewing the cave complexes. The hill also supports several streams, the prominent among them being the Elaganga, which drains into the Shiv, a stream of the Godavari river system. The Elaganga is in its full vigour during the monsoon, when the overflowing waters of a barrage in the upstream near Mahismati allows the gushing waters to land at “Sita-ki-nahani” near Cave 29 as a crashing waterfall.

The volcanic lava flowed during different periods, gave rise to extensive horizontal flows alternating with vesicular trap beds. The vesicular traps formed the upper portion of each of the massive trap beds. The different lava flows also gave rise to vertical as well as horizontal joints in the rock formation. Depending upon the nature and mineralogical content of the lava flow, the rock formations also varied in character and texture, giving rise to various qualities like coarse grained, fine grained formations. The ancient builders at Ellora, like other places, particularly chose the fine grained formations of the Deccan trap, ideal for sculpting and rock hewing. In addition to this, the ancient builders also traced the horizontal and vertical joints in the rock formation to minimise the labour and time during excavation and rock splitting. The basaltic rock is also ideal for rock hewing, as they are soft during the initial excavation and hardens on exposure to environment.

The basaltic formation of the Deccan is ideal for rock hewing, the technique widely understood during ancient times. This induced the religious followers of various creeds to establish their settlements in them. By a rough estimate, there are nearly 1200 caves of varying sizes in the entire Maharashtra, out of which nearly 900 alone belong to Buddhism.

The region is also famous for its antiquity. It has been inhabited since time immemorial, the stone tools belonging to the Upper Palaeolithic (around 10,000 to 20,000 years ago), Mesolithic (less than 10,000 years ago) bearing testimony to this fact. The Chalcolithic remains (2500-1000 BC) in the vicinity also indicates the continuity of human occupation in this region.

The importance of Ellora during the early centuries of the Christian era is also understood by the findings of coins of Satavahanas, the ruling dynasty during the period. The Satavahanas had their capital at Pratishtana (modern Paithan) and ruled the entire area between the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal and bordered by the Narmada River on the north. Ellora being located on the ancient trade route connecting the western ports on the Arabian sea like Sopara (Surparaka, the Supara of Greek; Subara of Arab writers; the ancient capital of northern Konkan), Kalyan a thriving port; Chemula, the Samylla of Greek geographers, Chemula of Silaharas, on the island of Trombay and the inland cities like Paithan (Pratishtana), Ter (Tagara), Bhokardan (Bhogavardhana) etc. The fact that Satavahanas traversed this region is attested by their inscriptions at Nasik caves and donor inscriptions of their times at Pital Khora caves, located at a distance of 40 km west of Ellora. Ellora is located directly on the ancient trade route which traversed from Pratishtana via Aurangabad, Ellora, Pital Khora, Patne, Nasika (modern Nasik). Nasik is at the crossroads of an ancient trade route connecting centres on the west to east and those on the north to south.

The location on the ancient trade route did not induce any activities at Ellora during the Satavahana rule. Brisk activities were already on at nearby Pital Khora, Nasik, Ajanta, etc., and this could have been a diversion of the ancient builders to support any activity here. However, as the multiplication of the religious establishments took place in every nook and corner of Maharashtra, the ideal location of Ellora was unavoidable.

Thus grew one of the largest cave excavations at Ellora, that too of three different religious creeds, viz., Buddhism, Brahmanism and Jainism. The caves are datable from circa 6th – 7th century A.D. to 11th – 12th century A.D. In total, there are nearly 100 caves in the hill range out of which 34 caves are famous and visited by many tourists, out of which Caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist; Caves 13 to 29 are Brahmanical and Caves 30 to 34 are Jaina. Two more groups of caves are noticed on the Elaganga and on an upper terrace, namely, the Ganesh Leni and Jogeshwari Leni.

These religious establishments could have received royal patronage from various dynasties, even though inscriptional evidences are lacking for most of them. The only definite inscriptional evidence is that of Rashtrakuta Dantidurga (c. 753-57 A.D.) on the back wall of the front mandapa of Cave 15. The Great Kailasa (Cave 16) is attributed to Krishna I (c. 757-83 A.D.), the successor and uncle of Dantidurga. A copper plate grant from Baroda of the period of Karka II (c. 812-13 A.D.) speaks about the greatness of this edifice. The inscription tells us that this great edifice was built on a hill by Krishnaraja at Elapura (Ellora) and even the celestial beings moving in the sky were struck by its magnificence, as though it was self-existent, not created by mortals, and, even the architect who caused it was wonder struck that he could build it. Apart from the above two inscriptions, the entire cave complexes lack inscriptions of the nature found at other cave sites like that of Ajanta, Nasik, Karle, Kanheri, etc.

In the absence of concrete inscriptional evidence, we can deduce the royal dynasties that could have extended their patronage to the religious establishments. The initiation of religious establishments at Ellora coincides with the departure of the tradition at Ajanta. It is well known that the excavations started here before the Rashtrakutas arrived on the scene and the Caves 1 to 10 and Cave 21 (Ramesvara) were definitely constructed before them. These excavations are generally attributed to the Kalachuris of Mahismati, appeared to have gained control of the region around Nasik and parts of ancient Asmaka (region around Aurangabad) including Bhogavardana (modern Bhokardan) and the Chalukyas of Badami who held their sway in this region for a brief period before their feudatories, the Rashtrakutas took over.

The majority of the Brahmanical establishments and the remaining Buddhist ones can be attributed to the Rashtrakuta times which indicate the religious tolerance of the contemporary period. The Jaina caves definitely post-date the Rashtrakutas as indicated by the style of execution and fragmentary inscriptions. This region was under the control of Kalyani Chalukyas and Yadavas of Deogiri (Daulatabad) during this period. The patronage towards Jainism under the Yadavas is also known by the findings of several sculptures of Jaina faith from Daulatabad. Thus, we have the greatest religious conglomeration at a single place, signifying the religious tolerance and solidarity of different faiths.

The Ellora caves, unlike Ajanta, have a distinction that they were never lost to oblivion, due to their close proximity to the trade route. There have been numerous written records to indicate that these caves were visited regularly by enthused travellers and royal personages as well. The earliest is that of an Arab geographer Al-Mas‘udi of the 10th century A.D. In 1352 A.D. the approach roads to the caves were repaired on the ensuing visit of Sultan Hasan Gangu Bahmani, who also camped at the site and visited the caves. The other important accounts of these caves are by Firishta, Thevenot (1633-67), Niccolao Manucci (1653-1708), Charles Warre Malet (1794), Seely (1824). During the 19th century A.D. these caves were owned by the Holkars of Indore who auctioned for the right of worship and leasing them for religious as well as a form of entrance fee. After the Holkars, these caves passed into the control of Nizams of Hyderabad, who through their Archaeology Department carried out extensive repairs and maintenance of the caves under the guidance of Archaeological Survey of India. The caves are under the maintenance of the Archaeological Survey of India after the reorganisation of states and the dominions of erstwhile Nizams merged into the state of Maharashtra.

A brief account on the architectural splendour and artistic expressions of various caves is given here for enabling one to understand the real character and importance of this wonderful place.

The caves are excavated in the scarp of a large plateau, running in a north-south direction for nearly 2 km, the scarp being in the form of a semi-circle, the Buddhist group at the right arc on the south, while the Jaina group at the left arc on the north and the Brahmanical group at the centre.


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The Viswakarma cave is also known locally as the Sutar ki jhopdi owing to the construction style. This is the only Chaitya in these series of caves., constructed around 7th century A.D. And though not so magnificent in its proportions or decoration, it is still a splendid work with a large open court in front surrounded by a corridor, the frieze above its pillars is carved with various representations.

The inner temple, consisting of central naïve and sideDSC04938aisles, measures 85 feet in length, 43 feet width and 34 feet height. The naïve is separated by the aisles by 28 octagonal pillars, 14 feet in height, with plain bracket capitals, while two more square ones just inside the entrance support the gallery above and cut off from the front aisle. One of the pillars is inscribed with the date Saka 1228, which is equivalent to 1306 A.D. One interesting aspect of this chaitya is the missing horse shoe style of façade that we find in other locations like Ajanta or Bhaja.

DSC04943The back of the naïve stands a huge stupa nearly 27 feet in height and 16 feet in diameter. It has simple circular base, hemispherical dome and a sDSC04940quare capital as we find in the typical stupa. Typical to a Mahayana construction, it has a large frontispiece nearly 17 feet in height attached to it, on which is a 11 feet colossal Buddha seated with his feet down, and his usual attendants, while on the arch over his head is carved the Bodhi Tree, with dwarfs on either side.

The arched roof is carved in imitation of wooden ribs, each rising from behind a little Naga bust, – alternatively male and female, – and joining a ridge piece above. It can be assumed that this style of imitation is a development stage in rock cut architecture, i.e. instead of the typical wooden ceiling the original construction itself was cut in rock. We can trace the sequence of chaitya construction from the early wood-fronted examples at Pitalkhora, Kondane, and Bhaja, through the stone fronted caves of Bedsa and Karla, to Cave 10the elaborately decorated ones at Ajanta, and finally to this where it loses nearly all the external characteristic features.

The deep frieze above the pillars is divided into two belts, the lower and narrower carved with crowds of fat little ganas in all sitting positions. The upper is much deeper, and is divided over each pillar so as to form compartments, each containing usually Buddha with two attendants,PadmaDSC04936pani andVajrapani.  Needless to say that worshippers used to chant hymns and prayers in chaitya halls and the arched structure echoes nicely. It is said that if we visit this cave early in the morning, any loud voice will echo 3-4 times spanning around a minute.

At the ends of the front corridor are two cells and two chapels with the usual Buddha figures. From the left end of the back corridor a stair ascends to the gallery above, which contains an outer one above the corridor and an inner one over the front aisle, separated by the two DSC04957pillars that divide the lower portion of the great window into three lights. From the outer area, too, small chapels are entered, each containing sculpture of Buddha mythology, and where the very elaborate head-dresses of the females of the period may be studied. Over the chapel to the right of the window is a remarkable group of little fat figures, and the projecting frieze that crowns the façade is elaborately sculpted with pairs of figures in compartments. High up on each side are two small chapels, difficult to access.

In this balcony, there remains to be noticed the only inscription at all of an early date found among the Buddha caves here; but it is only the mantra (hymn) of the Mahayana school, caved in characters of perhaps the eight or ninth century. It reads:

Ye dharma hetu prabhava hetum, tesham tathagato, hyavadattesham cha yo nirodha, evam vadi mahasramanaa(h).

All things proceed from cause; this cause has been declared by the Tathagata; all things will cease to exist; this is that which is declared by the great Sramana (Buddha).

This same inscription is found in other locations like Sarnath, Kanheri, Afghanistan, Burma, Singapore, and Java and is well known in Buddhist literature of Nepal, Tibet, China and Sri Lanka.