The difficult part in the study of Ellora is in asserting its time lines and the patrons behind its execution. That’s mainly because the historic evidences available in the form of inscriptions and scarce. And what little is available is sketchy leaving it open for contradicting interpretations.
Things get complicated by the fact that Ellora was active as a center for cave architecture for many centuries , even before the intensified cave excavations began during the later part of the 6th century CE. On top of it separate groups of caves were built by the three religious sects – Hindus, Jains and Buddhists – with overlapping chronology.
So who built what, and when, is a lot hazier than definite. The earliest studies on Ellora concluded with certain chronology and attributions ,heavily relaying on stylistic grounds and circumstantial backgrounds . And more or less these time periods are still quoted in the academic and research. The fact is what remains known about the backgrounds of monuments at Ellora is far too less than the unknown mysteries behind it.
Leaving the idea of time lines and the patrons with its level of uncertainty, let us try to understand the historical background of Ellora.
First of all let us understand the importance of Ellora’s location during the period that is generally considered as the historically significant in this region. Ellora saddles a politically and commercially busy region of those days.
For example to the west of Ellora on the Arabian Sea coast were the ancient port towns like Sopara and Kalyan. Some 80km (50 miles) south of Ellora located the ancient imperial capital Pratishthana ( modern day Paithan ). To the north of Ellora was the important trade center of the times Nasika ( present day Nasik ). A busy trade route passed via Ellora.
However Ellora was yet to come to limelight, rather the caves were still to be made at Ellora, at least in a significant way. Those days the important spiritual centers were Pital Khora, Nasik, Ajanta and so on, all with its own cave complexes. Once those sites along with a host of other prime locations suitable for cave cutting got saturated Ellora was the natural choice for building newer cave complexes. This was very similar to the modern day cities, short of real-estate expands into suburbs and satellite locations for its growth. The geological advantages of Ellora was too tempting from a rock cut architectural point of view.
So for the first time the focus was shifted to Ellora. Historians put this around the period 400-500 CE. That’s when the activities at the Ajanta Caves started declining. This theory of coincidence was one of the assumptions made with respect to the beginning of Ellora’s history.
The interesting thing about Ellora is from its origin (however sketchy it may be) till present it was in the constant know of people. That stands in stark contrast withthe case of Ajanta caves that was lost into oblivion by around 500 CE and later ‘discovered’ some 1200 years later when a hunting team of colonial officers ran into one of the caves.
Back to Ellora again. For the sake of simplicity historians classified the cave making at Ellora into 3 phases.
The tourist attractions of Ellora is spread over the 34 or so rock cut caves in a row. The centerpiece is probably the massive Kailashanatha Temple which is entirely carved out of the volcanic basalt mount.