Narratives of a place named Ellora: Myths, culture and politics

 -The Indian Economic & Social History Review

Ellora Caves are one of the most visible and popular UNESCO heritage sites in India today. These caves were carved from the basalt rock face of the Sahyadri mountain range in the present-day village of Verula in the district of Aurangabad in Maharashtra.

The famous Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Aurangabad are not too far off. Ellora Caves, however, are distinct because there are Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina caves at the same site, running on the north–south axis, flanked by two waterfalls in either direction. Such a multi-religious coexistence of cave structure is unique, though one can read contesting sectarian ideologies and patronage in the nomenclature and sculptures of these caves at different times in the past.

This is also evident in the scholarship on Ellora, prominently by Burgess, Fergusson and Brown,1 on the Buddhist epigraphy and architecture, as well as by Dhavalikar, Bilgrami, Mahajan and Gupte2; Ranade on the art and history of the caves3; and photographic essays by Gil, Berkson.4 

Kannal, and Sondara Rajan have focused on the sculptural styles5; Yazdani and Jouveau-Dubreuil and Dikshtar have written a detailed political history of the region6; while studies by Sondara Rajan on the Rastrakutas7 and Dikshit on Calukyas8 are useful to understand Ellora, apart from the colonial administrative writers and travellers.9 

In recent times, there have been more focused studies on the Buddhist caves by Gupte and Malandra,10 and a detailed study by Brancaccio on the Aurangabad caves,11 while Owen has written a concise and authoritative history of the Jaina caves at Ellora.12 What is, however, lacking in this huge scholarship on the Ellora Caves and the history of Deccan is attention to Ellora itself, the ‘place’ and its culture beyond the documented 34 caves.

Figure: Panoramic View of Ellora Caves: Sketch by James Walls and Thomas Daniell 1778, published 1816.

Figure: Panoramic View of Ellora Caves: Sketch by James Walls and Thomas Daniell 1778, published 1816.

Ellora is the place where these caves associated with different sects and religions were carved over a span of at least 800 years—the ‘place’ is also a bearer of these identities, which were, at different times, exclusive and also hybrid. This was a place where the path of people of different ideas and persuasions crossed. These people, monks and traders, in particular, brought in and innovated upon cultural traditions, which had a bearing on the everyday life of people of this place. Ellora, therefore, is larger than just these caves—it was an important site that should conjure multivalent sensibilities, more complex than many other places. But how does the toponym Ellora communicate these complex, layered sensitivities? This article uses toponym as an analytic focus to bring into play different subjects—historical agents, religious organisations, monuments and textual materials—that provided structure and meaning to Ellora at different historical junctures.

It explores the different kinds of relationships that the people in power have with the past, especially when it is not their past but one that they need to master. Scholarship on toponyms is scant, and it is, therefore, not surprising that little attempt has been made to look into the place named Ellora as well.

This is perhaps because of our narrow presumption that culture is spatially rooted, while the ‘place’, hence toponym, is a given. Thus people, place and culture are assumed to be organically tied—the place and culture belonging to ‘naturally’ localised people, understood usually as a monolith.14 The study of place-names instead questions how place, culture and communities are constructions that are informed by the social and political processes of place making, conceived in the ‘ideas’ and ‘embodied practices’ that shape identities and possibly enable resistance.15 

It is presumed that the principle of sameness and similarity plays a significant role in the making of community, but, at the same time, the idea of community is also built around the notions of exclusivity and otherness.16 It is through this notion of exclusivity and otherness that the multivalent reading, naming and manipulations in the names of a place are constructed.

Toponymic studies are also about the context through which the symbolic landscape is manipulated, which, in turn, is used as an identity-marker and acts as an instrument of political legitimisation. This in many cases constructs a sense of nationalism. Hence, the place-name that evokes a specific memory is altered and new memories are fashioned that reflect the changed power relations between the place and political agency.17

The study of toponym is, moreover, more than the location of a physical space. It is rather an analysis of how places are created and evolve historically over time, where different social, cultural and political forces act in a specific way that mirrors their views and experiences of the specific as well as larger social and political world in different and, sometimes, competing ways.18 The story of Ellora is also an account of the politics that shapes the place-name.

The textual validation of the place-name, however, represents many pasts, identities and cultural traditions that characterise the caves and space beyond it. It also means that the larger contextual space—the village beyond the caves that has its own temples and tÄ«rthas—cannot be ignored.19 The identity, culture and politics of these residents and the caves themselves are a part of a larger space that cannot be segregated. While the place remains the same, the perspectives about the caves change along with the shifting religious and cultural identities of the place.