Travels, Visual Arts

Buddhist and Hindu caves and temples, Islamic mausoleums: Ellora, Ajanta, Vijayapura, Hampi


Located east of Bombay, not far from Aurangabad, are the monastery-temple cave complexes Ellora and Ajanta. A total of nearly three dozen temple and living caves were carved out of the rock since the 6th century CE in Ellora. The first cave temples were Buddist, followed by Hindu, and finally Jaina temples. As so often, it is difficult to distinguish Buddhist- from Hindu-style reliefs.

To walk barefoot on the bare rock floors polished by countless people who have walked here before is a very special sensuous pleasure: history made tangible on the soles of your feet.

The unrivaled highlight is the Kailasha Temple in the center of the site. It was built in the 8th century CE and is dedicated to the god Shiva, who lives in the Himalayas on Mount Kailash. The free-standing temple measures 90 by 60 meters and is aligned precisely west. It was wrested from the rock by hewing out and clearing away hundreds of thousands of tons of stone in an incredible cultural and logistic feat. 

The architectural and artistic conception of the temple alone puts everything else in the shade. Only a highly advanced civilization is able to drive such a complex, yet consistent, building toward completion, particularly considering that construction was carried out over many decades, under the prevailing local climate conditions, and using mechanical tools only.

The residential and temple cave complex of Ajanta dates back a bit further, 2nd century BCE to 7th century CE. Perched above a U-shaped river bend, it was built and inhabited by Buddhist monks.

The caves of Ajanta are covered with paintings that display early features of perspectivity and a highly sophisticated level of art. It is well worthwhile to take a closer look at the clearly observable references to Hellenistic and Roman painting of ancient Europe.

Halfway between Bombay and Bangalore, on the Deccan Plateau, lies Vijayapura, which flourished in the 16th century as the seat of an independent sultanate. The Islamic town of some 35,000 inhabitants is well worth visiting. A ride in a calash will take you on a comfortable tour of all Islamic mausoleums and monuments in just a few hours.

One of the highlights of Islamic architecture is the tomb of Ibrahim Adil Shah II from the beginning of the 17th century, which is also referred to as the Taj Mahal of South India.

Another famous mausoleum is the Gol Gumbaz, erected for the remains of Sultan Mohammed Adil Shah in 1659. Its characteristic, large dome of 51 meters height and 37 meters diameter is among the largest of the world, along with the well-known Italian domes.

A definite highlight is a trip to the ruins of Hampi, a World Heritage site extending over 26 square kilometers. In the 14th through the 16th centuries, Hampi was the prosperous capital of the flourishing Hindu empire Vijayanagara. Travelers from Europe at the time returned home to report about its splendor and festivities and compared it to ancient Rome.  

The temple ruins are best explored by Tuk Tuk; that way you can enjoy the beautiful, scenic landscape with its diverse rock formations as well.

Vishnu as human/lion avatar in the Lakshmi Narasimha temple.

The Lotus Mahal: an Islam-inspired pleasure palace for the queen and her entourage.

The huge Shree Vijaya Vitthala Gudi Temple is a pinnacle of art and architecture. It is home to two landmarks of India, the Stone Chariot and the famous Musical Pillars: like the strings of an instrument, the columns produce sound at the tap of the finger.

A chariot still in use today

Right next to Hampi Bazaar and in the immediate vicinity of the scenic Tungabhadra River lies the magnificent Virupaksha Temple, which was completed in the 14th century. Along with its temple elephant Lakshmi, it continues to be an extremely popular and highly frequented destination for pilgrims from all over India. Here you can witness from very close the celebration of Hindu ceremonies and sacrifice rituals.

Pond of the Virupaksha temple

The best time to climb nearby Hemakuta Hill with its ancient temple ruins is in the evening, to watch the sundown and ponder the wheel of life: existence, transcience, eternity… 

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