Jain Caves at Ellora

My presentation at the Chota (small) Kailasa Temple at Ellora focused on my research on the importance of the Jain structures in the Ellora complex. We acknowledged Ellora in our studies as a tri-religious site, but learned it as a Buddhist and Hindu dominated place. To an extent, all the metrics support this: there are only 5 caves attributed to Jains, they were completed in the last periods of construction, they are smaller than what we saw yesterday (on our first day at Ellora), and some scholars see the Jain imagery as repetitive and unoriginal. As seen in this interpretation of the Jain caves, the importance of an academic following is clear for the perceived importance of a site. We see with Walter Spink the number of man hours that can go into creating educated conclusions on a single cave let alone a whole complex. And so the Jain caves lag or are left out to a certain extent, especially in colonial era work. The Chota Kailasa gets its name from its resemblance to the Kailasanatha Temple. It is however smaller, and unfinished which adds to this diminutive name. This shows the lense through which those studying it were seeing it through- the majority of references to it noted it as a “poor” imitation of the Kailasanatha. And while the similarities are important, it’s also important to see the intentionality of the cave. Jainism is similar to Buddhism and Hinduism in its focus on achieving enlightenment. The 24 Tirthankaras or Jinas are those who have reached this level of enlightenment and serve as teachers to those still seeking. The Chota Kailasa is a space that houses these figures. They all are portrayed in the perfected form they reached which means that all 24 figures look similar if not identical to the untrained eye. These Jinas, in turn look similar if not identical to figures of the Buddha and later figures of Shiva. The function of the Jinas is to show the ideal form, which does not require a complex image. Instead the beauty of the imagery is in the lesson it teaches about the state of meditative reflection. Add in the standing position of several Jinas and a galaxy of other gods and you’ve achieved a complex and interesting iconography but when you looks for Shiva in everything, you can find it.

In seeing the Chota Kailasa, and the other Jain caves in person, it was even more evident the separation between the colonial-era readings I found and the few more recent Jain scholars. Although Owens and Cort especially described the way that the imagery and the layout interact, there is no replacement to seeing it in person. It also left me a little more divided on my critique of previous scholars for attributing too much of the Jain caves to the “possibly Shiva” category. On one hand, the imagery looks very similar, and the inference that is necessary when dealing with aging and decaying works. On the other hand, much distinction has been drawn between the similar iconographies of the Buddhist and Hindu caves, showing the ability to deal with separateness among similarity which is not afforded as equally to Jainism, as shown and propagated though fewer active scholars.

Some suggested readings:

Owen, Lisa N., “Relationships between Art, Architecture and Devotional Practices at Ellora.” In Living Rock: Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cave temples in the Western Deccan, ed. Pia Brancaccio, 127-37. Mumbai: Marg Foundation, 2013.

Owen, Lisa N. Carving Devotion in the Jain Caves at Ellora. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012.

Cort, John E. Framing the Jina : Narratives of Icons and Idols in Jain history. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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