There’s No Deja Vu at Ellora – Maharastra, India

There’s No Deja Vu at Ellora
Maharastra, India

Someone recently asked me “What’s the best place you have ever been to?” For many people, this would be a tough one to answer. Just think of all of the answers that could be given. Near to the top of my list is Venice, with its winding canals and its array of Baroque, Renaissance and Byzantine architecture. Prague and Amsterdam are also beguiling. In Asia there is Kathmandu with its rose brick temples and Newari buildings and of course there is India, including the Taj Mahal. The list is almost endless. But one place that has left a lasting effect like no other has to be the Kailasa Temple at Ellora in Maharastra.

I recall on first seeing the Taj that it looked the same as it did on the pictures I had seen of it over the years. So when I finally got to see it, I kind of felt a sense of déjà vu, which took the gloss away from my visit. I had known what to expect. In fact, I think I got more enjoyment from seeing the watered down version of the Taj, Bibi ka Maqbara, in Aurangabad. I had not seen photos of it before and therefore lacked any feeling of over familiarity when I saw it in person. It was a totally new experience and quite a surprise to find a poor imitation of the Taj Mahal. Similarly, prior to visting Ellora, I had not seen an image of the Kailasa Temple. So when I did actually see it, I was awestruck in a way that I may have been if I had never seen the Taj before.

The Kailasa Temple, it is safe to say, is one of the most astonishing ‘buildings’ in the history of architecture. This shrine was not constructed but carved and sculpted from the volcanic hillside. The mass in the centre is a freestanding, two-story Hindu temple of dazzling complexity. The temple, which is dedicated to Shiva, stands on an elevated plinth to attain greater presence in its tight surroundings. The complex consists of entry, Nandi shrine, open porch, main hall, and inner sanctum. Variously scaled panels, friezes, and sculpture highlight the many walls and surfaces.

An estimated 200,000 tons of rock was excavated, reputedly using one inch chisels. Carved to represent Mt. Kailasa, the home of Shiva in the Himalayas, it is the largest monolithic structure in the world, carved top-down from a single rock. It contains the largest cantilevered rock ceiling in the world. The scale at which the work was undertaken is enormous. The temple covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and is 1.5 times as high. It is believed to have taken 7,000 labourers 150 years to complete the project. Virtually every surface is lavishly embellished with symbols and figures from the puranas (sacred Sanskrit poems). Pretty staggering, I’m sure you will agree. So quite fittingly I was pretty staggered when I first set eyes on it.

I always try to imagine what people used to feel on first encountering the various wonders of the world. What did those relatively uninformed (by today’s standards) first foreign visitors feel when they saw the Taj or cast their eyes upon those wondrous buildings in Venice? Well, delve into the literature and we we don’t have to imagine. In 1663, Francois Bernier, a Frenchman from Angers spent ten years in India and was very enthusiastic in his description of the Taj saying that it is artistically wrought with its own beauty and possesses unimaginable delicacy and taste.

The present day traveller may or may not be spellbound by the great sites of the world, but let’s face it, he or she more or less knows what to expect. A huge array of brochures, postcards and TV programmes provide wide exposure to them. So on arriving at these places, I suspect the déj� vu feeling can kick in and provide an experience that is not all it could be. It has already been lived by the visitor, albeit in a second hand manner, through the pages of a brochure or the images of the TV screen. So when the person actually arrives, the sensation of being there is strong, but is somewhat diluted. It’s new but perhaps not brand-new. It’s different but somehow familiar. It’s good but maybe not as good as it could have been.

Thankfully, this not always the case as just now and then, we may be lucky enough to stumble on a true wonder and be overwhelmed in the process, regardless of whether or not the site has been photographed to death in the pages of endless, glossy brochures. Many people I meet say that the Taj has this effect on them, despite them having experienced it a hundred times before through the TV or photographs. In my case it was at Ellora that overwhelmed. I now regularly see the Kailasha Temple through photographs and even then the site still strikes at a raw nerve. If I ever get the chance to revisit in person, then I am sure the experience would still cut deep. I guess that some sites never get blunted through the symptomatic over exposure of the modern age. The Kailasha Temple is the best that I’ve seen.