Interview: Tilottama Shome, author, The Kailash Temple at Ellora - Hindustan Times

Interview: Tilottama Shome, author, The Kailash Temple at Ellora

ByChintan Girish Modi
Apr 18, 2023 06:30 PM IST

On World Heritage Day, a look at the architect and translator’s children’s book on the magnificent temple built by the Rashtrakutas

In The Kailash Temple at Ellora, you mention that your first encounter with the Ellora caves in Aurangabad was thanks to filmmaker-author Satyajit Ray. Tell us more.

Author Tilottama Shome (Courtesy Speaking Tiger) PREMIUM
Author Tilottama Shome (Courtesy Speaking Tiger)

I grew up reading Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories, which revolve around the adventures of this fictional detective who goes after criminals and solves mysteries. My favourite among these stories is Koilashey Kelenkari. It is about smugglers who come in the night and cut off little bits of carvings from the Ellora caves and sell them abroad. Feluda solves this mystery.

When my publisher and I were discussing the Magnificent Monuments of India series, I said that I wanted to write about the Kailash temple at Ellora after my last book – Taj Mahal: The Story of a Wonder of the World. I wanted to visit the caves that I had read so much about. Through the entire process, I was punning on the word “Kailash” – which is pronounced as Koilash in Bangla – and asking “Where’s the dead body?” (laash in Hindi). It was fun.

140pp, Rs367; Talking Club
140pp, Rs367; Talking Club

What impressions of Ellora did Ray’s story leave you with?

It gave me the impression of a very small town. Growing up in Delhi and Kolkata, the whole setting with caves on top of a hill was a bit alien to me. Ray’s descriptions of mysterious things happening in the dark had an adventurous vibe. I really liked being transported into the world that he created using his words. When I actually went to Aurangabad, I realized how much bigger it was in reality than in my imagination. My first visit to Ellora was in 2018.

How many times have you visited the Ellora caves?

Three! One of these visits was during the monsoon. There were few tourists at that time of the year but the place was so beautiful and green. The waterfalls were magnificent. Once I took my daughters along, and also added the Ajanta caves to our travel itinerary. Because of these travel companions, I got to hear different perspectives and see the place in a new light.

Did these conversations with your daughters help you imagine your target audience?

My younger daughter is in the 10-14 age group, which is our main target audience for this book. My older one is 19. She is an avid reader, so she reads a huge variety of books. In any case, the idea was to write a book that is not only for children but is also interesting for adults who are curious about history and heritage, and want to pick it up and read before they travel. It is not an academic study or a big tome but it is fact-based. It is for people who like to have some amount of background knowledge before they set out to discover a totally new place.

Your leg was in a cast on your second visit. What would you say about the Ellora caves, and the Kailash temple in particular, from the standpoint of (dis)ability and access? Since you are an architect by training, were you thinking of these issues at the time?

I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of ramps and a fleet of wheelchairs available for people who needed them. One could also hire a person’s services to push the wheelchair because the undulating land is challenging from the perspective of mobility. Of course, there were some parts of the caves that were completely inaccessible but the effort made by the government to create access, wherever possible, is worthy of appreciation. A guide called Sanjay, whose photograph is also in the book, held my hand and helped me reach parts of the Ellora caves where there were no ramps. But it was not possible for everyone to go up and down slopes.

The Kailash temple at Ellora (Shutterstock)
The Kailash temple at Ellora (Shutterstock)

Of all that you saw at Ellora, what made the Kailash temple stand out for you?

34 caves at Ellora are open to public. The most fascinating bit is that there are Jain, Buddhist and Hindu caves co-existing in this complex. They were built over different time periods. I chose the Kailash temple because I wanted the book to focus on a particular monument. I would call it the showstopper of Ellora. It is large, intricate, marvellous. It is a Shiva temple but no longer a site of worship. It is managed by the Archaeological Survey of India. The walls are really a sight to behold, with all their gods, goddesses, humans, birds and animals.

In the book, you mention that there is a theory about this temple being built by aliens. Why do some people believe that humans could not have constructed such a temple?

Well, this theory exists because the Kailash temple has such an improbable design. The whole idea of scooping out the stone, throwing it away, creating this passage, and having a large piece of rock carved down to a perfect piece of architecture, is mind-blowing, isn’t it? When you build from the ground up, there is scope for mistakes. But when you go in the opposite direction, there is little room for error. This feat was achieved in the 8th century CE.

Everybody had a role to play. The person who commissioned it had the vision. Without that, there would have been no monument. Transferring that vision to an architect is the next step. In the times that we are now talking about, we don’t even know if there was any architect in the way that we understand the term now or if there was a master craftsman who took the brief from the king and scribbled it on the ground before translating that blueprint into stone.

Then there were masons and craftsmen who came from different parts of the country. Each one contributed in their own way. It was a team effort, not an individual act of creativity.

Are there any records of women involved in building the Kailash temple at Ellora?

We do not have detailed records of the workforce. There is a legend about the queen who said that she would fast until she saw the crown or the shikhar of the temple come up. This story mentions a man called Kokasa who was a sthapati – an earlier version of the modern-day architect. He was a craftsman with finely honed skills, a project-oriented mind, and an ability to think of execution in terms of clear timelines. Unfortunately, this is all that we know.

What does the Kailash temple tell us about the politics of the time period it was built in?

We do not know if certain groups of people were excluded from entering, or if it was an inclusive place. What we do know is that it was built by the Rashtrakuta dynasty. They were warriors as well as great patrons of art and architecture. Anything monumental that was built at that time was meant to be a show of power, and that is true of the Kailash temple as well.

You drew from various knowledge systems – history, architecture, mythology, religion – while writing this book. Why was this interdisciplinary approach important for you?

If you go to the Kailash temple, you will notice that it is filled with friezes and sculptures that are based on mythology. There are panels on the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are stories at every corner. Although much of mythology is basically fiction, it plays an important role in my life. I think that children should get exposure to it. I selected a few of the stories that I came across, and decided to weave them into the book. They bring a certain softness to the book. Without them, it would have been just a dull collection of facts and figures.

When you go to the Kailash temple, just take a walk and you will stumble upon stories that you might have heard before in some form in your childhood, or read in an Amar Chitra Katha comic. But the generation that my daughters belong to is unfamiliar with them. I hope that my book fills a gap not only for them but for everyone who feels this kind of disconnect.

Inside the Kailash Temple at Ellora (Shutterstock)
Inside the Kailash Temple at Ellora (Shutterstock)

Apart from your visits to the Kailash temple, what other research went into this book?

I read a lot of books – Roger Vogler’s The Kailas at Ellora, New View of a Misunderstood Masterwork, George Michell’s The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India, Volume 1, MK Dhavalkar’s Ellora, and Percy Brown’s Indian Architecture, Buddhist and Hindu Period.

Tell us about the visual aspect of the book, and the thought process behind it.

Because I am an architect, I really wanted to discuss the architectural plan of the monument with my readers, so sketches had to be a part of this book. From the outset, it was also rather clear to me that photographs and illustrations of good quality would need to accompany the prose that I was writing. We sourced a lot of the images in the book from Wikimedia Commons. Kavita Singh Kale illustrated the book, and Maithili Doshi laid out the pages. I am happy about how all of these elements have come together so that it reads like a picture book.

What are the other monuments that you plan to write about in the near future?

I have been thinking of writing about the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Tabo Monastery in Himachal Pradesh, and the Konark Sun Temple in Odisha. Let’s see which one happens first.

This interview was conducted at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2023.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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