Inspiring rock-cut cave temples of India - 34 interesting facts

Mahabalipuram open rock-cut temple complex, TN

Above image: The 7th- and 8th-century CE religious monuments in the coastal resort town of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site  on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, about 60 kilometres (37 mi) south of Chennai. This  complex has  400 ancient monuments and Hindu temples, including one of the largest open-air rock reliefs in the world. The group contains several categories of monuments - rock reliefs (particularly bas-reliefs); stone-cut temples monolith structures, etc  built between 695 and 722 by the Pallava rulers; archaeological excavations dated to the 6th century and earlier. Unlike the rock-cut temples of Maharashtra and Odisha, these were built on a rock  terrain close to the Bay of Bengal ...................................

 India, with its proud ancient civilization and old culture is endowed with the largest number of rock-cut structures in the world. Believe it or not, there are more than  1,200  known rock cut structures across India; a whooping number and each one exhibits some kind of artistic and architectural excellence of global importance. They are mostly Buddhist  shrines / monasteries.  Many of these  exquisite stone carvings. are found in places far away from urban areas in the forested mountain terrain. These wonderful stone-carved rock-cut  medieval  structures tell you how good and talented our  ancient people were in the area of  structural engineering, stone carving  and craftsmanship centuries ago. 

 Rock-cut architecture is a unique and distinctive practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock and it requires certain rock out-cropping  that can be carved easily without breaking or chipping and such sites should be at a higher level so that flooding  and excessive raining won't affect them. Indian rock-cut architecture is invariably religious in nature. 

01. In India, caves have long been regarded as places of sanctity, sacred places to be revered. Regardless of nature, whether they are natural or man made, caves  are believed to hold the same sanctity. 

02. Ancient humans used the natural caves for the purpose of shelter to reside  and keep themselves safe from wild animal attacks. Later when they  began to worship  nature etc., caves became shrines.  Some kind of divinity /spirituality was attached to them. Minor alteration of cave took place during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, up to about 6000 BC. In the fringes of Deccan region, the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, a World Heritage Site  and grotto, researchers found  primitive tools and decorative rock paintings because of massive erosion of sandstone outcrops.

03. From them evolved the free-standing religious structures - Hindu temples, etc.  The sanctum or garbagriha  is the innermost part of any Hindu temple. Small in size and poorly-lit,  it retains the cave like ambiance  with the presiding idol in the center. Except through a small hole, at most temples, sunlight does not enter the sanctum. Mostly oil lamps are  used inside the srikovil as it is divinity-personified. 

04. The Barabar caves form the oldest rock-cut architecture dating back to the  3rd century BC. Other early cave temples are found in the Western Deccan region made of Basaltic (volcanic) rock  and many of them are  Buddhist shrines and monasteries, dating between 100 BC and 170 AD. 

05. It is said in  the early stages of cave architecture,  the cave temples were wooden structures that did not last for a long time. The prominent feature that draws our attention is the shrines are adorned with  a wood-like theme in solid rock; Only skilled craftsmen could bring out the look of timber texture, grain, and structure in hard stones. 

06. Among the Indian caves temples, the Karla Caves, the Bhaja Caves, the Bedse Caves, the Kanheri Caves, and some of the Ajanta Caves form the earliest ones.

07. What is so important about these caves centuries ago?   As found in the relics and inscriptions, these caves  temples  had ''religious as well as commercial connotations'',  because Buddhist missionaries  were on the move from one place to another often accompanied by traders on the busy international trading routes through India. As they lacked lodging facilities, these cave temples in the wooded areas served them well for rest and food. 

08. Early rock-cut temples were simple in nature. As time went by more and more wealthy traders and rulers found them useful and   donated funds. Hence later  cave temples had elaborate fa├žade, ornate pillars,  etc as they  were  commissioned by wealthy traders. It shows the prevalence of booming maritime trading in SE Asia.
09. Free standing structural temples  came up in the 5th century, however, the interest in rock-cut temples continued unabated. Equally a large number of rock-cut temple were built side by side by the rulers and others.  The Tiruchirapalli Rockfort temple dedicated to Lord Ganapati, TN is a good example. Shiva temple dedicated to Thayumana Swami in the Rockfort complex is a typical rock cut temple carved out of the huge outcrop.  Pallava rulers built them.  
10. One could see more refinement and sophistication in design and architecture in the later rock-cut temples. The Ellora Caves is a well made structure. The monolithic Kailash Temple, last excavated rock-cut temple, may baffle our imagination. 

11. These cave temples till 12 the century were structural in nature carefully made with well-cut brick like rock stones.  Also found are  a number of rock reliefs, relief sculptures carved into rock faces, outside caves or at other sites 

12. During the  time of the Buddha (c. 563/480 or c. 483/400 BCE) natural caves  were widely used by Buddhist monks,  ex. the Saptaparni Cave, southwest from Rajgir, Bihar.  This site is associated with some parts of Buddha's life. Buddha is believed to have spent much of his time here before  his death - paranirvana  and the monks held a council here after his demise.  

13. The Buddha himself  was instrumental in using the caves - natural or man-made as religious retreats  for meditation and spiritual experience;  he also also used the Indrasala Cave for meditation, Such natural retreats, would last for over a millennium as they are made of tough rocks. Far removed from town and cities, the serene surroundings suited the monks for their religious practices. Since Buddha's time rock-cut temples had become popular. 

14. It was in the  3rd century BCE  Indian rock-cut architecture began to develop with well-defined and sophisticated designs. Ex: the  state-sponsored Barabar caves in Bihar, personally dedicated by Ashoka circa 250 BCE.  

250BCE Barabar caves

15. These artificial caves were known for their technical proficiency in the area of cutting hard rocks to a desirable geometrical fashion and polishing it to give a mirror-like finish. The Sitamarhi Cave, 20 km from Rajgir, 10 km south-west of Hisua (belonging to the Mayura empire) like Barabar  caves, have well polished structures without any inscription, but smaller than the latter. No details are available as there are no inscriptions.  

16. The Jain Son Bhandar Caves in Rajgiri, generally dated to the 2nd-4th centuries CE, are similar to Barabar caves structurally, but the rock polishing was irregular. It is likely they may be older than Barabar caves or of the same period.  

Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, 2nd C BCE. Odisha

17. There occur both natural and artificial caves near  the capital  city of Bhubaneswar, Odisha called  Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, situated on two adjacent hills -  Udayagiri (meaning sunrise hill)  and Khandagiri; the former has 18 caves and the latter 15 caves,  There are  finely and ornately carved caves built during 2nd century BCE. It  is believed. that most of these caves were carved during the reign of King Kharavela and monks used them for residential purpose.

18. In the western India, building of  a spate of religious caves picked up and lasted till 6th century CE and it was after the Barabar caves. But unlike them, polishing of stone was not done, this being due to the nature of rocks - mostly Basaltic rocks that are not as rigid as granite is or it could be due to lack of funds. 

Polished interior of Sudama, Barabar Caves, 3rd C

19, The great caves like  Karla Caves (1st century CE) or the Ajanta Caves (5th century CE)  are devoid of polishing.  As for Mauryan caves,  they  were commissioned by the government with funds, but  later caves lacked  polishing, etc as  they were sponsored by the public. This being due to financial crunch.

20. For purely political reasons, efforts  to build cave temples shifted to western India. The fall of Mauryan empire (2nd Century BCE) and persecution  of Buddhism in the later period- during the reign of Pushyamitra Sunga caused the exodus. 

Gautamiputra vihara at Pandavleni Caves,2nd century CE

21. Religious building activities (Buddhists or Jain) continued in the Deccan region  until the 2nd century CE, culminating with the Karla caves or the Pandavleni caves. These caves  were characteristic of apsidal plan with a stupa in the back for the chaityas, and a rectangular plan with surrounding cells for the viharas. These caves were used for residential as well as for religious purpose.Topography of the Basaltic terrain in the western ghat with flat top suited them well.

Ist C  The Great Chaitya in the Karla Cave, MH

Viharara, Ajantha caves MH

Above image: A monastery, or vihara, with its square hall surrounded by monks' cells. Ajanta Caves, no. 4............

22. Excavated in the 1st and 2nd centuries, Kanheri Caves  and those at Ajanta were  occupied continuously by Buddhist monks from 200 BCE to 650 AD. These caves/monasteries  were used by the traders for rest and relaxation while on travel.  As more funds were made available for cave building by the prosperous trader and royal patrons the  later caves exhibited embellishments and sophistication, etc in terms of artwork, fine carving  and decoration. Donors left their inscriptions  with their name etc.  Greeks -Yavanas made a solid contribution roughly 8% of the contributors. Buddhist ideology  gave importance to mercantile trade activities.

23. Facades were added to the exteriors while the interiors  were designed for  specific uses, such as monasteries (viharas) and worship halls (chaityas).

24. Over a period of time one could see transition in structural designs;  caves began to look like  free-standing buildings and such structures needed good expertise and skilled persons  and craftsmen to complete  them, taking into account, foundation, and structural engineering  and weight of the overlying structure.  The artisans  created wood grains, wooden features in rocks, reviving their roots in wooden structure.

25. The Buddhist and Jain cave Basadi, temples and monasteries are quite interesting and  many with gavakshas (chandrashalas) are the early examples of rock-cut architecture. The religious leaders taken to asceticism, preferred natural caves, etc away from urban areas.   

26. The earliest rock-cut garbagraha -sanctum, similar to free-standing ones, later had an inner circular chamber with pillars to create a circumambulatory path (pradakshina) around the stupa and an outer rectangular hall for the congregation of the devotees.

Ajantha caves  MH  Cave 19, 5th-century

27. Of the caves, the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, a World Heritage Site located in the  Sahyadri mountains attract lots of tourists from India and abroad. They contain  30 amazing rock-cut cave Buddhist temples of beauty  carved into the sheer vertical cliff  of a gorge near a waterfall-fed pool. Located close to the main trade-route, these  
 Buddhist caves spanning  six centuries beginning in the 2nd or 1st century B.C played a crucial role in those days - a period of intense building activity at this site occurred under the Vakataka king Harisena between 460 and 478. They have  a rich variety of decorative sculpture, nicely carved columns and carved reliefs  including exquisitely carved cornices and pilaster- a tough stone work.  

28. What surprises the visitors is how beautifully the skilled artisans crafted living rock to imitate timbered wood ex. lintels, grain and intricate decorative carving in  construction. Such decorative elements were meant for enhancing the beauty of the ambiance, rather than any other purpose.   

Entrance to Jain Badami

29. In the later periods, the Hindu rulers of South India, impressed by the rock-cut temples of western India,  built many cave temples  dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses. A case in point is the Badami Cave Temples at Badami (Karnataka), the early Chalukya's capital, Belonging to the 6th century there are four cave temples (three Hindu temple and one Jain temple) carved out  from the sides of cliffs. They exhibit  attractive architectural elements such as decorative pillars and  brackets and also finely carved sculpture and richly etched ceiling panels. There are are many small Buddhist cave shrines close-by.

30. Rock-cut architecture slowly gave rise to  ornamental  step wells in India, dating from 200–400 CE.Later, the construction of wells at Dhank (550–625 CE) and stepped ponds at Bhinmal (850–950 CE) took place.

Rockfort temple, Tiruchi TN. built by Pallava.

31. The credit goes to the Pallava rulers of south India who dramatically created  monolithic copies of structural temples in the south. As for the extension of rock-cut temples down south, the pallavas did not go  beyond  Arakandanallur, exception being the Tiruchirapalli Rockfort temple complex on the south bank of the Cauvery River. The Rockfort complex has two separate temples dedicated to Ganapati and Shiva; the former is atop the hill. 

32. Pancha Rathas is an example of monolith Indian rock cut architecture dating from the late 7th century located at Mamallapuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is near Chennai city. 

Kailash TempleEllora cave 16

33. The Kailash Temple, or cave 16 as it is known at Ellora Caves located at Maharashtra on the Deccan Plateau, is a huge monolithic temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. and is equally famous as Ajanta caves are. There are 34 caves built at this site, but the other 33 caves are carved into the Deccan Basaltic terrain. The Kailash Temple was ingeniously created  by excavation from top to bottom - 100  feet deep down into the volcanic basaltic cliff rock. Commissioned by ruler Krishna I, it is believed that it took 100 years to finish the work. 

34. For unknown reason, south of the Cauvery, there are no rock-cut temples though good hard rock outcrops  and hills are available