Cave and Rock-Cut Architecture Found in India!
Before the Gupta period the chief architectural remains, other than stupas and their surrounding gateways and railings, are artificial caves, excavated for religious purposes.
Early cave specimens were excavated on wooden models—standardised religious meeting places consisting of thatched huts.
The early caves—two at Barabar (near Gaya) and Nagarjuni Hills are quite unadorned. The inner walls of the caves are finely polished, no doubt by workmen of the school responsible for the polish of the Ashokan pillars.
Later cave temples and monasteries are to be found in many parts of India, but it was in the Western Deccan, under the Satavahana rulers and their successors, that the largest and most famous artificial caves were excavated.
The earliest rock-cut caves in India are attributed to Ashoka (273-232 BC) and his grandson Dasaratha. Eventually this rock- cut architecture developed into a powerful and popular architectural style and gave the country nearly 1,200 excavations which are scattered in many parts.
This architecture had three definite phases: the earliest dating from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD, the second from the 5th to the 7th century and the last from the 7th to the 10th century.
These developments took place primarily in the Western Ghats and only secondarily in other parts of the country. The rock architecture was suited to India, for the country had plenty of Rocky Mountains, and structures excavated in stone were the most durable.
The early Buddhist architecture covers the period from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The first phase of excavations in Western India was related exclusively to early Buddhism, which meant the worship of the Buddha represented symbolically.
The excavations took the shape of (i) the chaitya or prayer hall and (ii) the vihara or monastery. Both initiated in rock the structural forms practised in less permanent materials like wood.
The characteristic features of these early temples were two establishments, each self-contained and consisting of a prayer hall (chaitya) and a monastery (vihara) which contained accommodation for monks. The square central hall was approached through a verandah or portico, and doorways led into cells for members of the brotherhood. Examples of the early Buddhist architecture can still be seen at Karla, Kanheri, Nasik, Bhaja and Bedsa and at Ajanta.
The second phase began in the 5th century AD. This phase was characterised by the virtual elimination of timber and by the introduction of the image of the Buddha as a dominant feature of the architectural design. Nevertheless, the plan of the excavations, particularly of the chaitya, remained essentially the same as that of similar constructions of the earlier phase. The statue of the Buddha sometimes assumed gigantic proportions.
The vihara also underwent a slight change: the inner cells, formerly inhabited by the monks alone, now housed the image of the Buddha as well. Buddhists of the Mahayana School followed the broad architectural principles of their predecessors, the Hinayana Buddhists, and their architecture consisted, as hitherto, of the chaitya and the vihara.
Later, the Hindus and Jains extended the Buddhist architectural tradition but with certain modifications, designed to suit their own rituals. The dominant features of the Dravidian rock-cut style are the mandapa and the ratha. The mandapa is an open pavillion excavated out of a rock. It takes the form of a simple columned hall with two or more cells (compartments for the deity) in the back wall. The ratha (literally chariot) is a monolithic shrine carved out of a single rock.
These caves near Mumbai (in Thane district of Maharashtra) belong to the Hinayana phase of Buddhist architecture, while the 5th century image of the Buddha in the chaitya hall suggests later additions. Altogether there are more than 100 caves here. Their main features are flights of connecting steps and stone seats provided for the monks to rest on. Although many of the caves are not of great artistic merit, they have some archaeological interest inasmuch as they cover the period from the 2nd to the 9th century AD.
These caves are within the island of Salsette which comprised the original ‘Bombay’ island. Although greatly defaced, they are of interest as they belong to the last stages of the Mahayana Buddhist architecture. Brahmanical influence is evident for the shrines are isolated and stand in the centre of a cruciform hall with more than one entrance. The caves belong to the second half of the 8th century.
These caves are of particular interest as they are probably the only Brahmanical caves to be converted into a Christian shrine. Even today, there is a Christian orphanage, the ruins of an old Portuguese church, and a Franciscan monastery nearby. The three caves date from the 8th century.
Karle, Bhaja and Bedsa Caves:
The Karle Caves on Banaghata Hills (near Mumbai) belong to the Hinayana period of Buddhist architecture. The main feature of this group is the chaitya which is amongst the largest and the best-preserved in India. Its entrance, which is extremely imposing, is a kind of massive vestibule to the arcaded screen in its rear.
The two giant pillars have a group of lions supporting a large wheel and though partly covered by debris they must once have been about 50 feet in height. They are somewhat peculiar, being detached from the main structure.
The decorative railings and supporting elephants (half life-size and originally with ivory tusks) at each end indicate an advanced stage of ornamental work in which symbols were used repeatedly and alternately. The interior or the chaitya hall consists of a colonnade, vaulting and sun-window.
The sun-window, a wonderful arrangement for the diffusion of light, deflected the rays of the sun in such a manner that soft light fell in the stupa and the screen, half-tones on the pillars and gloom in the aisles.
The 18 Bhaja caves (near Pune) are supposed to have been built for Buddhist nuns. They were excavated in the 2nd century BC. Owing to the ravages of time, the face and entrance of the main cave (No. 12) are now open and provide us with an unrestricted view of the hall.
The pillars are sloping, but the stilted vault is a fine piece of work. The stupa is very plain and in two parts, probably relieved, when originally built, by frescoes of which there is now little trace. The last cave to the south has some fine sculpture, including a prince seated on an elephant, a prince in a chariot and three armed figures. The ‘dancing couple’ is a justly famous piece of sculpture.
The caves at Bedsa (near Pune) belong to a slightly later period than those at Bhaja. The chaitya resembles the great hall at Karle but is smaller. It has four pillars with carvings of horses, bulls and elephants mounted by male and female riders. Its ribbed roof is supported by 26 octagonal pillars, 10 feet high.
To the south at Sittanavasal, on the top of the hill there is a natural shelter known as Eladipattam (also Ezhadippattam). It served as a Jain shelter since 1st century BC. Eladipattam is supposed to have got its name from seven holes cut in the rock—they serve as steps to ascend the shelter.
Inside this cave there are seventeen polished stone berths aligned into rows, each with a raised part—most likely these were beds for Jains with ‘stone pillows’. The largest of these ascetic beds contains inscription in Brahmi script, in Tamil language from 1st century BC. Some more inscriptions in Tamil language are from much later time—8th century AD.
These inscriptions name mendicants-monks who, most likely, spent their lives in isolation in this hill. Eladipattam served as a site for very severe penance: kayotsarga (meditation in standing posture until salvation) and sallekhana (fasting until death).
At Udayagiri, 20 rock-cut chambers were excavated during the Gupta period, two of which bear inscriptions from the reign of Chandra Gupta II. These caves are vital documents since they constitute the earliest intact body of Hindu art in India, and demonstrate that by the early fifth century, many Hindu iconographic formulas were already well established. One of the most important caves at Udayagiri is Cave 5, the Varaha Cave (or niche). Its main feature is a colossal rock-cut relief of the boar-incarnation (Varaha) of God Vishnu rescuing the Earth Goddess from chaos in the presence of adoring gods and saints.
The massive dynamism of the Varaha-god rises into gigantic appearance and is free from any restraint. The power of the Indian artist reaches its peak in the well balanced composition of forceful energy combined with cosmic majesty, working for good against chaos and destruction.
To the south-west of Nasik, on the main Mumbai road, is an important group of 23 Buddhist caves belonging to the Hinayana period of Buddhist architecture, and dating back to the 1st century AD. When the Buddha was not represented anthropomorphically, his spiritual presence was denoted by a throne, a footstool, or footprints. This group of caves, called Pandu Lena, is on the easternmost side of the three conical peaks at the extreme and of the Trimbak range of hills. They consist of three large halls and one fine chapel.
Uparkot (meaning ‘citadel’) is an ancient fortress which was the scene of historic sieges between the middle of the 14th and end of the 16th century AD. Its entrance, in the form of an archway, is a fine specimen of the Hindu torana.
Uparkot has many interesting Buddhist caves and was evidently the site of a Buddhist monastery in ancient times. Some of the caves, apparently, were two or three storeys high. Belonging to about AD 300, their outstanding features are the halls, connected by winding staircases. In the upper chamber is a small refractory and a tank surrounded by a corridor, all supported by six richly carved columns indicative of fine craftsmanship.
In Bagh, Madhya Pradesh, there are nine sandstone Buddhist caves with beautiful frescoes and sculptured stonework. A tentative dating assigns them to 6th century AD but they may have predated the Ajanta frescoes.
The Undavalli caves near Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh) are 7th century Hindu cave temples cut into five tiers along the slope of a back granite hill. The main attraction is a reclining statue of Vishnu, sculpted from a single block of granite. The Buddha is given pride of place.
Caves On the island of Elephant off the Mumbai harbour are the Elephant caves of the 8th century AD. The islands derive their name from the giant carving of an elephant which used to stand at the old landing stage.
The Ganesh Gumpha is one of the earliest examples of the Brahmanical temple and has been excavated in a rocky terrace, the outside consisting of a columned verandah, and approached by steps flanked by sculptured elephants.
At each end of the facade is a pilaster (square pillar projecting from a wall) carved in the shape of a dvarapala (door-keeper) with a huge spear. The masterpiece is a three-faced image (Trimurti) representing the Maheswara aspect of Shiva. The left face presents the fierce male aspect of Shiva and the face on the right the gentle, feminine qualities of his all-transcending nature.
The other view is that the Trimurti represents Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer). Other interesting sculptures in the cave show the marriage of Shiva with Parvati; Bhairava; Shiva in the tandava dance; Ravana, the demon king shaking Kailasa; Ardhanariswara— ‘the Lord who is both male and female’.