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Historical profile on the rock-cut cave temples of ancient India — Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain sanctuaries built into the earth with stunning complexity.

An influential history of both nomadic merchants and the creation of religious architecture have left a visible imprint in India’s ancient landscape. Even today, many of India’s modern communities are centered around temples that may be many hundreds of years old. In many parts of the country, these temples were cut from the landscape itself, creating iconic rock-cut ancient monuments.

The rock-cut temples of Ancient India are holy landmarks and religious temples carved out of rocks. Excavated to emulate beautiful and detailed architecture typically made of wood, many of the rock-cut temples of Ancient India date back to before the 7th century. These temples are considered monoliths of architecture, some of which are now dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The first rock-cut structures date from the 3rd Century BCE and were Buddhist and Jain caves made for the purpose of meditative prayer. These cave temples can still be found in other states of Bihar and Maharashtra. Over the centuries, this rock-cut architecture was adapted to nearly all of India’s major faiths to create astonishing monuments that still endure today.

What Are the Rock-Cut Temples of Ancient India?

The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra are some of the earliest rock-cut temple complexes in southern India
The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra are some of the earliest rock-cut temple complexes in southern India

Different from the traditional free-standing home and village architecture of ancient India, rock-cut temple architecture was typically reserved for holy landmarks and sculptural architectural feats. Made by cutting large chunks of rock out of the faces of ancient mountains and stone clusters, these temples and structures followed the artistic sculptural subtractive method of cave-making. Rather than building by stacking or adding materials, they were created by utilizing this painstakingly long process that would change the aesthetic qualities of India forever.

Who Built the Rock-Cut Temples of Ancient India?

The dozens of rock-cut monuments throughout India were built over the course of many centuries and cover a wide geographic region. It’s also important to remember that prior to the previous century or two, there was no concept of “India” as a unified state. Instead, dozens of kingdoms and empires vied for power, often in an attempt to exert control over the entire landmass. However, most of these empires were short-lived. 

Due in large part to this, there was no single ruler or even kingdom that built all, or even the majority, of these elaborate rock-cut cave temples. 

Cave Temples of the Mauryan Empire in Bihar

Main article: Cultural Profile: Mauryan Empire, Uniting Ancient India

One of the earliest powers to exert its influence over most of India was the Mauryan Empire. The Mauryan Empire was originally founded by Emperor Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BCE and marked the second Indian ruler between the 2nd and 6th centuries that displayed religious tolerance towards others. Since this dynasty was known to be far more religiously tolerant than previous dynasties, it therefore contributed to the melding of religious temple architectural styles and later, the renovation of previously built ancient Indian temples.

Under Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and his grandson, Dasharatha, both Buddhist and Jain religions were tolerated. Ashoka was the third Emperor of the Mauryan and during his life, Ashoka became a devout and practicing Buddhist. He believed himself to completely understand the concept of dharma and preached it whenever possible to his followers and his colonists. It was because of his faith that he would pledge patronage to many temples and religious monuments in order to gain merit.

Among these monuments were a group of cave temples that are recognized as the earliest known to exist within India: the Barabar and Nagarjuni Cave Temples in Bihar. These two groups of adjacent cave temples are thought to date to the reigns of Ashoka (Barabar) and his grandson, Dasharatha (Nagarjuni) beginning in the 3rd Century BCE

The Early Cave Temples of Maharashtra and the Deccan Plateau

The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra are some of the earliest rock-cut temple complexes in southern India
The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra are some of the earliest rock-cut temple complexes in southern India

The catalyst for the second wave of rock-carving construction was due directly to the persecution of Indian Buddhists. Since they were persecuted and banished under the East Indian Shunga Empire ruled by Hindu Emperor Pushyamitra Shunga, they fled for safety in neighboring kingdoms such as the Andhra Dynasty and Rashtrakuta Dynasty. The Andhra Dynasty, also known as Satavahanas, begrudgingly allowed the Buddhist people to live in the Deccan area of India.

It was there among the somewhat tolerant Andhra Dynasty that the Buddhist and Jain people built the second wave of famous religious caves that are so revered today. These were the first Buddhist and Jain caves called the Karla Caves and Pandavleni Caves. Devoted to monastic life, Buddhist missionaries and refugees years later were drawn to these caves, and have continued pilgrimages to them since their origination.

Cave Temples of the Vakataka Empire

The rise of Mahayana Buddhism after the 2nd century CE brought with it a large amount of building action under the reign of Vakataka King Harisena. The Vakataka Dynasty focused heavily on architectural aspects including:

  • Detailed columns and cornices
  • Extremely intricate sculpture carving

These details, which were traditionally carved into wood, were transitioned to being dug into a strong living rock face upon King Harisena’s orders. With the rock, artists would try to mimic what they were able to create in the softer wood surfaces. 

This resulted in a period of time in which architecture became even more ornamental rather than functional in usage. It was a time of aesthetic experimentation as construction workers, artists, and builders delved into the exploratory process of turning solid stone into usable temples.

While the period of ornamental carving under the Vakataka Dynasty was focused mainly on intricate Buddhist temple-style carvings, the extreme rise of Hinduism toward the start of the sixth century inspired the addition of carvings in the temples that were previously not attempted, including gods, goddesses, and these being interacting with mortals

Along with their revered likenesses, etched ceiling panels and brackets were introduced to the intricate designs of the temples, being placed within the temple walls toward the end of the carving process.

Cave Temples of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty

Many of the incredible rock-cut Hindu temples located across India’s Maharashtra region, were constructed by the Rashtrakuta Dynasty. The many temples, consisting of around 34 caves per location, were said to be built based on the order of Krisha the First, the Rashtrakuta King.

Said to have built the 18 Shiva Temples while actively practicing the Shaiva religion, the rock-cut temples created during this time were home to those individuals worshipping the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist faiths. Since Buddhists, Hindus, and Jain worshippers were all welcome into the Shaiva-built temples, Krishna the First was heralded as an open-minded and tolerable ruler for building the rock-carved temples that still stand today.

Design Elements of Ancient India’s Rock-Cut Temples

Many of the design elements of the different rock-cut temples of ancient India transcend both century and dynasty. While each temple does have its own unique identifying architectural and design-oriented features dependent upon when it was created and what religion was intended to be worshipped within the temple, most of the rock-cut temples do share a few main common design threads.

When building the rock-cut temples throughout ancient India, artisans and carving artists utilized the same design techniques typically used when carving into wood. This was done throughout the centuries of ancient Indian temple building. These design elements were carried into rock-cut temple creation across the entire country, resulting in the look of stone and rock mimicking the malleable textures of timber with a grainy aesthetic.

Another example of the more common design elements found across the rock-cut temples of ancient India include gavakshas, a design feature that originated in prominent Buddhist and Jain temples. Gavakshas, also commonly known in India as chandrashalas, are curved archways or half-circles. These rounded details arched over doorways of buildings, caves, or temple entries, and were made by carving out smaller sections of the solid rock wall to create half-dome sections and little arched pictures.

Rock-Cut Architecture Versus Free Standing Temples

To understand the design elements of ancient India’s monolithic rock-cut architecture, it is essential to first understand the difference between rock-cut temples and free-standing temples. Rock-carved temples are some of the oldest Indian temples in the world. Carved out of solid rock faces and mountain walls, rock-cut temples are made by digging out pieces of the solid rock until the hollowed-out center can be designed and molded into a temple.

Free-standing temples, also known as structural temples, were built using a different method. These temples were made using columns or many big individual blocks in order to piece together a temple.

While the design elements of this temple-building method had some similarities with rock-cut temples, they were essentially put together like giant building blocks rather than carved. Most free-standing temples seen today are much more recently made than rock-cut temples as after centuries, building them was decided to be easier than rock-carving.

The Center Design of Rock-Cut Hindu Temples

In the most essential and sacred portion of the temple, there is a deity worshipped by each ancient Indian religion. This deity, usually represented by a large statue of some kind, is located in the temple’s center. This central ancient Indian temple portion is called the Brahma Padas. The Brahma Padas is created in a circular format and is surrounded by the following other circular Padas, lining the outside of one another:

  • Brahma Padas
  • Devikas Padas
  • Manusha Padas
  • Paisachika Padas

Collectively, most ancient Indian temples contain around 64 different Padas areas toward the center of their architecture. While not every single temple has this same type of layout, most ancient Indian temples and contemporary temples alike have been found to do so.

All rock-cut temples in ancient India share a common thread of worshipping divinities. In these worship-centric temples, depictions of nymphs and goddesses, musicians, and symbols of fertility were carved and depicted to bring good fortune to those who visit the temple. These figures were done in two styles of architecture called:

Pallava: Pallava architecture is a form of art that flourished in the Chola Dynasty in ancient South India. Based on earlier wooden versions, this style is considered the first stone and mortar type of building and contains detailed, life-like drawings and carvings. It was originally categorized into two main phases of building. These phases included the rock cutting phase and the structural design phase.

Chalukya: Chalukya architecture refers to the Chalukya art carved into the walls of temples. The defining characteristics are often red sandstone that either makes up the walls of small sections of temples or is added to create contrast in large temple design. The Chalukya style was also sometimes known as the Badami Chalukya style, named after the Malaprabha river basin. It has more recently become known as Vesara style architecture, depicting verandas, pillars, great halls, columns, and sanctums all built out of large and sleek rocks.

Design Elements of the Different Ancient Indian Caves

The ancient Indian caves, due to their similarities in the intent to worship, all shared common architectural design elements. Though each cave had its own unique architecture that varied in height, shape, and even motif, all of the most famous ancient Indian caves share a sense of height and grandeur, highlighting both religion and art within their walls. From the Ajanta Caves to the Bhaja Buddhist Caves, the common defining features of all of these caves are:

  • A feeling of being tucked into or below the rocks
  • A pathway or stairs leading to the temple entrance
  • An offering plate for visitors to give gifts
  • Archways and chandrashalas or gavakshas
  • Beautifully shined and polished surfaces
  • Covered overhangs
  • Depictions of the rebirth of man
  • Detailed sculptures
  • Intricate sculptures of Buddhist gods and deities
  • Intricate rock and stone spires
  • Large external facade or secure entryway
  • Large square-shaped columns
  • Multiple levels and balcony-like entrances or open windows
  • Rectangular rooms
  • Wood-like imitation carvings 

Commonalities Between Shiva-Worshipping Temples

This central shrine in the Elephanta Caves contains a Shiva-lingam
This central shrine in the Elephanta Caves contains a Shiva-lingam

The largest rock-cut temple in ancient India is the Kailasa temple at Ellora Caves in Maharashtra. The Kailasa temple was initially constructed in honor of Lord Shiva, known as the Hindu god of destruction and rebirth. He is highly revered in both the Hindu pantheon and in temple architecture. Due to the intention of devotion and worship, the Kailasa temple and most other Shiva-worshipping temples exemplify the several design elements in common, including:

  • Extremely detailed architecture
  • Hand carvings
  • Imagery of Mahabharata
  • Imagery of Ramayana
  • Imagery of Shiva
  • Relief panels

Origin and Purpose of the Rock-Cut Temples of Ancient India

While caves have been utilized by humans for rituals longer than recorded history, there is a substantial difference between performing a ritual in naturally occurring caves and actually digging out hundreds of tons of stone to create your own cave for a ritual. The rock-cut temples of ancient India were built out of grand gestures of devotion to their faith and of the desire to worship. Rather than relying on the randomness of natural caves like their ancestors, those who built India’s ancient temples endured to create caves with beauty as much as they did functionality.

To the worshipping residents of India and those who frequented the temple caves, beauty was seen as a tribute to the gods. In the ancient medicinal theories of Ayurveda, beauty and inner health are in alignment with religion. These two things are held of high importance and marked as a way to honor one’s religious spirit. This, along with structural integrity and stability, marked the reason for many rock-cut temples’ intricate and wide column or support bases.

The Origins of Rock-Cut Architecture

Although rock-cut architecture began in India until the 3rd Century BCE, it had already been practiced in the Near East for many centuries before. This included within the longstanding Persian Achaemenid Empire. 

During the period of the Mauryan Empire, there was political upheaval among India’s western neighbors as Alexander the Great moved eastward through Persia. This caused large population migrations into the relatively liberal Mauryan domain, which would have included artisans familiar with techniques, such as rock-cut architecture, that would be introduced to the Indian royalty and priesthoods.

There are research papers that suggest that this was what caused the earliest caves at Barabar to begin construction during the Mauryan reign, and why their designs are relatively simplistic compared to the grand open halls with pillars and arches that would be seen in later eras.

The Purpose of India’s First Rock-Carved Temples

Even though they did require large, open, and functional spaces in which devotees could honor their gods and deities, the builders of these intricate temples, beginning particularly in the second phase, were also concerned with pleasing their gods through intimate art and sculpture. It is from the drawings, sculptures, and rock carvings in the temples that historians and archaeologists today are able to decipher that the temples of ancient India were used for the sole purpose of religious study.

For example, Buddhist missionaries needed their isolated rock-cut caves and shrines to fully lead monastic lifestyles. Though originally solely religion-based, this way of life became rooted in trade and commerce as centuries went by and trade routes were created near the temples.

Legacy of the Rock-Cut Temples of Ancient India

Buddhist monk meditating in the Ajanta Caves
Buddhist monk meditating in the Ajanta Caves

The rock-cut temples of Ancient India have left an everlasting mark on the footprint of its topography. Not only have they changed the way the landscape looks across all of India, but they have also informed the type of contemporary architecture being built in the modern age. Along with their aesthetic legacy, these ancient Indian temples have affected the trajectory of India’s culture throughout the years, influencing architecture, religious worship, and even the invention of building tools.

However, the practice of rock-cut architecture began to fall out of use after the 7th-8th Century CE, being replaced entirely by more traditional freestanding religious structures. For example, the Buddhists who originally created the cave temples now erected a large number of stupas, or mound-shaped commemorative burial areas, in addition to many new monasteries. 

These new monasteries differed from their older rock-cut temples. Rather than having been carved completely from pre-existing rock, they were more often built with the use of columns, which acted as both devotional pillars and major structural supports.

Today, nearly all of the rock-cut temples are longer inhabited. They serve as tourist locations that draw international acclaim and stimulate economic growth in cities throughout India. Along with their visual and societal impacts, India’s ancient rock-cut temples have helped India grow as a country with states boasting rich and interesting heritage, vibrant traditions and festivals, and unique cultural and religious diversity.

A Glimpse into the Ancient Past

While rock-cut Indian temples were originally created for the worship of gods and spiritual practices of Buddhists, Jain, and Hindus (particularly Shiva devotees), they are now utilized as educational spaces as well. While many of these ancient landmarks are still considered important and holy sites by worshippers worldwide, most are also open to tourists or used as platforms for scientific study.

With more examples of rock-cut temples, carvings, and cave architecture than anywhere else in the world, India offers a spectacular door to the past for archeologists and scientists studying ancient civilizations. Through these ancient Indian temples, the world can get a glimpse of the tools that were used, sacred ceremonies held, and even the celebrations by people thousands of years ago.

The Continuation of Ancient Indian Temple Worship

Regardless of their age, the rock-cut temples of ancient India continue to be huge figures within India’s religious communities. From leaving symbolic offerings like sweets, fruits, and tiny figurines to reciting mantras and individual prayers, devotees flock to these temples with stunning regularity. At times, only the head priest, known as the pujaris, is actually allowed to go into the main religious area of the rock-cut temple, worshippers can often give their gifts to him as an extension of devoted presentation.

Rock-Cut Temples Outside of India

Main article: Architecture Profile: Cave Temples and Buddhist Grottoes of Ancient China

During the same centuries when the tradition of rock-cut architecture began to proliferate within India, so too did Indian culture begin to expand outward to the east by way of maritime trade routes through Southeast Asia to China and inland trade routes to China known collectively as the Silk Road.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism began to spread through these maritime trade routes, influencing the earliest state-level cultures in Southeast Asia, such as the Funan, Dvaravati, and Srivijaya to adopt Indian-influenced religion and social structures. This process is known by historians as Indianization.

While both religions found success in the maritime trade routes, it was only Buddhism that seems to have successfully penetrated into Central Asia and China through the overland routes. Kingdoms along the Silk Road adopted Buddhist architecture and even began to implement rock-cut architecture to create China’s famed Buddhist grottoes in the far western reaches of modern Xinjiang and Gansu. 

As these traditions reached the dynastic power centers in China, they were taken up in later centuries and expanded throughout the country. 

Etiquette for Visiting the Rock-Cut Temples

One of the most astonishing things about rock-cut temples in India is that they still exist today. Not only can visitors go to the historic and awe-inspiring temple sites, but they can also step inside the temples themselves. When visiting any religious site in India, whether ancient or contemporary, it is important to respect the following guidelines:

Always accept gifts. If you visit a rock-cut temple site with a priest performing pujas, or special prayers, it is customary for the visitor to take the gifts he offers. These gifts can include sweets like fruits or candy, or even flowers.

Always walk clockwise. Walking clockwise around the center of the temple is an important part of India’s religious customs. Whether in an ancient rock-cut temple or a contemporary free-standing temple, walking clockwise, otherwise known as pradakshina, is meant to afford the visitor peace and silence.

Bow with the proper mudra. Upon entering a temple, the namaste mudra is usually done to honor its ancestry as a place of worship. Simply place your palms together in front of your chest or forehead to complete the namaste mudra.

Dress modestly. Modest dressing is required when entering India’s ancient rock-cut temples. Apart from feet, a majority of the body, including the head, should be covered.

Do not touch. Visitors to temples are expected to act in a modest manner. They are asked not only to dress modestly, but to also observe actions that do not depict sensuality, sexuality, or physical touch in any way. To many holy people, touch is seen as either very personal and private or to be abstained from completely. Keeping one’s hands to themselves whenever possible is the most concrete way to show respect as a visitor in any of India’s many religious sites.

Remember to make an offering. When you see beautiful garlands of marigold flowers and other items at the entrance of the temple, take them to leave as an offering. Leaving an offering is a sign of respect when entering the home of a deity.

Remove your shoes. As a sign of devotional respect, everyone entering the temple must leave their shoes outside. Because of this, rows of shoes can be seen lining the external pavilion in front of many Indian temples.

While most ancient temples abide by the dress codes and codes of conduct listed above, it is important to remember that each rock-cut temple has a different method of operation. While most are open for visitation, there are some with closed sections and others permanently shut due to a lack of structural integrity. Along with these accessibility variations, the dress codes can vary as well. In some modern temples in India, men are required to remove shirts while women are not allowed at all. In some Hindu temples, everyone who enters must wear a sarong tied around their waist.

Notable Examples of Rock-Cut Temples in India

Ajanta Caves
Aurangabad District, Maharashtra, India
GPS: 20.5519° N, 75.7033° E
The Ajanta Caves are a series of 30 rock-cut Buddhist caves built during the 2nd century BCE in the Aurangabad, Maharashtra state of India.

Ellora Caves
30 km North of Aurangabad, India
GPS: 20.0258° N, 75.1780° E
The Ellora Caves, located in the Aurangabad, Maharashtra state of India, are one of the biggest rock-cut Ancient Temple cave series in the world, featuring Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain monuments.

Barabar Caves
Jehanabad District, Bihar, India
GPS: 25.0055° N, 85.0633° E
The Barabar Caves, also known as the Barabar Hill Caves, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 322–185 BCE and located in Barabar, Sultanpur, Bihar, India. They are the oldest rock-cut caves in India.

Elephanta Caves
Gharapuri, Maharashtra, India
GPS:18.9633° N, 72.9315° E
The Hindu Elephanta Caves are located on Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour, Maharashtra, India. They are one of the listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.

Karla Caves
Lonavla, Maharashtra, India
GPS: 18.7833° N, 73.4704° E
The Karla Caves are a complex of Buddhist rock-cut caves built from the 2nd century BCE until the 5th century CE near Lonavala, Maharashtra, India.

Bhaja Buddhist Caves
Bhaja Village, Maharashtra, India
GPS: 18.7284° N, 73.4815° E
Made during the 2nd century, the Bhaja Buddhist Caves are a group of 22 caves along an ancient trade route, located 400 feet above the Bhaja village in Pune, India.

Glossary

Achaemenid Empire
The first Persian Empire that lasted from 550 BC–330 BC, when it was conquered by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great.

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

chaitya
Prayer hall in Dharmic religions, primarily in Buddhism.

gavaksha
A decorative arch placed above the doors of early rock-cut religious buildings that later became a part of more general architecture.

Hinayana Buddhism
“The Lesser Vehicle” branch of Buddhism which draws its teachings from the Pali Canon. This sect is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Also known as Theravada Buddhism or “The “Doctrine of the Elders”.

Hinduism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.

Jainism
Dharmic religion centered on shedding karma to gain release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of the Tirthankaras, most notably Mahavira (599-527 BCE).

Maurya Empire
The first political state (321 – 185 BCE) that attempted to unify India.

rock-cut architecture
A building technique of carving and removing stone from existing rock landscapes to create buildings.

stupa
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

vihara
Buddhist monastery that includes living quarters, study halls, and prayer halls.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

4 Comments

  • A most interesting post. I have visited many of these places, both in India and NW China, all of them awesome, so I was very happy to learn more from your post.

    • Benjamin says:

      The tradition did carry on in other Indianized countries too. Places like Goa Gajah in Bali and Dambulla Caves in Sri Lanka. But even in China, it never seems to have reached the intricacy or scale that it did in India.

  • I am sure a deep study is made to write down this article as the details shared are vivid and brief. I feel it is not easy to understand the architecture of ancient Indian temples and to further discuss about it but interestingly various perspectives are shown in this article

    • Benjamin says:

      Thanks for commenting, Madhuri. Religious architecture is complicated in any culture, but you’re certainly right that religious architecture in India is a vast topic, stemming (in my opinion) from both the diversity of traditions spread throughout the country and the long history.

      Even a single type like the rock-cut temples, which are very unique to India, have such a variety depending on their age, tradition, and location.

What are your thoughts?

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