Rock Cut Architecture

Rock Cut Architecture

This article deals with topic titled ‘Rock Cut Architecture .’ This is part of our series on ‘Culture’  . For more articles , you can click here


  • There are around 1500 Rock Cut Architectures in India and most of them religious
  • Built mainly by Indian sculptures,monks and general public
  • Two types of caves (mostly both were present at one site)
Chaitya Prayer Hall for Monks
Vihara Residence /Rest place for Monks

1 . Barabar Caves

  • Oldest example of rock cut caves
  • Located in Barabar Hills,Bihar
  • Caves date back to reign of Ashoka and his son Dasratha
  • Initially built for Ajivika sect. Later for all Buddhists, Jain & Brahmanical traditions

Main caves at Barabar

Lomas Rishi Cave – Known for horse shoe type façade
– It imitate contemporary timber architecture of that time
– Polished from inside is it’s marked feature  
Sudama Cave – Known for bow shaped arch
– This and Lomas Rishi cave are the oldest rock cut caves  
Karan Chaupar – Single rectangular room with polished surfaces
– Contains inscription dating back to  Mauryan era  
Visva Zopri There are two rectangular caves there
Caves at Barabar Hills
Caves at Barabar Hills

2. Kanheri Caves

  • Location- Kanheri, north of Borivali Mumbai within Sanjay Gandhi National Park
  • Early caves excavated in 1st & 2nd century BC
  • Caves continuously occupied by Buddhist monks & inland traders as stop  till 7th century AD
  • Have both Chaityas & Viharas
  • It’s Chaitya is the 2nd largest Chaitya after Karle Caves

Significance of these caves

  • Site provides view of development of Buddhist art for a thousand years from 1st century BC as its proximity to sea & thriving ports ensured continual patronage by mercantile class
  • Kanheri temple presents last expression of early rock cut tradition of western India
  • These are home to colossal Buddha statue and mark the beginning of long tradition of colossal Buddha which became popular in Tibetan & central asia
Kanheri Caves
Kanheri Caves

3. Karle Caves

  • Location – near Lonavala,Maharashtra(between Mumbai & Pune)
  • Shrines developed over two periods
First Phase 2century BC to 2century AD
Second Phase 5century to 10th century AD
  • Caves provided lodging houses to travelling traders thus ensured continued patronage
  • Associated with Mahasamghika sect of Buddhism
  • Largest rock cut Chaitya in India
  • Sculptures include Mithuna and animals such as lions & elephants
  • Roof is given shape like that of wood (hence, giving wooden look to stone cut cave was still prevalent)
Karle Caves
Karle Caves

4. Bhaja Caves

  • Belongs to Hinayana faith
  • It has Wooden ceiling over Chaitya-griha.
  • Stupa has a hole on top, for inserting wooden umbrella.
Bhaja Caves
Bhaja Caves

5. Bedsa Caves

  • Location -Pune
  • Known for chaitya and viharas of 1st century BC
  • Chaitya is partly hidden from profane world. Belief was that one should learn truly only when one made a special effort for that purpose

6. Ajanta Caves

  • Situation : 100 km from Aurangabad in horse shape gorge of Waghora river
  • These caves are carved on a perpendicular cliff. As they are on perpendicular side, there are no courtyards
Perpendicular Cliff 
Situated on Cliff 
Hence, No Courtyard
  • All the three forms of Art are combined in these caves : Architecture, Sculpture, Paintings
  • Were discovered in 19th century (1829)
  • Total 29 caves(according to NCERT) : Made in two phases
    • These all caves are Buddhist in theme
    • 4 Chaityas & 25 Viharas
Satavahana Phase – Built in 2nd century BC
– Patronage of Satavahana Kings
Hinayana phase ie Buddha represented figuratively
– Less figurative sculpture & emphasising on stupa instead  
Vakataka Phase – Period:5th & 6th century AD
– Patronage:Vakataka Kings
Mahayana phase ie Buddha depicted as human
– Human representations of Buddha found in both facades and interior
– Murals present in this period which is great artistic achievement  
  • Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa-Hien & Huen Tsang refer to Ajanta in their accounts
  • 5 Caves belong to Hinayana & 24 to Mahayana
  • Chaitya caves –  earlier phase : Cave Nos. 10 and 9 and  later phase : Cave Nos. 19 & 26. Cave no 19 & 26 are profusely decorated.

Notable paintings and sculptures at  Ajanta

  • Figures in these caves are painted with considerable naturalism and there is no over -stylisation
  • It may also be observed that various skin colours are used in the paintings such as brown, yellowish brown, greenish, yellow ochre, etc. which represent a multicoloured population.
  • Paintings of Cave Nos. 16 and 17 have precise and elegant painterly quality. They do not bear the ponderous volume of the sculptures in the caves.

Cave 1

  • Consists of a hall sided by 14 cell
  • Famous Paintings of Vajrapani and Padmapani situated here (many times asked in UPSC)

Cave 16

  • According to an inscription found here, the excavation of this cave was caused by Varahadeva, the minister of Vakataka king Harishena 
  • Largest and most finest and interesting monastery (vihara ) of all Ajanta caves
  • Consist of Colossal hall ,ornate doors ,beautifully painted galleries ,ornamental pillars. Central hall is surrounded by 14 cells on three sides and sanctum housing buddha image as shown in Pralambapadasana
  • The important painted themes depicted are the conversion of Nanda; Miracle of Sravasti; Maya’s dream; and certain incidents from the life of Buddha. The Jataka stories depicted are Hasti, Maha-ummagga, Maha-sutasoma. 
Paintings in Cave 16

Cave 17

Cave 19

  • It is chaitya & most perfect specimen of buddhist art in India
  • Built during 5th century AD
  • Total 17 pillars in chaitya with single door entry & at centre stands globular buddha
  • Other sculpture Buddha offer begging bowl to his son Rahula

7. Ellora Caves

  • Location :Aurangabad district  in Maharashtra( 100 km from Ajanta )
  • Built by: Rashtrakutas (5th to 12thcentury)
  • Epitome of Indian rock cut architecture and one of World Heritage sites
  • Unlike the Ajanta caves,Ellora cave temples were carved out on the sloping side of the hill. Hence most of the temples have courtyards.
Sloping Side 
Perpendicular Cliff 
Situated on Sloping Side 
Hence, have Courtyards

  • Ellora has even 3 storey  buildings but Ajanta double storeyed only 
  • Was on trade route from Paithan to Ujjain in central India
  • Total : 34 caves  (dominant Hindu caves)
Buddhist 12 (mainly Vajrayana)  1-12
Hindu 17 13-29
Jaina 5 30-34

Demonstrate generous attitude of rulers towards worshipers of all divinities

Important Caves and Temples within Ellora

Carpenters Cave /Vishvakarma Cave at Ellora : Cave no 10

  • Only Chaitya in Ellora rest all are viharas
  • Locally known as Vishwakarma ie “celestial architect” or Sutar ka jhopda ie “carpenter’s hut”
  • Sculptors have tried to give wooden look to stones
  • It is cave no 10 and most famous Buddhist cave at Ellora
  • Chaitya hall has stupa on the face of which is a colossal Budha – 3.30 m high & seated in Vyakhyana mudra
Budba wyakhya0ö 
Stupa with 
Budha on it

Kailasnath Temple : Cave no 16

  • Vast multi-storey structure carved inside and outside 
  • Carved out of single rock
  • Built by Rashtrakuta king -Krishna I in 8th century AD
  • Remarkable example of Dravidian Architecture
  • Vertical excavation- carvers started at the top of original rock and excavated downward.
Vertical Excavation 
(starting with single rock)
  • It has images of deities ,mithunas and other figures.
  • Grand sculpture of Ravanna attempting to lift Mt.Kailasa ,abode of Lord Shiva with full might is landmark in Indian art
Shiva & 
Ravana attempting to 
lift Mt Kailasa

Dashavatara Cave : Cave no 15

  • Began as Buddhist cave
  • Closely related to Cave 12
  • Shows Vishnu in his 10 Avatars

Indra Sabha (Jaina) : Cave no 32

  • There are Five Jain caves at Ellora
  • Belonging to Digambara sect

Notable ones are:

  • Chhota Kailash
  • Indra sabha
  • Jaganatha sabha

Out of them , Indra sabha is two storeyed cave with one more monolithic shrine in its court

Two Storeyed

8. Udaigiri Caves

  • In Vidisha  (there are two Udaigiri Caves, other are Jain Caves in Odisha)
  • Developed during reign of Guptas
  • Here all the caves (except for one Jaina cave) depict Hindu deities although most of the sculptures are carved outside the caves. These include Four armed standing Vishnu (Cave 6) , Kumara (Cave 3), an eka-mukha linga (Cave 4), pratiharas /Doorkeepers (Cave 6) & Durga Mahishasuramardini( Cave 4,6) .
  • A particularly powerful relief shows Vishnu in his boar incarnation rescuing the earth from waters

9. Elephanta Caves

  • Built under the patronage of Vakataka
  • Situated at Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour (named so by Portuguese due to presence of Elephants)
  • It has two group of caves
    • First Group : 5 Hindu Caves
    • Second Group : 2 Hindu Caves
  • Hindu caves are dedicated to Shiva . Central Attraction here is 20 foot statue of 3 headed Shiva . Three heads represent
    • Aghori : Aggressive form
    • Ardhanarishwara  : Half man and half woman
    • Mahayogi : Meditative Aspect

Caves in Eastern Ghats – Udayagiri & Khandagiri

  • Udayagiri & Khandagiri hills  in Puri District of Orissa 6 km from Bhubaneswar & not far from site of Shishupal Garh
  • One of the oldest Jaina rock cut caves are present here
  • Sandstone present in these caves are easy to excavate but not very suitable for intricate carving . Stone of these caves are brittle & suffered lot of weathering
  • Hathigumpa inscription , carved over an overhanging rock in front of Cave 14 connects it with Mahameghavahana or Chedi Dynasty of Kalinga dated 1st century BC . This dynasty  extended patronage to Jainism & hills continued to be occupied by Jaina Ascetics with a few breaks right upto present date
Udaigiri-Khandagiri caves near Bhubaneswar 
Details of the veranda, Udaigiri-Khandagiri

Differences with Buddhist Caves in Western Ghats

  • No congregation hall or rock cut shrines present here (in later period although some of the cells were enlarged to make shrines)
  • Tiny cells graphically represent hard ascetic regimen of monks who lived here . With few exceptions , they were not high enough to permit man to stand up
  • Interior of cell was stark & plain but outer brackets sometimes had carved ornamentation
  • Generally single storeyed  . Only one is double storeyed ie Ranigumpha (Queens cave) . Ranigumpa is largest & best preserved

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