Authored by Rohit Agarwal
Rock cut architecture has been a major part of the history and culture of India. From temples and caves to living spaces cut into the hillside, Indian rock cut architecture is more diverse and found in greater abundance than anywhere else in the world.
The practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock, there are more than 1,500 structures excavated in India today, and most of them still stand strong. These surviving examples represent the architectural excellence of ancient eras, and the evolution of the populous in India can be studied in amazing detail.
Most are religious in nature, and the aesthetic appeal and the sheer aura of these structures unravel the gigantic feats accomplished by the human mind even during an era where technology was negligible.
Some prominent rock-cut structures of ancient India are Chaityas, Viharas, temples etc. Some of the most spectacular examples of these rock cut temples are listed as follows below.
8 Marvelous Rock Cut Structures in India
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Located in the Jehanabad dirstrict of Bihar, Barabar caves are by far the oldest rock cut caves found in the Indian subcontinent.
The chronology of these caves is contemporary with the Maurya Empire which was ruled by King Asoka. The caves are inscribed with what is believed to be Asokan scripture along with several Buddhist and Hindu writings.
There are four primary caves in the Barabar hill and three in the nearby Nagarjuni hill. The caves in Barabar, namely Lomas Rishi, Karan Chaupar, Visva Zopri and Sudama are carved entirely out of single rocks of granite. Each cave consists of two chambers on the inside which are polished to a lustrous finish. The caves are dark and resonate sound in a deep harrowing echo throughout the cave walls.
The thirty rock-cut caves of Ajanta which date back to 100 BCE are the finest examples of Indian art through the ages. Located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, Ajanta caves have drawn many archeologists and tourists alike.
The caves are presumed to be a part of Buddhist teachings and are abundant in numbers. Several excerpts and engravings from the Jataka Tales can be observed on the walls of these caves.
A major section of the Ajanta Caves is believed to have been built during the reign of the Satavahana dynasty between 230 BCE to 220 CE. The caves are believed to have been a center for learning while several caves were allocated as living quarters for residence. In the year 1983, Ajanta caves were declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Ellora Caves are situated at a distance of 100 Kilometers from Ajanta Caves and 29 Kilometers from the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Other names for Elora are Verul and Elapura as described in the Rashtrakuta Kannada literature.
These caves located on the Charanandri hills were cut out of single rock formations in the form of temples of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths between the 6th and 9th centuries under the rule of Chalukya, Kalachuri and Rashtrakuta dynasties.
Some of the most revered inscriptions found in the caves are those of the Rashtrakuta Dantidurga which provide a detailed account of the victories and conquests of the Rashtrakuta dynasty.
Badami Cave Temples
Constructed in the 6th century, Badami Cave Temples are located in the town of Bagalkot, located in the northern part of Karnataka. The name Badami comes from the soft form of sandstone called Badami, from which these caves were carved out.
The cave is located in the district which was known to be the capital of the Chalukya dynasty. The construction of these caves is reminiscent of the Dravidian style of architecture and was the most abundantly used style by the Chalukyas.
The caves depict Hindu gods in their various forms carved into rock faces. The most prominent of these carvings is that of Shiva as Natraja and Vishnu as Varaha rescuing mother earth.
Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves
Udayagiri and Khandagiri are two groups of rock cut caves located in Bhubaneswar in Odisha, These caves have a deep religious as well as archeological importance. There are around 117 caves in the region discovered yet.
The caves in the Hathigumpha cluster and Ganeshgumpha possess some of the finest artistic carvings that are detailed to the point. The figures of graceful women, athletes, elephants and birds can be observed carved on the walls of these caves along with inscriptions dating far back to the 2nd century BCE written by Raja Kharavela, the emperor of Kalinga.
The Undavalli Caves serve as one of the most interesting remains of the Vishvakarma Sthapthis. The caves were built in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh on a hillside. Each of the carved structures was shaped by cutting solid monoliths of sandstone during the 4th and 5th century A.D.
These caves serve as some of the earliest examples of the Gupta architecture with walls of the caves carved artistically by adept craftsmen of that period.
Some of the inscriptions and carvings are associated with the Jain Empire from 420 AD to 620 AD. However, the most prominent structure found in the caves is a four storey statue of Vishnu in a reclining position which is sculpted out of a single large block of Granite stone.
Junagadh Buddhist Cave Groups
Located in the Junagadh district of Gujrat, the Junagadh Buddhist cave groups were a group of rock cut caves that were a vibrant example of art during the Satavahana regime. In the advent of 1st to 2nd century AD, a collection 13 caves, known as Bava Pyara Caves were carved into three floors as prime examples of Buddhist architecture.
The Uperkot Caves were made in the 2nd and 3rd century AD in a combined architectural style of Satavahana and Graeco-Scythian. The Uperkot Caves consist of large columns and water tanks that are highlighted by intricately designed entry gates.
Additionally, there is a 300 feet canal around the caves with a crocodile population inside it.
The Bagh Caves consists of nine rock cut mega structures that are located in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. These caves are unique in their existence as they display an array of ancient paintings perfected by master artists.
The caves were carved out on the face of a sandstone hill and five of these caves are standing till the present day. Many of the paintings were excavated and carefully preserved in Museums to avoid damage or fading.
The most prominent of these caves is undisputedly cave number 4, also known as the Rang Mahal or the Palace of colors.
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Photo credits: Featured by Jorge Láscar. Pinterest image with monk praying by Anil Chudasama. Lomas Rishi Cave at Barabar by Photo Dharma. Ajanta Caves Sumeet Jain & Jorge Láscar. Ellora Caves by Arian Zwegers. Badami Cave Temples by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra & Andrea Kirkby. Udayagiri Caves by Bernard Gagnon. Undavalli Caves by Durgarao Vuddanti.