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.
I love your post – and I have learned something new from it! Although I had to know more about the history of India to truly appreciate the stories behind each cave. I supposed that’s the upside of traveling as it would be much better to see these work in person. :)
So glad you enjoyed the post Kenny! Glad we could introduce you to some lesser known parts of India through Rohit’s experience.
Definitely more amazing to experience in person – hope you have the chance to visit India soon!
Amazing! I love these kinds of structures. They make you think about skills, imagination and hard work of people who lived long time ago.
Don’t they! I find it so fascinating to think that these structures were accomplished without the modern advances we have in technology today. I think ancient civilizations were much more advanced than we give them credit for.
I have always wanted to visit Petra to see the stone cut structures. I think I will now look into these types of structures in India.
Petra is super high on my list too! But I had no idea either of just how many of the same amazing structures were located in India until Rohit reached out with this guest post. Can’t wait to visit as many as possible now :)
I like rock-cut buildings. As another commenter alluded to, Petra is probably the most famous example anywhere, but these are quite nice. I’ve actually been to a site in India, which contains several rock-cut Hindu temples that are carved into caves, which isn’t mentioned in this post: Elephanta Island, a ferry ride away from Mumbai. I wonder what the author’s impression of that site is.
Thanks for the recommendation on Elephanta Island Harvey – I’ll have to do some research on that one too!
All the 8 caves mentioned above is really Spectacular.
Carving done from a single rock that is truly amazing, what an art it is.
I guess we get to see a lot of ancient things to see in India.
Keep Posting :-)
Glad you enjoyed the post Saania! It truly is spectacular to think that these beautiful buildings and caves have all been carved from the one rock. A lot to see and do for sure!
Looking at you photos, I admit I have an eyegasm watching at Ajanta Caves and after I`ve googled them I feel like I should put them on my map as well.
Badami Cave Temples also have a special charm that makes them appealing! but no wonder since it had been built in 6th century – looks so well preserved.
I was distracted by the many amazing photos of Ajanta Caves too! It’s definitely on my list after having published Rohit’s guest post! It really is quite exceptional just how well preserved these are for being ancient sites.
I never associated India with caves. Intricate temples and palaces – yes; caves – mmm, not so much. Talking about baseless stereotypes, right? These are amazing structures. It’s hard to grasp an astonishing amount of work to carve out these masterpieces. I saw some much smaller underground structures in Cyprus and Crimea years ago. They were just 1 or 2 stories, and I thought they were impressive. But they look like dwarfs comparison to a 4 story statue of Vishnu carved out of a single stone. Also, granite is much harder to work with the limestone. Thank you for the great post – I learned something new today :).
So glad you enjoyed the post Elena – honestly, I had never really associated India with rock cut caves either until Rohit reached out with this guest post.
It’s blown my mind how much talent and skill it would have taken to create such masterpieces without the modern technology we have today. I think that ancient civilizations were probably far more advanced than we give them credit for!
Wow, I want to go to all of these when we visit India! The Ellora Caves look most intriguing to me, although I wouldn’t mind seeing them all! Thanks for sharing some beautiful places to add to my bucket list!
You could definitely create a whole bucketlist just from these rock cut structures! Hope you do have the chance to include some in your itinerary when you visit India :)
Happy travels Megan!
Isn’t it incredible that most people never get to see the completion of what they started as these take more than one lifetime to complete. They are stunning and intricate. Thanks for the info.
Absolutely Tonya – I was thinking the same thing today actually when watching a piece on the travel channel about the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – different vein to India – but it’s the Gaudí masterpiece which began construction in 1882 and is scheduled to finish in 2026.
They plan to finish it on the 100th anniversary of his death. Sad that so much imagination, creativity and work goes in and they don’t get to see the finished project.
I’m so sad to have missed the Ajanta & Ellora caves! But I did see some other amazing stone carvings elsewhere in India. :)
Sounds like a great reason to plan a return trip :D
Wow — all of these structures look amazing! I think the Ajanta Caves are my favorite! I really want to visit India someday! :) Thanks for sharing this with us!
Ajanta Caves are my favorite too! Hope we can both get there someday soon!
Those are simply marvelous! This is the type of stuff people should go see. I never knew India had these.
Makes me question those “naturally-formed” rock formations I’ve seen in Thailand though.
Aren’t they just! I absolutely agree that everyone should go and see. I’ll have to Google some of those formations you’re talking about in Thailand :)
Wow, these places in India look great. I never been to India and I would love to go to Varanasi, but these caves seem worth a visit.
Hope you have the chance to visit India soon :) The caves are definitely worth a visit, and a reason to travel to India in their own right!
A viewing platform across the river affords an excellent view of the entire Ajanta site. The natural beauty of the area makes it clear why the monks chose the site for their spiritual pursuits.
Thanks for the tip Perviz! I can’t wait to travel myself, hopefully soon :)
I love how unique this post is! I have a family of 5 and we are about to embark on our world travel adventure. I hate to say, but so far I have excluded India from the itinerary. After so many reviews from other travelers about the poor hygiene and high likelihood of falling ill, it has not been a chance I’ve wanted to take. With that said, your article has me wanting to visit just a little more. Now I may have another reason to go outside of the Taj Mahal. During your travels, did you have any problems with food poisoning?
Thanks Kalyn, so glad you enjoyed the post :) This is a guest post, so I haven’t personally made it to India yet myself; even though I’ve heard the mixed reviews too, it’s still firmly a place I want to visit, because the diversity of history, culture, and architecture is unlike anywhere else in the world.
My parents visited India last year, and my father did get food poisoning for a couple of days, though my mother was totally fine. I hate to say it but I think it’s one of those things you have to decide if you want to take the risk with. Personally I would say go for it, but make sure you’re set with perhaps a gastro kit and some medication before-hand. Also, perhaps give yourself the flexibility of extra travel days while there / at the end of your time in India, just in case.
I hope that helps! Wishing you an amazing time on your tour – if you do decide to take in India, let us know what you think :)
Thanks Meg for the response! So far it’s been one of those places that I want to come to when the kids are a bit older. When we visit I’ll definitely give you an update :) Also, if you are still accepting guest posts, I’d be very interested in posting for you. Here is a recent article posted on my blog :) https://rebelhearttravel.com/15-things-to-do-raleigh/
Sounds great – sure, shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to hear your ideas for a guest post :)
There are many more…but still there stands on top out of less information on others.
Absolutely, I would love to get there at some stage to explore the many undiscovered and unknown sites :)
Very surprising that you have not mentioned the Elephanta caves near Mumbai
Thanks for the tip Melwyn, we’ll have to do some research so we can soon make an update :)