Sunday, 1 January 2012

Indian Rock-cut Architecture

Indian Rock-cut Architecture

Rock-cut architecture is the practice of creating a structure, by carving out of the solid natural rock. Indian rock-cut architecture is all over the country, and is varied in nature. It is mostly religious in nature. It occupies a very important place in the history of Indian Architecture. Rock-cut architecture differs from ‘structural architecture’ in many different ways. Firstly, the art form is more of sculptural than architectural in the sense, a solid body of material (rock) is taken, the final product visualized and cutting/carving starts. The rock that is not part of the structure is removed until the only rock left is the architectural elements of the excavated exterior. Secondly, the mason is not overtly concerned with spans, forces, beams, columns, and all other architectural features – these can be carved, but are seldom playing any structural role. In India, caves have long been regarded as places of sanctity. Existing caves that were enlarged, or entirely man-made, hold the same sanctity as natural caves.

The ascetic life-style of early Buddhism and Jainism was to live a life away from the cities, in natural caves and grottoes in the hillside. In a circle of two hundred miles around modern Nasik, the rugged hills of Western Ghats were naturally suited to the creation of living space in the hillside, with steep cliffs providing an ideal surface for carving in.

The earliest cave-temples include Bhaja Caves, the Karla Caves, the Bedse Caves, the Kanheri Caves and some of the Ajanta Caves.

Although freestanding structural temples were being built by 5th century, rock-cut cave temples continued to be built in parallel. Subsequently, rock-cut cave architecture became more sophisticated as in the Ellora caves, culminating ultimately the monolithic Kailashnath Temple. However, after this, rock-cut architecture became almost structural in nature, made from rocks cut into bricks, and built as freestanding structures. Kailashnath Temple of Ellora was the last spectacular rock-cut executed temple.

Earliest Caves (around 6,000 BCE)
The earliest caves employed by humans were natural caves used by local inhabitant for a variety of purposes, such as shrines and shelters. The early caves included overhanging rock decorated with rock-cut art, and the use of natural caves during the Mesolithic period (6,000 BCE). The rock-shelters of Bhimbetka, a World Heritage Site, are on the Deccan Plateau, where deep erosion has left huge sandstone outcrops. The many caves found there contain primitive tools and decorative rock paintings that reflect the ancient tradition of human interaction with their environment, an interaction that continues to this day.

Buddhist Caves
The Buddhist monks naturally moved to caves for use, since cave temples and abodes was in accord with their religious ideas of asceticism and the monastic life. The Western Ghat topography with its flat-topped basalt hills, deep ravines and sharp cliffs, was suited to their natural inclination. The earliest of the Kanheri caves were excavated in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE, as were those at Ajanta, which were occupied continuously by the Buddhist monks from 200 BCE to 650 CE. Since the Buddhist ideology encouraged identification with trade, monasteries became stopovers for inland traders, and provided lodging houses that were usually located near trade routes (even Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udaygiri in Odisha). As their mercantile and royal endowment grew, cave interiors became more elaborate with interior walls decorated with paintings and reliefs, and intricate carvings. Facades were added to these exteriors as the interiors became designated for the specific uses as monasteries/residence of the monks (viharas), and congregational worship halls (chaityas). Over the centuries, simple caves began to resemble three-dimensional buildings, needing to be formally designed and required highly skilled artisans to execute. These artisans had not forgotten their timber roots, and imitated the nuances of wooden structure and wood grain in working with stone.

Early examples of rock-cut architecture are the Buddhist and Jain cave temples, monasteries, many with chandrasalas. The aesthetic nature of these religions inclined their followers to live in natural caves, and grottos in the hillsides, away from the cities, and these became enhanced and embellished over time. Although many temples, monasteries, and stupas had been destroyed, by contrast, the cave-temples are very well-preserved, since they are less-visible, therefore less vulnerable to vandalism as well as made of more durable material than wood and masonry. There are around 1,200 cave temples still in existence, most of which are Buddhist. The residence of monks were called viharas, and the congregational prayer-halls or shrines as chaityas. The earliest rock-cut garbhagrha, similar to free-standing ones later, had an inner circular chamber with pillars, to create a circumbulatory path (pradakshina) around the stupa, and an outer rectangular hall for congregation of the devotees.

Ajanta Caves – (2nd century BCE – 7th century CE)
The Ajanta caves in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, a World Heritage site, are 30 rock-cut cave Buddhist temples carved into the sheer vertical side of a gorge near a waterfall-fed pool located in the hills of the Sahyadri mountains. Like all the locations of Buddhist caves, this one is located near main trade-routes, and spans six centuries beginning in the 2nd or 1st century BCE to 650 CE. A period of intense building activities at this site occurred under the Vakataka King Harisena between 460-478 CE. A profuse variety of decorative sculpture, intricately carved columns, and carved reliefs are found, including exquisitely carved cornices and pilaster. Skilled artisans constructed living rock, imitating timber texture, grain, and structure. Architectural elements such as decorative carvings were ornamental, and not functional in the classic sense. Ajanta Caves were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Ajanta Caves
( Photo by Author)

Facade of Cave-19
( Photo by Author)
Ajanta Cave - 7
(Photo by Author)

Ellora Caves (8th century CE)
A rock-cut temple is carved from a large rock, and excavated and cut to imitate a wooden or masonry temple, with wall decorations, and works of art. The finest example of this type is the Kailashnath Temple at Ellora. The Kailashnath Temple, or Cave 16 as it is known at Ellora Caves, is located at Maharashtra on the Deccan Plateau, is a huge monolithic temple dedicated to Lord Siva. It is famous for the fact that, it was excavated from the top down, rather than by the usual practice of carving into the scarp of a hillside. The Temple was created through a single, huge top-down excavation 100 feet down into volcanic basaltic cliff rock. It was commissioned in 8th century by King Krshna I, and took more than 100 years (?) to complete. There are 34 caves built at Ellora, but the other 33 caves, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain, were carved into the side of the plateau rock. The effect of Kailashnath Temple is that of a freestanding temple surrounded by smaller cave-shrines carved out of the same black rock. The Temple is carved with figures of gods and goddesses from Puranas, along with mystical beings such as heavenly nymphs (apsaras) and musicians (gandharvas) and figures of good fortune and fertility (mithuna). Ellora Caves were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Ellora - Hindu Caves
Kailashnath Temple - Cave 16
(Photo by Author)

Ellora - Jaina Caves
Chhota Kailash - Cave 30
(Photo by Author)

Ellora - Buddhist Caves
Buddha Images in a row - Cave 12
(Photo by Author)

Badami Caves - Early Chalukya Capital (6th century CE)
Another examples of cave temple architecture are the Badami Cave Temples, the early Chalukya capital, carved out in the 6th century CE. There are four cave temples hewn from the sides of the cliffs, three Hindu and one Jain that contain carved architectural elements such as decorative pillars and brackets as well as finely carved sculpture and richly etched ceiling panels. Nearby are many small Buddhist cave-shrines.

Mahabalipuram – the Pallavas (600-900 CE)
The next notable development in rock-cut architecture occurs much later chronologically (600-900 CE), as well as much further south, at Mahabalipuram, under the reign of the Pallavas. They were the founders of what later came to be known as the ‘Dravidian Style’, which became the style prevalent all over South India during the medieval times.

The Pallava architects started the carving of rock for the creation of monolithic copies of structural temples. One of the feature of the rock-cut cave-temple distribution until the time of the early Pallavas is that, they did not move further south than Aragandanallur, with the solitary exception of Tiruchitrapalli on the south bank of the Kaveri River, the traditional southern boundary between north and south. In addition, good granite exposures for rock-cut structures were generally not available south of the river.

The town of Mahabalipuram is home to a curious experiment, to determine which form of temple is the best. This led to the sculpting out of monolithic rock, scalded down replicas of actual temples, which are now known as the ‘the Five Rathas of Mahabalipuram’ or the ‘Seven Pagodas’. The Rathas are not very large, the biggest measuring 42-feet by 35-feet, and the tallest is 40-feet high. These rathas were not consecrated since their stupas were still attached to the bedrock. The Pancharathas is an example of monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture dating from the late 7th century.

The five monolithic rock-cut rathas were built by Narasimha Varman I (630-668 CE).

Pancha Ratha
(Photo by Author)
Dharmaraja Ratha
(Photo by Author)
Bhima Ratha
(Photo by Author)
Arjuna Ratha entrance & the monolithic Nandi behind
(Photo by Author)
Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha 
along with the monolithic Elephant & Lion
(Photo by Author)

Draupadi Ratha - Entrance
(Photo by Author)

The Rathas are now half buried in the sand, silent monuments to the age of kings gone by, their silhouettes, and graceful surface sculpture exact, in every detail, to the great temples of the south that would follow.

There is no time line that divides the creation of rock-cut temples and freestanding temples built with cut stones, as they developed in parallel. The building of free-standing structures began in 5th century, while rock-cut temples continued to be excavated until the 12th century. An example of a free-standing structural temple is the Shore Temple, with its slender tower, built on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, with finely carved granite rocks, cut like bricks, and dating from 8th century. It is part of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Brief Chronological History of Development of Temple-Architecture
and the Dynasties that built them

Vakataka King Harisena
Intense activities
between 460-478 CE.
2nd-1st century BCE-650 CE
Ajanta Caves (30)
(between 460-478 CE)
Aurangabada, Maharashtra
Of Badami

500-753 CE
4 Caves
(cradle of Indian Architecture)
(World Heritage Site)
King Krshna I,
8th century CE
Kailashnath Temple –
 Cave 16
Rock-cut Temple

8th century CE
Ellora Caves (33)
Rock-cut Caves

Of Kanchi
(Initiaters of Rock-cut Temples)
King Narasimha Varman I/alias Mamala
(r.630-668 CE)
535-894 CE
i. Rock-cut Cave
ii. Five Rathas
Rock-cut Temples
Tamil Nadu
Of Kanchi
(Initiaters of Rock-cut Temples)
King Narasimha Varman II /alias Rajasimha
(r.700-728 CE)
600-900 CE
i. Rock-cut cave temples &
ii. Shore Temple
(Structural temple)

Tamil Nadu
Of Kanchi
King Narasimha Varman II /alias Rajasimha
(r.700-728 CE)

Kailasanath Temple

Tamil Nadu

Of Manyakheta
750-983 CE

Of Kalyani
983-1195 CE
Lakkundi, Dambal, Gadag

Of Karnataka
1100-1350 CE
Belur, Halebid
(proposed as World Heritage Site)


Of Tanjavur
900-1150 CE
Brhadiswara Temple
Tamil Nadu


Tamil Nadu


Tamil Nadu

sanctum sanctorum

Tamil Nadu

1350-1565 CE

Tamil Nadu

Sarangapani Gopurams

Tamil Nadu

Rajagopuram of

Tamil Nadu

Of Madurai
(succeeded Vijayanagara)
1600-1750 CE
Sri Rangam

Tamil Nadu

Bibliography –
1. Ashish Nangia, Sri Hari Mandir and Glory of Hindu Temples,
   Sanskruti Goundation, UK

2.Indian Rock-cut Architecture-Wikipedia – accessed on 11.9.2011

3. Ellora Caves, The Glory of the Rashtrakootas, Amar Chitra Katha No. 731