Indian Cave architecture has been recorded to have developed since the Stone Age period. These rock-cut marvels have not only been used as settlements, but they exhibit the prestigious cultural heritage for which the country is world-renowned. The paintings, murals, carvings, all take us for a ride to the mythological folklores that we have been reading and listening to since childhood. These structures help us understand how different styles of Indian architecture have evolved over the period. They also illustrate the brilliance of structural engineering and artistic workmanship of that time. The following are some examples of the marvelous cave and temple architectures in India that display a diversity of religions, beliefs, and construction styles.
1. Bhimbetka Rock Shelters (Madhya Pradesh) | Cave Architecture
Bhimbetka Caves are a group of rock shelters distributed among seven hills in the Vindhya Ranges. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the earliest known caves that display shreds of evidence of human life through innumerable paintings. According to the Architectural Survey of India, these caves have witnessed human settlements from the Stone Age to the late Mesolithic period around the 2nd century BC. One of the significant elements of the site is the Auditorium Cave which is a 25m long cave surrounded by quartzite towers. It has three passageways and at the center of the hall is a large boulder called Chief’s Rock.
These rock-cut caves date back to the Mauryan Period (322-185 BCE) carved out in the twin hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni. The Barabar Hill has four caves named after Karan Chaupar, Lomas Rishi, Sudama, and Visvakarma. These caves were the birthplace of the Buddhist chaitya arch, whose developed versions are seen in Karla and Ajanta caves in Maharashtra. Most caves at Barabar consist of two chambers, carved entirely out of granite, with a highly polished internal surface called the “Mauryan polish” also found on sculptures, along with intricate detailing, Ashoka Inscriptions, and echo effects.
3. Karla Caves (Maharashtra) | Cave India
Karla caves are ancient Buddhist caves that have developed over a period from the 5th century to the 2nd century BCE. They are a group of 16 caves, out of which one is the Great Chaitya Cave, three were used for the Mahayana teachings, and the remaining ones were monasteries. The Great Chaitya cave is the main attraction which comprises beautifully carved pillars, intricate ornamentation, an arched roof, and innumerable carved sculptures. The hall with all these elements simplistically displays grandeur, highlighting the centrally placed dagoba.
4. Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves (Orissa)
Built around the 1st century BCE, these caves are partly natural and partly artificial that were carved out as residences for Jain Monks. These are a group of 117 caves with rich historical and religious importance that can be seen through the inscriptions and detailed sculptures. The Rani Gumpha (Queen’s Cave) is the largest cave with two stories, decorative columns, carvings, and sculptures relating to wild animals, human figures, and Jain religious inscriptions.
5. Ajanta Caves (Maharashtra) | Cave Architecture
This 30 – rock-cut Buddhist temple complex was developed over a long period ranging from the 2nd century BCE to 480 CE. These caves have numerous Chaitya-grihas (worship hall caves 9, 10, 19, 26) with the stupa in the center, ornate pillars, high ribbed roofs, and passageways for Pradakshina (walking around the stupas as a worshipping element). There were different types of viharas (monasteries) that had symmetrical yet different square space planning. All these caves have fascinating paintings that narrate the Jataka tales, legends about Buddha, fables, and folktales from Hindu and Jain mythologies.
6. Masroor Temple Complex (Himachal Pradesh)
These 15 rock-cut structures are Hindu temples built in the 8th century. They are built in the North Indian Nagara style of temple architecture in the Kangra Valley of the Beas River, with a background of the Himalayan ranges. The temple is carved out of natural sandstone and it has a pool and mandapa at the entrance. The garbhagriha has a square plan and the ceiling is carved out like a lotus. The ceiling, spires, columns, all have intricate carvings of various gods and goddesses related to Hindu mythology.
7. Kanheri Caves (Maharashtra) | Cave India
Kanheri Caves are built from a big chunk of basalt rock located in the forests of Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It is well known for its Buddhist reliefs and carvings. These caves were mainly used as viharas meant for living, studying, and meditating. There is a Greater Chaitya which is similar to the chaitya at Karle caves and some smaller worship halls with dagobas in the center. Constructed during the reign of the Mauryan Empire, these caves were more advanced than any other Buddhist monasteries that included polished plinth beds, dining halls, and Darbar Caves for gatherings.
8. Badami Caves (Karnataka)
Badami cave temples are a group of Hindu and Jain temples built during the Chalukyan dynasty between the 6th and 8th centuries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. The four main caves are carved out of sandstone where the first one has scriptures of Shiva, in his Tandava dancing pose. The second cave is dedicated to Vishnu and his various avatars. The third cave has giant figures of the Vishnu-avatars and also the narratives of Lord Brahma. The fourth cave is a Jain temple dedicated to the Tirthankaras. The fourth cave is filled with sculptures of Bahubali, Parshvanatha, and Mahavira with a symbolic display of other Tirthankaras.
9. Mahabalipuram – Group of Monuments (Tamil Nadu)
The group of monuments is a collection of religious masterpieces built between the 7th and 8th century CE in the coastal town of Mahabalipuram. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, it houses 40 Hindu Temples and memorabilia with carvings and inscriptions from Mahabharata, and various narratives from Hindu mythology. The Pancha-Ratha temples (shaped as chariots) were named after the Pandavas of Mahabharata and are carved out of a single monolithic block of granite. There are also various cave temples like Varaha, Kotikal, Dharmaraja, Ramanuja, etc. dedicated to various gods and goddesses. All these monuments display Hindu mythological iconography in a South Indian Dravidian style of temple architecture. These monuments, especially the rathas, are considered as a prototype for all the modern South Indian temples and its gopuram entrance towers.
10. Ellora Cave Temples (Maharashtra) | Cave Architecture
Ellora Caves are the marvels of Indian Rock-cut architecture. It is one of the largest monastery-temple caves featuring Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monuments together in a single complex. There are over 100 caves in the complex out of which the important ones are the 12 Buddhist (caves 1–12), 17 Hindu (caves 13–29), and 5 Jain (caves 30–34) caves. The Kailasa temple is an astonishing piece of carving that is made out of a single rock. The wonderful detailing on the walls, pilasters as well as every human figurine in the carvings leaves every visitor awe-struck.