Cave Architecture in Ancient India


The early caves- two at Barabar (near Gaya) and Nagarjuni hills- are quite unadorned. The inner walls of the caves are finely polished, no doubt by workmen of the school responsible for the polish of the Ashokan pillars.

Later cave temples and monasteries are to be found in many parts of India, but it was in the Western Deccan, under the Satavahana Empire and its successors, that the largest and most famous artificial caves were excavated.

The earliest rock cut caves in India are attributed to Asoka (273-232 BC) and his grandson Dasaratha. Eventually this rock cut architecture, initiated by Asoka, developed into a powerful and popular architectural style and gave the country nearly 1,200 excavations which are scattered in many parts. This architecture had three definite phases: the earliest dating from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD, the second from the 5th to the 7th century and the last from the 7th century to the 10th century.
These developments took place primarily in the Western Ghats and only secondarily in other parts of the country. The rock architecture was suited to India, for the country has plenty of rocky mountains and structures excavated in stone were the most durable.

Buddhist Architecture– The early Buddhist architecture covers the period from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The first phase of excavations in Western
India was related exclusively to early Buddhism, which meant the worship of the Buddha represented symbolically. The excavations took the shape of
1. The chaitya or prayer hall and
2. The vihara or monastery.
3. Both initiated in rock the structural forms practised in less permanent materials like wood. The chaitya is the more important of the two considerations.

The characteristic features of these early temples were two establishments, each self contained and consisting and consisting of a prayer hall (chaitya) and a monastery (vihara) which contained accommodation for the monks.

The square central hall was approached through a verandah or portico, and doorways led into cells for members of the brotherhood, examples of the early Buddhist architecture can still be seen at Karla, Kanheri, Nasik, Bhaja and Bedsa and at Ajanta.
Second phase– the second phase began in the 5th century. This phase was characterised by the virtual elimination of timber and by the introduction of the image of the Buddha as a dominant feature of the architectural design. Nevertheless the plan of the excavations, particularly of the chaitya, remained essentially the same as that of similar constructions of the earlier phase. The statue of the Buddha sometimes assumed gigantic proportions. The vihara also underwent a slight change: the inner cells, formerly inhabited by the monks alone now housed the image of the Buddha as well.
Buddhists of the Mahayana school followed the broad architectural principles of their predecessors the Hinayana Buddhists and their architecture consisted as hitherto, of the chaitya and the vihara. Later the Hindus and Jains extended the Buddhist architectural tradition but with certain modifications, designed to suite their own ritual.
The dominant features of the Dravidian rock cut style are the mandapa and the ratha. The mandapa is an open pavilion excavated out of a rock. It takes the form of a simple columned hall with two or more cells (compartments for the diety) in the back wall. The ratha is a monolithic shrine carved out of a single rock.


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