Imagine being so powerfully determined in your devotion to your god that when confronted with a vertical stone mountain, your first thought is: ‘I must carve this into a cave temple with my bare hands’. Centuries ago, Indian monks and artists would take years creating incredible rock-cut architecture manually out of sandstone, cliffs, and rock formations. After this amazing feat was achieved, they would then intricately design the walls with carvings and murals, and fill the interior with statues. India’s cave temples show early traces of human life and culture and the importance of Hinduism and Buddhism in the country’s history.
1. Ellora Caves, Maharashtra
The 30 caves of Ellora were carved out of a vertical face of the Charanandri hills in the 5th century AD. The cave temples are devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism – demonstrating the religious harmony of the time. The Buddhist caves were primarily designated as monasteries, the Hindu caves boast paintings of the various gods, and the Jain caves feature intricately painted ceilings.
2. Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra
Most cave temples have some scratches on the walls which we can admire for their historical worth, but not so much aesthetically. However, the paintings of the Ajanta Caves are still considered masterpieces in Buddhist Art. Dating back to the 1st century BC, every inch, besides the floors, of these 34 caves is saturated in intricate murals.
3. Varaha Cave Temples, Tamil Nadu
The four-temple complex of the Varaha Cave is a stunning example of Pallava architecture. The Pallavas were a powerful Southern Indian dynasty in the 7th century AD that transitioned cave-carved rock architecture into freestanding stone carved temples, extremely prevalent in India today. The Varaha Cave Temples honor the Hindu god Vishnu and the earth goddess Bhumi.
4. Undavalli Caves, Andhra Pradesh
In the 4th century AD, the seven cave temples of Undavalli were carved out of sandstone to honor the Trimurti – the Hindu Gods: Shiva, god of transformation; Brahma, god of creation; and Vishnu, the supreme god. Often, these gods are worshiped separately, but the Undavalli caves seek to highlight the harmonious relationship between the three.
5. Elephanta Caves, Mumbai Harbor
The Elephanta Caves are located on an island in the Arabian Sea. The seven caves are split into two groups – the first dedicated to the Hindu God, Shiva, and the second, to Buddhism. Since its creation in the 5th century AD, until Portuguese rule in the mid-16th century, the Hindu caves were active temples of worship. Large sculptures of elephants surrounded the caves, many of which have been relocated for display.
6. Amarnath Temple, Jammu and Kashmir
Unlike many of the cave temples of India, the Amarnath Temple was developed in a natural formation. Inside the cave is an ice stalagmite – an icicle jutting from the ground. The stalagmite grows and shrinks, modeling the phases of the moon. In the 3rd century BC, the Amarnath Cave was carved and painted in dedication to the Hindu god Shiva.
7. Udayagiri Caves, Madhya Pradesh
The Udayagiri Caves were excavated into the middle Indian hillsides in the 5th century AD to serve as Buddhist sanctuaries. The complex of 14 temples includes a passage of natural rock canyon, which a river used to run through. The Udayagiri Caves are most noted for their elaborate T-shaped doors and gigantic boar-headed sculptures.
8. Kanheri Caves, Mumbai
The awe surrounding the 109 temples of the Kanheri Caves is only amplified by their location, nestled in the dense forests of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The green trees roughly embrace the black basaltic rock of the temples, and massive stone pillars complete this Buddhist shrine. The caves were inhabited in the 1st century BC, and evidence of canals and waterways through the temples attests to this.
9. Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, Madhya Pradesh
When we think of a life in terms of 80 years, it is somewhat daunting to imagine how long 100,000 years stretches into the past. In the 1950s, when anthropologists discovered that the 700 caves of Bhimbetka were created between 100,000 and 30,000 years ago, they were amazed to see how India’s earliest humans pictorially represented their lives with scenes of agricultural bartering, hunting, and animal sacrifice.
10. Badami Cave Temples, Karnataka
The 5 temples of Badami are extremely picturesque – located at the mouth of a green ravine. The caves were all carved manually in the 6th century AD from the sandstone hills of Southwestern India. They honor the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, and Jain principles. The fusion architecture is most admired for its artistic adoption of stylistic elements from Northern India and Southern India.
The incredible cave temples of India illuminate the daily truths of life for early humans, demonstrate the determination of faith, and offer wonderful arenas of art. So unique and grand in their structure, rock-cut architecture is the cathedral of the East – where centuries of men are united in their shared place of worship.