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Karli, 2nd c BC, © theosociety.org

Buddhist Rock-cut Architecture

The earliest Buddhist architecture consists of shrines and monasteries cut into mountain sides to house itinerant religious groups during the rainy season. The first examples are those of the Ajivika sect, exemplified by the Sudama and Lomas Rishi caves near Gaya. These clearly show elements of earlier wooden construction and have barrel-vaulted roofs supported on raked pillars and an arched facade. The interiors of the caves are highly polished and consist of two chambers: a shrine at the end (circular and domed) and an adjacent hall (roughly rectangular and vaulted).

This style was soon to be copied in the Buddhist rock-cut architecture of Western India. The rocky mountains of the Western Ghats (stretching from Gujarat to southern Maharashtra) contain the most extensive architectural remains of the period. Earliest examples are to be found at Bhaja but the most impressive construction from this period is at Karli, with other important sites at Bedsa, Pithalkora, and Ajanta. The sites usually contain one or two chaityas (shrines where monks worshipped and meditated) and numerous viharas (where they lived).

The chaitya is usually in the form of an apsidal hall. In the apsidal end is placed a stupa and the rest of the hall, flanked by rows of pillars, is meant for congregation. The pillars are generally octagonal with a pot-shaped base and an inverted-lotus capital. These octagonal columns would persevere in Indian architecture even upto the 19th century. Viharas were generally provided with a pillared porch leading to a courtyard surrounded by monastic cells. Monasteries carved into the rock are also known from Orissa (Udayagiri-Khandagiri, probably Jain) in eastern India.

The rock-cut temple and monastery tradition continued for many centuries even alongside structural monuments and the excavations especially at Ajanta became monumental and intricate. Unlike earlier examples, figural sculpture of the Buddha became more common both in the chaitya and the vihara cells. At Ajanta, this was complemented by fresco paintings, many remarkable examples of which have survived to this date, demonstrating that mural painting also had a long tradition in India.

Bangalore, 2006

Photos and Text © Amit Guha