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Indian Heritage & Culture

Rock Art (Part-2)

  • 09 Mar 2021
  • 14 min read

Rock Art (Part-I)

Rock-Cut Architecture

  • About:
    • The rock-cut architecture is a type of Rock Art in which a structure is created by carving it out of solid natural rock.
    • Cave temples and monasteries are found in many parts of India, but the largest and most famous artificial caves were excavated from Western Deccan region.
      • It was constructed during the regime of the Satavahana rulers and their successors.
  • Timeline:
    • This architecture had three definite phases;
      • The earliest dating from the 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD
      • The second from the 5th to 7th century
      • The last from the 7th to 10th century
  • Significance:
    • Rock-cut architecture occupies a very important place in the history of Indian Architecture as they present the most spectacular piece of ancient Indian art specimen.
    • Most of the rock-cut structures were closely associated with various religions and religious activities.
    • Numerous caves were excavated by the Buddhist monks for prayer and residence purposes.
    • The rock-cut architecture differs from traditional buildings in many ways.
      • It is more similar to sculpture than architecture, as structures were produced by cutting out solid rocks.
  • The architectures are classified into Rock-Cut Caves and Rock-Cut Temple Architecture.

Rock-Cut Caves

  • Mauryan period: The earliest rock-cut caves in India are attributed to the Mauryan period, mainly to Ashoka (273-232 BC) and his grandson Dasharath.
    • Caves in this period were generally used as viharas, i.e. living quarters, by the Jain and Buddhist monks.
      • Caves were earlier used by the Ajivika sect and later by the Buddhists as monasteries.
    • Barabar caves and Nagarjuni caves in Bihar were formed during the time of Dasharath, grandson of Ashoka.
  • Post-Mauryan Period: The construction of rock caves continued as in the Mauryan period. However, this period saw the development of Viharas and Chaitya halls.
    • The Chaitya halls were mainly quadrangular chambers with flat roofs and used as prayer halls.
      • Inside Chaityas and Viharas, windows and balconies and gates were carved as huge arch shaped openings.
    • The caves also had open courtyards and stone screen walls to shield from rain and were decorated with human and animal figures.
    • Examples: Karle Chaitya hall, Ajanta caves (29 caves ( 25 Vihars + 4 Chaitya)), etc.
  • Gupta Period: The emergence of the Gupta Empire in the 4th century A.D. is often hailed as the “Golden period of Indian Architecture”.
    • During the Gupta period, architectural development of the caves remained constant.
      • However, the use of mural paintings on the walls of the caves became an added feature.
    • Important Caves of the Gupta Period:
      • Udayagiri Caves: At Udayagiri, Madhya Pradesh, 20 rock-cut chambers were excavated during the Gupta period, two of which bear inscriptions from the reign of Chandra Gupta II.
        • These caves are vital documents since they constitute the earliest intact body of Hindu art in India.
        • One of the most important Udayagiri caves is Cave 5, the Varaha Cave .
        • Its main feature is a colossal rock-cut relief of the boar-incarnation of God Vishnu rescuing the Earth Goddess from chaos in the presence of adoring gods and saints.
    • Ajanta Caves: Ajanta is a series of rock-cut caves in the Sahyadri ranges on Waghora river near Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
      • These caves were carved out in 4th century AD out of volcanic rocks.
      • It consists of a set of 29 caves, carved in a horse-shoe shape.
        • 25 of them were used as Viharas or residential caves while 4 were used as Chaitya or prayer halls.
    • Ellora Caves: Ellora caves are another important site of cave architecture.
      • It’s located nearly 100 Kms away from Ajanta caves.
      • It is a group of 34 caves – 17 Brahmanical, 12 Buddhist and 5 Jain.
      • These caves were developed during the period between 5th and 11th centuries A.D. (newer as compared to the Ajanta caves).
    • Bagh Caves: Located on the bank of the Bagh river in Madhya Pradesh, Bagh Caves is a group of 9 Buddhist caves developed around the 6th Century A.D.
      • It is architecturally very similar to the Ajanta caves in terms of their design, execution and decoration.
      • These are remarkable and interesting rock-cut shrines and monasteries.
    • In modern times these caves were first discovered in 1818.

Other Important Rock Cut Caves:

  • Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, Odisha: They were made under the Kalinga King Kharavela in 1st-2nd century BC near modern-day Bhubaneswar.
    • The cave complex has both man-made and natural caves possibly carved out for residence of Jain monks.
    • There are 18 caves in Udayagiri and 15 in Khandagiri.
    • Udayagiri caves are famous for the Hathigumpha inscription which is carved out in Brahmi script.
  • Sittanavasal Caves (Arivar Koil):
    • Located 16 km northwest of Pudukkottai town in Tamil Nadu, these famous rock-cut caves are known for the paintings in the Jain temples.
  • Jogimara Cave:
    • It is an artificially carved out cave located in Surguja district of Chhattisgarh.
    • It is dated back around 1000-300 BC and has few paintings and inscriptions of a love story in Brahmi script.
    • The cave is said to be an attachment to amphitheatre and paintings were made to decorate the room.
  • Nasik Caves:
    • It is a group of 24 Buddhist caves (Hinayana Period), also known as “Pandav Leni”, developed during the 1st century A.D.
      • These caves belong to the Hinayana period. However, later, the influence of the Mahayana period can also be found in these caves.
      • The idols of Buddha were also carved inside these caves representing influence of Mahayana Buddhism.
    • The site also depicts an excellent system of water management indicated through the presence of water tanks carved out of solid rocks.

Rock-Cut Temple Architecture

  • About:
    • A monolithic rock-cut temple is chiselled out of a single colossal rock in the shape of masonry or wooden temples including embellishment on walls and other areas showcasing fine work of art and engineering.
  • The architects of the Pallava Dynasty initiated rock carving to create monolithic structures that resemble temples.
  • Rock-Cut Temple Architecture in South India:
    • Temple architecture in South India began under the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman.
  • The temples developed during the Pallava dynasty reflected the stylistic taste of the individual rulers and can be classified into four stages chronologically.
    • Mahendra group: This was the first stage of Pallava temple architecture.
      • The temples built under Mahendravarman were basically rock-cut temples.
      • Under him, the temples were known as mandapas, unlike the Nagara style in which the mandapas meant only the assembly hall.
    • Narasimha group: Second stage of the development of temple architecture in South India.
      • The rock-cut temples were decorated by intricate sculptures.
      • The mandapas were now divided into separate rathas.
      • The biggest one was called the Dharmaraja ratha while the smallest one was called the Draupadi ratha.
    • Rajsimha group and Nandivarman group: Third and fourth stage of temple development.
      • Development of real structural temples was started which replaced the rock-cut temples.
  • Important Rock-Cut Temples:
    • Kailash Temple: It is a rock-cut temple complex, dedicated to Lord Shiva in the Ellora Caves (16).
      • It was developed under the patronage of Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (8th century A.D.) and was carved out of a monolith, and even has a courtyard.
      • There is also a sculpture on the wall of Kailash temple depicting Ravana shaking Mount Kailash. It is considered one of the masterpieces of Indian sculpture.
      • It is counted among the largest rock-cut monastery-temple caves complexes of the world and marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
      • The temple also showcases fine architectural works including relief panels depicting the two main Hindu Epics namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
      • Pallava and Chalukya styles of architecture are noticed in this cave temple which is decorated with carved sculptures including that of gods and goddesses from the Hindu Puranas.
    • Architecture at Mahabalipuram: The ancient port city of Mamallapuram under Pallava dynasty in Tamil Nadu, flourished with a number of marvelous architecture.
      • These seventh century Pallava sites have been declared as UNESCO- World Heritage Sites in 1984 by the name “Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram”. They include:
        • Pancha Ratha: Also known as Pandava Rathas, they are the earliest rock cut temples in India, comprising of Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula and Sahadeva Ratha, and Draupadi Ratha, dated around 7th century AD.
          • Dharmaraja Ratha is the largest structure among the five.
        • Rock-cut caves: which include Varaha Cave Temple, Krishna Cave Temple, Panchapandava Cave Temple, and the Mahishasuramardini Mandapa (Bas-relief of Goddess Durga killing Mahishasura).
        • Open Air Rock Reliefs: which include Descent of the Ganges which is also known as Arjuna’s Penance or Bhagiratha’s Penance carved on two huge boulders.
          • It narrates the story of descent of River Ganga on earth from heaven by the efforts of Bhagiratha.
        • Shore Temple complex: It includes two small and one large temple enclosed within a two tier compound wall studded with images of Nandi, the vahana of Shiva.
          • The temple is predominantly dedicated to Lord Shiva with a sculpture of Anantashayana Vishnu in one of the three temples within the complex.
    • Badami Cave Temples: Badami (Karnataka) was the capital of Chalukyas.
      • It has four cave temples based on Hinduism (3) and Jainism (1).
      • This is a rock-cut architecture which dates back to the 6th century AD.
      • They are the earliest known temples in the Deccan region.
        • Cave 1: An important sculpture carved inside the cave temple is of Lord Shiva as Nataraja. There also lies a relief of Harihara (half Vishnu and half Shiva).
        • Cave 2: Dedicated primarily to Vishnu, the largest relief is of Lord Vishnu as Trivikrama. Other forms such as Vamana avatar (dwarf avatar) and Varaha (Boar) avatar can also be found.
        • Cave 3: It is the largest cave in the comlex and has intricately carved reliefs of Trivikrama, Anantasayana, Vasudeva, Varaha, Harihara and Narasimha.
        • Cave 4: It is a Jain cave with intricate structures of Bahubali, Parshvanatha and Mahavira with a symbolic display of the other Tirthankaras.


  • The rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire (1335-1565 AD) were great patrons of art and architecture. The features of the Vijayanagara temples were:
    • Highly decorated temple walls with carvings and geometrical patterns.
    • Gopurams built on all the sides (previously built only on the front side).
    • Monolithic rock pillars
  • Example: Vittalaswami temple, Virupaksha temple in Hampi.
    • Rock-cut idol of Narasimha on Shesha (snake) near Hampi is a marvel in itself.
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