The presence of so many cave temples dedicated to Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism in Western Maharashtra point to the fact that true religion is faith and living in the presence of God. These caves also tell us that all religions are equal in the sense that they try to meet the felt need of humans for spiritual progress.
The question that comes up in one’s mind is why there is concentration of so many cave temples in one area and how long has the evolution been going on. As all the three main prevailing religions of India co-existed, some of the striking similarities in terms of architecture as well as icons seem to suggest that all of them were tolerated, accepted or welcomed by all.
What is it that has caused this religious tolerance and how did the architectural and iconic similarity permeate each other’s field? Before going into the details, it is necessary to walk through the evolutionary path that man took to reach the stage of carving a permanent shelter in existing rocks or hills.
Starting with the evolution of human beings, evolution of human dwelling also was taking place. As the human being evolved into a different social animal, he chose to protect himself and his family from the wild animals, the harsh climates and the blazing sun. This he did by erecting a roof over him. Over a period, this plain roof became a mud, mortar and wooden architecture. The improvement in the architectural design of mud and wooden/thatched homes also influenced the temple architecture, though made of the same material.
In the beginning, it was functional, just to provide a home. Later, the sunlight and ventilation were controlled and windows were added. Then a place of worship was added, at a higher level, as God should be at a higher level than the human being. Therefore, temples became more ornate and were placed on an elevation.
Another reason for elevating the abode of God was, the notion that God lives in heaven, which is supposed to be high above. This was the religious zeal along with man’s need for aesthetic beauty in the house as well as outside his house, i.e., his relation with God.
What better place can there be than a hill or mountain to give that desired elevation for God’s abode to signify his superior existence? Also to indicate that one has to make an effort to get to God, all these cave temples were situated away from the town or city, neither too close nor too far.
Perhaps another reason was to maintain a distance from the laymen. Or was it a test for the monks and the sanyasis who lived closer to the Hindu caves? Interestingly, some of the Hindu caves have Mithuna couples in the main temples, a self test whether the grahasthashrama period is over, or some worldly desires were still left.
As the sculptors became more adept in ornated figures and structures, a permanent and secure place was needed to express the devotion or bhakti on a permanent basis. Granites, marbles and other soft stones were already in experimental use along with different wood.
Another happy situation was that India was going through a prosperous period. There was political stability, religious freedom, tolerance towards other religions and above all, there was royal patronage. A new type of artists and the guild system came up which wanted them to try their hands at different things.
The followers of all the three religions, i.e., Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were rich in religious scriptures, and were also competing with each other in selecting and establishing or building places of worship. The prosperity also encouraged trade with far off places. These trades resulted in “trade routes”, which also connected the Buddhist cultural centres.
There is a suggestion that the land trade routes covered Lumbini (present Nepal), Samarkand (present Afganisthan) and Dvarkavrata (present Dwarka). The Buddhist monks travelled to other centres so did the traders. Both needed each other. There were sea routes also through which business was carried out with Sri Lanka, and Arab countries.
Why Cave Temples?
As India was becoming prosperous through trade, more people had to travel from place to place. These trade travels took a long time to complete and on the way people needed to rest and worship God. These traders came across many mountains on their way. They needed both shelters as well as shrines for their spiritual development.
In the Western India, the prominent trade route was between Jalgaon, Ajanta, Daulatabad or Verul, Ujjain, Pune, and Indore. The traders were sometimes forced to rest in the forests or the natural caves when they were tired. These naturally-formed caves prompted people to explore and take their artistic pursuance to a new height.
Nature of Rock for Carving
The Western Ghat topography, with its flat-topped basalt hills, ravines and sharp cliffs, was suitable for rock cutting. While exploring the texture of the rock along the trade routes, the sculptors found that the rocks were neither hard nor soft, but porous in nature. The Buddhists’ ideology encouraged identification with trades; hence, merchandise and the prosperity associated with trade helped commissioning of these cave temples which served the dual purpose of providing shrines and shelters.
Stages of Rock Architecture:
First Stage: The first stage was scooping the rock to make a hollow/room. Example: Almost all cave temples have gone through this stage and there are remnants in practically all cave group. Some of them are incomplete and abandoned.
Second Stage: In the second stage, light was controlled. Windows and ventilators were also scooped out at a particular place to facilitate making the caves get maximum daylight. Examples of the second stage are found in all cave groups.
Third Stage : In the third stage of rock architecture, light was allowed to enter from all three sides of the rock cave. This was again scooped in and the cave was part of the hill or mountain. Example: Elephanta or Gharapuri Caves across the Gateway of India and Pataleshwar Caves, near Pune.
Fourth Stage: In the fourth stage of rock architecture, an entire block of the hill was cut out and a cave temple scooped out. In this stage, the cave was no more part of the live hill or mountain. Example: Kailash Temple of Ellora. It is also the largest single monolithic structure.
Cave Temples in Western MaharashtraEllora Caves (1st, 2nd and 4th stage of Rock Architecture)
Ellora Caves are the richest in terms of architecture and iconography. The excavation of the caves spanned from second century A.D. to 11th century. It boasts of the Buddhist (earliest), Jain and Hindu caves. As there was a guild system, perhaps artists came from the same school, as we see a common iconography and style in all the three types of caves. The Buddhist Caves belong to both the Hinayana (lower vehicle) and Mahayana (higher vehicle) period. Salabhanjika, or the Saal tree under which Buddha got enlightenment is also depicted. A lot of importance is given to the Bodhisatva (previous birth of Buddha, before he attained Bodhisatva) in the Buddhist caves and ornamental plants, dwarapalikas, etc. The statues of Jain looks almost like the Buddha, but for the symbol of Srivatsa on the chest of the Tirthankaras. Adinath, Parswanath, Gomateeswara, Mahaveer, are the main figures. The Hindu caves have the Trinity, Saptamatrukas, stories from Siva Purana, Ravana, etc.
Ellora Caves or Verul, as it is called by the local people, was excavated out of the vertical face of a hill 26 km. north of Aurangabad. There are 34 caves which were chiselled between 5th and 11th century A.D. These caves never vanished and were known to the local people for two reasons. The presence of Grishneswar Temple, one of the Jyotirlingas. A lot of pilgrims were visiting the temple for worship. Another reason is the proximity to the village Verul. Daulatabad or the old Devgiri Fort which was built by many kings was also known to the people. The Archaeological Department of Western Maharashtra found an entire town of graveyard to prove that this place was inhabited. Many of the caves served as places of dwelling for the locals. Like the Ajanta Caves, these caves were also plastered and painted. However, due to the proximity to the village, the local grazers started living and cooking in these caves. Some of the walls still have soot and scribbling. Vandalism seems to be rampant in these caves.
These caves spanned from the 2nd Century A. D. to the 11th Century A.D. Several dynasties like the Vakatakas, Satavahanas, and Rashtrakutas were engaged in the excavation of the caves. The Kailasa Temple (last stage of rock architecture) took seven generations of Rashtrakuta kings to complete the cave temple.
Ajanta Caves (First and second stage): The other types of caves were Viharas which were places of meditation and living quarters for the monks with cells on either side of the hall. These cells were scooped out with a stone-carved bed and a pillow. The Viharas served both as a place of worship and living. Some of the Buddhist caves have raised platforms on both sides of the aisles, perhaps for the Buddhist pupils to keep their books, writing materials, or as dinning tables.
Chaityagraha: All the caves of Ajanta were plastered and painted. The plaster was made of mud, shell, grass and cowdung. After the plaster, a white coating was applied, on which the outlines were drawn. Most of scenes were from the lives of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, or royal families. Traders were also important, as shops with shutters were also seen.
The Ajanta caves are over 700 years old. Some of them belong to second Century B.C. There are 31 caves which can be divided into two periods. The first one from second Century B.C. to second Century A.D. The second period was from middle of third Century, A.D. to 6th century A.D. The intervening period between the two is not known. Why the work stopped? Where did the artists go? Was there a political turmoil? There is no record for this gap of 600 to 700 years.
These caves are of two types: Chaityas and Viharas. Chaityas are purely for worshipping consisting of a dome, symbolising the mould after burial. On the top of the dome, there is a structure like a casket (perhaps for the ash?) The Chaityas also have a carved beam and rafters running across the roof. They have no function, since all wooden architecture was there to hold the structure together. The same was copied in the rock architecture also.
All Chaityas have circumambulatory path for pradakshina and were for the purpose of worship only for the monks who stayed there and for the laymen.
Karla Caves (1st and 2nd satge) : Karla is close to Lonavala, a hill station in the Western Ghats (Sahayadri Mountains). Karla has both Hinayana and Mahayana types of caves. It dates back to 1st Century B.C. to 7th Century. A.D. Like the Ajanta Caves, the Karla Caves were also excavated in two periods. The splendour of the caves suggests that Buddhism was at its peak when these caves were excavated. This is also the largest group of Chaityas. As the caves are a detour from Malavli railway station, not many people visit them. One can leisurely study them and enjoy the ghat (valley) and the greenery surrounding the caves.
An architectural drawing of a Chaitya Karla cave is also the only Chaitya where the original wooden rafter and beams are intact inspite of more than a lapse of 2000 years. These wooden supports are absolutely non-functional in a rock architecture. These caves too were excavated to shelter the monks from the rains. Unlike Ajanta and Ellora, the Karla caves do not have the figure of Buddha. Later additions of a temple and a stone-carved Ashoka pillar greets the visitors after a steep climb of 550 steps.
Kanheri Caves (1st and 2nd stage): Kanheri caves come from the word, Krishnagiri or the black hills. Like all groups of caves, the nature of the rock is basalt or lava rock. The caves have intricate carvings and inscriptions in Brahami script. Dating back to 1st Century.A.D, this is a Buddhist group of caves with both Buddha and Bodhisattva carved. There are both Viharas as well as Chaityas. A flight of steps leads to the caves. On the way, there are several cisterns with water for the monks living there and also for the visitors and the traders who passed that route.
Bhaje Caves (1st and 2nd stage): The caves date back to the 2nd Century B.C. and falls in the second stage of rock architecture. The caves are Hinayana style. Architecturally, the caves are similar to the Karla caves, as a guild system existed during that period. It belonged to the Satavahana period, when they were ruling the Deccan region.
Bedsa Caves : Not very far from the Karla and Bhaje caves, the road, a narrow path passing through a village, leads to the caves. The numerous stupas stun the visitors with a question--why so many?
Dating back to 2nd Century B.C., the Bedsa caves are little different from the Karla and Bhaje caves. The facade of the Chaitya is shoe-shaped like the other caves, but with a difference and it is carved over the main door. In the other cave groups, the façade itself is the main entrance. Here, the facade seems to be split due to the presence of the doors at the bottom. The caves have beautiful pillars with carved animal and human figures. These Chaityas also originally had wooden rafters and beams, as there are sockets on both sides. From the top of the cave, one can have a magnificent view of the surroundings fields.
Aurangabad Caves(1st and 2nd stage) : These caves are inside the Dr. Ambedkar University campus. They are the most exposed to the human touch and visits, along with animals. These caves can be dated between 2nd to 6th Centuries A.D. The caves are overshadowed by the presence of Ajanta and Ellora caves, which are more famous world over. The Aurangabad caves are stunning and intricate in terms of carving. This is a group of 12 caves spread within a kilometre area. Most of them are Viharas and in Tantric style where iconography is concerned.
Elephanta/Gharapuri Caves (The only cave of 3rd stage of rock architecture in tact): This is the only rock carved-temple of the 3rd stage which is in tact. The other incomplete one is in Pataleshwar caves in Pune. Both these caves are dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Other cave groups in Maharashtra which are architecturally important are the Pithalkhora caves near Aurangabad.
The caves belong to the period between first Century B.C. to 2nd Century A.D. These are Buddhist caves belonging to the Thervadai style, and have both Chaityas and Viharas.
The Mahakali, and Jogeshwari Caves are within Mumbai city. The Lenadri near Pune and Pandava Leni are in Pune city.
Article by : Rajeswari Raghu
Source: Bhavan's Journal 15 November 2009
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