Search Post on this Blog

Cave Architecture UPSC [ Notes] | History, Evolution, types, major caves

 Table of contents:

  • Ajanta Caves
  • Ellora Caves
  • Elephanta Cave
  • Barabar Caves
  • Udayagiri Caves
  • Badami Caves
  • Pancha Rathas or Pandava caves
  • Khandagiri Caves
  • Bhaja Caves
  • Sittanavasal Cave
  • Bagh Caves
  • Questions:
    • The Rock cut architecture represents one of the most important sources of our knowledge of early Indian art and history. Discuss.

Ajanta Caves:

The Ajanta Caves are a remarkable UNESCO World Heritage site located in the state of Maharashtra, India. It is located in the Aurangabad District of Maharashtra. They consist of a complex of 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments carved on the bank of the Waghora River.

In the year 1819, a British officer, John Smith discovered these caves. Since their rediscovery, the Ajanta Caves have attracted visitors from around the world, who marvel at their architectural splendor and the extraordinary craftsmanship displayed in the paintings and sculptures

The following are some key features of Ajanta Caves:

Date and Period: 

The caves were excavated over several centuries, from the 2nd century BCE to the 6th century CE. The earliest caves were constructed during the Satavahana dynasty, while the later caves were constructed by the Vakataka dynasty. Some of the Ajanta Caves were also constructed during the Gupta period.

Architectural Styles: 

The Ajanta Caves exhibit two distinct architectural styles: the early Hinayana and the later Mahayana. The early caves, such as Caves 9 and 10, follow the simpler and more austere Hinayana tradition. The later caves, like Cave 26, feature intricate designs, elaborate and ornate sculptural work, representing the Mahayana influence. They have double stores cave.

Cave Layout: 

The complex consists of 30 numbered caves. The caves are classified into chaitya halls (prayer halls) and viharas (monastic cells). The chaitya halls, including Cave 19, have a semi-circular apse resembling a stupa, while the viharas, like Cave 1, are rectangular chambers used for meditation and living quarters.


The Ajanta Caves are renowned for their exquisite fresco paintings, which depict various aspects of Buddhist mythology, stories from the life of the Buddha, and scenes from ancient Indian life. The paintings cover the cave walls and ceilings and are characterized by their vibrant colors, detailed brushwork, and the use of natural pigments.

Ellora Caves:

The Ellora Caves, also located in Maharashtra, India, are another impressive UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for their rock-cut architecture and religious significance. The caves represent a remarkable blend of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain art, showcasing the religious harmony that prevailed in ancient India. 

The followings are some features of the Ellora Caves:

Location and Layout: 

The Ellora Caves are situated about 29 kilometers northwest of Aurangabad. They consist of a complex of 34 caves carved into the Charanandri Hills. The caves are arranged in a linear fashion, spanning a distance of approximately 2 kilometers.

Chronology and Styles: 

The construction of the Ellora Caves spans a vast period, from the 6th to the 10th century CE. The caves can be broadly categorized into three groups based on their religious affiliation: Buddhist (Caves 1-12), Hindu (Caves 13-29), and Jain (Caves 30-34). The caves display a range of architectural styles, reflecting the cultural and artistic diversity of the time.

Buddhist Caves: 

The earliest caves at Ellora are the Buddhist caves, which were constructed during the 6th and 7th centuries CE. These caves primarily comprise viharas (monastic halls) and chaityas (prayer halls). Notable examples include Cave 10, known as the "Carpenter's Cave," and Cave 12, featuring the imposing Vishvakarma Chaitya.

Hindu Caves: 

The Hindu caves at Ellora represent the largest group, with elaborate temples dedicated to various Hindu deities. These caves were predominantly built during the 8th and 9th centuries CE. The most famous among them is Cave 16, the Kailash Temple, which is a monolithic structure carved from a single rock and dedicated to Lord Shiva.  Cave 32, the Indra Sabha, is particularly noteworthy for its ornate pillars and beautiful carvings.

Jain Caves: 

The Jain caves, constructed between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, showcase intricate sculptures and detailed artwork depicting Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual leaders).

Architectural Marvels: 

The monolithic Kailash Temple, with its grand scale and detailed craftsmanship, is considered a masterpiece of Indian rock-cut architecture.

Cultural Significance: 

The Ellora Caves are a testament to the religious and artistic syncretism of ancient India. They depict the coexistence and interaction of different faiths and serve as a symbol of religious harmony. The site attracts visitors from around the world who come to admire the architectural marvels and explore the religious and cultural heritage of the region.

Elephanta Cave:

The Elephanta Caves, located on Elephanta Island (also known as Gharapuri Island) in Mumbai Harbor, Maharashtra, India, are a collection of rock-cut cave temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The caves are renowned for their ancient sculptures and architectural beauty.

In 1987, the caves were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site to preserve their cultural and architectural heritage.

The following are some features of Elephanta Caves:

Date and Period: 

The Elephanta Caves are believed to have been constructed between the 5th and 8th centuries CE. The exact date of their creation and the identity of the patrons who commissioned them remains uncertain.


The cave complex consists of a total of seven caves, although not all of them are dedicated to religious purposes. The main cave, known as Cave 1 or the Great Cave, is the most significant and houses the primary shrine of Lord Shiva. The other caves are smaller and less elaborate.

Sculptures and Iconography: 

The Elephanta Caves are renowned for their magnificent sculptures, particularly those depicting various aspects of Lord Shiva. 

The most notable sculpture is the colossal three-headed statue of Shiva known as Maheshamurti, which stands at the entrance of the main cave. It represents Shiva in his three roles: the creator (Aghora), preserver (Vamadeva), and destroyer (Tatpurusha).

Cave 1 (The Great Cave): 

The main cave is a significant attraction and features an intricately carved interior with a variety of sculptural panels and pillars. The sculptures depict mythological narratives, celestial beings, and various manifestations of Shiva, such as Nataraja (the cosmic dancer) and Ardhanarishvara (the half-male, half-female form of Shiva).

Shiva Lingam: 

Within the main shrine of Cave 1, there is a large stone lingam (phallic symbol) representing Lord Shiva. The lingam is considered the main object of worship and devotion in the Elephanta Caves.

Barabar Caves:

The Barabar Caves, located in the Barabar hills of Bihar, India, are a group of rock-cut caves that hold significant historical and religious importance. These caves are considered among the earliest surviving examples of rock-cut architecture in India. 

The followings are overviews of the Barabar Caves:

Date and Period: 

The Barabar Caves were excavated during the Mauryan Empire, specifically in the reign of Emperor Ashoka, around the 3rd century BCE. They were created for ascetic practices by Jain and Buddhist monks.

Construction and Purpose: 

The caves were hewn out of solid granite rock and are notable for their architectural simplicity. The primary caves in the Barabar group are the Lomas Rishi Cave and the Sudama Cave, both of which have highly polished interiors. These caves were likely used as meditation chambers and retreats by the monks.

Lomas Rishi Cave: 

The Lomas Rishi Cave is the most famous and architecturally significant cave in the Barabar group. It features a polished, cylindrical chamber with a characteristic horseshoe-shaped ceiling. The interior walls of the cave are highly polished and exhibit a mirror-like finish, which is unique among ancient rock-cut caves.

Sudama Cave: 

The Sudama Cave, adjacent to the Lomas Rishi Cave, is relatively smaller in size. It consists of a single rectangular chamber with a polished interior. The cave is known for its elegantly carved entrance.

Religious Significance: 

The Barabar Caves hold religious significance for both Jains and Buddhists. Jainism was flourishing in the region during the time of Emperor Ashoka, and the caves served as sacred spaces for Jain monks. Similarly, the caves also have connections to early Buddhist traditions.

Ashokan Inscriptions: 

The caves bear inscriptions carved into the rock surfaces, attributed to Emperor Ashoka. These inscriptions contain edicts and messages promoting moral conduct, non-violence, and religious tolerance. The inscriptions contribute to the historical and archaeological significance of the site.

Udayagiri Caves:

The Udayagiri Caves, located near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, India, are a complex of ancient rock-cut caves known for their historical and architectural significance. This cave is also known as Vidisha Cave or Besnagar Cave. These caves provide insights into the rich cultural heritage of India, particularly during the Gupta period. 

The following is an overview of the Udayagiri Caves:

Date and Period: 

The Udayagiri Caves were created during the Gupta Empire, primarily in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The Gupta dynasty, known for its patronage of art and architecture, played a significant role in the development of these caves.

Location and Layout: 

The Udayagiri Caves are situated on a hillside and consist of a series of interconnected caves carved into the sandstone rock. The complex contains both Hindu and Jain caves, reflecting the religious diversity of the time.

Hindu Caves: 

The Hindu caves at Udayagiri primarily consist of sanctuaries and cells dedicated to different Hindu deities. The most significant cave is Cave 5, also known as the Varaha Cave, which features a colossal sculpture of Varaha (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) in the form of a boar lifting the Earth goddess, Bhudevi, out of the cosmic ocean.

Jain Caves: 

The Jain caves at Udayagiri are equally noteworthy and represent the art and devotion of Jainism during the Gupta period. These caves contain sculptures, reliefs, and inscriptions related to Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual leaders). Cave 19, known as the Rani Gumpha (Queen's Cave), is one of the prominent Jain caves with elaborate carvings and a towering sculpture of a Tirthankara.

Sculptures and Artistic Elements: 

The Udayagiri Caves showcase exquisite carvings, both in the interior and on the facades of the caves. The sculptures depict various deities, celestial beings, mythical creatures, and scenes from Hindu and Jain mythology. The attention to detail, delicate ornamentation, and skillful craftsmanship make these caves remarkable examples of Gupta-period art.

Badami Caves( 600 AD):

The Badami Caves, also known as the Badami Cave Temples, are a group of rock-cut cave temples located in Badami, a town in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka, India. 

The followings are an overview of the Badami Caves:

Date and Period: 

The Badami Caves were created during the 6th and 7th centuries CE. They were constructed under the patronage of the early Chalukya dynasty, who ruled the region during that time.

Location and Layout: 

The caves are situated on the western bank of an ancient artificial lake known as Agastya Lake. There are four main caves carved into the sandstone cliffs of the area, numbered Cave 1 to Cave 4, each dedicated to a different deity.

Cave 1 (Vishnu Cave): 

Cave 1 is the largest and most elaborate cave in the group. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and showcases various incarnations of the deity, including the Varaha (boar), Trivikrama (Vamana), and Narasimha (half-man, half-lion) forms. The cave also has beautiful carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.

Cave 2 (Mallikarjuna Cave): 

Cave 2 is dedicated to Lord Shiva in his form as Mallikarjuna. It features a unique circular plan and is adorned with intricate carvings of deities, attendants, and mythical creatures. The ceiling of the cave exhibits a finely carved lotus medallion.

Cave 3 (Vishnu Cave):

Cave 3, similar to Cave 1, is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It features carvings of Lord Vishnu in various forms and depictions of scenes from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Cave 4 (Jain Cave): 

Cave 4 is dedicated to the Jain faith and is the smallest among the caves. It houses intricately carved statues of Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual leaders) and showcases the influence of Jain architecture and iconography.

Pancha Rathas or Pandava caves:

The Pancha Rathas, also known as the Pandava Rathas, are a group of monolithic rock-cut temples located in the town of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), Tamil Nadu, India. These rathas, or chariot-shaped temples, are unique architectural structures and are significant examples of Indian rock-cut architecture.  The Rathas are part of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The followings are an overview of the Pancha Rathas:

Date and Period: 

The Pancha Rathas were carved during the reign of the Pallava dynasty, specifically during the 7th century CE. They were built during the reign of King Mahendravarman I and his successors.

Architecture and Layout: 

The Pancha Rathas consist of five monolithic temples, each carved out of a single large rock formation. The Rathas are named after the five Pandava brothers from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, namely Dharmaraja Ratha (Draupadi Ratha), Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Each ratha represents a distinct architectural style and design.

Dharmaraja Ratha (Draupadi Ratha): 

The Dharmaraja Ratha is the largest and most elaborately carved among the Raths. It is dedicated to Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers. The ratha showcases various architectural elements, including a pyramidal roof, columns, and intricate carvings.

Arjuna Ratha: 

The Arjuna Ratha is dedicated to Arjuna, the renowned warrior of the Mahabharata. It is notable for its tall and slender design, resembling a chariot with an arch-shaped roof.

Bhima Ratha: 

The Bhima Ratha, dedicated to Bhima, displays a square-shaped plan and has a flat-roofed design. It features bold and robust carvings, including scenes from mythology and intricate detailing.

Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha: 

The Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha is a twin ratha dedicated to the youngest Pandava brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva. These Rathas are simpler in design compared to the others and exhibit relatively plain exteriors.

Khandagiri Caves:

The Khandagiri Caves, also known as the Cuttack Caves, are a set of rock-cut caves located on the eastern slope of the Khandagiri and Udayagiri hills near Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India. These caves are significant historical and archaeological site that holds religious and cultural importance. 

The following is an overview of the Khandagiri Caves:

Date and Period: 

The Khandagiri Caves were carved during the reign of the Mahameghavahana dynasty, which ruled Kalinga (ancient Odisha) during the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE. They were excavated for the purpose of Jain monasticism.


The Khandagiri Caves consist of various caves, both natural and artificial, scattered across the hills of Khandagiri and Udayagiri. The caves are believed to have been used as dwelling places and meditation cells for Jain monks.

Jain Caves: 

The majority of the caves at Khandagiri are associated with Jainism. The most famous cave is Cave 1, known as the Rani Gumpha (Queen's Cave), which has beautiful carvings of Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual leaders) and Yakshis (divine female figures). The carvings depict scenes from Jain mythology and religious motifs.

Ananta Gumpha: 

Another prominent cave is the Ananta Gumpha (Cave of the Serpent), which contains inscriptions and carvings of a serpent deity. It is known for its natural beauty and its association with Jain traditions.

Architecture and Carvings: 

The caves at Khandagiri feature a blend of natural formations and rock-cut architecture. The caves have ornate facades, intricate carvings, and inscriptions that depict various Jain deities and symbols. The artwork showcases the mastery of ancient sculptors and the influence of Jain iconography.

Bhaja Caves:

The Bhaja Caves, located in the Bhaja village of Maharashtra, India, are a group of rock-cut caves dating back to the 2nd century BCE. These caves are considered one of the earliest and finest examples of Buddhist rock-cut architecture in the country. 

The following is the overview of the Bhaja Caves:

Location and Layout: 

The Bhaja Caves are situated in the hills of the Western Ghats, near Lonavala. They are carved out of a hillside and consist of around 22 rock-cut caves. The caves are arranged in two main groups, known as the Bhaja Group and the Lohagad Group.

Buddhist Caves: 

The caves at Bhaja are predominantly Buddhist, serving as monastic dwellings and meditation centers for Buddhist monks. The caves feature prayer halls (chaityas) and living quarters (viharas), showcasing the architectural elements of ancient Buddhist caves.

Architecture and Carvings: 

The architecture of the Bhaja Caves displays a fusion of Buddhist and early Indian rock-cut styles. The chaitya halls exhibit distinctive features such as a horseshoe-shaped arch, wooden ribs, and a prominent stupa (a Buddhist monument). The viharas have simple living spaces with benches and stone beds. The caves also contain intricate carvings, reliefs, and inscriptions.

Karla-Bhaja Caves: 

The Bhaja Caves are often associated with the nearby Karla Caves, another renowned Buddhist rock-cut complex. Both sites share similarities in terms of architectural style and cultural significance, reflecting the influence of Buddhism in the region.

Sittanavasal Cave:

Sittanavasal Cave, also known as Arivar Koil, is an ancient Jain rock-cut cave located in Sittanavasal village in Tamil Nadu, India. It is a significant historical and archaeological site with religious importance. 

The followings are an overview of the Sittanavasal Cave:

Location and Layout: 

Sittanavasal Cave is situated on a rocky hillock in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu. It is a monolithic cave cut out of a massive stone formation. The cave is part of a larger complex that includes various rock-cut beds, inscriptions, and remnants of Jain architecture.

Jain Connections: 

The Sittanavasal Cave holds immense significance in Jainism. It was used as a Jain monastic complex and a place of meditation and worship by Jain ascetics. The cave contains remnants of ancient frescoes and inscriptions related to Jainism.

Arivar Koil: 

The central chamber of the cave is known as Arivar Koil or the Temple of the Wise. It is a rectangular hall with a vaulted roof and pillars. The chamber is believed to have been used for religious gatherings and worship.

Jaina Matha: 

Adjacent to the cave, there is a small rock-cut shelter known as Jaina Matha. It is a simple shelter believed to have been used by Jain ascetics for meditation and as a resting place.

Bagh Caves:

The Bagh Caves, also known as the Bagh Group of Monuments, are a group of nine rock-cut caves located in Bagh, Madhya Pradesh, India. These caves are renowned for their exquisite mural paintings that date back to the Gupta period, making them significant examples of ancient Indian art. 

The followings are the overview of the Bagh Caves:

Location and Layout: 

The Bagh Caves are situated on the banks of the Baghani River, nestled amidst the Vindhya Range in central India. The caves are carved into a sandstone hillside and are arranged in a row facing east.

Buddhist Caves: 

The Bagh Caves were primarily used by Buddhist monks as prayer halls and residences. They were constructed during the 5th and 6th centuries CE, during the reign of the Gupta dynasty, known for its patronage of art and culture.


The Bagh Caves follow the typical architectural style of rock-cut Buddhist caves. The cave interiors consist of spacious rectangular halls with pillared verandas, monastic cells, and sanctuaries. The caves feature intricate carvings and elaborate ornamentation.

Mural Paintings: 

The highlight of the Bagh Caves is the exceptional mural paintings that adorn the interiors of the caves. The paintings depict various themes, including scenes from the life of the Buddha, Jataka tales (stories of the Buddha's previous lives), and celestial beings.

Description Questions on Cave Architecture:


The Rock cut architecture represents one of the most important sources of our knowledge of early Indian art and history. Discuss. ( UPSC General Studies -I, 2020)


Rock-cut architecture in India represents a significant source of knowledge about early Indian art and history. Rock-cut architecture refers to the practice of carving or excavating temples, monasteries, and other structures directly into solid rock. This form of architecture was prevalent in India from ancient times and continued to be developed and refined over the centuries.

Rock-cut structures provide valuable insights into various aspects of Indian civilization, including architecture, sculpture, religious practices, and social history. They serve as a repository of artistic styles, techniques, and iconography prevalent during different periods in Indian history. These structures also depict the evolution of religious beliefs, from early Buddhist and Jain structures to later Hindu.

The Rock-cut architecture represents one of the most important sources of our knowledge of early Indian art and history in the following ways-

The most famous examples of rock-cut architecture in India include the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, which are renowned for their exquisite paintings and sculptures depicting Buddhist themes. 

The Elephanta Caves near Mumbai are another prominent example, featuring impressive rock-cut sculptures of Hindu deities. 

Other significant sites include the Badami Cave Temples in Karnataka, the Karla Caves in Maharashtra, and the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves in Odisha.

These rock-cut structures offer valuable insights into the architectural techniques employed during their construction, as well as the social, cultural, and religious context in which they were created. 

They provide evidence of the skills and craftsmanship of ancient Indian artisans, and their intricate carvings and detailed sculptures offer a glimpse into the artistic traditions of the time.

Overall, rock-cut architecture in India is not only an important source of knowledge about early Indian art and history but also a testament to the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the country.

You may like also:
Next Post »