Rock-cut architecture is the creation of structures, buildings, and sculptures by carving it out of solid rock.

Large-scale rock-cut structures were built in Ancient Egypt. For example, Abu Simbel of
1200 BCE. Three main uses of rock-cut architecture were temples (India), tombs (Petra, Jordan) and cave dwellings (Cappadocia, Turkey).

Indian rock-cut architecture is mostly religious in nature. It includes cave and monolithic architecture. Paintings and sculptures are the vital components of it. Many of these contain artwork of global importance, adorned with exquisite stone carvings, and represent significant achievements of structural engineering.



The cave architecture in India is believed to have begun during the Palaeolithic period. The relics, motifs, murals and sculptures of the caves enlighten us about traditions, customs and lifestyles etc. Also, these illustrate considerable accomplishment with regard to structural engineering and artistry of those times.

We can divide it into four phases:

  1. Pre-historic caves,
  2. Mauryan period caves,
  3. First wave of construction (2nd century BC – 2nd century AD)
  4. Second wave of cave construction (5th–6th century AD)

Also we shall study some important natural cave, which are not rock-cut or man-made architecture.


  • Pre-history denotes the period before written records. The invention of writing system appeared some 5,000 years ago. But it did not appear at the same time at all the places. Also, the writing system was not used in some human cultures till recently. The end of prehistory, therefore, came at very different dates in different places.
  • Paintings and rock-cut architectures were the oldest art forms practiced by human.
  • Petroglyphs are the pre-historic paintings executed on rocks. These are created by incising, picking, carving, or abrading.

There are three major phases of pre-historic cave paintings:

Upper Paleolithic Period (40000–10000 BC)

  • They used different minerals to make colours like red, white, yellow and green.
  • Ochre was the most common mineral.
  • They used colour codes like: white, dark red and green for animals; red for hunters; green for dancers.

Mesolithic Period (10000–4000 BC)

  • The largest number of paintings belongs to this period. However, the size of the paintings became smaller.
  • Characterised by use of red colour mainly.
  • Theme: hunting, community dances, family life, grazing activity etc.

Chalcolithic Period

  • Use of green and yellow colour increased.
  • Theme: battle scenes like men riding horses and elephants, carrying weapons, social life.
  • Ashokan and Gupta period paintings and inscriptions in Brahmi script are found.
  • Paintings of ‘deer skins left for drying’ show that art of tanning skins was perfected by man for providing shelter and clothing.
  • One painting depicts musical instruments like harp.
  • Some of the paintings have complex geometrical shapes like the spiral, rhomboid and circle.
  • Example: Narsinghgarh in Madhya Pradesh.


1. Bhimbetka Caves, Raisen District – Madhya Pradesh. 30,000 BC-1,000 AD
  • A UNESCO world heritage site, the Bhimbetka rock shelters consists of seven hills and over 750 rock shelters. It exhibits the earliest traces of human life on the Indian subcontinent.
  • It was discovered in 1957 by an archaeologist V.S. Wakankar.
  • Auditorium cave is important.


  • There is marked cultural continuity from the prehistoric Palaeolithic to the recent historic till medieval. The oldest paintings are found to be 30,000 years old. However, most of the paintings belong to the Mesolithic age.
  • The theme is classified largely in two groups:
    • Prehistoric times: hunters and food gatherers.
    • Historic times:
      war scenes with men carrying weapons. Social life like children playing, women making food, community dancing, etc.
  • Simple geometric designs and symbols, stick-like human figures.
  • Natural colours like red (made from Haematite ores), purple, brown, white, yellow and green are used.
  • One rock, popularly referred to as “Zoo Rock”, depicts elephants, barasingha, bison and deer.


2. Jogimara Cave, Surguja district – Chattisgarh. 1000-300 BC
  • Located in Ramgarh hills.
  • Sitabenga cave: It is world’s oldest amphitheatre. Here can be found the world’s first message of love. The love poem in Brahmi script describes the beauty of a dancer Sutnuka. The amphitheatre was made for her by a prince Devdatta.


  • Paintings of dancing couples, animals like elephant and fish.
  • The paintings have a distinct red outline. Other colours like white, yellow and black are also used.
  • In true sense, the Jogimara Caves seem to be the first human endeavours as expert paintings.


3. Other caves
  • Chhattisgarh:
    • Shelter of Udkuda, Garagodi, Khairkheda, Gotitola, Kulgaon, etc. These shelters depict sedentary agricultural lifestyle.
    • Koriya district: Similar paintings can be seen in the Ghodsar and Kohabaur rock art sites.
    • Chitwa Dongri, Durg district: Chinese figure riding a donkey, dragons and agricultural sceneries.
  • Lakhudiyar, Uttarakhand: paintings of animals, humans and engravings of trishul and Swastika. (Lakhudiyar = 1 Lakh caves in Kumaoni language)



During the Mauryan period, the caves were generally used as viharas, i.e. living quarters, by the Jain and Buddhist monks.

The caves were used by the Ajivika sect, founded by Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. Later they became popular as Buddhist monasteries.

This period caves were marked by:

  1. Polishing inside the cave.
  2. Development of artistic gateway.

During this period, cave-architecture developed mostly under royal patronage as court art.


1. Barabar and Nagarjuni caves, near Gaya Bihar, 3rd century BCE
  • These are the earliest known examples of Indian rock-cut architecture. These began to develop as state-sponsored caves by Ashoka and his grandson, Dasharatha Maurya.
  • These caves are carved at the twin hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni. Sudama and Lomus Rishi caves are famous.
  • These exhibit an amazing level of technical proficiency.
  • Hard granite rock is cut in geometrical fashion and polished to a mirror-like finish.
  • The entrance chaitya arch is trapezoidal or semicircular. The elephant frieze is carved in high relief on it. The entrance is located on the side wall of the hall.
  • The interior hall is rectangular with a circular chamber at the back.


2. Sitamarhi Cave, Rajgir
  • It is similar to the Barabar caves in structure and polishing qualities.
  • The entrance is trapezoidal.


3. Udayagiri-Khandagiri Caves, Bhubaneswar, 1st-2nd CE BC
  • The caves are situated on two adjacent hills, Udayagiri and Khandagiri, mentioned as Kumari Parvat in the Hathigumpha inscription.
  • Most of these caves were carved out as residential blocks for Jaina monks during the reign of King Kharavela.
  • The caves are known as Gumpha (Gufa) or Leni.
  • Ranigumpha cave in Udayagiri is double-storied and has some beautiful sculptures.
  • The Hathigumpha cave Inscription is in Udayagiri. The inscription starts with Jain Namokar Mantra and highlights military campaigns of Kalinga King Kharavela.


1.1.3 FIRST WAVE OF CAVE CONSTRUCTION (2nd century BC – 2nd century AD)

In the Post-Mauryan period, the construction of Caves continued from where it was in the Mauryan Period. After the fall of the Mauryan Empire and subsequent persecutions of Buddhism under Pushyamitra Sunga, Buddhists relocated to the Deccan. Hence, the cave-building was also shifted to western India. The Western Ghats topography, with its flat-topped basalt hills and sharp cliffs was well suited for cave construction.

However, the polishing was abandoned, never to be revived. Caves like Karla and Ajanta do not have polishing at all. Mauryan caves were built under royal patronage, whereas later caves were essentially the result of donations by individuals.

As Buddhism associated traders with itself, these caves provided lodging houses along trade routes. Facades were added to the exteriors; while the interiors were designated for specific uses, such as Viharas (monasteries or Residence) and Chaityas (worship halls).

Early examples are of these caves are the Buddhist and Jain shrines. The ascetic nature of these religions inclined their followers to live in natural caves in the hillsides, away from the cities.

Plan of the caves:

  • For Chaityas: Apsidal plan with a stupa in the back.
  • For Viharas: Rectangular plan with surrounding cells.


Jain shrine or temple is known as Basadi in Karnataka. E.g. Shravanabelagola.

A monastery is a building comprising the domestic quarters for monks.


1. Bhaja Caves, Lonavala- Pune 2nd century BC
  • A notable part of the monument is a group of 14 stupas. (Hinayana)
  • Chaitygraha has some Buddha images. (Mahayana)
  • A relief shows a woman playing Tabla.


2. Karla Caves, Lonavala- Pune 2nd century BC- 5th CE AD
  • Theme: Buddhist.
  • The oldest shrine was near a major ancient trade route.
  • Great Chaitya cave is the largest rock-cut chaitya. The hall features sculptures of males and females, as well as animals.


2. Bedse Caves, Pune. 1st century BC
  • Theme: Buddhist.
  • Located near Bhaja Caves.


3. Kanheri Caves, Salsette Island, Mumbai. 1st century B.C.
  • Theme: Buddhist.
  • These are located in the forests of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.


4. Nashik Caves/ Pandu Leni, 1st Century A.D.
  • These are located in Trimbak range.
  • There are group of 24 Buddhist caves belonging to Hinayana sect. Buddha is represented through the use of motifs and symbols like throne and footprints in Hinayana sect. Later, the idols of Buddha were also carved representing influence of Mahayana Buddhism.
  • There is an excellent system of water management through water tanks carved out of solid rocks.
  • Their name has nothing to do with the characters Pandavas of the Mahabharata epic.


5. Junagarh Caves (Uparkot), Junagadh – Gujarat. 2nd–3rd century A.D.
  • It is ancient fortress.
  • Theme:
    Hindu and Buddhist.
  • Its entrance arch is a fine specimen of Hindu torana.



The first wave of cave construction declined after the rise of Mahayana Buddhism in 2nd century AD. The increased emphasis on sculptures like Gandhara, Mathura and Amaravati also contributed to the same. It could revive briefly with Ajanta and Ellora in the 6th century CE. But, soon, Hinduism replaced Buddhism in the sub-continent. The rock-cut caves were finally replaced with stand-alone temples.

Mural paintings on the walls of the caves became an added feature.


1. Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad – Maharashtra, 2nd -1st century BC and 5th century AD
  • They were covered by forest until accidentally discovered by a British officer Captain John Smith in 1819.
  • A World Heritage Site, Ajanta is a series of 29 rock-cut caves in the Sahyadri ranges on Waghora River. It has four chaitya and
    25 Viharas.

    Logic for Prelims: Viharas are always more as those are living place.

  • The caves are carved out of flood basalt rock of a cliff, part of the Deccan Traps.
  • These caves are carved on a perpendicular cliff of the Sahyadri. Hence, there are no courtyards.

  • It developed in two phases:
    • The earlier developments took place around 2nd and 1st century BC under Satavahana Kings, and belong to Hinayana.
    • It revived in the 5th century AD under the patronage of the Vakataka king Harishena. These
      are attributed to the Mahayana.
  • Like all the locations of Buddhist caves, this one is located near main trade routes. Reference of the Ajanta caves can be found in the travel accounts of Chinese Buddhist travellers Fa Hien and Hieun Tsang.
  • All 29 caves in Ajanta are Buddhist only.


  • Mahaparinirvana of Buddha
  • Naga dynasty king and his consort


  • Ajanta is the only surviving example of the mural paintings of the first century BCE and the fifth century CE.
  • Theme: both Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism, Jataka stories, life of Buddha.
  • Technique: fresco, tempera.
  • There is
    considerable degree of naturalism. E.g. hand gestures, emotions.
  • Unique feature: each female figure has a unique hairstyle.
  • Colours: use of natural colours obtained from local vegetation and minerals. There is absence of blue colour.
  • Cave No. 16 is one of the most elegant specimens of cave architecture.

    Examples: Dying princess (Cave No. 16), Flying Apsara, Paintings of Bodhisattvas in tribhanga pose: Vajrapani,
    Manjusri, Padmapani (Avalokitesvara).

    Note: Vajrapani (Buddha’s power and as a protector), Manjusri (Buddha’s wisdom) and Padmapani (Avalokitesvara) (Buddha’s compassion).


2. Ellora Caves, Aurangabad – Maharashtra 5th -11th CE AD
  • It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Sahyadri ranges.
  • The caves were carved by various guilds from Vidarbha, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Hence, the caves reflect a unique stylistic eclecticism, i.e. confluence of diverse styles at one place.
  • The caves are carved out on the sloping side of the hill. Hence most of the temples have courtyards.
  • Main features: Large caves, massive pillars,
    monumental sculptures, triple storey. Triple storey is
    a unique achievement at Ellora.
  • Inscription by Rashtrakuta Dantidurga states that he had offered prayers at that temple.

It has caves associated with the three religions Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

  • Buddhist caves: seated Buddha. Vajrayana Buddhism deities like Tara, Mahamayuri, Akshobhya etc. are also seen.
  • Hindu caves: Raavan ki khai, Dashavatar temple, Dhumar Lena, Rameshwar temple.
  • Jain caves – Digambara sect: Indra Sabha and Jagannath Sabha.

    Kailasha temple, Cave 16: It is largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world. It was developed under the patronage of Rashtrakuta king Krishna I. There is a sculpture depicting Ravana shaking Mount Kailasha. It is considered one of the masterpieces of Indian sculpture.

    Vishwakarma Cave (carpenter’s cave): Buddha is seated in front of Bodhi tree in Vyakhyana Mudra.


  • The mural paintings belong to two phases. These are mostly limited to Kailasa temple.
  • Paintings are related to all three religions.
  • Examples:

    Earlier phase: Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu

    Later phase: Lord Shiva with his followers (Gujarati Style).

    Beautiful and gracious Apsaras.


3. Bagh caves, Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh. 5th -6th century AD
  • The Bagh caves, like those at Ajanta, were excavated on perpendicular cliff of Vindhyas near a seasonal stream, the Baghani.
  • These are Buddhist caves. All of them are viharas, with a small chamber at the back forming chaitya.


  • Rang Mahal cave has beautiful murals depicting Buddhist and Jataka tales, just like those in Ajanta.
  • The main difference is from Ajanta is that the figures are more tightly modeled, have stronger outline, and are more earthly and human.
  • Compared to Ajanta, these paintings are more secular. These are materialistic rather than spiritualistic. They depict religious themes in the light of contemporary lifestyle of people.
  • These are in decayed condition and are kept in Archaeological Museum of Gwalior.


4. Udayagiri caves, Vidisha- Madhya Pradesh. 5th century AD
  • Created under the patronage of Gupta king Chandragupta-II. Inscriptions of the Gupta kings Chandragupta-II and Kumaragupta-I are present.
  • Theme:
    Hinduism and Jainism.
  • Some scholars believe that Iron pillar at the Qutb Minar, was erected by Guptas at Udayagiri.


  • Hindu: Varahah and Narasimha (incarnation of Vishnu), Shiva
  • Jain:


5. Badami Cave temples, 6th century
  • Theme: Hindism and Jainism.
  • The Badami cave temples represent some of the earliest known surviving Hindu temples in the Deccan. They along with the Aihole temples influenced later Hindu temples in India.


  • Hindu: Nataraj, Vishnu as Vaman Avatar (Trivikrama),
  • Jain: Parshvanatha and Bahubali


  • The murals resemble the tradition of Ajanta and Bagh.
  • These are among the earliest known surviving Hindu painting in India.
  • The human subjects have a graceful and compassionate look. Big, half-closed eyes with protruding lips.

    Important paintings: Brahma on his Hamsa, Shiva-Parvati Vivah,
    Jain tirthankara Adinatha, Jain saints giving up worldly life, and Chalukyan kings.


6. Sittanavasal Cave (Arivar Koil) caves, Pudukottai district – Tamil Nadu. 7th century AD
  • It is known as the Ajanta of Tamil Nadu. Sittannavasal means ‘the abode of great saints’ in Tamil.
  • Theme: Jainism
  • The cave temple with the murals is said to have been completed in 7th century AD by the Pallava king Mahendravarman I. Some scholars attribute these to Pandya ruler.


  • Unlike Ajanta, which is Buddhist in nature, Jaina themes have been portrayed here.
  • The central element of the paintings in Sittanavasal is a pond with lotuses. This scene shows Samavasarana or
    Preaching halls in Jainism.

    After having kevala-gyana, Jain Tirthankaras delivered sermons in Samavasarana. Bulls, elephants, apsaras and gods gathered in this audience hall.


7. Montepzir/Mandapeshwar Cave, Borivali – Mumbai. 8th century A.D.
  • It is a rock-cut shrine dedicated to Shiva. Sculptures of Natraja and Ardhanarishwara are present.
  • The caves were originally Buddhist viharas, before being occupied by the Brahmans. They are probably the only Bramhanical caves to be converted into a Christian shrine. The ruins of an old Portuguese-built church are present.


8. Elephanta Caves, Elephanta Island – Mumbai. 5th– 8th century
  • It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Theme: Hinduism (Shaivism) and Buddhism
  • It is excavated out of solid basalt rock.
  • It is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India and is also marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



These are not rock-cut or man-made architecture.


1. Saptaparni Cave, Rajgir, Bihar
  • Theme: Buddhism
  • Here, the first Buddhist council was held after the death of Buddha in 400 BCE.


2. Ravan Chhaya Rock Shelter, Keonjhar district – Odisha. 7th century.
  • It acted like the royal hunting lodge.
  • Sita gave birth here to Lava and Kusha.


  • Murals: Royal Procession (7th century). The remains of Chola paintings, belonging to 11th century.
  • Painted using Tempora technique.
  • The paintings have survived because they were painted at a height that protects it from human tampering as well as natural calamities. However, the original colour is fading.


3. Armamalai Cave, Vellore district – Tamil Nadu
  • These Jain caves are known for their paintings. They were converted into Jain
    temple in 8th century.
  • The beautiful murals depict the stories of Jainism and Astathik Palakas or the protector Gods of eight corners.
  • The paintings in the cave are done by two techniques, Fresco and Tempera.
  • Most of the paintings are decayed.



Monolithic structures are often rock-cut architecture. However, these might also be carved from artificial material, e.g. concrete.

The Kailash Temple, Ellora Caves is considered to be the peak of monolith rock cut architecture.

The Gommateshwara statue (Bahubali), at Shravanabelagola, Karnataka is the largest monolithic statue in the world. It was built in 983 AD and was carved from a large single block of granite rock.

Pancha Ratha temple is an example of monolith rock cut architecture.



Although many temples, monasteries and stupas had been destroyed, caves and cave temples are very well preserved. The reasons include being located far-off from human settlements and made of more durable material. There are around 1200 cave temples still in existence.

In India, the caves are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

These attract thousands of tourists and architectural enthusiasts round the year.