The earliest known examples of rock architecture in India are the caves in the Barabar and Nagarjuni Hills near Patna, Bihar. They were excavated during the reign of Asoka and were dedicated to the Ajivika monks, a religious sect of the same antiquity as Buddhists and Jains, who are no longer extant. Subsequently, the Buddhists, Hindus and Jains practiced rock architecture in widely separated parts of India. As far as the Buddhists are concerned, their rock sanctuaries, called cave temples are to be found near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh; in the Kathiawar peninsula of Gujarat; in the Western Ghats round about the town of Lonavla, etc.
These ancient craftsmen who worked on these architectural forms or rock were highly skilled. There are no signs of experimentation and trials. Each edge of the construction was mathematic and every angle true. Apparently, in later times master masons were engaged to prepare shrines and halls which suited their needs. Since no precedent existed, the only option was to redesign the caves with wood. In so doing, several designs were reproduced in stone – the arch, railing, ribs to strengthen the curved roof, pillars to support it and so on. So the carpenter earned a respectable place in the society. Certain features of timber constructions were considerably copied in rock architecture even though the wooden originals perished. Examples of such workmanship can be found at Barabar Hill, Lomas Rishi Cave and at Pitalkhora. Graduating from wood to a more lasting option such as stone was a decisive step in the cultural evolution of people. Let us understand how these caves were excavated.
A portion of the naturally steep part of the hill was cleared until it was perpendicular; a level was thus provided from which the excavation can begin. On this vertical surface the façade of a Chaitya (the place of worship) or of a monastery or Vihara was marked out and a window was cut through which debris was removed, and which was kept open till the work was completed. The stone from the interior was used to build up the forefront in front of the facade. Having outlined the front, work was started at the top and continued downwards, and from the front to the rear. For correct alignment, a rough driftway was cut which was eventually removed when the floor was finished (Some of them are still intact in Ajanta).
When these excavations were discovered by Western Archaeologists late in the eighteenth century, they were termed “caves” and this word has remained till today. Damaged by landslides and earthquakes, hidden in the dense vegetation after they were abandoned, they must have resembled natural caves. It was only after the debris was cleared, the skill and artistry of the craftsmen were revealed. The Buddhist cave temples of India cannot be actually termed as “good architecture” or “good construction”. Rock architecture to all intents and purposes is not architecture – its its sculpture, but sculpture at a grand and massive scale. In India rock architecture was practiced for a considerable period from the 3rd century B.C. Under the Buddhists, it lasted till the tenth century, although there was a long period of inactivity in between.
During their existence in India, the Buddhists left in their caves a complete interesting chapter of architectural history, a sculptural record of the three great divisions in Buddhism. It is the only example of stone architecture which can be traced back to their wooden originals and which can be following in its course without detecting any foreign influence, and in which we can watch its final extinction in the regions where the religion had its origin.
As we understand the architecture of the Buddhist cave temples, it is time we embark on our journey starting with Aurangabad.