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10 most amazing rock cut structures in India

The historical rock cut architecture of India is of unprecedented richness and variety. Several of Indian rock cut structures belong to the most amazing achievements of ancient cultures worldwide.

Below are listed 10 most amazing historical rock cut structures in India. List starts with the most amazing one - Ellora Caves and continues with somewhat less impressive ones. The last monuments in this list might be far less impressive than Ellora or Ajanta Caves but nevertheless represent an unbelievable achievement of ancient artists and artisans.

1. Ellora Caves

Kailasanatha
Ellora Caves - Kailasanatha / , Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ellora Caves (Maharashtra) belong to the highest achievements of mankind both regarding the engineering skills and arts. Words can not describe the incredible richness of artistic and phylosophical messages emanated by thousands of sculptures, drawings and inscriptions in Ellora.

This group of 34 monasteries and temples belongs to the last great cave temples of India. Temples were built for three religions - 12 Buddhist temples and monasteries (630 - 700 AD), 17 Hinduist shrines (550 - 780 AD) and 5 Jain temples (800 - 1000 AD).

Most amazing creation here is Kailasanatha (Kailash Temple). This is large (84.1 m long and 29,3 m high - two times larger than Parthenon in Athens), free standing structure with extremely complex structural planning. It was carved 100 years and in this time with extreme precision were removed 200,000 tonnes of rock. Temple was shaped to resemble the sacred Mount Kailash and originally was plastered and painted in bright colors.

Some more cave temples here represent amazing achievement of structural engineering and contain important art values of global importance - Cave 10 ("Carpenters Cave"), Cave 11 (Do Tal) with three stories, Cave 15 (Dasavatar), Cave 21 (Rameshvara), the amazing Cave 30 (Chhota Kailash - a smaller version of Kailasanatha) and the extremely ornate Cave 32 (Indra Sabha).

2. Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves - overview
Ajanta Caves - overview. / Wikimedia Commons, Ashok, CC-BY-SA-3.0

There is one serious competitor to Ellora Caves - Ajanta Caves. This is a group of 29 rock-cut Buddhist temples and monasteries made in 2nd century BC - 480 AD.

These caves contain some of the richest collections of ancient art in region and represent a phenomenal achievement of humanity. When these caves were discovered in 1819 (after being forgotten for... 1,300 years!), they left much influence on European and American art - numerous artists became essentially obsessed with the copies of Ajanta paintings and sculptures.

These caves represent amazing achievement of engineering. Some of the cave hall spaces without supports are almost as large as basketball field - and have been standing for more than 1,500 years without much change.

Caves contain the oldest known Indian paintings of historical time made in the 2nd century BC, as well as some of the best cave paintings in India in Cave 17.

3. Elephanta Caves

Elephanta Caves, Trimurti
Elephanta Caves - Trimurti / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

There is not much known about the amazing, giant chambers on the small Elephanta Island near Mumbai. But at the same time the timeless, outstanding art values in these cave temples tell a lot about the skills and genius of ancient artisans, who created this wonder somewhere in 5th - 8th century AD.

There are five rock cut Hindu shrines and two Buddhist temples on the island. Most impressive and interesting by far is the Great Cave. This 39 m deep rock cut structure is adorned with numerous large sculptures and bareliefs of very high artistic value, including the famous Trimurti - 6.1 m high sculpture with three faces of Shiva.

Caves once were covered with plaster and painted in bright colors. Nowadays only traces of this painted plaster remain.

4. Karla Caves

Karla Caves, the most magnificent rock-cut chaitya in India
Karla Caves, the most magnificent rock-cut chaitya in India. Note the ancient wooden details / Soham Banerjee, / CC BY 2.0

Karla Caves belong to oldest rock cut temples in India. Construction of these Buddhist temples started in 120 BC and continued until the middle of 2nd century AD. Some more works were done in 5th - 10th century AD.

Karla Caves might be some of the earliest rock cut caves, but the quality of their rich ornamentation and sculptures is far from primitive and belong to the best examples in ancient art.

Here is located the largest rock cut sanctuary in India. This magnificent hall was made in 1st century BC and is 45 m long and 14 m high. Some have noted that this structure in many ways looks like an inspiration for Christian cathedrals which were built thousand years later.

The ceiling of this shrine has wooden ribs. This wood has been cut 2,000 years ago and has been well preserved.

5. Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram

Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram, overview from the north
Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram, overview from the north / Liji Jinaraj, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Some of the most amazing structures in Southern India are Pancha Rathas - a group of five shrines and three large sculptures of animals, all cut from a single stone in the late 7th century AD. This unique group of monuments is located in Mahabalipuram - ancient temple city of Pallavas.

Pancha Rathas ("five chariots" in Hindi) belong to the very rare examples of rock cut architecture where whole buildings with ornate exterior and interior are cut from live cliff. Purpose of their creation is not fully understood, but they resemble a procession of temple carts, frozen in stone. These ornate, complex structures differ among themselves and might represent models of diverse typical South Indian temples.

The three animal sculptures - lion, elephant and Nandi bull - most likely are symbolically linked to a certain rathas.

6. Bhaja Caves

Bhaja Caves, entrance
Bhaja Caves, Cave No 12 / Soham Banerjee, Flickr

Circa 2,200 years ago (200 BC) there was created a group of 22 cave temples - Bhaja Caves. These Buddhist cave temples are well known thanks to their amazing, ornate facades. Caves are adorned with exquisite bareliefs.

Most impressive is Cave No 12 with its imposing portal - an enormous horseshoe arch. In ancient times this facade was hidden behind a wooden structure in the front of cave. Hall behind this facade (now - open to the outside world) is the first large rock cut shrine in India. It contains 2,200 years old wooden details.

7. Badami Cave Temples

Badami Cave 3, entrance portal
Badami Cave 3, entrance portal. / Wikimedia Commons, Dinesh Kannambadi, CC BY-SA 3.0

Badami Temples were created as the symbol of the power of the Early Chalukya dynasty in the late 6th - 7th century AD. They were built in Badami - newly built capital city of these powerful rulers.

In total here were built four cave temples - three Hindu shrines and one Jain temple.

Interiors of these temples are very ornate and represent a new style in Indian art and architecture - Chalukyan style.

Temples contain well preserved murals and very elaborate sculptures with rich symbolism. These detailed sculptures give rich insight into the culture and even fashion in this part of India in 6th century AD.

8. Masroor Rock Cut Temples (Masrur Temples)

Masroor Temples, India
Masroor Temples / Vinaykant G, / CC BY-SA 3.0

Undeservedly little known wonder of Himalayas is an amazing Hinduist temple complex - Masroor Temples.

Sometimes in the 8th or 9th century (no written sources about these ancient temples have been found) one of the characteristic sandstone ridges in Kangri valley was reshaped in a miraculous way - unknown sculptors cleaved away the cliff revealing 15 (earlier sources mention 19) steep-sided pyramids - sikharas, covered with intricate stone carvings.

In the front of this group of pyramids was hewn almost 50 m long, rectangular water tank - gan. It is almost always filled with water and mirroring the amazing temple complex.

It is possible that this is the earliest example of very important style in Hindu architecture - Nagara style.

Unfortunately much of the value of these temples has been swept away by forces of nature. Especially catastrophic was the earthquake in 1905, which turned some of the temples in ruins.

9. Kanheri Caves

Kanheri Caves, entrance in Cave 3 - the great chaitya
Entrance in Cave 3 - the great chaitya. Giant Buddhas are not visible here / , Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the basalt massif in Sanjay Gandhi National Park are located 109 (!) rock cut shrines and cells - Kanheri Caves. These Buddhist temples and cells were hewn in stone in 1st century BC - 9th century AD.

Now these caves are located close to the suburbs of Mumbai - but 2000 years ago this was a dangerous site on an ancient trade route. Traders (often - Buddhists) took it as a relief when Buddhist monks started to live in this wild forest and made cosy rooms in the basalt cliffs.

Most impressive artwork was created here in late 5th - early 6th century AD, when Kanheri Caves were the main educational centre of Mauryan and Kushan empires.

Famous are the giant - 7 m tall - Buddhas at the entrance of Cave 3. Most likely these sculptures started the amazing race for construction of giant Buddha statues, which has spread over Asia and continues up to this day. Besides this here are found many more sculptures and murals, which have left much influence on Indian art.

10. Udayagiri Caves, Khandagiri Caves, Orissa

Holy man in Khandagiri Cave
Holy man in Khandagiri Cave / Soumyaranjan Dash, / CC BY-SA 2.0

In two nearby hills - Udayagiri and Khandagiri - in 1st century BC next to some natural caves were hewn some 27 - 35 rock cut Jain temples. Some of the temples currently are turned into Hinduist shrines.

These caves contain several important monuments of art and history.

Most impressive is Rani Gumpha (Cave 1) - a structure with two floors, adorned with exquisite stone carvings and Ganesa Gumpha (Cave 10) with its beautiful stone carvings. But also many other caves here contain beautiful ornamentation and sculptures. Thus Vyaghra Gumpha (Cave 12) has amazing entrance part, formed lika a giant head of phantastic monster. Hathi Gumpha (Cave 14) contains very important monument of history - inscribed chronicles of King Kharavela's reign.

Map of 10 most amazing ancient rock cut structures in India

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India - land of rock cut architecture

The geology of Deccan Plateau and some more regions of India provides enough cliff faces and domes perfectly suitable to create rock-cut architecture.

Since the beginning of historical times (approximately 3rd century BC) India has experienced several periods of flourishing and diversity of culture and one of the best preserved forms of this rich culture is - rock cut architecture, which is found in most parts of India.

Such rock cut structures, especially cave temples were considered to be the best possibility to go away from the reality of the material world and medidate close to the heart of the mountain.

There are known more than 1,500 rock cut structures in India, which were created 2,300 - 800 years ago. Many contain artworks of global importance, and most of these cave temples are adorned with unbelievable, intricate stone carvings and sometimes - paintings. These structures themselves represent amazing achievements of structural engineering, precision and unbelievable skills of craftmanship.

About this list

Wondermondo presents a list of 10 most amazing ancient rock cut structures in India... and at the same time is not confident about this list.

May be here had to be included Sittanavasal Cave (Tamil Nadu) with some of the best preserved medieval cave paintings in India?

But may be here had to be Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple (Karnataka) - a rock cut temple which was aligned to allow sunrays to shine on shrine exactly at the time of important religious festivity?

Or may be here had to be Jogimara and Sita Bengra Caves (Chhattisgarh) - a part of 2,300 years old theatre, where one cave is covered with paintings and contains the oldest known love message in the world?

Or may be the amazing Undavalli Caves or Panhale Kaji or Pitalkhora Caves?

Well, such lists always are subjective. Wondermondo had to deal with it and now, please - see the result here.