Asia, India, Bihar, Jehanabad district, 24 km north of Gaya
Oldest cave - 261 BC
Barābār, Satgharva, Satgharwa, Haft Khan, Gorathgiri
Most likely no other country in the world is that rich with exquisite cave temples as India – there are more than 1000 locations with such temples. Some of the earliest rock-cut temples in India are Barabar Caves. While some scientists consider Babarbar Caves to be the oldest ones, some others though consider that the mysterious Son Bhandar Caves in Rajgir are a bit older. Most likely Barabar caves were hewn in the monolithic granite cliff during the reign of the great Mauryan king Ashoka (Asoka) - at least inscriptions on the walls of caves tell that king Ashoka dedicated some cave chambers to Ajivika followers.
Name Satgharwa means "seven houses" – some consider that this refers to seven rooms in Barabar Caves, but some – that this refers to seven caves of this area - four in Barabar and three - in nearby Nagarjuni Hills (see Nagarjuni Caves).
Caves were discovered to Western world through a thorough description made by Alexander Cunningham in 1868.
These caves seem to be mentioned in "Mahabharatha" under name "Gorathgiri" – the same place name has been identified on cliff inscriptions at Barabar as well.
More recent and famous work where these caves take significant role, is a novel by E.M.Forster "A Passage to India".
In some respects the mouth of one cave – Lomas Rishi – resembles also the Doors of Durin leading to the Mines of Moria in the fiction of J.R.R.Tolkien. Even a mysterious inscription is there.
King Ashoka (reigned in 273 – 232 BC) and his son Dasaratha were Buddhists but their state had religious freedom. Several Jain sects and branches flourished in this time among other religious and philosophical trends.
One of such trends was Ajivika (Ājīvika) – considered by many to be a separate belief – in some respects rather an atheistic movement in philosophy. This deeply ascetic movement originated few centuries earlier together with Buddhism and was characterised by belief in determinism. In Hinduist and Buddhist sources practitioners of Ajivika were presented as strict fatalists.
Father of Ashoka was believer of this philosophy and during Ashoka’s time it reached its peak of popularity. This belief has not survived up to this day and in fact there is little known about it. Unfortunately no original scriptures of this ancient philosophy have survived.
Secrets of Barabar cliff
The granitic (rather – quartzite gneiss) monolith of Barabar cliff north from the Punpun River near its mouth in Phalgu River resembles a dark, sinister submarine rising from the soil. It is located at the base of the 300 metres high Siddheshwar mountain – interesting place with a later Shiva Temple and remnants of fortification on its top and some ancient cliff carvings as well.
Barabar cliff is approximately 200 metres long and contains several very interesting monuments of history, notably – four rock-cut caves. These caves are hewn out in the very hard monolithic stone and only one – Lomas Rishi has masonry details at the entrance portal. Interesting peculiarity of caves is their highly polished surfaces (famous "Mauryan polish") and high degree of symmetry – in fact it is not quite clear how people 2,200 years ago did this. Entrance portals in several caves (Karan Chaupar, Visva Zopri) resemble Egyptian architecture to some researchers. These portals with sloping jambs in the desolate landscape somehow resemble also sights from "Star Wars" movies.
Three caves have two chambers. First chamber is large, rectangular hall (mandapa), here gathered worshippers. Second chamber is smaller, circular, with domed ceiling. This was a place of worship, possibly with some sanctum (like stupa) in the centre. Now these chambers are empty. It has been speculated that these circular premises have been inspired by the ancient beehive houses.
The four caves
Northern side of the hill contains cave named Karan Chaupar (also Karna Chaupar, Karan Chopar, Karnachopar) with floor area 10 x 4.2 m. Barrel vault over the chamber is up to 3.3 m high. At the western end of the room there is platform – the only unpolished detail. To the right from the entrance there are seen traces of inscription from 245 BC – cave here is named Supiya and hill - Khalatika: "The King's Grace, when he had been consecrated nineteen years, granted the (?) Supiya Cave in the (?) Khalatika Hill for as long as sun and moon endure." (4). Later it has been named also Bodhimula (The root of intelligence), Daridra Kandara (the cave of the poor).
Further to the west in unknown times there are hewn two human figures and lingam in the smooth surface of stone. Southern side of the hill has two very interesting caves.
Lomas Rishi is one of the oldest rock-cut chambers in India. It consists of rectangular, partly polished mandapa - with unfinished barrel vault, through the doorway connected to a circular, domed, unpolished chamber. Cave has interesting, arch-shaped entrance portal, imitating a wooden structure of time – it seems as if the barrel vault continues as arch-shaped portal outside. Doorway is adorned with a procession of elephants going upwards to the stupa symbol adorning the keystone of arch. Cave contains inscription from later times – 7th – 8th century AD referring to kings Sarddulavarman and his son Anantarvarman, Maukhari dynasty. Inscription mentions, that Anantarvarman placed an image of Lord Krishna in the cave. Above this cave in 1914 there was discovered an inscription which names the hill – Gorathagiri – name mentioned in Mahabharatha.
Unfortunately lately cracks have developed in the cave and water during the rain seeped in.
Sudama (Sumdava, Saad Dharma, Nigoha-Kubha) – another oldest cave in complex, located opposite the Karan Chaupar and close to Lomas Rishi. Entrance of this cave is simple, functional. Consists of two rooms. The first – mandapa – is 10x6 m large, barrel vault up to 3,5 m high. Through a doorway it is connected to a circular, domed chamber with diameter – 6 m. At the eastern end of mandapa there is shallow, roughly shaped recess – most likely unfinished extension. According to inscription in ancient Brahmi writing, the cave is dedicated by Ashoka in 12th year of his reign (261 BC), cave is named "Nigoha-Kubha" – "banyan tree cave". Inscription reads: "This Banyan-tree cave was granted to Ajivikas by the King's Grace when he had been consecrated twelve years." (4)
This cave has the most amazing polishment, and it feels as if the cave has been layered with a sheet of glass.
Most likely this cave in earlier times had more complex entrance portal – excavations have unearthed pieces of pillars.
Fourth cave – Visva Zopri (Vishajhopri, Visvajhopri) – can be reached by simple steps cut in stone - "Ashoka Steps" 500 – 1000 metres north-west from the other three caves in south-facing cliff face. Entrance in the cave is simple, square cut. Walls of cave are not polished. This cave also has two chambers – both have approximately cubical form and are connected through a doorway. Both cubes have approximately 2 m long sides. Cave contains several lines of Brahmi inscription: "This cave in Khalatika Hill was granted to the Ajivikas by the King's Grace, when he had been consecrated twelve years." (4)
The most unusual feature of caves is their echo effect. Vault and the polished walls in the enclosed, small room make perfect conditions for making otherworldy sounds. Reverberation continues for several seconds and initial sound is continuously changing. Most likely the walls were polished exactly for attainment of this echo effect – it must have served well for religious experiences during the chants.