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Barabar Caves

Barabar Caves, Sudama and Lomas Rishi visible, India
Barabar Caves, Sudama and Lomas Rishi visible / Wikimedia Commons, Klaus-Norbert Müller, CC BY-SA 3.0

WorldBlue  In short

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.

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GPS coordinates
25.0054 N 85.0628 E
Location, address
Asia, India, Bihar, Jehanabad district, 24 km north of Gaya
Ancient shrines, Rock cut temples and monasteries
Oldest cave – 261 BC
Alternate names
Barābār, Satgharva, Satgharwa, Haft Khan, Gorathgiri

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

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.

One of the alternate names of Barabar Caves – 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 in the Western world through a thorough description made by Alexander Cunningham in 1868.

Legendary temples

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.

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".


Portal of Lomas Rishi cave, India
Portal of Lomas Rishi cave / Wikimedia Commons, Klaus-Norbert Müller, CC BY-SA 3.0

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 a few centuries earlier together with Buddhism and was characterized by a belief in determinism. In Hinduist and Buddhist sources practitioners of Ajivika were presented as strict fatalists.

Father of Ashoka was a 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 meters high Siddheshwar mountain – an interesting place with a later Shiva Temple and remnants of fortification on its top and some ancient cliff carvings as well.

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.

Barabar cliff is approximately 200 meters 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. 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. The first chamber is a large, rectangular hall (mandapa), here gathered worshippers. The second chamber is smaller, circular, with a domed ceiling. This was a place of worship, possibly with some sanctum (like stupa) in the center. 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. The barrel vault over the chamber is up to 3.3 m high. At the western end of the room, there is a 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 during some unknown times were hewn two human figures and lingam in the smooth surface of the stone. The 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 an unfinished barrel vault, through the doorway connected to a circular, domed, unpolished chamber. Cave has an interesting, arch-shaped entrance portal, imitating a wooden structure of time – it seems as if the barrel vault continues as an arch-shaped portal outside. The doorway is adorned with a procession of elephants going upwards to the stupa symbol adorning the keystone of the arch. The cave contains an inscription from later times – the 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 is seeping in.

Sudama (Sumdava, Saad Dharma, Nigoha-Kubha) – another oldest cave in complex, located opposite the Karan Chaupar and close to Lomas Rishi. The entrance of this cave is simple, functional. Consists of two rooms. The first – mandapa – is 10×6 m large, barrel vault up to 3,5 m high. Through a doorway, it is connected to a circular, domed chamber with a diameter of 6 m. At the eastern end of mandapa, there is a shallow, roughly shaped recess – most likely an unfinished extension. According to an inscription in ancient Brahmi writing, the cave is dedicated by Ashoka in the 12th year of his reign (261 BC), the cave is named "Nigoha-Kubha" – “banyan tree cave”. The 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 a 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. The entrance in the cave is simple, square cut. The walls of the 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. The 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)

Echo effect

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 otherworldly sounds. Reverberation continues for several seconds and the initial sound is continuously changing. Most likely the walls were polished exactly for the attainment of this echo effect – it must have served well for religious experiences during the chants.

  1. The Barabar Caves. A Passage to India by David Lean – last accessed on 21.03.2010.
  2. Barabar Hills. The Buddhist Heritage – last accessed on 21.03.2010.
  3. Adwaita P. Ganguly. India, Mystic, Complex, and Real: A Detailed Study of E.M. Forster’s a Passage to India : His Treatment of India’s Landscape, History, Social Anthropology…. 1990.
  4. Vincent Arthur Smith: Ashoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India. Clarendon, Oxford 1920.

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