Rock cut temples

One of the most fascinating ancient architecture are the temples and building cut from solid rock.


Rock-cut architecture is the creation of structures, buildings, and sculptures, by excavating solid rock where it naturally occurs. Rock-cut architecture is designed and made by man from the start to finish. In India and China, the terms ‘cave’ and ‘cavern’ are often applied to this form of man-made architecture. However, caves and caverns, that began in natural form, are not considered to be ‘rock-cut architecture’ even if extensively modified.[1] Although rock-cut structures differ from traditionally built structures in many ways, many rock-cut structures are made to replicate the facade or interior of traditional architectural forms. Interiors were usually carved out by starting at the roof of the planned space and then working downward. This technique prevents stones falling on workers below. The three main uses of rock-cut architecture were temples (like those in India), tombs (like those in Petra, Jordan) and cave dwellings (like those in Cappadocia, Turkey).

Some rock-cut architecture, mostly for tombs, is excavated entirely in chambers under the surface of relatively level rock. If the excavation is instead made into the side of a cliff or steep slope, there can be an impressive facade, as found in Lycian tombs, Petra, Ajanta and elsewhere. The most laborious and impressive rock-cut architecture is the excavation of tall free-standing monolithic structures entirely below the surface level of the surrounding rock, in a large excavated hole around the structure. Ellora in India and Lalibela in Ethiopia provide the most spectacular and famous examples of such structures.

Gommateshwara statue was carved out from a single granite block

Rock-cut architecture, though intensely laborious with ancient tools and methods, was presumably combined with quarrying the rock for use elsewhere; the huge amounts of stone removed have normally vanished from the site. Rock-cut architecture is also said to be cut, hewn, etc., “from the living rock”.[2] Another term sometimes associated with rock-cut architecture is monolithic architecture, which is rather applied to free-standing structures made of a single piece of material. Monolithic architecture is often rock-cut architecture (e.g. Ellora Kailasanathar Temple) but monolithic structures might be also cast of artificial material, e.g. concrete. Gomateshwara (Bahubali), the largest monolithic statue in the world is situated at Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India. It was built in 983 A.D and was carved out from a large single block of granite.[3][4]



Lycian tombs cut into the cliffs along the river in Dalyan, Turkey.

A rock-cut temple in Cappadocia

Ancient monuments of rock-cut architecture are widespread in several regions of world. Some of the most ancient known examples are located on several Mediterranean islands e.g. Malta (Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni), Sardinia (Anghelu Ruju, built between 3,000 and 1,500 BCE) and others.[5]

Large-scale rock-cut structures were built in Ancient Egypt and among important monuments could be mentioned the Great Temple of Ramesses II, known as Abu Simbel, located along the Nile in Nubia, near the borders of Sudan about 300 kilometers from Aswan in Egypt. It dates from about 1280 BCE, and consists of a monumentally scaled facade carved out of the cliff and a set of interior chambers that form its sanctuary.[6] In the 5th century BCE, the Lycians, who inhabited southern Anatolia (now Turkey) built hundreds of rock-cut tombs of a similar type, but smaller in scale.[7] Excellent examples are to be found near Dalyan, a town in Muğla Province, along the sheer cliffs that faces a river. Since these served as tombs rather than as religious sites, the interiors were usually small and unassuming. The ancient Etruscans of central Italy also left an important legacy of rock-cut architecture, mostly tombs, as those near the cities of Tarquinia and Vulci.

Israelite Tomb of Absalom, with a rock-cut lower half

The creation of rock-cut tombs in ancient Israel began in the 8th-century BCE and continued through the Byzantine period.

Al Khazneh or the Treasury at Petra.

The Nabataeans in their city of Petra, now in Jordan, extended this tradition, carving their temples and tombs into the yellowish-orange rock that defines the canyons and gullies of the region. These structures, dating from 600 BCE to about 300 CE, are particularly important in the history of architecture given their experimental forms.[8] Here too, because the structures served as tombs, the interiors were rather perfunctory. In Petra one even finds a theater where the seats are cut out of the rock.

Rock-cut architecture occupies a particularly important place in the history of Indian Architecture.

The earliest instances of Indian rock-cut architecture, the Barabar caves, date from about the 3rd to the 2nd century BCE. They were built by the Buddhist monks and consisted mostly of multi-storey buildings carved into the mountain face to contain living and sleeping quarters, kitchens, and monastic spaces.[9] Some of these monastic caves had shrines in them to the Buddha, bodhisattvas and saints.[10] As time progressed, the interiors became more elaborate and systemitized; surfaces were often decorated with paintings, such as those at Ajanta. At the beginning of the 7th century Hindu rock-cut temples began to be constructed at Ellora. Unlike most previous examples of rock-cut architecture which consisted of a facade plus an interior, these temples were complete three-dimensional buildings created by carving away the hillside. They required several generations of planning and coordination to complete. Other major examples of rock-cut architecture in India are at Ajanta and Pataleshwar.

Mount Longmen as seen from Manshui Bridge to the southeast.

The technological skills associated with making these complex structures moved into China along the trade routes. The Longmen Grottoes, the Mogao Caves, and the Yungang Grottoes consist of hundreds of caves many with statues of Buddha in them. Most were built between 460–525 AD. There are extensive rock-cut buildings, including houses and churches in Cappadocia, Turkey.[11] They were built over a span of hundreds of years prior to the 5th century CE. Emphasis here was more on the interiors than the exteriors.

One of the 13 rock-hewn churches at the site of Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Another extensive site of rock-cut architecture is in Lalibela, a town in northern Ethiopia. The area contains numerous churches in three dimensions, as at Ellora, that were carved out of the rock. These structures, which date from the 12th and 13th centuries CE and which are the last significant examples of this architectural form, ranks as among the most magnificent examples of rock-cut architecture in the world, with both interior and exterior brought to fruition.[citation needed]


Ancient rock cut tombs, temples and monasteries often have been adorned with frescoes and reliefs. The high resistance of natural cliff, skilled use of plaster and constant microclimate often have helped to preserve this art in better condition than in conventional buildings.[12] Such exceptional examples are the ancient and early medieval frescoes in such locations as Bamyan Caves in Afghanistan with the most ancient known oil paintings in the world from 8th century AD, Ajanta Caves in India with well preserved tempera paintings from 2nd century BCE, Christian frescoes on Churches of Göreme, Turkey and numerous other monuments in Asia, Europe and Africa.


Indian rock-cut architecture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ellora caves. Cave 34. The yakshini Ambika, the yakshini of Neminath at a Jain Cave at Ellora

Indian rock-cut architecture is more various and found in greater abundance than any other form of rock-cut architecture around the world.[1] Rock-cut architecture is the practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock. Rock that is not part of the structure is removed until the only rock left is the architectural elements of the excavated interior. Indian rock-cut architecture is mostly religious in nature.[2][3]

There are more than 1,500 known rock cut structures in India. Many of these structures contain artwork of global importance, and most are adorned with exquisite stone carvings. These ancient and medieval structures represent significant achievements of structural engineering and craftsmanship.[4]

In India, caves have long been regarded as places of sanctity. Caves that were enlarged or entirely man-made were felt to hold the same sanctity as natural caves. In fact, the sanctuary in all Indian religious structures, even free-standing ones, retains the same cave-like feeling of sacredness, being small and dark without natural light.[5]

The oldest rock-cut architecture is found in the Barabar caves, Bihar built around the 3rd century BC. Other early cave temples are found in the western Deccan, mostly Buddhist shrines and monasteries, dating between 100 BC and 170 AD. Originally, they were probably accompanied by wooden structures, which would have deteriorated over time. Historically, rock-cut temples have retained a wood-like theme in adornment; skilled craftsmen learned to mimic timber texture, grain, and structure. The earliest cave temples include the Bhaja Caves, the Karla Caves, the Bedse Caves, the Kanheri Caves, and some of the Ajanta Caves. Relics found in these caves suggest a connection between the religious and the commercial, as Buddhist missionaries often accompanied traders on the busy international trading routes through India. Some of the more sumptuous cave temples, commissioned by wealthy traders, included pillars, arches, and elaborate facades during the time maritime trade boomed between the Roman Empire and south-east Asia.[6]

Although free standing structural temples were being built by the 5th century, rock-cut cave temples continued to be built in parallel. Later rock-cut cave architecture became more sophisticated as in the Ellora Caves, culminating ultimately in the monolithic Kailash Temple. Although cave temples continued to be built until the 12th century, rock-cut architecture became almost totally structural in nature, made from rocks cut into bricks and built as free standing constructions. Kailash was the last spectacular rock-cut excavated temple.[7]


Early caves

Oldest Rockcut cave of India Barabar Caves

The earliest caves employed by humans were natural caves used by local inhabitants for a variety of purposes, such as shrines and shelters. Evidence suggests that the caves were first occupied and altered during the Mesolithic period (6000 BC). Early examples [8] included overhanging rock decorated with rock-cut designs. The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, a World Heritage Site, are located on the edge of the Deccan Plateau, where dramatic erosion has left massive sandstone outcrops. The area’s many caves and grottos have yielded primitive tools and decorative rock paintings, reflections of the ancient tradition of human interaction with the landscape.[9]

Cave temples

Ajanta caves

When Buddhist missionaries arrived, they naturally gravitated to caves for use as temples and abodes, in accord with their religious ideas of asceticism and the monastic life. The Western Ghats topography, with its flat-topped basalt hills, deep ravines, and sharp cliffs, was suited to their cultural inclinations. The earliest of the Kanheri Caves were excavated in the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C., as were those at Ajanta, which were occupied continuously by Buddhist monks from 200 BCE to 650 AD.[10][11] As the Buddhist ideology encouraged involvement in trade, monasteries often became stopovers for inland traders and provided lodging houses along trade routes. As mercantile and royal endowments grew, cave interiors became more elaborate, with interior walls decorated in paintings, reliefs, and intricate carvings. Facades were added to the exteriors while the interiors became designated for specific uses, such as monasteries (viharas) and worship halls (chaityas). Over the centuries, simple caves began to resemble free-standing buildings, needing to be formally designed and requiring highly skilled artisans and craftsmen to complete. Theses artisans had not forgotten their timber roots and imitated the nuances of a wooden structure and the wood grain in working with stone.[12]

Early examples of rock cut architecture are the Buddhist and Jain cave basadi, temples and monasteries, many with chandrashalas. The ascetic nature of these religions inclined their followers to live in natural caves and grottos in the hillsides, away from the cities, and these became enhanced and embellished over time. Although many temples, monasteries and stupas had been destroyed, by contrast cave temples are very well preserved as they are both less visible and therefore less vulnerable to vandalism as well as made of more durable material than wood and masonry. There are around 1200 cave temples still in existence, most of which are Buddhist. The residences of monks were called Viharas and the cave shrines, called Chaityas, were for congregational worship.[12] The earliest rock-cut garbhagriha, similar to free-standing ones later, had an inner circular chamber with pillars to create a circumambulatory path (pradakshina) around the stupa and an outer rectangular hall for the congregation of the devotees.

Worship hall (Chaitya) at Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, a World Heritage Site, are 30 rock-cut cave Buddhist temples carved into the sheer vertical side of a gorge near a waterfall-fed pool located in the hills of the Sahyadri mountains. Like all the locations of Buddhist caves, this one is located near main trade routes and spans six centuries beginning in the 2nd or 1st century B.C.[13] A period of intense building activity at this site occurred under the Vakataka king Harisena between 460 and 478 A profuse variety of decorative sculpture, intricately carved columns and carved reliefs are found, including exquisitely carved cornices and pilaster.[14] Skilled artisans crafted living rock to imitate timbered wood (such as lintels) in construction and grain and intricate decorative carving, although such architectural elements were ornamental and not functional in the classical sense.[12]

Later many Hindu kings from southern India patronize many cave temples dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses. One such prominent example of cave temple architecture are the Badami Cave Temples at Badami, the early Chalukya capital, carved out in the 6th century. There are four cave temples hewn from the sides of cliffs, three Hindu and one Jain, that contain carved architectural elements such as decorative pillars and brackets as well as finely carved sculpture and richly etched ceiling panels. Nearby are many small Buddhist cave shrines.[15]

Monolithic rock-cut temples

Varaha Cave Temple 7th century

Pancha Rathas monolith rock-cut temple, late 7th century

Ellora cave 16

The Pallava architects started the carving of rock for the creation of a monolithic copies of structural temples.[5] A feature of the rock-cut cave temple distribution until the time of the early Pallavas is that they did not move further south than Aragandanallur, with the solitary exception of Tiruchitrapalli on the south bank of the Kaveri River, the traditional southern boundary between north and south. Also, good granite exposures for rock-cut structures were generally not available south of the river.[7]

A rock cut temple is carved from a large rock and excavated and cut to imitate a wooden or masonry temple with wall decorations and works of art. Pancha Rathas is an example of monolith Indian rock cut architecture dating from the late 7th century located at Mamallapuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ellora cave temple 16, the Kailash Temple, is singular in that it was excavated from the top down rather than by the usual practice of carving into the scarp of a hillside. The Kailash Temple was created through a single, huge top-down excavation 100 feet deep down into the volcanic basaltic cliff rock. It was commissioned in the 8th century by King Krishna I and took more than 100 years to complete.[16] The Kailash Temple, or cave 16 as it is known at Ellora Caves located at Maharastra on the Deccan Plateau, is a huge monolithic temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are 34 caves built at this site, but the other 33 caves, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain, were carved into the side of the plateau rock. The effect of the Kailash Temple is that of a free-standing temple surrounded by smaller cave shrines carved out of the same black rock. The Kailash Temple is carved with figures of gods and goddesses from the Hindu Puranas, along with mystical beings like the heavenly nymphs and musicians and figures of good fortune and fertility.[17] Ellora Caves is also a World Heritage Site.[18]

Free-standing temples

There is no time line that divides the creation of rock-cut temples and free-standing temples built with cut stone as they developed in parallel. The building of free-standing structures began in the 5th century, while rock cut temples continued to be excavated until the 12th century.


Panoramic view of relief sculpture at Mahabalipuram, a World Heritage Site

Rock-cut monuments in India

See also



“Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka”. Retrieved 2006-12-20.



List of rock-cut temples in India

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This is a partial list of Indian rock-cut temples by state or union territory.


Andhra Pradesh

Bojjannakonda Caves and Hilltop Monastery, Anakapalle, Visakhapatnam district

Caves at Guntupalle

Bhairava Kona


None of these have been studied scientifically yet.

Himachal Pradesh

Rock Cut Temple, Masroor

There are 15 rock-cut temples in Indo-Aryan style and are richly carved. It is a unique monolithic structure in the sub-Himalayan region. The main shrine contains three stone images of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. The temple complex is located on a hill and also has a large rectangular water pond. The temple complex is believed to be built by the Pandava during their exile, exact date is not known. As per records ancient name of the city Kangra was Bhimnagar founded by Bhima one of the Pandava brothers.


Ravana Phadi cave, Aihole in Karnataka



Madhya Pradesh


Painting of the mountain of Ellora, by Thomas Daniell (1803).


Tamil Nadu





“Study uncovers interesting details of cave temple architecture”. The Hindu (India). 27 October 2010.



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