India has the largest number of rock cut temples in the world. Spread across various states in modern India, there are hundreds of rock cut temples, also known as cave temples. Some of these are famous and world renowned; like the Ajanta and Ellora cave temples. In this article, we will explore some of India's important rock cut cave temples and their history and architecture. 

Ellora Rock Cut Temple
Abhideo21, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ellora - The Kailasa temple and other Rock cut temples

The most famous temple complex in Ellora is without doubt, the Kailasa temple, dedicated to Lord Shive. However this World Heritage Site has cave temples from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. 
The temples of Ellora was built during 600 to 1000 CE by the Rashtrakuta Kings. Ellora has 34 cave temples in total which is sprawled across an area of 2 kilometers. 
Kailasa Rock-cut temple Ellora
Kailasa Rock-cut temple of Ellora

At 2 kilometers from the Kailasa temple, which is the Cave 16 of Ellora, there is a group of Jain temples. These temples are exquisitely carved. The famous Jain cave 32 of Ellora is also called the Royal court of Indra by historians. This cave is famous for colossal yet delicate sculptures.

The Jain Group of Temples - Ellora
The Jain Group of Temples - Ellora

26 Rock Cut Temples of Ajanta, Maharashtra

Ajanta is one of the iconic archeological destinations in India. The remote site of Ajanta in Maharashtra has 26 Buddhist temples, all of them are cut into a horse shoe shaped rock. Ajanta caves were built in two different time periods. The first phase began in 2nd Century BC during the times of Satavahana dynasty  The second phase of constructions began in 463 CE during the rule of the Vakataka dynasty. Ajanta caves are Buddhist cave temples which contains beautiful mural paintings as well as sculptures. 

Ajanta Cave Temples- Overview

Click here for a more detailed, cave by cave guide for Ajanta 

Elephanta Caves

The rock cut temples of Elephanta is located on the Elephant Island, just 10 kilometers from Mumbai.
Elephanta group of temples have 5 Hindu temples and a few Buddhist stupas. 

The entrance of Elephanta Caves
EatchaCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most famous sculpture of Elephanta caves is the Trimurti sculpture. It's colossal sculpture of Shiva with three heads. Unfortunately, many of the sculptures in this island were destroyed. Most of the historians suggest that the Portuguese destroyed Elephanta caves and disfigured the beautiful sculptures. 

Most famous sculpture of Elephanta caves is the Trimurti sculpture. It's colossal sculpture of Shiva with three heads. Unfortunately, many of the sculptures in this island were destroyed. Most of the historians suggest that the Portuguese destroyed Elephanta caves and disfigured the beautiful sculptures. 
Three Headed Shiva Sculpture - Elephanta
Christian Haugen
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How did Elephanta caves get its name?

This island was locally known as Gharpuri in Marathi. It's the Portuguese who gave the name 'Elephenta' to this island as they saw a huge elephant sculpture standing on the South shore of this island. This iconic Elephant sculpture which gave the name to this island is now preserved in the Jijamata Udyaan, a park in Mumbai. 

History of Elephanta Caves

Historians note that Elephanta caves were an ancient settlement as early as 2nd Century BCE. There are different opionions about who built the rock cut temples of Elephanta. Indian historians say it was built by the Rashtrakutas in the 5th and 6th century CE while the British historians say it was built by Krishnaraja of Kalachuri.

Badami Cave Temples

The rock cut cave temples of Badami are located in Karntaka, India. These cave temples of Badami were constructed by Chalukyan dynasty circa 578 CE. There are four temples in the Badami group. Three of these are dedicated to Hindu Gods and the fourth one is temple dedicated to  Jain Thirthankaras.

Entrance of the Badami Cave Temples

These cave temples of Badami are famous for their beautiful sculptures created in almond colored stone. Experts says that Badami got its name from 'Badam' means almond in Kannada. There are various sculptures and imporant among them are Shiva as the dancing Nataraja, Vishnu seated on the serpent SeshaVaraha rescuing Goddess Earth.  Here's a detail guide for Badami cave temples.   

Shiva as Nataraja - Badami Cave Temples 


Aurangabad Caves

Aurangabad caves is located quite close to the Aurangabad city in Maharashtra, India. It's a group of 12 rock cut cave temples usually grouped into three. Most of these temples are Buddhist cave temples with an exception of few Hindu sculptures. These temples were built during the 6 and 7th century CE. Aurangabad cave temples are contemporary of Ajanta(later group) and Ellora Cave temples. 

Overview of Aurangabad Caves

Aurangabad cave temples has Buddhist prayer halls named Chaitya and many Buddha and Bodisattva sculptures. The rock cut caves are divided into Western group (Cave 1-5), Eastern Group (6-9) and an unfinished Northern cluster. 

One of the most important cave temple in Aurangabad group is Cave 4, which is a Buddhist Prayer hall. Aurangabad caves are mentioned in the Brahmi inscription found in the Kanheri Caves in Mumbai. 

Aurangabad Caves Bodhisattva Sculptures

Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves

The rock cut temples of  Udayagiri and Khandagiri is located near Bhubaneshwar in Odisha. There are 18 main cave temples in the Udayagiri hill and 15 on the Khandagiri hill. All these temples are Jain temples, dedicated to Thirthankaras

Overview of Udayagiri and Khandagiri rock cut Jain temples
BBK INDIACC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the main specialty of Udayagir and Khandagiri caves is the double storied structure. Out of the 33 caves, some caves are more elaborate and ornate. Cave 1 in Udayagiri group is known as Rani Gumpha, or Rani cave. There are multiple beautiful sculptures in this cave. Other noteworthy caves are Cave 14 which is knowns as Hathi Gumpha and Cave 10, which is known as Ganesh Gumpha. Hathi Gumpha is famous for it's ancient inscription. The inscription that dates back to 1st or 2nd century BCE describes about the conquests of Kharavela one of the kings of Kalinga. 

Rani Gumpha, Cave 1 of Udayagiri
Bernard GagnonCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mahabalipuram - Rock Cut Temples of Pallava Dynasty

Several cave temples from the era of Pallavas are spread across the small city of Mahabalipuram. This heritage site is located 56km from Chennai. Mammallapuram was an ancient sea port. Most of the cave temples in Mahabalipuram are attributed to the great Pallava dynasty starting with Simhavishnu. From 550 CE. These rock cut temples are locally known as Mandapas. 

Mahishsura Mardini Cave temple

There are mainly nine cave temples around the town of Mahabalipuram. They are: The Krishna Cave Temple, Varaha Mandapa, Mahishasura Mardini Mandapa, Ramanuja Mandapa, Trimurthi Mandapam, Adi Varaha Cave temple, Kotikaal Mandapa, and Dharmaraja Mandapa.

Front side of the Trimurthi Cave Temple
By Destination8infinity[CC BY-SA 3.0 ()], via Wikimedia Commons

Mahabalipuram also has a seperate group of stone cut temples known as 'Pancha Ratha' or 'Five Chariots.' These temples are of monolithic and almost follows the pattern of cave temples. 

The Panch Ratha complex 
By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra  [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Ravanphadi Cave - Aihole

This is a relatively small cave temple located in the Aihole village, near Badami, Karnataka. This small cave temple was built during 540 AD and it is considered to be the predecessor of the famous Badami cave temples. 
Ravanphadi Cave - Aihole

This small natural cave temple houses one of the most beautiful sculptures in India - The Ten-handed Shiva or Nataraja sculpture. Apart from the ten handed Shiva, this cave temple has multiple sculptures including “Durga slaying demon Mahisha” and “Varaha rescuing the Bhumi Devi (Earth goddess).

Ten handed Nataraja Sculpture - Aihole

Bhag Rock Cut Caves - Madhya Pradesh

The Bhag group of rock cut Buddhist caves are located 97km from the town of Dhar in Madya Pradesh. These Buddhist temples are famous for their mural paintings. These paintings are comparable to the paintings of Ajanta caves. Out of the nine caves of Bhag, cave number 4 is most ornate and is known as Rang Mahal. 

Bhag Cave Temples Overview
Nikhil2789CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The construction period of Bhag cave temples are estimated to be 5th and 6th century CE. Most of these caves are Viharas or resting places for Buddhist monks. Cave number 2 of Bhag is also famous for its mural paintings and it's known as the Pandava cave. 
BilalkhatriCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Karla Rock Cut Temples 

The ancient Buddhist rock cut temples at Karla is located 10 kilometers from the famous Lonavala in Maharashtra. These  temples dates back to 2nd-5th century BCE. Karla caves has the Biggest Buddhist Chaitya (prayer hall) in South Asia. 
Mriganka DasCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Karla caves are believed to be built by the Satrap ruler Nahapana. There are several other rock cut temples in the vicinity of Karla caves. These are Bedse Caves, Patan Buddhist Cave, Bhaja Caves, and  Nasik Caves.

Entrance of Bhaja Caves 
Photo Dharma from Sadao,
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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