Rock-cut Architecture

Rock-cut architecture is the creation of structures, buildings, and sculptures by excavating solid rock where it naturally occurs.  The three main uses of rock-cut architecture were temples tombs, and cave dwellings. The Oldest rock-cut architecture is the Barabar caves, Bihar built around 3rd Century BC.

Rock-cut architecture was suited India since the country had plenty of rocky Mountains, and structures excavated in stone were the ones which were most durable.

Evolution of rock-cut architecture in India

  • The earliest rock-cut caves are attributed to Ashoka and his grandson Dasaratha.
  • The early Buddhist architecture covers the period from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The excavations belonging to this period mostly consists of- the chaitya, viharas. They were mostly constructed of wood. Examples of the early Buddhist architecture can still be seen at Karla, Kanheri, Nasik, Bhaja and Bedsa and at Ajanta.

Karla Caves

  • The second phase of rock-cut architecture began in the 5th century AD. This phase was characterized by the elimination of timber and by the introduction of the image of the Buddha as a dominant feature of the architectural design. Viharas underwent a slight change during this time, the inner cells inhabited by the monks alone, now housed the image of the Buddha as well.

Buddha in Kanheri caves


  • The next and perhaps the most dominant phase in the tradition in the rock-cut tradition happen to be Dravidian rock-cut style. The primary features of this style are mandapa and ratha. The mandapa is an open pavilion excavated out of a rock. It takes the form of a simple columned hall with two or more cells in the back wall. The ratha is a monolithic shrine carved out a single rock.

Mahishamardini Rock Cut Mandapa

A few Rock-cut caves and features have been given below. These are important in the exam point of view.

Kanheri caves

  • They are located near Mumbai
  • They cover the period from 2nd to 9th century AD
  • They belong to the Hinayana phase of Buddhist architecture
  • However, additions were made when Mahayana Buddhism was gaining ground. Ex: 5th century image of Buddha
  • It has around 100 caves.
Kanheri Caves

Jogeshwari caves

  • These caves are located within the island of Salsette
  • They belong to the last stages of Mahayana Buddhism
  • Brahmanical shrines are also found here

They belong to the second half of the 8th century

Jogeshwari Caves


  • It is also called as Mandapeswar caves. It is situated near Mumbai
  • The caves are situated in Mount Poinsur, Borivali, a suburb of Mumbai. Originally, the caves were on the banks of the Dahisar Riverbut later the course of the river changed
  • They are the only Brahmanical caves to be converted into a Christian shrine
  • It has three caves which are dated to 8th century
Mandapeswar Caves

Karla caves

  • Karla caves are located on Banaghta hills near Mumbai
  • It belongs to the Hinayana period of the Buddhist architecture
  • The chaitya here is among the largest and the best preserved in the country
  • Many traders and Satavahana rulers made grants for construction of these caves.
  • The main cave, called the Great Chaitya cave, or Cave No.8, features a large, intricately carved chaitya, or prayer hall, dating back to 120 CE.
Karla Caves

Bhaja caves

  • It is located near Pune
  • They are believed to be excavated in 2nd century BC
  • It belongs to the Hinayana Buddhism sect in Maharashtra
  • These caves are notable for their indications of the awareness of wooden architecture
  • The carvings prove that tabla – a percussion instrument – was used in India for at least 2300 years
Bhaja Caves

Bedsa caves

  • It is located near Pune
  • The Chaitya resembles the great hall at Karle but is smaller.
  • It has four pillars with carvings of horses, bulls and elephants mounted by make and female riders
Bedsa Caves

Ellora caves

  • It is located in the state of Maharashtra
  • is one of the largest rock-cut Hindu temple cave complexes in the world, featuring Hinduism in particular and few Buddhist and Jain monuments with Artwork dating from the 600–1000 CE period
  • Cave 16 features the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world, the Kailash temple, a chariot shaped monument dedicated to Lord Shiva.
  • There are over 100 caves at the site, all excavated from the basalt cliffs in the Charanandri Hills 
  • All of the Ellora monuments were built during the Rashtrakuta dynasty, which constructed part of the Hindu and Buddhist caves, and the Yadava dynasty, which constructed a number of the Jain caves.
Stone pillar at Kailashnath temple
  • Cave 15 of Ellora is known as Dashavatara cave. It belongs to the period of Rashtrakuta king, Dantidurga. This cave mainly depicts Lord Shiva & Lord Vishnu in various forms. This two-storeyed structure has a large courtyard in which stands a monolithic Nandi mandapa.
  • Notable among the Buddhist caves is Cave 10, a chaityaworship hall called the ‘Vishvakarma cave’, built around 650 CE. It is also known as the “Carpenter’s Cave”, because the rock has been given a finish that has the appearance of wooden beams.
Buddha in one of the Ellora caves
  • At the north end of Ellora are the five Jain caves belonging to the Digambara sect, which were excavated in the ninth and early tenth centuries could be found
Lord Mahavira, Ellora caves
  • The Indra Sabha (Cave 32), excavated in the 9th century, is a two-storey cave with a monolithic shrine in its court. 19th-century historians confused the Jain Yakshas for alternate images of Indra that were found in Buddhist and Hindu artworks, thus leading to the temple being given the misnomer “Indra Sabha”.
Indra Sabha cave, Ellora

Ajanta caves

  • The caves are carved out of flood basalt rock of a cliff, part of the Deccan Traps formed by successive volcanic eruptions at the end of the Cretaceous geological period.
    • They are a group of rock-cut caves in the Sahyadri ranges on Waghora River near Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
    • There are a total of 29 caves. All of these caves belong to the religion of Buddhism
    • The caves were developed in the period between 200 BCE to 650 CE.
    • The construction of the caves received patronage from Vakatakas kings
    • References to these caves could be found in the observations made by the Chinese traveller Fa Hien and also Hieun Tsang
    • The earliest group consists of caves 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A. The murals in these caves depict stories from the Jataka
    • The second phase of construction at the Ajanta Caves site began in the 5th century. The second phase is attributed to the theistic Mahayana
Ajanta caves

Elephanta caves

  • It is located in Mumbai
  • They belong to 8th century AD
  • The Ganesh Gumpha is one of the earliest examples of the Brahmanical temple and has been excavated in a rock terrace, the outside consisting of a columned verandah and approached by steps flanked by sculpted elephants
  • One of the master-piece of this cave is the three faced-image of Shiva
  • Other important sculptures here are- Ravana shaking Kailasa, marriage of Shiva and Parvati, Shiva performing the Tandava dance, Ardhanariswara
Sculpture of Trimurti in Elephanta caves

Udaygiri caves

  • These caves are located in MP
  • They contain some of the oldest surviving Hindu temples and iconography in India
  • They are the only site that can be verifiably associated with a Gupta period monarch from its inscriptions.
  • Udayagiri caves contain iconography of Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaktism (Durga and Matrikas) and Shaivism (Shiva)
  • They are notable for the ancient monumental relief sculpture of Vishnu in his incarnation as the man-boar Varaha, rescuing the earth symbolically represented by Bhudevi clinging to the boar’s tusk as described in Hindu mythology
  • The site has important inscriptions of the Gupta dynasty belonging to the reigns of Chandragupta II (c. 375-415) and Kumaragupta I
  • The Udayagiri Caves complex consists of twenty caves, of which one is dedicated to Jainism and all others to Hinduism
Varaha sculpture, Udayagiri caves

Perhaps no other empire has garnered appreciation for their contribution to rock-cut architecture as Pallavas. Some of the monuments created by Pallavas during their rule through rock excavation have garnered the worldwide admiration for its beauty and the skills displayed by the artists

The Pallavas were a powerful ancient dynasty that ruled a huge part of Southern India, including present day Tamil Nadu, between the 6th and 9th centuries AD, with Kanchipuram as their capital. They are credited with introducing the Dravidian style of temple architecture.

The first Pallava shrines were rock-cut cave temples. Gradually, these evolved to monolithic shrines carved out of huge rocks, and finally culminated in “structural temples” built from scratch.

Their contribution in realm of rock-cut architecture could be seen in Mahabalipuram. Some of these are highlighted below:

  • There are multiple rock cut shrines, they consist of cave-like verandahs or mandapas with rows of pillars.
  • Most of the pillars are embellished with carved lions at their bases, a signature feature found in almost all of Pallava architecture.
  • Detailed panels depict episodes from Hindu mythology, and niches inside the caves often house sculpted deities. The Varaha Mandapa in Mahabalipuram has stunning carvings that tell stories of Varaha, the avatar of Lord Vishnu in the form of a boar.
  • The Mahishamardini Mandapa is dedicated to Mahishamardini, a form of Goddess Durga, and the Trimurti Mandapa to the trinity of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.
  • The Krishna Mandapa is known for a magnificent panel called Govardhanadhari, portraying Lord Krishna holding up the mythical Govardhana hill to protect the people of his village from torrential rains.
A panel in Varaha mandapa, Mahabalipuram
Monolithic shrines, Mahabalipuram

Comparision of art form found at Ellora and Mahabalipuram

Stylistic Similarities

  1. Mahabalipuram monuments are carved out of single stone, which is also the case in case of Ellora Kailash Temple.
  2. The reliefs, sculptures and architecture depict the gods, goddesses found in Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism
  3. The relief panels at both the monuments showcase stories of two major Hindu Epics -Ramayana and Mahabharata

e.g. The Relief panel of Arjuna’s Penance at Mahabalipuram and The relief panel of Ravana shaking Kailash at Ellora

  1. Both have rock-cut and cave temples.
      • For instance in Ellora’s Cave 21, also called Rameshwar Lena is cave and rock cut temple.
      • Similarly in Mahabalipuram Varaha cave is cave temple and pancharathas are rock cut.
  1. Gavaksha or Chandrashala a type of horseshoe arch is a common feature
      • eg. The Draupadi Ratha of Mahabalipuram and the cave 10 at Ellora both share the Gavaksha feature
  1. The carvings of the Mahisasur-Vadh in Ellora is very similar to the Pallava style in Mahabalipuram
  2. Crest Carving: – is a kind of rock carving from the outside is a dominant feature at Mahabalipuram. The same can be seen in the Kailashnath temple and Dasavatara Nandimandapa at Ellora
  3. The barrel vaulted roof a special feature of the Bhima ratha in Mahabalipuram is also a feature at Ellora caves


Apart from the similarities some distinct features make each of these architectural treasures different from the other

  1. Ellora caves have been carved out of the volcanic basaltic formation ,While those at Mahabalipuram are of granitic origin
  2. Ellora architecture also comprises Jain temples and Buddhist chaitya halls
  3. The style of figures at Mahabalipuram are more slender, less mobile, and colder in feeling
  4. While Mahabalipuram showcases deductive carving, Ellora architecture is majorly on core carving techniques.
  5. The cruciform plan of the Kailash temple at Ellora is not found in the Mahabalipuram architecture plan.