Karla Caves: A Perfect Example of Buddhist Rock-Cut Architecture 

Karla Caves is a stunning example of Indian architecture that is considered to be the epitome of the evolution of Buddhist cave architecture. The Karla Caves are a complex of ancient Buddhist Indian rock-cut caves at Karla near Lonavala, Maharashtra. Around 10 kms from Lonavala, the caves are one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple complexes in India. The caves at Karla were constructed over a long period, starting around 160 BCE to 600 AD. The group of caves may be smaller when compared to the many rock-cut Buddhist sites in Maharashtra but is one of the best-known due to the famous “Grand Chaitya” (Cave 8). Grand Chaitya is “the largest and most completely preserved” chaitya hall of the period, and contains unusual quantities of fine sculpture, much of it on a large scale. 

According to epigraphic sources, the caves were constructed under the patronage of the merchants, traders and the Satvahana rulers. Historically, the caves were located at a strategic region that marks the division between North India and South India. Buddhists, having been identified with commerce and manufacturing through their early association with traders, tended to locate their monastic establishments in natural geographic formations close to major trade routes so as to provide lodging houses for travelling traders. 

Intricate row of capitals.
Image Credits: Wiki Commons 

What Makes The Grand Chaitya Special? 

The grand Chaitya at Karla, is the largest rock-cut chaitya in India, measuring 45 meters (148 ft) long and up to 14 meters (46 ft) high. The Chaitya has massive pillars that have bas-relief figures of males and females, mounted on animals such as lions, elephants, etc. It also has a stupa in the centre. Outside the Chaitya, there are two 15 meters high pillars, only one of them remains as of now. Four lions adorn the top of the pillars. 

The sculptures in Karla cave can be seen dotting the verandah as well as on the pillar capitals inside the chaitya griha. Many sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas were also carved in the verandah after the 5th century CE. Some traces of the paintings belonging to the 5th – 6th centuries CE can also be seen on the pillars in the hall. Many pillars in the hall bear inscriptions in Brahmi script and Prakrit language, that mention the names of the patrons and their origins. 

Entrance of the Chaitya hall.
Image Credits: Wiki Commons 

The Rock-Cut Architecture 

As some scholars have pointed out, the majority of the construction in the earlier centuries before the common era was being done with perishable materials like wood. When tracing the history of Indian architecture, rock-cut architecture is one of the earliest forms found in the sub-continent. 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 makes up the architectural elements of the excavated interior. 

The oldest example of rock-cut architecture can be seen at the Barabar caves. Buddhist caves generally followed an apsidal plan with a stupa in the back for the chaityas, and a rectangular plan with surrounding cells for the viharas. One of the curious elements of these caves is the roof timbers or lintels replicated in stone to considerable visual effect, but in others, actual timber was used, for purely aesthetic rather than structural reasons. This shows that the artisans who constructed these grand structures were used to building with wooden materials and were trying to apply those techniques on stone! 

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