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‘The rock-cut temples in India preceded stone building’

Julian Huxley gives his impressions of the major monuments of Indian rock-cut architecture

Originally published in AR September 1956, this piece was republished online in April 2016

Below is the two storey temple at Bhuraneshwar, the capital of Orissa, and below it, are some of the twenty-nine cave-temples of Ajanta, carved into a vertical cliff-face. The three-headed figure of Sira above, is one of the ranking masterpieces of Indian sculpture, and the glory of the Elephanta caves, near Bombay.

In 1819, a young British officer, when on a shooting party in the hilly country of the Western Ghats north of Aurungabad, came to the rim of a deep ravine; looking down, he saw a row of openings with carved façades all along the curve of the vertical cliff across the gorge; he descended and found that the black openings were the entrances to a series of twenty-nine temples excavated in the solid rock, all richly carved, and some covered with splendid paintings. He had rediscovered the Ajanta cave-temples, built or rather excavated by Buddhists between the end of the third century B.C. and the early part of the seventh century A.D., and long faded from public memory. The story has often been told; but it bears re-telling because the discovery was so dramatic and also so important.

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Portada jpg

There is rock-cut architecture in other parts of the world - the fantastic tombs and façades of Petra and some of the great tomb-temples of Upper Egypt leap to mind, and along the Seine there are chalk-cut cave-dwellings and the cave-church near Les Andelys. But nowhere else than in India is there such a wealth or variety of rock-cut temples, spread over so long a period of time. For long, indeed, India preferred solid rock to hewn stone as the material to confer permanence on religious buildings, whether to provide enduring embodiments of belief or house-room to a continuing succession of dedicated believers. In all countries, woody material has preceded stone in architecture. But whereas in ancient Egypt, for instance, the vegetable prototype was transposed directly into a stone construction, in India, it seems, it was first translated into a rock-cut religious edifice, not a building in the strict sense, but a carving. Only later were free-standing stone temples attempted. And, as in many other countries, stone was not used for dwellings, even for palaces, until long after it was employed for temples and shrines.

‘Nowhere else than in India is there such a wealth or variety of rock-cut temples’

This last statement needs a little qualification, for stone seems to have been used for fortifications and ramparts at least by the sixth century B.C., and there were megalithic constructions in Vedic times. Furthermore, the free-standing railings round the stupas or holy mounds of earth that represent enlarged tumuli, were translated directly from wood to stone before the second century B.C., and of course Asoka’s pillars of the third century were free-standing. But the first stone chambered edifices seem to have been rock-cut, not built.

They are of two distinct kinds - caves and monoliths, the former excavated, the latter carved out of the living rock as a sculptor carves a statue out of a block of marble. At their highest peak, both types may become large many-roomed constructions, sometimes two-storeyed, or in the case of the monoliths, even with several storeys. Both caves and monoliths may be embellished with splendid sculpture, it too of course executed in the rock-mass.

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Portada 2 jpg

The two monolithic sites I visited - the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram on the coast south of Madras and the Kailasha Temple at Ellora - are both remarkable, though in very different ways. At Mahabalipuram (sometimes spelt Mamallapuram) an entire section of a low granulitic ridge has been cut away to leave five monolithic temples or Raths, with attendant sculptures, while close by the face of the ridge has been converted into a huge sculptured panel, as impressive in its way as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

The entire complex was carried out in the seventh century by the rulers of the Pallava dynasty. The Raths can be described as architectural sculptures - miniature rock-cut representations of contemporary structural buildings. Very interestingly, they are of three distinct styles, 5 and 6. The smallest and doubtless the most primitive is a simple cell, only 11 ft. square, surmounted by a roof imitated from thatch, such as can still be seen in some modern Indian huts.

Two other Raths represent temples of the so-called Vesara type. These are modifications of the early Buddhist form of shrine known as a chaitya- hall, which we shall see more characteristically at Ajanta and Ellora. These are rectangular, with a barrel roof imitating wood construction, a carved façade, and an apsidal inner end.

‘The multitudinous figures of men and animals are all life-size’

Two others represent Hindu adaptations of Viharas or Buddhist monasteries. They are square buildings, the larger 35 ft. high, with open verandahs below, and then a series of three recessed terraces, lined with small-scale representations of the monks’ cells (and, in one Rath, of the monks themselves looking out). The whole is surmounted by a bulbous stupika, which is a miniature representation of a Buddhist stupa (tape) or burial mound: smaller stupikas appear at the corners of the terraces. The ascending terraces symbolize different aspects of divinity: (in original Buddhist constructions, as in the stupendous Javanese sanctuary of Borobodur, they symbolize the spiritual ascent towards Nirvana).

In Indian sacred art, as in Gothic, sculpture plays an essential role. Usually the sculpture is an integral part of the architecture. Thus the Raths have some fine figures carved out of their substance. The style somewhat resembles that which we shall see at Ellora, but the figures are here more slender, less mobile, and colder in feeling. Sometimes, however, we get free-standing sculpture. Here, alongside the Raths, portions of the rock-ridge have been carved into the likeness of the animal ‘vehicles’ of three divinities - Indra’s elephant, Durga’s lion, and Siva’s Nandi bull, all of them of a massive grandeur: the elephant in particular shows a striking simplification of form.

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Good jpg

But the most remarkable work of pure sculpture at Mahabalipuram, and perhaps in the whole of India, is the gigantic composition, carved on the face of the rock-ridge, known as the Descent of the Ganges. It represents the descent of the sacred river from its Himalayan source, through a multitude of living creatures-animals, holy men and supernatural beings - all rendering praise or obeisance to Siva. Down the central cleft originally flowed a stream of water representing the river, supplied from a basin above and behind the rock. The multitudinous figures of men an animals, including the magnificent elephants, are all life-size.

The stylistic conception is characteristically Indian: the animals and the men (including the wonderful sage in penitential meditation) are robustly naturalistic, while the supernatural inhabitants of water and air, the nagas and devas, partake of some supernatural essence. The realism, in fact, is so comprehensive that it can include both the material and the spiritual aspects of reality. Apparently the work was never finished, for at its base there are indications of blocking-out for a further array of figures. On the hill behind, close to the modern lighthouse, is another unfinished work, a Rath left unachieved when the Mamalla dynasty came to its end. It shows how (as apparently in all rock-cut constructions) the work was begun at the highest point .

‘It is not clear wheter this is an adaption to the natural rock overhang, or whether the excavation was never fully finished’

Not far away are some rock-cut cave-temples, I think of later date. Actually they are not caves in the ordinary sense of the word, but excavated verandahs, long and shallow, with segments of rock left along their outer edge and carved into supporting pillars. The inner walls have some fine sculptured panels. One represents Vishnu in his boar-headed avatar or incarnation carrying his goddess-wife in his arms. Another, in a different shrine, shows Vishnu asleep – a wonderful portrayal of repose. In the eighth century, a later dynasty erected a superb temple of slender vihara type on the seashore nearby, but as this is a built construction, it does not come into our present story. However, close below it is a hermit’s cell excavated in a rock actually washed by the waves.

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IMAGE 4 jpg

Such rock-cut cells are not uncommon. There are several in the hills behind Bhuraneshwar, the capital of Orissa, inluding one with its overhanging entrance fantastically carved into the likeness of the head of a gigantic and ferocious animal - whether a serpent or a stylized tiger it is hard to say. The carved caves on this site total 63. Besides cells they include some large templesof the shallow ’verandah’ type, with sculputured panels on their walls. One is two-storeyed, with a fenestrated ground floor, and a fisrt in the shape of a balcony, supported by square pillars. These are of varying height, but it is not clear wheter this is an adaption to the natural rock overhang, or whether the excavation was never fully finished.

Leaving the east coast, we now go to Western India. The Elephanta caves on an island close to Bombay are the most widely known of all Indian cave-temples, but this is because they are so easily accessible from the great city. To me at least they do not compare in strangeness with Mahabulipuram or in grandeur and beauty with Ajanta and Ellora, though they do contain some splendid sculpture, including one supreme work of art, in the shape of the gigantic figure of the Siva Trinity, with one of the three heads, august and serene, representing Siva as supreme power, the second angry and destructive, and the third a strange embodiment of youthful but pouting masculine beauty.

‘The verandah has enormous projecting eaves imitating timber construction, a remarkable piece of rock-carving!’

From Bombay, first by train through the romantic gorges of the scarp of the Western Ghats, and then by car over the dissected plateau, we reach Ajanta. No fewer than twenty-nine sacred caves were excavated in the trap-rock of the gorge, during a period of eight or nine hundred years before the decline and supersession of Buddhism in India. These may be treated together with the twelve Buddhist caves at Ellora, which date from the closing period of Indian Buddhism, from 350 to nearly 700 A.D. These Buddhist caves are of two types-the more numerous viharas or monasteries for Buddhist monks, and the chaityas or sacred halls for assembled worship or meditation. The viharas are generally square in plan, with cells round a central space. ln the more elaborate ones, the flat roof is supported by rows of pillars, and there is a sanctuary or chapel at the inner end. They are usually entered through a verandah supported by pillars. One, at Ellora, seems to have been designed as a refectory or a place of secular assembly.

The chaityas, on the other hand, are long rectangular halls, with an apsidal end and a upcurved vaulted roof, copied from timber construction. There is a prominent shrine of dagoba type (i.e., a miniature modified stupa) in the apse, and the central space is surrounded by a continuous aisle, access to which is had between a row of high pillars. The exterior generally presents a richly-carved façade. This often included a window with horseshoe opening and double ogee moulding – a characteristic but not very attractive feature of this period of Indian architecture.

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Collage 2 jpg

The carved pillars of the later viharas are of a wonderful variety and richness. Sometimes, fluted circular columns emerge from a square rock-base: the capitals of some are double cushions or’ turbans,’ of others single cushions surmounted by a laterally spreading member supporting the roof; still others are rectangular in section, with slightly tapering sides and carvings reminiscent of Renaissance design on their face, and surmounted by a carved horizontal slab.

The verandahs of the viharas are sometimes simple, but the later ones frequently elaborate, with abundance of carving. In some cases they are two-storeyed, with a balcony above the verandah. At Ellora, where the cave-temples are cut into a rock-slope instead of into a vertical cliff-face as at Ajanta, the verandah forms the back wall of a spacious open court. In one such case, the verandah has enormous projecting eaves imitating timber construction, a remarkable piece of rock-carving!

Ajanta is above all famed for its paintings - the greatest treasure of early Indian pictorial art. They have been described and reproduced in a number of publications, so I shall not attempt to discuss them here qua paintings. However, painting was also employed at Ajanta as decoration for architecture. In particular, the roofs of some caves are carved to imitate coffering, and the square coffers are occupied by painted designs of – to me at least - surprising type. Some are in black and white, with rich floral patterns, while in others animals or female figures emerge from the flowery background.

 ‘The whole was one single piece of sculpture-surely the largest and most elaborate the world has ever seen’

Finally we come to the sacred site of Ellora, which was doubtless developed in imitation or emulation of Ajanta. I shall not try to describe in detail the sixteen Hindu (Brahman) and the five Jain cave-temples which were excavated at the same time as or later than the twelve late Buddhist ones. In general they have the same general plan as their prototypes, though all of course have Hindu instead of Buddhist iconography as the basis for their sculptures and paintings, and some have little rock-cut chapels in their fore-courts. I shall concentrate on the stupendous monolith of the Kailasha temple. This, dating from the second half of the eighth century, is one of the most extraordinary man-made structures that I have been privileged to see; and certainly the most impressive monument of ancient Hinduism. It is dedicated to Siva, and is intended as an architectural representation of the god’s home, the sacred Mount Kailasha. The representation is not merely a symbolic one: the profile elevation of the building is stated to resemble that of the actual mountain in the Himalayas. According to Rowland, it and other architectural representations of sacred Hintalayan mountains were originally painted white to symbolize the snowcapped summits.

The great temple, as large as the Parthenon in ground-plan but one-and-a-half times as high, has been hewn out of the side of a mountain ridge. Three enormous trenches were cut down from the sloping upper surface of the ridge, producing a huge quarry with three vertical walls, but open to the lower ground on the fourth side, and with the hundred-foot-high monolithic mass in its centre. To obviate the impression of the temple being sunk in a dark pit, the lower 25 ft. of the central monolith was left as a podium on which the temple proper is elevated. The podium is carved in full relief with figures of animals: the frieze of the fore-parts of elephants emerging from the rock on the innermost face of the podium and seeming to support the great mass above on their backs is especially impressive.

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Imageb jpg

The temple is flanked by two enormous free-standing columns, elaborately carved, and on one side by a life-sized elephant on the quarry floor. Further, it is connected by stone bridges with subsidiary halls and verandahs cut in the side walls, so that the quarry constitutes a courtyard for the shrine. The temple itself is very elaborate. It is roughly cruciform in shape, with an asymmetrical pair of pillared ‘ porches ’ or mandapas, corresponding to the transepts of a Christian church, forming the short arms of the cross. Along its main axis, there is a series of mandapas with an ambulatory outside them, leading to the dark and massive-walled cella, the holy of holies where a huge lingam of Siva is still worshipped, and round which five lesser shrines are placed. Over this holiest area, at the innermost end of the mass, rises the spire with its four recessed terraces and its crowning stupika, a much enlarged version of the spires of the vihara Raths at Mahabalipuram.

Never shall I forget the view of this from above. I had climbed up the stony flank of the ridge in the oven-like heat of an Indian April mid-day. From the lip of the quarry I looked down on the great pyramidal spire, standing out boldly in bright sunshine against the black-shadowed wall of the quarry. On the topmost terrace was a white speck, which my field-glasses revealed as an Egyptian Vulture (Neophron) on its nest.

‘The whole is like a superb stage-setting of a cosmic drama’

The next section of the roof had at its centre a circular drum, surmounted by four stone animals (all, be it remembered, carved out of the single mass), and bordered with little stone templicules. Beyond this again was a rectangular structure of very satisfying proportions, topped by carved cornices, and with beautifully spaced figures flanking its plain entrance doorway on its longer side.

Wandering through the halls and shrines, up and down flights of stone steps, and round the ambulatories, my admiration of the grandiose design of the building and of the lovely detail of its figure sculptures was interrupted by constant shocks of surprise and wonder that the whole was one single piece of sculpture-surely the largest and most elaborate the world has ever seen. The figure sculpture is noteworthy in itself. The flying figures on the walls, though wingless, convey the sense of airborne flight more convincingly than any winged angel; and the Atlas dwarf supporting one corner of a cornice is a delightful grotesquerie. The finest of all the sculptures, ‘The shaking of Kailasha,’ I was unfortunately unable to photograph. It is embedded so deeply in its stone frame (symbolizing in a moving way the idea of daimonic forces in the interior core of things) that it is illuminated only at certain times of day, which were not those of our visit.

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Image 6 jpg

It represents an incident in the Ramayana. The giant demon Ravana, having penetrated the bowels of Mount Kailasha, is attempting to uproot it so as to use its store of sacred energy as a weapon against his enemy Rama. Multi-headed and multi-armed, in the cave of a deeply-cut recess, he is exerting all his force to break the rock-mass asunder. But Siva, high in air on the summit of the much-stylized peak, shows the effortless superiority of his power; relaxed and serene, he frustrates the demon’s violence by a light pressure of one foot on the surface of the mountain. His goddess-wife Parvati shrinks against him as she feels the trembling of the solid rock beneath, while her maidservant runs towards her in fear. The whole is like a superb stage-setting of a cosmic drama. This theatrical (but not theatrical) style of sculpture, which was continued in the sculptures at Elephanta, is so far as I know a purely Hindu invention.

Reluctantly leaving Ellora, we drove to Aurungabad, to find there a reminder of the amazing variety of Indian architecture - one of the southernmost specimens of Moghul building, a domed tomb very like the Taj Mahal on a reduced scale. But that is another and very different story.