The rock-cut caves scattered across the volcanic hills of the northwestern Deccan rank among the most extraordinary religious monuments in Asia. Ranging from tiny monastic cells to elaborately carved temples, they are remarkable for having been hewn by hand from solid rock. Their third-century-BC origins seem to have been as temporary shelters for Buddhist monks when heavy monsoon rains brought their travels to a halt. Modelled on earlier wooden structures, most were sponsored by merchants, for whom the casteless new faith offered an attractive alternative to the old, discriminatory social order. Gradually, encouraged by the example of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the local ruling dynasties also began to embrace Buddhism. Under their patronage, during the second century BC, the first large-scale monastery caves were created at Karla, Bhaja and Ajanta.
The Hinayana school
Around this time, the austere Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) school of Buddhism predominated in India. Caves cut in this era were mostly simple worship halls, or chaityas – long, rectangular apsed chambers with barrel-vaulted roofs and two narrow colonnaded aisles curving gently around the back of a monolithic stupa. Symbols of the Buddha’s enlightenment, these hemispherical burial mounds provided the principal focus for worship and meditation, circumambulated by the monks during their communal rituals.
The Mahayana school
By the fourth century AD, the Hinayana school was losing ground to the more exuberant Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”) school. Its emphasis on an ever-enlarging pantheon of bodhisattvas (merciful saints who postponed their accession to nirvana to help mankind towards enlightenment) was accompanied by a transformation in architectural styles. Chaityas were superseded by lavish monastery halls, or viharas, in which the monks both lived and worshipped, and the once-prohibited image of the Buddha became far more prominent. Occupying the circumambulatory recess at the end of the hall, where the stupa formerly stood, the colossal icon acquired the 32 characteristics, or lakshanas (including long dangling ear-lobes, cranial protuberance, short curls, robe and halo) by which the Buddha was distinguished from lesser divinities. The peak of Mahayana art came towards the end of the Buddhist age. Drawing on the rich catalogue of themes and images contained in ancient scriptures such as the Jatakas (legends relating to the Buddha’s previous incarnations), Ajanta’s exquisite wall painting may, in part, have been designed to rekindle enthusiasm for the faith, which was, by this point, already starting to wane in the region.
The Vajrayana sect
Attempts to compete with the resurgence of Hinduism, from the sixth century onwards, eventually led to the evolution of another, more esoteric religious movement. The Vajrayana, or “Thunderbolt” sect stressed the female creative principle, shakti, with arcane rituals combining spells and magic formulas.
Ultimately, however, such modifications were to prove powerless against the growing allure of Brahmanism. The ensuing shift in royal and popular patronage is best exemplified by Ellora where, during the eighth century, many old viharas were converted into temples, their shrines housing polished shivalinga instead of stupas and Buddhas. Hindu cave architecture, with its dramatic mythological sculpture, culminated in the tenth century with the magnificent Kailash temple, a giant replica of the freestanding structures that had already begun to replace rock-cut caves. It was Hinduism that bore the brunt of the iconoclastic medieval descent of Islam on the Deccan, Buddhism having long since fled to the comparative safety of the Himalayas, where it still flourishes.