It is clear that the Buddha received gifts of land
for the use of the Sangha and there are several scriptural references
to dwellings being constructed for their use. One of the most famous
stories is of Anathapindika who was so inspired on meeting
the Buddha that he bought a property from Prince
Jeta (the price being the gold needed to cover the whole area of
land). He then built Jetavana monastery where
the Buddha eventually spent much of his remaining life - over 19 years
- and delivered a great many discourses. Very little remains of Jetavana
as timber was still the main medium for construction - the techniques
for enclosing large spaces using stone not yet being fully developed.
One early response to the need for 'permanent' monasteries
was the excavation of rock-cut monasteries. With timber still predominant
what we commonly see in these is a duplication
of the workers' skill in carpentry executed in stone with latticed windows, moulded door frames and beamed framework. This superb modelling provides
valuable insights into the free-standing wooden architecture now lost.
One notable exception is the cave at Karle where the façade screen
is made of teak wood.
The term 'caves' is convenient
but is far from accurate. These monasteries were not housed in existing
indentations but carved from the living rock - usually into
the cliff face of a valley wall - and spaces were created, not by
adding various structural members but by removing existing material. So, like the early stupas, these works are not technically architectural and can be viewed as sculpture rather than structure. Nevertheless the skill required to both visualise and then execute this 'inside-out' style of building, to the level of detail that we find, indicates a highly developed society.
View two pictures of rudimentary
cave dwellings here.
began on a large scale in the early 2nd century BCE in west India
and continued significantly for about six centuries with the last
known excavation in Rajasthan about 800 CE. Although the principle
idea was to create spaces for monks to meditate undisturbed most of
these monasteries are found quite close to main trade routes.
The general layout
of a monastery included a pillared frontage, often with latticed windows,
opening into a quadrangular hall with a verandah on all four sides.
Cut into the rock on three sides were small cells and across the hall,
opposite the main entrance, was an image chamber. Each monastery ideally
contained these three functional features: the main hall for
religious ceremonies and meetings of the Sangha, a series of small
rooms (cells) for the use of monks and, a sanctuary - usually containing
a rock-cut stupa. (see Ajanta thumbnail for plan) While much of the
architectural detailing was 'wooden' the decorative artwork tended
to illustrate the various life stories of the Buddha (jataka tales),
including subjects drawn from folk mythology.
One of the most well
known of these Indian cave complexes is at Ajanta where there
a great wealth of not only architectural information but a series
of frescoes unparalleled in the history of Indian art, both for the
wide range of subjects and the medium used.
As the development of
iconography proceeded so the appearance of a Buddha image became
more common and the plain stupa in the sanctuary gave way to greater
ornamentation and representations of the Buddha. This was true of
monastic decoration generally. [see: 'with buddha']
India may have laid down
the basic 'architectural' principles but the development of caves
was far from limited to India alone. China particularly has a long
and varied history of cave monasteries starting from around 400 CE.
Some of the oldest Buddhist manuscripts and Indian objects have been
found here, largely due the Silk Road. One of the largest complexes, Lung-men
- near the city of Lo-yang - has 1300 caves set into the banks of
the Yi river. [see: 'others' for examples]