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Rock-cut Monasteries

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.


(4 more pics)

early sanctuary

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.

with Buddha


Excavation 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]