Cave Temples of Ancient India

By Coen Vonk

Part I | Part II


Part I

Thus while the mountain itself is merely an infinitesimal slice of an unbounded universe, it has always served as symbol for an absolute, unchanging and ineffable, still Reality. While each temple is but an infinitesimal section of the great mountain, its symbolic centre, the sanctum — now identified with the one and only centre, the heart of the individual — is perpetually regenerative, if its functions are properly understood. — Ellora: Concept and Style, Carmel Berkson

A list of the most magnificent wonders which ancient civilizations have produced, including the Egyptian pyramids, the ancient city and temples at Machu Picchu in Peru, and the ancient temples at Angkor in Cambodia, should not omit the rock-cut cave temples of India, especially the large Kailas complex at Ellora. Entirely cut out of the hills, these cave temples are in fact not buildings but masterpieces of sculpture. It is mind-boggling to realize that all that is seen is the original rock still standing, sculptured with precision and great care on the basis of a grand plan.

So far about 1,200 cave temples have been discovered in India, some 1,000 of them located in the western state of Maharastra. Others are located in the northeastern state of Bihar and in Karnataka to the south of Maharastra, with a few scattered throughout other states.* The most famous cave complexes are Ellora, Ajanta, Elephanta, Karli, Bhaja, Bedsa, Nasik, Udayagiri, Bagh, Badami, Cuttack, and Barabar. The temples were sculptured by Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists, and standard textbook opinion about their age is that the earliest were carved around 300 BCE but most in the period of the 4th to the 9th centuries CE. However, according to H. P. Blavatsky some of these complexes date to a much more remote period and were ancient mystery schools built on labyrinths of still other caves which have not been discovered. She asks:

Why, then, could not Ellora, Elephanta, Karli, and Ajanta have been built on subterranean labyrinths and passages, as claimed? Of course we do not allude to the caves which are known to every European, whether de visu or through hearsay, notwithstanding their enormous antiquity, though that is . . . disputed by modern archaeology. But it is a fact, known to the Initiated Brahmins of India and especially to Yogis, that there is not a cave-temple in the country but has its subterranean passages running in every direction, and that those underground caves and endless corridors have in their turn their caves and corridors. — The Secret Doctrine 2:221
*There are and were many other cave temples but some of these have been incorporated into Jain and Hindu temples which are built on top of or around them and have often been restyled.

Today some researchers of India's cave temples frankly admit that almost nothing is known about their origin and builders; others use the doubtful dates provided by most textbooks, often based on little and controversial evidence. The sacred symbolism of the art which the caves feature has often been debased, and therefore we will explore not only the caves themselves but also some of the ancient wisdom behind two key symbols which were used: the linga and the stupa.

Elephanta

Elephanta has been the subject of innumerable reports and studies, however, the caves remain enigmatic. Virtually nothing is known about who was responsible for creating them or when they were excavated . . . — Elephanta, George Michell, p. 9

On a small island near Bombay are six cave temples cut out of the basalt rock which are magnificent masterpieces of Hindu devotional art. The island is known by the locals as Gharapuri (town of purification) but more commonly as Elephanta. The main cave is a great hall about 42 m deep, the overall height of the columns varying from 4.9 to 5.6 m. At the back of the cave the grand sculpture of the famous trimurti, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, rises 7 m. All the columns and images have been cut out of the rock and therefore the complete hall is a giant mandala in sculpture still attached to the original mountain. In the right side of the cave is a sanctum with four doors, each guarded by two figures. According to the Brahmins "these are portrait-statues of the sculptors themselves, Hindus of the highest caste, portrayed as doorkeepers of the holy of holies."*

*There are and were many other cave temples but some of these have been incorporated into Jain and Hindu temples which are built on top of or around them and have often been restyled.

When were these temples conceived? Although mainstream archeology holds that they were hewn between the 4th and 9th centuries CE, researchers like George Michell admit that we do not know. Nevertheless, even he would probably not consider the caves to be tens if not hundreds of thousands of years old, as Blavatsky contends:

Thanks to the fanaticism of these Portuguese vandals,* the chronology of the Indian cave-temples must remain forever an enigma to the archaeological world, beginning with the Brahmins who assure the tourist that Elephanta is 374,000 years old, and ending with Fergusson, who tries to prove that this temple was carved in the tenth century of our era. Wherever one may turn in their history, there is nothing but hypotheses and darkness. And yet Gharapuri is mentioned in the epic poem Mahabharata, written, according to Colebrooke and Wilson, a considerable time before the reign of Cyrus. In another ancient legend, it is said that the temple of Trimurti was built on Elephanta by the sons of Pandu . . . — From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, p. 5
*Blavatsky probably refers to the fact that in 1540 a stone inscription was discovered over the entrance of the main cave and then shipped to Portugal to be deciphered. It subsequently disappeared and nothing is now known about it. Furthermore, the Portuguese caused significant damage to these caves.

Blavatsky also says that this cave "must be classed among prehistoric monuments, dating from the epoch immediately following the 'great war,' Mahabharata, . . ." (ibid., p. 80). The research and writing of Indian history still suffer from the preconceptions of the first Western "discoverers" of these monuments, and today even local Indian pandits, westernized as some have become, often show no sign of belief in the antiquity of the roots of their forefathers. Why should we not consider the ancient teachings in the sacred books of the Hindus themselves in order to approach the source of their wisdom, which stems from remote times?

Main cave with trimurti in the background, Elephanta, India (photo by the author)

The ancient Hindu teachings refer to the different ages in which mankind lived, and the cycles they use are of enormous length, assigning a great antiquity to humanity. Krita-yuga or the golden age contains 1,728,000 years, followed by treta-yuga with 1,296,000 years, then dvapara-yuga with 864,000 years, and finally kali-yuga with 432,000 years. According to their chronology we have proceeded around 5,100 years into kali-yuga, and therefore the golden age began around 3.8 million years ago. In all these yugas there lived people and royal dynasties, some of which must have left their traces. The great sages, initiators, or god-kings especially are assigned to the oldest yugas. However, "In the modern academies, few have felt the need to search for serious truth in 'the Indian myths.' Consequently, the history of Vedic India continues to reign as the biggest enigma of myth versus fact."*

*Devamrita Swami, Searching for Vedic India, p. 42.

With the discovery of the Indus Valley or Sarasvati civilization in northern India and Pakistan, archeologists are now starting to be convinced that Indian civilization is much older than previously believed. Archeologists assume that these ancient cities are the oldest testimonies of Indian civilization and most are dated to 3000 BCE. One site named Mergarh is even dated between 6500 and 7000 BCE. Hopefully the dates assigned to the various cave temples will in time be reconsidered, and these complexes may perhaps prove even older than the top layer of the Indus Valley civilization that has already been excavated.

The Linga

Shiva is especially featured in these cave temples and so is his symbol, the linga, in combination with the yoni. In the various caves lingas can be found in the holy of holies or secret chamber (guha). The meaning of the sacred linga has been much debased in our time and is primarily explained as a phallus with the yoni as a womb. The original meaning, however, was sacred. The literal meaning of linga is "sign" or "characteristic" and can be explained in several ways. In the first place it symbolizes the germ of a universe which is emanated by the unknown Brahman in and through space (the eternal womb or yoni) to form the universe to come. According to Manu (1:9) this germ became a golden egg, resplendent as the sun, in which the self-existent Brahman, while remaining transcendent in its higher parts, evolved forth into Brahma the Creator, who is therefore regarded as a manifestation of the Self-existent. Thus we have Brahman, its veil or pradhana, and then Brahma. This germ or Brahma is therefore a "sign" or manifestation of Brahman. This trinity was at a later time more often referred to as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Nowadays the linga is mostly called the sign of Shiva. This universal teaching of a sacred trinity was also taught in ancient Greece, represented by the first, second, and third logos ("word" or verbum), which later became Father, Holy Ghost, and Son in the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Hindus also applied the term hiranyagarbha, or radiant seed, to the germ which already contains a whole cosmos in itself and which will develop to form a living universe. Likewise such a seed exists in man, and it is a symbol for our higher self, which can be manifested while on earth. In initiation one had to bring one's higher self to birth by entering one's inner holy of holies — one's own primeval nature of consciousness, or yoni — and conquering oneself. One who had done so was called a dvija or "twice-born," an initiate. The many images of Shiva killing the demon, i.e., man killing his inner demon, illustrate this thought. In Vedic times Shiva was called Rudra or the destroyer of negative elements.

Devdutt Pattanaik explains another aspect of the linga: "It is said Shiva stood on one foot for several hundred thousand years transforming himself into Aja-Ekapada, the one-footed-lord, the axis of the revolving cosmos. This axis has no beginning nor an end; it is considered to be the great linga of Shiva" (Shiva, An Introduction, p. 91). This aspect refers to the secret divine center or cosmic axis, Mount Meru, around which all is revolving, from which all originated, and to which all will eventually return. It is "the omphalos, the navel and centre of the Earth and of Being."* One of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism is that we are all sparks of a divine center. To realize and consciously become this center was and is the main purpose of initiation. The ancient sages did not stop here but knew that any sacred center itself was in its turn revolving around another center, and so on. Space is considered to be infinite with universes periodically manifesting, vanishing, and reappearing. For this reason the Hindus called the great mystery Parabrahman (beyond Brahman) or simply That, which even the gods are unable to penetrate.

*The Hindu Temple, Stella Kramrisch, 1976, p. 172.


Part II

We resume our survey of some of the extraordinary rock-cut cave temples of India with the large complex about 250 km northeast of Bombay at Ellora, named Elapura in ancient times. Over a band of two kilometers 34 cave temples have been hewn out of the rock by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. "According to a Puranic account, Elapura consisted of ten settlements named after the king Ela, and that it was a tirtha, a sacred place."* According to current theories the first cave temples were excavated around the middle of the 6th century CE by Hindus and around the end of the 6th century by Buddhists. Work on the Jain caves is supposed to have started around the latter half of the 8th century. The evidence on which these dates are based is marginal. To give an example of how conclusions are drawn:

There is a perforated window in the west wall [of cave 15, a Hindu cave] over which is engraved a Sanskrit inscription in the Brahmi script of the eighth century. It is, however, incomplete and much of it has been damaged due to weathering. It gives the genealogy of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, from the founder Dantivarman (c. 600-30) and records the visit of Dantidurga (752-7) to the cave. It can, therefore, be placed in the middle of the eighth century. — Ellora, pp. 36-7
*Ellora, M. K. Dhavalikar, 2003, p. 7.

This, of course, only proves that the caves existed in the 8th century and were engraved at that time with this inscription. Again, "There were inscriptions on pillars [in cave 33, a Jain cave] which are now mostly worn; a few letters that have survived suggest that the cave may have been built at around the ninth century" (ibid., p. 96).

  Cave 16, The Great Kailas Temple, Ellora, India (photos by the author)

The large Kailas temple, the main attraction of Ellora, is thought to have been built under the patronage of King Shubhtung Krishna I (757-72 CE). This is based on the copperplates of Baroda of King Karkka II. Some archeologists have expressed doubts because 15 years seems a very short time to complete such a huge undertaking. There is also a Marathi legend from the 10th century about an architect named Kokasa who carved the Kailas temple in order to please the queen of the Rashtrakuta king of Elu. It is very likely that the Kailas complex — which consists of a number of temples and shrines — has been recarved and repainted several times by different kings, who were credited for their restorations or additions but were not responsible for the original work. Dhavalikar writes that "all these shrines and the Kailasa were not excavated at the same time, but belong to different periods" (ibid., p. 44).

The Kailas complex, cave 16, is the largest monolithic sculpture in the world. In the courtyard, which is 81m long and 47m wide, the main temple rises 33m in height and is surrounded by smaller temples and shrines and two victory pillars which are 16m high. The area covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens, is 1.5 times as high, and involved the removal of 200,000 tons of rock. It has many resemblances in style and plan with the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, but is twice the size and sculpted out of the rock instead of being built with blocks. It is interesting that cave 30, also called the small Kailas temple, is unfinished. One can clearly see that work started from the top, because the top was already finished. The puzzling thing is that cave 30 is reckoned a Jain temple — it does contain Jain carvings — and that the Kailas temple is considered to be the work of Hindus. Therefore, besides the difficulties of dating these cave temples, it is also hard to tell who excavated them. Some caves now have Buddhist themes. These may have been added at a later time, however, to caves which were originally Hindu or Jain, because Hinduism and Jainism are much older traditions than the Buddhism of Gautama.

Like Hinduism, Jainism also assigns enormous time periods to mankind, and according to tradition their line of 24 teachers or tirthankaras started with Rishaba who lived more than 6.5 million years ago, continuing to the 24th teacher Mahavira who may have been a contemporary of Gautama Buddha in the 6th century BCE. Why should we not consider these ancient teachings more closely, instead of dismissing them as fables? Archeologists have set up a chronology in which there is no room for considering such ancient dates because the entire framework of their timeline would collapse.

Besides the Kailas temple, one of the most impressive caves is cave 29 (Dumar lena), which is styled in almost the same way as the main cave of Elephanta. It may be the oldest cave at Ellora, and its grand plan makes it different from most of the other caves there. The holy of holies has four entrances and the linga is located in the middle (photo below). The four entrances, as at Elephanta, each have two guardians on either side, though in this case the guardians all look the same and are probably not portraits as at Elephanta.

Walking up to this cave in the early morning, one may find oneself completely alone at this powerful sacred site — except for thousands of shrieking bats — and can enter it in inner silence. It feels as if the mountain is swallowing the visitor, and all earthly sorrows are left behind. It doesn't require much imagination to envision that grand things took place in these silent caves; for even though these ancient centers are no longer functioning, the ancient light of wisdom which shone in this temple can still be felt.

  Cave 29, Dumar lena, Holy of Holies, Ellora, India

Ellora has many other impressive cave temples. Some of them are two- or even three-storeyed and contain halls upon halls, carved pillars and sculptures, and viharas (rooms for the monks, of whatever sect). The halls contain many carvings of ancient gods, avataras, and teachers of mankind. The whole complex is an open-air museum, and it takes days to see all the caves properly. After wandering through it, one's consciousness may become absorbed into this otherworld of gods and diverse levels of consciousness. Thus the temples even today stimulate visitors to unify themselves with their inner center and bring forth their inner light.

Karli

The cave temples of Karli, or Karla, are located 125 km from Bombay in the Borghat hills close to the small village of Lonavala. Karli is especially famous because it features India's largest chaitya hall, a sacred hall for meetings or assemblies — and it is still in excellent condition. It is 40m long and 15m high, fully carved out of the rock. In the hall we find 37 pillars topped by kneeling elephants and at the back of the hall a stupa or symbolic representation of the cosmos.

  Chaitya hall with stupa or Mount Meru in background, Karli, India.

It is thought that this hall dates from the 2nd century BCE and that it was carved by Buddhists. The dating problem here is the same as elsewhere, and the arguments for Buddhists being the original builders of this cave are mainly based on the assumption that stupas are a Buddhist invention. But this is not true: Jains used stupas as well, and Hindus assert that the so-called stupa in this cave is merely a linga of Shiva. According to Blavatsky: "The figure of the daghoba [stupa] from the summit of which 'raja-priests' used to pronounce verdicts upon the people, is called 'Dharma-Rajan,' the Hindu Minos" (From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, p. 74). She fails to mention what sect these king-priests belonged to, but does provide a glimpse of what took place in such temples.

Some images of the Buddha are carved in the portico in front of the hall, but are almost certainly later additions. Though he ascribes the caves to Buddhists, S. R. Wauchop says:

Originally the fronts of three large elephants, standing on a base carved with the 'rail pattern' in each end wall, supported a framed frieze, also ornamented with the 'rail'; but at both ends this second 'rail' has been afterwards cut away to insert figures of Buddha and his attendants, of which no representations existed when the cave was first executed. — The Buddhist Cave Temples of India, p.42

It may well be that Buddhists were not the original sculptors of these cave temples but reused and restyled the caves at a later time.

According to G. de Purucker this site was originally a mystery school or center (cf. Studies in Occult Philosophy, p. 636). A true mystery school, it seems to me, is beyond sectarian religion and inspires all who are seeking truth to be of better service to mankind. However, like other mystery schools known to us, this school lost its inspiring light over time and must have fallen into degeneration.

Some of the other caves at Karli are now closed to the public, and according to archeologists who have visited them there is nothing of interest to see. Blavatsky, who visited the caves when they were still accessible, writes:

Above the main temple are two other tiers of caves, in each of which are wide, open galleries formed of thick carved columns; from these galleries an opening leads to roomy cells and corridors, sometimes very long, but quite useless now, as they come to an abrupt termination at what appears to be solid walls. The guardians and custodians of the temple have either themselves lost the secret of any entrances that may lead farther, or jealously conceal it from the Europeans. — From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, p. 74.

Through these tunnels, she says, several mystery centers were connected to each other. It is possible that Ellora, Ajanta, and Elephanta were interconnected mystery schools.

The cave temples of Ajanta are famous for their fabulous Buddhist paintings. To the author it is clear that these cave temples have been extensively resculptured, plastered, and painted at a later date by Buddhists, but were originally carved by Hindus. It is difficult to draw an exact line, because Gautama was a reformer of Hinduism and many Hindus became Buddhists at that time and some such followers may have adapted the sculptures at these sacred sites. In some places the new Buddhists were much more active than in others. In Ajanta practically all the caves have been reworked to feature Buddhist themes.

Stupa, Mount Meru, or Mount Kailas

The so-called stupa occupies a very prominent place in the main cave temple of Karli. In other cave temple complexes too, such as Bhaja, Bedsa, Junnar, Ajanta, and Nashik, it clearly plays the central role, in contrast with Elephanta where only lingas are found. In Ellora many cave temples have lingas, and only one has a stupa, cave 10 or the Visvakarma cave. The symbolism of the stupa is similar to that of a linga, only more elaborate. The stupa represents not only the birth of a universe, like the linga, but also a fully unfolded universe. A universe is represented by the hemisphere born from two surrounding oval rings: Brahman and pradhana. Like the linga it therefore represents Brahma which is born from these two principles. From Brahma the square on top of the dome becomes manifest, representing the abode of hosts of creative gods. The six expanding layers on top of the square represent the different cosmic spheres which are activated by these creative gods, on top of which is the seventh and highest sphere. According to the Vishnu Purana, intellect or Mahat,

the (unmanifested) gross elements inclusive, formed an egg, which gradually expanded like a bubble of water. This vast egg, compounded of the elements, and resting on the waters, was the excellent natural abode of Vishnu in the form of Brahma. In that egg . . . were the continents, and seas and mountains, the planets and divisions of the universe, the gods, the demons and mankind. And this egg was externally invested by seven natural envelopes, or by water, air, fire, ether, and Ahankara . . . next came the principle of intelligence. — Book I, ch. 2

The stupa is also a representation of Mount Meru or Sumeru, which is known as the central mountain in Jambudvipa or our earth to Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists alike. Jambudvipa is the central "island" or "globe" surrounded by many other dvipas. In theosophical literature the dvipas are the (to us) invisible globes of the earth-chain. Later Hindu writings also referred to it as Mount Kailas or the abode of Shiva. Mount Meru represents the sacred central mountain on our earth where Shambhala is said to be located. It is connected with dvipas built of matter of ever more subtle nature (theosophy and Hinduism usually mention six), here represented by six expanding layers. Furthermore, it represents the north pole as well as the sun — the third Shambhala, the sacred center of our solar system. About the first Shambhala, or seat of great adepts, legends say that it is connected by subterranean passages with sacred centers throughout the world, including cave temples such as Karli. Interestingly, there are also indications that such subterranean passages exist in other parts of the world, such as Egypt and Peru.

Conclusion

The cave temples of India are surrounded by mysteries. It is uncertain when they were excavated and by whom, but according to legend some may be much older than currently believed, and some clearly were reused and restyled by different sects.

The so-called stupas found in some of the caves are in fact a very old theme not only of Buddhism, but also of Jainism and Hinduism. As a symbol of the egg of Brahma it represents the unfolding of the principles of a universe. As a symbol of Mount Meru it is a representation of the divine center of a planet, solar system, or human being. The linga in combination with the yoni also represents a divine center or Mount Meru. Furthermore, their symbolism refers to the birth of a universe, the linga being the radiant germ that already contains a universe in itself.

Some of these cave temples were undoubtedly mystery centers for studying the universal wisdom of the gods. The essence of all religions is rooted in one source connected to the sacred central mountain, Mount Meru, the abode of the adepts and of the gods, from which the divine wisdom flows into our world. This wisdom belongs to all human beings and not to any particular individual or institution, but we have to connect with our inner Mount Meru, the sacred abode of our inner god, in order to receive it. As Carmel Berkson said: "our [spiritual] heart is the sanctum."

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July, August/September 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)

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