Decorative interior of Cave 33, Ellora



Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, was born around 444 B.C., (*1) in a village near Vaishali, which is in the modern Bihar State of East India. He was a contemporary of Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and their native lands were also closely situated. Both were from royal families that belonged to "Kshatriya" (warrior) caste. Mahavira was slightly older than Buddha, and they knew of each other. It might even be possible that they had actually encountered each other, though there has been no record which supports this point.
Mahavira was thirty years old and Buddha was twenty-nine years old, when they renounced the world and became shramanas (ascetics). It is said that Mahavira devoted himself into asceticism for twelve years, and Buddha spent 6 years of penance and meditation before they attained spiritual enlightenment.

At the time these two religions called Jainism and Buddhism took form, India also saw the rise of various kinds of new religions and philosophies like Ajivikas founded by Makkhali Gosala. Some of the major movements among them were called "Six heathen paths" in Buddhist scriptures. That is, there were six influential thinkers who preached their doctrine on their own besides Buddha.

cave 32
A statue of Tirthankara (Jina) at Cave 32

One of them called "Niganta Nataputta" in the scriptures is Mahavira. The name signifies "a man who is from Nata clan and detached from restraints." His real name was Vardhamana. "Mahavira" is also an honorific that means literally "Great hero."

A religion that was dominant in India until that time was Brahmanism, which placed the highest value on "Vedas." It classified people into four castes, and only "Brahmans" (priest class) were supposed to be capable of communicating with Gods. Brahmanism was a religion of ritualism, in which sacrifices to Gods by Brahmans played a central part.
It was those free thinkers including the "Six heathen paths" that emerged in the 5th century B.C. that raised the standard of revolt against Brahmanism. Mahavira denied the caste system and strongly criticized the practice of offering animals as sacrifice to Gods. Jainism is an atheistic religion that does not assume the beginning of the world and denies the existence of the "Creator" of everything.

From these points of view, Jainism and Buddhism have a lot in common, and they are often described as brotherly religions. A significant difference between them is that while Jainism tried to achieve spiritual enlightenment through painstaking "asceticism," Buddhism denied austerities and took the position of "middle path," between penance and pleasure. Perhaps it was because of this asceticism and exhaustive commandments of non-violence, and also because it did not form a centralized order system that Jainism did not become a mainstream in Indian history nor did they go beyond the country.

Cave 32
Pillars of the upper floor of Cave 32

On the other hand, Buddhism became the dominant religion in place of Brahmanism in ancient India. It also prevailed beyond its native land and became universal religion. However, because of that, it would be overwhelmed by Hinduism, developed form of Brahmanism, and by Islam from outside of the country. By the 13th century, Buddhism had disappeared from the land of India.

Jainism has managed to survive in India while repeating ebbs and flows. A census conducted in 1981 indicates that there are about 3.2 million Jain followers. It accounts for merely 0.5 % of vast Indian population of 700 million. Nevertheless, their influence has been significant both in history and modern times. In terms of architectural history, however, it often followed in the footsteps of Buddhism and Hinduism, since they were still the minority.

Cave 31
Interior of the upper floor of Cave 31


It is Buddhism connected with governing class that led ancient Indian architecture. Most of remnants that we can still see today are of Buddhist architecture. There are only a little remnants of Jainism and Brahmanism's is almost non existent. The most archaic form of architecture is "Stupa."
After the death of Buddha, his bone-relics were divided and distributed to various regions. They erected a mound-shaped structure over each of them, covering with cut stones or bricks for making it a place of worship. This kind of tradition had already existed before Buddhism, and there are also records on Jaina stupas. However, most stupas that we can see today, like that of Sanchi, belong to Buddhism.

When introduced to China, Stupa was transliterated as "sotoba," and then abbreviated to "touba." In Japan, it is simply called "tou." Since they are usually tall pagodas of five or seven-stories in Japan, the word "tou" is applied to an English equivalent for tower, but originally "Stupa" did not contain the meaning of high-rise building.

Meanwhile, among monks who renounced their secular lives, there were many of those who settled in caves. Those were natural caves at first, but later excavated by the hand of man. This is the beginning of world-famous Indian "Cave Temples."
Cave temples had been developed not only in India, but also in ancient Egypt and Persia, as well as in China, which was influenced by India. However, there would be no other place that clung so strongly to cave temples and highly developed architectural form as India. These cave temples would be the foremost amazement for those who travel in India, with its unparalleled scale and fineness.

Cross section
Section of the Cave 32 (Jagannath Sabha), Ellora, the 9th century

Even though the cave temples astonish people of our times, as for ancient people, it would be much easier to excavate a rocky mountain than piling up stone. It requires quite a high level of technology as well as cost to cut out stone blocks at a quarry, carry them to the construction site, hew and pile them up without any fault, based on an accurate plan.@

There are two types of Buddhist cave temples. One is "Chaitya caves," where stupas were enshrined for worship. The other is "Vihara caves," which were residence of monks. While the latter has a design mainly for practical use, the former is embellished with high ceilings and abundant ornaments. Ribs made of stone or wood are often attached to these barrel vault shaped ceilings. It is likely that they imitated temples made of wood or bamboo in those days, which no longer exist now.

"Lomas Rishi" Cave and its surrounding caves (the 3rd century B.C.), located at Barabar Hill, are considered to be the oldest cave temples in India. However, they did not belong to Buddhists but Ajivikas. The religion of Ajivikas was one of the "Six heathen paths," and although at one time it flourished, it is said to have been absorbed by Jainism later.
The entrance of Lomas Rishi Cave was carved in an arch-like shape, but since there was no true arch at that time in India, it would be an imitation of contemporary buildings with arches that were made of wood or bamboo. Walls inside the temple are dressed smoothly, but there is neither engraving nor ornament.

Cave 33
Statue of Kuvera is carved in Cave 33

From the 2nd century B.C., Buddhist cave temples were excavated one after another in Ajanta and other places. Of all the cave temples that amount to more than 1200, 75% belongs to Buddhism. Above all, "Chaitya cave at Karli" (the 2nd century), located in the east of Bombay, is said to be the highest masterpiece.
Its plan is apsidal type (square at the front and rounded in the rear), and two groups of pillars, that divide nave and aisle, are standing in lines. A stupa is engraved at the center of the semicircular section. At the top of each pillar, a pair of man and woman facing front are carved. These statues present the entire cave temple with brilliant monumentality.


The oldest Jaina cave temples are situated at the hills of Khandagiri and Udayagiri near Bhubaneshwar in eastern India. They were excavated in the 1st century B.C.

In the 5th century, excavations of Hindu cave temples started. Gods and mythical figures are dynamically carved on these temples, marking the significant contrast with the static Buddhist cave temples. This aspect is most obvious at the cave temples in Ellora, located 100km southwest of Ajanta. There are some thirty-four cave temples forming a line over a range of 2km. Caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist caves, caves 13 to 29 are Hindu ones, caves 30 to 34 are Jaina ones. These three religions are coexisting peacefully there, without harming each other. (It is regrettable that this sort of religious open-mindedness seems to have been lost nowadays in the world.)

Construction periods of the each group of temples were slightly different. Buddhist caves were excavated from the 7th to the 8th century, Hindu ones were from the 7th to the 9th century, and Jaina's were from the 8th to the 10th century. Since Jaina caves were carved later than the other two, their interior space is embellished most delicately and gorgeously. Although the size of the space is rather small, it shows full variety and fineness.

Hindu cave 16, the Kailasa temple, Ellora

However, what attracts people's attention the most in Ellora would be the Kailasa temple (cave16) of Hinduism (the 8th century). This is no longer a cave. It was made by chiseling rocky mountain from the top, and carving a freestanding temple as if it were a masonry building. Furthermore, they dug inside the temple to make a sanctum. It could be considered as a style derived from the freestanding stupas in chaitya caves of Buddhism, but it is also likely that Indians, enthusiasts of sculpture, gradually become dissatisfied with mere caves and wanted to develop architectural expression with sculptural exterior. Since this is no longer a "cave temple," I will call it a "carved temple" to mark a distinction.

Come to think of it, it would not be possible that such a large-scale temple with accuracy was made without any model. It therefore indicates that stone masonry for the construction of temples was already known in South India at that time. With the change from cave temples to masonry ones, the method of construction as well as architectural expression was shifted from ancient times to the medieval period. These two kinds of architecture had coexisted for a period of time. However, it can be said that the carved temple, a mediator of the two, would be the beginning of medieval architecture in India.

Cave 32Cave 32
Left: Chatrumukha shrine in the court of Cave 32
Right: Its monolithic Shikhara with a stambha behind

Jainas who often followed architecturally the footsteps of Hindus also followed suit here in Ellora, carving a rock temple called the "Chota (small) Kailasa" temple at cave 30 in the 9th century. Moreover, they carved a vimana (southern style shrine) in a court of cave 32 based on "Chaturmukha" (open on all four sides) form characteristic of Jaina temple. This form, which later became the basis of Jaina architecture, takes wonderful effect here by its simple prototype. Although it is far smaller in scale than Hindu Kailasa temple, this carved shrine composed marvelously a harmonized space with the combination of surrounding caves.


Plan of Jaina Caves 31- 34, Ellora, the 9th century

The prototype of Indian medieval temples consist of two elements: garbhagriha (sanctum) and its mandapa (fore hall). If we regard these elements as 1 unit of a temple, Jaina group in Ellora consists of ten units. They are forming two-story structures that surround the court, and their interior space is interconnected. Walking about the rooms of these temples is such a wonderful experience, for they provide us with sequence of space full of variety, which no other cave temples have.

This impression resembles that of the temples on Mt. Abu, which we saw in the previous chapter, in that they share characteristics of small-scale interior space with fineness. While walking inside the temples of Ellora, people might loose the sense of direction and feel as if they are in a maze. One of the reasons of this feeling could be that these ten units of temples were not established based on a comprehensive master plan, but each one of them was carved one after another with intervals. Consequently, despite each unit having a symmetrical structure, they do not on a whole picture as a group. This aspect is also similar to that of Mt. Abu.

< NOTE >

  1. There are various opinions concerning the years of his birth and death similaly as the case of Buddha. 444 B.C. - 372 B.C. in modern opinion or 599 B.C. - 527 B.C. in traditional one etc., however it is accepted widely that he died at the age of 72.


© Takeo Kamiya
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