Cave Sanctuaries

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Cave sanctuaries are manmade structures built into natural or excavated caves in the side of a mountain, canyon wall or cliff. Found in India and Afghanistan, at various sites along the Silk Road in Central Asia, and in China, cave sanctuaries range from single chambers to enormous monastic compounds that include halls for worship and teaching, living quarters for monks and travelers, and spaces such as kitchens and libraries. As way stations for travelers, these sites played an important role in the development and dissemination of Buddhism.

The genesis of cave sanctuaries is unclear. They may have their roots in the ancient Indic tradition of asceticism, whose adherents had long made use of such natural structures in pursuit of their renunciatory lifestyles. The earliest rock-cut caves in India were excavated in the third century b.c.e. during the rule of AŚoka at sites such as Lomas Rishi and Sudama in Bihar province. It should be noted that an inscription on the entrance to the Lomas Rishi cave states that it was dedicated for the use of the Ājīvākas, a prominent ascetic group. Both Lomas Rishi and Sudama were simple structures consisting of an inner circular chamber housing a stŪpa, and a rectangular outer hall, presumably a place where devotees could congregate for lectures and other forms of teaching.

Located about 105 miles south of Bombay, the caitya or worship hall at Bhājā is more complicated. Extending about sixty feet into the mountainside and approximately twenty-nine feet high, it consists of an apsidal chamber bracketed by tall columns on both sides. The wooden ribs appended to the ceilings of the central and side aisles have no structural purpose but reflect the use of prototypes of wood, bamboo, and thatch in the construction of the earliest cave sanctuaries. The columns help to define the path for traditional circumambulation (pradakṢiṇa) of the stūpa placed at the rear of the chamber. Vihāra 19 at the same site consists of two large inner chambers that were used communally and smaller individual quarters. Each cell contains a raised rock-cut bed with a pillow and a small niche in the wall used for holding a lantern.

The caitya hall at Karli was built between 50 and 75 c.e. It is 124 feet long, 46.5 feet wide, and 45 feet high, and contains thirty-six columns capped with couples seated on kneeling elephants. The façade was elaborately carved with a large horseshoe-shaped arch that defined the primary window.

Twenty major sites and numerous minor sites patronized by individual travelers and wealthy artistic and commercial guilds were constructed in western India from 100 b.c.e. to 200 c.e. However, the region is best known for AjaṆṬĀ, a group of twenty-six caves built by the ruling elite on both sides of the Waghora River in the late fifth century c.e. Ajaṇṭā is renowned for its delicate but powerful sculptures, such as those seen on the façade of cave 19, and its extraordinarily beautiful wall paintings, many of which record events from the past lives (jĀtaka) of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni. Representations of bodhisattvas, worship images in the residential halls, and the addition of seated buddhas at the front of the stupas in the caitya halls illustrate contemporaneous changes in Buddhist thought. Other important centers in western India are found at Aurangabad and in some structures at Ellora. MaṆḌala-like compositions, female deities, and the depiction of bodhisattvas with multiple heads in the sixth- and seventh-century caves at Aurangabad reflect further changes in the religion.

Noted for its (now destroyed) colossi, BĀmiyĀn (mid-sixth to seventh century c.e.) in Afghanistan is the most extensive Buddhist site in that country. One of the enormous standing buddhas was about 183 feet high, while the other measured about 127 feet. The famous seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (ca. 600–664) records a third colossus, representing a

buddha in final transcendence, or parinirvāṇa, as part of the original construction. Bāmiyān and the neighboring sites of Kakrak and Foladi are also noted for a distinctive school of painting that combined Indian, Sassanian Persian, and other elements.

From the fourth to the eighth century, over two hundred caves were constructed at the Central Asian site of Kizil near the city of Kucha in what is now the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region of China. Kizil and related sites such as Kumtura (about a hundred caves) and Kizilgara (forty-six caves) were patronized by the rulers of Kucha, a prominent oasis kingdom on the northern branch of the Silk Road. Many of the caves have a unique structure consisting of a front chamber linked to a back chamber by two small arcades. Sculptures and paintings in shades of gold, blue, and green cover the wall. Preaching scenes or encapsulated representations of jātaka stories are standard. Some of the earliest representations of the transcendent Buddha Vairocana are also found at these sites. Caves found farther east in the Turfan area include those at Toyok and Bezeklik. Both have suffered substantial depredations.

China has the largest numbers of cave sanctuaries in Asia, and several of the most famous are found in Gansu, a province in the northwest with links to the Silk Road that played a seminal role in the introduction of Buddhism to China. Dating from the fourth to the fourteenth century, the nearly five-hundred decorated caves at Mogao and those at related sites near the city of Dunhuang provide invaluable information for the development of Chinese Buddhist art. Some of the earliest caves have a pillar in the center thought to derive from the stupas in early Indian construction. Later chambers are open or have low-lying platforms at the back. Early imagery includes sculptures of buddhas and bodhisattvas and paintings of past-lives stories. Representations of paradises and illustrations based on prominent texts are found in caves dating from the sixth to the eighth century, while those excavated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries contain seminal imagery for later Tibetan art. Comparable developments are found in the Yulin grottoes, the Western Thousand Buddha Caves (Xiqianfodong), and the Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves (Dongqianfodong) in the same region. The Binglinsi caves near Lanzhou and the Maijishan caves near Tianshui, which also contain both paintings and sculptures, are among the larger sites in Gansu.

The fifty-three caves at Yun'gang in Shansi province are renowned for the five colossal sculptures that dominate caves 16 through 20. Built in the late fifth century under the patronage of the Northern Wei (386–534) rulers, the Yun'gang caves share the iconography found in contemporaneous structures at Dunhuang, but they contain no paintings, only sculptures.

Longmen near Luoyang in Hebei province was begun in the early sixth century. Longmen houses over two thousand caves, some large, some small, as well as thirty-six hundred inscriptions. About one-third of the caves were constructed during the Northern Wei and the rest during the Tang dynasty (618–907). The Fengxiansi, which was begun under the rule of the Tang emperor Gaozong (r. 649–683) and finished around 675, is the most famous at the site. Four guardians, two bodhisattvas, and two monks attend a fifty-foot-high seated buddha. The figures are noted for elegant and

careful carving. Other centers, many of which were begun after the dissolution of the Northern Wei empire in the mid-sixth century, include Gongxian and Xiangtangshan in Hebei, Tianlongshan in Shansi, and other sites in Shandong. Numerous smaller excavations, often consisting of a single cave, are also known at many sites in northern China. A few sites are also found in the south.

Although not common after the tenth century, cave sanctuary construction flourished in the southwestern province of Sichuan during the Tang and Song (960–1279) dynasties. Several centers are found near Dazu. The Sichuan caves contain distinctive imagery including scenes of daily life, Chan oxherding pictures, and icons common in later esoteric traditions.

Carefully assembled with cut-stone panels, SŎkkuram, located on top of Mount T'oham on the eastern outskirts of Kyŏngju, is a Korean response to Indian cave sanctuaries. In contrast to India and China, there were no natural caves in Korea, or at least none suitable, and Sŏkkuram was entirely manmade. Constructed between 751 and 774, Sŏkkuram has a round main hall that opens to a rectangular anteroom. A large free-standing buddha seated in the center of the main hall is attended by bodhisattvas, guardians, and other figures carved on the walls in high relief.

See also:Monastic Architecture


Caswell, James, O. Written and Unwritten: A New History of the Buddhist Caves at Yungang. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.

Chugoku Sekkutsu (The Grotto Art of China). A series in Japanese and Chinese on major Chinese sites. Beijing: Wenwu Chubansha; Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1980–.

Dehejia, Vidya. Early Buddhist Rock Temples: A Chronology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Howard, Angela Falco. Summit of Treasures: Buddhist Cave Art of Dazu, China. Trumbull, CT: Weatherhill, 2001.

Mitra, Debala. Buddhist Monuments. Calcutta: Sahitay Samsad, 1971.

Denise Patry Leidy