Barabar : Earliest Rockcut Architecture in India


‘‘Mystery is the message—just the effort to interpret is hope, just the trial and error.’’—Christopher Woodman

Barabar Caves are believed to be the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in India. Historians are sanguine that Barabar caves represent the beginnings of the tradition of rock-cut architecture in India. These caves mostly date from the Maurya Empire (322–185 BCE), some with Ashokan inscriptions, located in Bela Ganj block of Jehanabad district in Bihar (about 84 km from Patna). There are four caves in Barabar dating back to reign of Asoka (273-232 BC) and his grandson Dasaratha, initially for the Ajeevika sect (a religious movement founded in the 5th century BCE by Makkhali Gosala and was a major contemporary of early Buddhism and Jainism). These caves speak volume of the policy of religious tolerance undertaken by the two emperors who were otherwise Buddhists.

The crocodile shaped main rock with caves at Barabar

Two groups of caves are situated in the twin hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni. These were discovered to Western world through a thorough description made by Alexander Cunningham in 1868. The caves gained international recognition as they featured (as fictitious Marabar caves) in E.M. Forster’s famous novel ‘A Passage to India’.
Most caves at Barabar consist of two chambers, carved entirely out of granite, with a highly polished internal surface and exciting echo effect. The first chamber was meant for worshippers to congregate in a large rectangular hall, and the second, a small, circular, domed chamber for worship, this inner chamber probably had a small stupa like structure, at some point, though they are now empty.

Carved entrance of the Lomas Rishi cave at Barabar
A closer view of the entrance of the Lomas Rishi cave : The imitation of wooden architecture in the decorative arch made above the entrance. This became a constant feature (now known as the chaitya arch) in the worship halls of the Buddhist and Jaina faiths.

Barabar Hill has four caves, namely, Karan Chaupar, Sudama, Lomas Rishi and Visva Zopri. Sudama and Lomas Rishi Caves are the earliest examples of rock-cut architecture in India with architectural detailing, made in the Mauryan period. The caves here have several forms. While the Lomas Rishi Cave has an oblong vaulted room, others contain circular domed shrines, with elements of timber structure represented in stone. The interiors of several of the caves bear the high polish generally called the ‘Mauryan polish’.

Art historian and photographer Benoy K. Behl writes, ‘‘the architecture is designed to look like the wooden buildings of the period. We see here the earliest depiction of the so-called CHAITYA ARCH, which became prolific in Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu art. This was made in imitation of the design of contemporaneous bent-wood architecture. A cave facade very similar to this is found in Andhra Pradesh, at Guntupalli. These caves probably provided the model for the hundreds of rock-cut Buddhist caves that were made later in western India.’’

Wall inscriptions in Pali by King Ashoka on the wall of the entrance of the Gopi Cave
The highly polished interior of the cave

Nearby Nagarjuna Hill has three smaller and younger caves. These are: Gopi (Gopi-ka-Kubha), Vadithi-ka-Kubha cave (Vedathika Kubha) and Vapiya-ka-Kubha cave (Mirza Mandi). These caves bear inscriptions of king Dasaratha, the grandson of Asoka. Like the Barabar caves these too appear to have been built and used by the Ajeevika sect.

The caves are cut from a single granite boulder. Some historians opine that as per the inscriptions, the entrance to the caves is crafted in the ancient Egyptian style. The interior of the caves consists of two rectangular halls, a bigger outer hall, and a smaller inner hall. The inner walls of the cave remain highly polished even after thousands of years. The cutting of the cave is very smooth and sharp and a reminder of the high level of engineering skills of artisans. One peculiar feature of the cave is the echo inside the cave which sustains itself for about 3 seconds. If another sound is added before the previous echo dies, a combination of two consecutive echoes can be heard. Most likely the walls were polished exactly for attainment of this echo effect and must have served well for religious experiences during the chants.

View of the surroundings from the top of the Barabar

Inscriptions in Barabar Caves: (i) The king Piyadassi, when he had been consecrated twelve years, gave the Banyan Cave to the Ajivikas. (ii) The king Piyadassi, when he had been consecrated twelve years, gave this cave on the Khalatika mountain to the Ajivikas. (iii) The king Piyadassi, consecrated since nineteen years.
Alternate names: Barābār, Satgharva (seven caves), Satgharwa (seven houses), Haft Khan, Gorathgiri.

How to reach: Barabar caves are located in Jehanabad district of Bihar, about 24 km north of Gaya and about 88 km from Patna via NH22.

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