Stone sculptures, often reliefs, that are carved from living rock and are typically associated with monolithic architecture. Monuments built by excavating and carving rock on site differ from structural buildings that are made with materials such as stone, wood, bricks and so forth that are sourced from elsewhere, segmented into units and transported to the site of construction. Rock-cut sculpture has independently arisen in various part of the world, from subterranean structures in Malta in the Neolithic Period to tombs in ancient Egypt and the Phrygian kingdom in present-day Turkey. Given the size of some of these early monuments, the decision to carve living rock is widely assumed to be made based on convenience. Hillsides containing rock like sandstone and basalt — found abundantly in the Deccan region, where many such caves are located — were typically used for this purpose because they are relatively easy to carve while remaining structurally sound. As a tradition specific to the religious art of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, rock-cut sculpture in South Asia is found in cave temples and prayer halls, and reflects shifts in regional trends and cultural patronage.
The earliest surviving example of rock-cut sculpture in India can be found in the Lomas Rishi cave in the Barabar hills, Bihar. These caves date back to the third century BCE, when they were excavated — in this case, hollowed and shaped — with the patronage of Ashoka and his successor Dasaratha of the Mauryan Empire. The Barabar caves were created so that wandering ascetics might be able to take refuge there during the monsoon, since caves (even altered ones) were considered an extension of the natural world as opposed to the material civilisation which the ascetics had disavowed. Early approaches to rock-cut sculpture emerged from broader traditions of rock-cut architecture, aided by the tastes of patrons and the development of religious iconography. Cave sites dating to the second and first centuries BCE in present-day Maharashtra — such as Bhaja, Pitalkhora and Karla — were also built to house travelling Buddhist monks, but the collective patronage from officials of different faiths meant that Hindu and Buddhist iconography feature alongside one another in the sculptures carved on the cave walls. At Bhaja, for instance, narrative scenes are rendered in low relief over the cave walls, with characters packed densely together. The later reliefs at Karla show a deeper integration of the natural structure of the cave in the architecture and the sculptures; here, the figures are rendered in high relief in proportion with the cave size.
In the first millennium CE, rock-cut sculptures saw a movement from dynamic, often asymmetrical forms to a stricter, standardised style of sculpture. Key examples of the former are date back to the fifth century at the Udayagiri caves in Madhya Pradesh and the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra. The carving of whole caves or particular images at these sites was funded by officials and rulers of the Gupta Empire and Vakataka Dynasty respectively, with spaces dedicated to Buddhist, Jain and Hindu worship. The sculptural treatment of the human figure at these sites is naturalistic and affective, suggesting that this visual vocabulary may have already been established in the fourth century or earlier, but possibly in a more easily perishable medium.
The formal dynamism apparent in the transitory style of the early sixth century Shaivite temples at Elephanta was soon replaced with a more regularised style. By the eighth century at Ellora, the human form was carved in front-facing, symmetrical poses with neat patterns of recurring elements such as the folds of a figure’s clothing or ornamentation. The dense but carefully balanced narrative scenes depicted in the Kailasanatha Temple reflect this new style, which incorporates multiple iconographies while drawing from a variety of architectural forms.
The sculptural elements of later caves at long-patronised sites such as Ellora were often carved in imitation of earlier ones, or other important sites. The rock-cut temples of Badami and Aihole borrow elements from the earlier Ajanta and Udayagiri style as well as the stricter Ellora style. The largely Hindu temples at these sites, all built with the patronage of the Chalukya Dynasty in the sixth century, are carved from soft red sandstone, which allowed for naturalistic and densely composed reliefs.
In the seventh century, the period following the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I’s victory over the Chalukyas saw a large number of rock-cut structures being carved from the granite boulders and caves at the newly established town of Mamallapuram in present-day Tamil Nadu, all of which were in some way designed to memorialise the victory. Stylistically, the rock reliefs of Mamallapuram are rougher and more rigid than those of caves in western India and the Deccan. This is partly due to the lack of specialised craftsmen for rock-cut sculpture in the region and partly a difference in material: the basalt rock of the Deccan and the sandstone at Badami and Aihole are softer and relatively easy to carve than the granite boulders at Mamallapuram.
Built toward the end of the tenth century, the Gomateshvara statue dedicated to the Jain figure Bahubali, is the world’s largest rock-cut sculpture at a height of seventeen metres. Situated in the town of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, it is carved entirely from a single block of granite. There are also a few significant examples of monumental rock reliefs beyond the subcontinent. Carved on a sandstone cliff, the two sixth-century Bamiyan Buddha statues in present-day Afghanistan, measuring 53 and 35 metres respectively, were the largest known examples of Gandhara sculpture before their destruction in 2001 by the then-incumbent Taliban government.
Despite their large numbers, very rarely are the artisans of these sculptures identified, even when inscriptions of patrons or dedications are present. Moreover, most artisans worked in guilds, and individual contribution was secondary to collective work, especially in the case of lower caste artisans who worked on temples dedicated to upper caste worship.
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