Article: Cave temples

Contributed by Julia A. B. Hegewald

Decorations of cave temples

Numerous cave temples boast religious art. Many house sacred objects of worship, ranging from simple foot imprints of the Jinas and other saintly teachers to highly elaborate statues, often with inscriptions.

Most images have been carved out of the cave wall either in relief or, more rarely, as free-standing figures. Examples of painted or tiled interiors of cave temples sometimes occur. Icons are also found on rocks and cliff faces outside cave temples, especially in southern India.

Icons inside cave temples

Sculpture of the Jain saint Bāhubali in the cave temple at Badami. Only one of the four temples here is Jain but it features intricately carved pillars and numerous Jinas carved in relief inside. The main image is of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra.

Bāhubali in the Badami cave temple
Image by Dinesh Kannambadi © CC BY-SA 3.0

Many earlier caves have been greatly altered and adorned with carved Jain icons. Such representations can be very simple, almost giving the impression of an aniconic veneration of the sacred ground of the caves. Other depictions are more clearly figural and include images of the 24 Jinas as well as their yakṣas, yakṣīs and other attendants.

In most cases, the statues have been carved out of the natural rock of the caves, as is the case at Khanda-giri in Orissa and at a Jain site of the same name near Canderi in Uttar Pradesh. The images have often been combined with inscriptions, illustrated by the Sonbhaṇḍār Caves at Rajgir in Bihar.

In other cases, loose sculptural representations have been set into niches in the walls of caves. These may be plaques of reliefs but are usually free-standing statues of just one figure or of one flanked by attendants. Although this is relatively rare, examples can be seen in the cave at Gajpantha in Maharashtra.

Other decorations inside cave temples

Painted ceiling of the Jain cave temple at Sittannavasal in Tamil Nadu. This cave temple is best known for its frescoed ceiling and walls, which may date back to the ninth century, though the cave temple itself may be older.

Ceiling of Sittannavasal cave temple
Image by Takeo Kamiya © Takeo Kamiya

Some caves, such as those at Sittanavasal in Tamil Nadu and Ellora in Maharashtra, have elaborately painted ceilings. In addition, the pillars and certain statues inside still bear remains of coloured pigments.

From about the 16th century, ceramic tiles were also used to adorn earlier caves, such as those surrounding the twin peaks of Maṅgī and Tuṅgī in Maharashtra.

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