The Mauryan era Barabar Caves of the Ajivika sect are perhaps the oldest man-made caves in India.
The Ancient Barabar caves near Gaya
Ancient man used caves as one of the preferred abodes to take refuge from the vagaries of nature and as a safe place from predators. In India, caves have been used as a spiritual retreat for monks since ancient times. These places are usually carved out of rocks and are situated in remote places.
Some of these famous caves like Ajanta, Ellora, Badami, and Elephanta are full of artistic treasures of unimaginable grace and beauty. The original template for all these achievements can be traced to the caves located at the non-descript place called Barabar Hills, which is 28 km north of Gaya in the Eastern state of Bihar in India.
Among the boulder-strewn landscape, far from any significant habitation, these caves tell a story of a long-forgotten past as they date back to the Mauryan Era (3rd century BCE). There are 7 caves in total which are called Satgharwa (seven homes) in the local dialect. Four caves are at Barabar hill and three caves are at a place called Nagarjuni hills, 1.6 km away from Barabar hills.
(Ariel view of the Barabar caves)
Three of the Barabar caves are located in a long, whale-shaped rock which sometimes resembles a semi-submerged submarine from the top. The oldest caves are the Lomas Rishi cave and Sudama cave situated on the southern face. The north face has a cave called Karan Chaupar, dated 7 years after the Sudama cave.
The period of intellectual upheaval started around the 6th century BCE in ancient India resulting in the almost simultaneous birth of two sects based on their founder’s deep understanding of the existential reality of humanity, Buddhism and Jainism. A hundred years later, around 5th century BCE, another system of Indic philosophy was started by Makhali Gosala. This school of thought was based on the absence of free will and gave primacy to predetermined fate. Followers of this sect were called Ajivikas and a prominent early adherent was King Bindusara of the Mauryan dynasty. Bindusara was the son of the founder Chandragupta Maurya and father of Emperor Ashoka. There can be no better example of the churn happening in religious philosophy in ancient India at that time than the religious convictions of these 3 initial rulers of the mighty Mauryan dynasty, which encompassed a major portion of the Indian subcontinent( except the deep south). Chandragupta Maurya becoming a Jain monk after abdicating his throne, Bindusara promoting the Ajivika sect and Ashoka being instrumental in taking Buddhism to all parts of the world shows the tolerance and syncretism in the Indian society at that time.
Lomas Rishi Cave
The Lomas Rishi Cave is the only cave with a carved and decorated arch at the entranceway. The ornately carved arch gives a sense of the artistic flair of these artists who created this beautiful structure almost 2300 years ago. This horseshoe-shaped arch is the prototype for all future archway carvings of Buddhist and Jain Chaityas, Stupas and Viharas. This depiction became prolific from the times of Ashoka in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain art subsequently. The most striking part of this ensemble is the row of 10 elephants which are seen paying homage to the 3 Stupas. Above these elephants, a lattice row effect has been created by the carvings. This is the only cave with any type of embellishment among all the seven caves.
(The sculpted horseshoe chaitya design on the Lomas Rishi cave entrance)
There are extensive inscriptions in Brahmi above the entrance door. These Inscriptions above the doorway were written at a later phase between the 5th-6th century CE by King Sardula Varman and his son Ananta Varman of Maukhari Dynasty. The script has been translated by James Prinsep and John Fleet. It mentions that Ananta Varman placed an image of Lord Krishna in the cave and this hill was called Pravaragiri. It gives details of the valour of these two kings and mentions about the archery skills of King Ananta Varman.
(Inscription refers to the hill as Gorathgiri)
The interiors of Lomash rishi caves are unfinished, probably due to the prominent fault-line seen in the rock, which may have endangered the stability. Only one wall has been polished to the extent that one can see reflections in it. The polished wall is among the greatest artistic achievement of the Mauryan era.
(Inside the Lomash Rishi Cave)
The inner part of Lomash Rishi and Sudama caves consist of two parts. There is a bigger chamber where one enters which is rectangular with a vaulted ceiling. On one side of this enclosure, a gate has been carved out leading to a smaller circular area which is in total darkness due to lack of any source of light. This circular domed area is also unfinished. One can see the process of hollowing out of rock by scouring with available implements. In the pre-industrial era without any modern technology, it is a wonder how they achieved this humongous task.
(The inner chamber of the Lomash Rishi cave)
This cave is just adjacent to the Lomash Rishi cave with an unassuming rectangular entrance with straight cuts. What it lacks in adornment at the gateway, is compensated in the unimaginable polished interiors. This is a cave where the polish shines the brightest, even in the overall gloomy interiors. All the walls are polished to an extent that it gives a mirror-like effect. There is an inscription at the entry that dates this cave conclusively to the Mauryan era.
There is an alcove at one end where there may have been a statue placed at some point of time. This cave was created by King Ashoka in his 12th year of his reign for the use of Ajivikas and the inscriptions name this cave as Nigoha Gufa- Banyan Tree cave.
‘’This Banyan-tree cave was granted to Ajivikas by the King's Grace when he had been consecrated twelve years." - Literal translation of the entry-way wall Brahmi script Inscription.
(Inside the Sudama Cave)
At the other end of this cave is a domed circular area in the shape of a hut. It even has a domed roof, which gives the effect of a thatched roof. This is also finished to a glossy surface. It has a central doorway with the upper part being a perfect semi-hemisphere. It looks like this effect was created to simulate the shape of the local huts made of wood, bamboo and other materials.
(The Hut style dwelling area inside the Sudama Cave)
The echo effect in this cave is an interesting phenomenon where an echo persists for around 3 seconds after a sound is created. Repeated chanting of “Om” creates a unique reverberating effect inside the cave. The unique structure and the smooth polish give rise to this interesting experience and one can only marvel at the sophistication of this early society achieving this remarkable feat.
(The effect of light inside the inner chamber as it reflects in all directions)
Just opposite the Lomash Rishi cave, there is an elevated platform with vertical stone slabs placed as walls. It seems that this place may have been the normal residence of the Ajivikas who used these caves to meditate.
(Both caves at one side of the elongated Rock, with the residential pillared structure to the right)
Karan Chaupar Cave
This is the cave which greets the visitor first when one arrives at the Barabar Caves. There is a small inscription on one side which has weathered away with time. This cave had been constructed seven years after the Sudama Cave and it was given to The Ajivikas by Emperor Ashoka in his 19th year. The literal translation of the inscription -
"The King's Grace, when he had been consecrated nineteen years, granted the Supiya Cave in the Khalatika Hill for as long as sun and moon endure."
In the inscription, this cave is named as Supiya cave on the Khalatika hill. On the entrance wall, there are inscriptions on both the sides that read ‘’Bodhi Mool’’ (the root of intelligent thought) and ‘’Daridra Kendra’’ (place of poor). All these inscriptions are in Brahmi script and Pali/Sanskrit language.
(The exterior view of the Karan Chaupar cave)
This cave has polished interiors and an interesting echo effect. It has only one chamber with a vaulted ceiling. The difference is that it has a raised platform around one foot high, so it may have been used by Gurus for giving a discourse to the followers. The level of fine finish on the hard granite rock cannot be explained in words.
(The raised platform at one end of the Karan Chaupar Cave)
Just outside this cave, there is an unfinished panel with two humanoid shapes besides a carving of a Shivlinga. These shapes are in a highly disfigured state and nothing can be deciphered about their significance at this location.
(Carvings near the Karan Chaupar Cave)
Vishwa Jhopari (World Hut)
This cave is on the same hillock but slightly away from the rock containing the 3 earlier caves. There are steps carved on the rocks to guide the visitor to this lonely cave. It has an almost square clean-cut entrance with a large recessed area leading to the main entrance of the cave.
"This cave in Khalatika Hill was granted to the Ajivikas by the King's Grace, when he had been consecrated twelve years." This is the translation of the inscription at the doorway.
One cannot but admire the refined workmanship of this entrance area and particularly the way in which polished surface has been maintained near the joints between walls and roof. The clean and straight joints display the mastery of the workers on the stone.
(Vishwa Jhopri entrance-way)
The insides are very small and it seems that work was left unfinished. We can only see how the stone was worked upon to create the hollow space as the scouring marks are still there. Another interesting point is that the word Ajivikas’ has been defaced in the Sudama cave and it seems that later societal upheavals led to the removal of Ajivika’s rights over these caves.
The whole area gives a surreal look with boulders strewn around the landscape, as far as the eyes can see.
(The hilly boulder-strewn terrain near Barabar caves)
The Three caves at Nagarjuni hill
Nagarjuna (Nagarjuni) hill is almost 1.6 km east of the Barabar Hill. These caves are a later construct as they were commissioned by King Dashrath, Grandson of Emperor Ashoka.
The largest among these 3 caves are generally called Gopika caves and it is situated at a height and away from the other two caves. This name itself is a result of a mistranslation from its Hindi name as ‘’Gopi ka Gufa (cave)’. It should be called Gopi’s cave.
This cave seems to be the real reason for the setting of the fictional Marabar caves by filmmaker David Lean when he made the movie “A passage to India” based on the E. M. Forster’s classic. These remote caves are a part of the novel and the remoteness coupled with the strange echo effect has been detailed in it and picturised by David Lean. But the filming was not done at this location and a bigger rock formation at Savandurga hills near Bangalore was shown as the site of Marabar Caves. The echo effect was actually recorded at the Barabar caves and that soundtrack was used in the movie.
This cave has beautifully polished walls and even the ends are curved in a hemispherical manner. The caves are dated to 261 BCE as the inscription above the cave shows that it was dedicated to the Ajivikas by King Dashrath, grandson of Emperor Ashoka.
“Gopi Cave, a refuge that will last as long as the sun and the moon, created by Devanampriya (beloved of the gods) Dashrath, to make it a hermitage for the most pious Ajivikas”.
(Gopi Cave entrance and the superlative sheen of the inner walls)
It has the most extensive inscriptions among all the seven caves. In fact, the inscriptions are written in a beautiful script and it seems that the carving was done by the winner of a handwriting competition. This extensive inscription is a later addition and it was done by King Anantavarman during the 5th-6th century CE.
This inscription mentions the fact that the king worshipped Goddess (Durga) who vanquished the demon Mahisasur. It mentions King Yagna Varma as the father of Sardula Varman and grandfather of Anantavarman. Sardula Varman’s benevolence has been likened to that of a Kalpa Taru (a tree which grants all that is desired). Ananta Varman gave a grant to a village for its upkeep which was supposed to be sufficient for a very long period of time. The period mentioned in this inscription is one ‘Kalpa’. This time period is the largest ever envisaged by any civilisation as it corresponds to one day and night of the creator God Brahma and is equal to 4.32 billion human years. (Fathom That).
There are two more caves adjacent to each other. The cave with the entrance almost hidden in a side rock is called Vadathi ka Gufa (cave).
(Vadathi cave entrance to the left and Vayapi cave entrance on the right)
This cave also has inscriptions of King Dashrath at the top of its entrance. This inscription also has the exact same wordings as that of the Gopi cave except that the name of this cave is different.
“Vadathi Cave, a refuge that will last as long as the sun and the moon, created by Devanampriya (beloved of the gods) Dashrath, to make it a hermitage for the most pious Ajivikas”.
There is an extensive inscription on the entrance wall which was inscribed at a later date during the 6th century CE. It extolls the virtues of King Anatavarman, particularly his prowess in archery. He is also shown to be a benevolent king who placed statues of god and goddess in this cave. At this point of time, there is no trace of any type of worship of deities having ever been done in these caves.
(Inscriptions in the Vadathi cave)
The interiors of these two caves are polished to a really high degree of smoothness as these walls and ceilings are shining even today, after more than 2200 years since they were created. This cave has its opposite end (across the entry gate) as a hemisphere. The precision required to achieve such a polish on a perfectly hemispherical surface displays a high level of technical accomplishment during this ancient era.
(The inside shining walls of the Vadathi Cave)
This cave is the front-facing cave among the Nagarjuni Caves. Its entrance looks like the clean-cut entrances used in Star Wars movies. The roofs and walls are polished like the other two caves of this location. It has one chamber with a barrel vault style of ceiling.
The rear wall is a straight wall facing the entrance with an arched top portion. All surfaces have a really glossy finish and creating such an effect on the granite rock shows the great level of skill and dexterity of the artisans of that era. Though they have chosen to remain nameless, their artistic excellenc is in no way any less than other great and renowned artists.
(Inside view of the Vayapi cave. Notice the precise joint areas of the wall and roof)
Temple on top of the Barabar Hill
There is a Shiva temple on top of this hill area. This is known as Siddheshwar Temple, or the temple of the God of Accomplished Yogis. The original temple must have been an ancient structure as there are old carvings on the rocks on the way. Due to the lack of authentic sourcesl, it is very difficult to accurately date these structures. The carvings denote Shivlingas, various forms of Ganesha and other deities.
(Shivlingas and various forms Lord Ganesha carved on rocks)
Throughout the pathway, there are various statues of deities placed at random locations. They were found all around the area and many of them have been placed around the pathway with visitors worshipping them. There are various gods of Hinduism among these deities like Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu in Hayagriva form, Ganesha, Durga, etc.
Apart from these statues on the way, there are many similar statues installed at random places inside the temple as deities. There are various representations of Shiva along with those of Lord Vishnu, Lord Ganesha and Lord Brahma.
(Vishnu, Ganesh and Shiv – Parvati)
Among the numerous statues found all around this area the most common is the iconic depiction of Shiva and Parvati sitting together. Some of these panels are placed in the Siddheshwar temple as a separate shrine and named as 'the mother who takes away the worries and pain' - Dukh Harani.
At present, there is a small temple which doesn’t have regular visitors on most days. But the landscape is transformed during the month of Shravan, which is considered holy by the devotees of Lord Shiva. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims trek to this temple situated on the hilltop to worship Lord Shiva and have a Darshan of the Shivlinga. Notwithstanding the intellectual upheavals and the hundreds of years of sway the Ajivika sect held in the area, this age-old practises still continue.
The Barabar caves represent the first case of a shift towards more durable dwelling structures by creating rock-cut caves. The imagination fails to comprehend how enormous a task it must have been, in the ancient days without the help of any type of machine tools. To take out such a huge amount of hard rock through the small entrance portals must have been a humongous task. The precise corners and the very high quality of polishing gives an otherworldly feeling inside these caves. The superb finish of the polished walls of these Mauryan caves is not found in later day caves across the Indian landmass. The Ajivika sect, for whom these caves were created are long gone and almost forgotten from history, except these silent monuments as a testament to those intellectually stimulating days.