Maharashtra is famous for its cave
architecture, with ancient Buddhist caves dating back to the 2nd century
BC. Later Hindu cave temples, most famously at
Ajanta, are similar to other
temples of that era in design but are carved from the top down out of
solid but soft rock.
The mention of Maharashtra cave architecture brings the caves of Ajanta and Ellora into limelight. Some of India's oldest wall paintings can be traced here. The sculptures of the time are stiff and unmoving but Maharashtra 's famous rock-cut caves have several distinct design elements. The Buddhist caves; particularly the older ones are either temples (Chaityas) or monasteries (Viharas). Chaityas are usually deep and narrow with a stupa at the end of the cave.
Rock-cut architecture took turn with the Buddhist reign and
remarkable Buddhist monuments were produced in areas such as Bihar in the
east and Maharashtra in the west. Natural grottos and
caves in the hillside were excavated by the Buddhist monks and turned into
glorious prayer halls and monasteries.
Ranging from tiny monastic cells to colossal, elaborately carved temples, they are remarkable for having been hewn by hand from solid rock. Their 3rd century BC origins seem to have been as temporary shelters for Buddhist monks when heavy monsoon rains made their normal itinerant lifestyle impossible.
Modeled on earlier wooden structures, most were sponsored by merchants, for whom the casteless new faith offered an attractive alternative to the old, discriminatory social order. Gradually, encouraged by the example of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the local ruling dynasties also began to embrace Buddhism. Under their patronage, during the 2nd century BC, the first large-scale monastery-caves were created at Karla , Bhaja and Ajanta.
Around this time, the austere "Hinayana", or "Lesser
Vehicle", school of Buddhism predominated in India. In keeping with
the original teachings of the Buddha, closed communities of monks had
little or no interaction with the outside world. Caves cut in this era
were mostly simple "worship halls", or Chaityas - long,
rectangular chambers with barrel-vaulted roofs, and two narrow colonnaded
aisles curving gently around the back of a monolithic stupa. Symbols of
the Buddha's Enlightenment, these hemispherical burial mounds provided the
principal focus for worship and meditation, circumambulated by the monks
during their communal rituals.
Attempts to compete with the resurgence of Hinduism, from the sixth century onwards, eventually led to the evolution of another, more esoteric religious movement. The Vajrayana, or "Thunderbolt" sect stressed the female creative principle, 'Shakti', with arcane rituals combining spells and magic formulas. Ultimately, however, such modifications were proved to be powerless against the growing allure of Brahmanism.
The ensuing shift in royal and popular patronage is best exemplified by Ellora, where during the 8th century, many of the old Viharas were converted into temples, their shrines housing polished Shiva Linga instead of stupas and Buddhas. Hindu cave architecture, with its predilection for dramatic mythological sculpture, culminated in the 10th century with the magnificent Kailash temple, a giant replica of the freestanding structures that had already begun to replace rock-cut caves. It was Hinduism that bore the brunt of the iconoclastic medieval descent of Islam on the Deccan, Buddhism having long since fled to the comparative safety of the Himalayas, where it flourishes to this day.