Buddhist Cave Temples in India are rampant and bear the bygone flavours of Buddhism
. The earliest Buddhist Cave Temples belong to the period of Ashoka, who is said to be the founder of Viharas or monasteries stupas or dagobas, asylums and other religious and charitable works. The cave temples belonging to the age of Ashoka
are mostly situated in the Nagarjuni and Barabar Hills
, some sixteen miles north of Gaya
. In all there are seven. Of these chambers four on the Barabar hill and three on the Nagarjuni hill
. Buddhist Cave Temples have been classified into two distinct groups, as these belong to two great dimension of the Buddhist faith. To the first group belong those cave temples, which were excavated, so far as can be judged from style and inscriptions before the Christian era or during the first century after it. These belong to the Hinayana
sect, or "lesser vehicle", or the original form of Buddhism
. These are generally plain in style and are devoid of the images of Lord Buddha
for worship. The cave temples belonging to the Hinayana sect are mostly found in the western side of India at Bhaja, Kondane, Pitalkhara, Bedsa, Ajanta, Nasik
and Karli. These cave temples are of two types, chaityas, and viharas.
The cave temples of the second period belong to the Mahayana Buddhism
, or the "Great Vehicle". The caves belonging to this sect are much less numerous. Little sculpture was at first employed in any of the caves, but in the cave temples belonging to the Mahayana sect, pillars and doorways came to be most elaborately decorated. Though Buddha did not preach-idol worship, but in the course of time, with the change in Buddhism, the plain dagoba ceased to satisfy its followers and the shrine came to be almost invariably occupied by an image of Buddha seated on a sort of throne. It is indeed the profusion of the image of Buddha which is most characteristic of the caves of Mahayana sect.
The most interesting and famous group of Buddhist Cave temples belonging to the earliest period on he west side of India are those found at Karli and Nasik. The Buddhist Cave temples of the earliest period found in the east side of India are situated on the Udayagiri
and Khandgiri hills
. These Caves are famous because of the picturesqueness of their forms, the richness of their sculpture and architectural details. There are some 16 or 17 Caves found on these hills, besides numerous rock-cut hermitages cells in which a simple ascetic could dwell and do penance.
The Buddhist Cave Temples of India belonging to the Mahayana sect are mostly found at Ajanta Caves
, Ellora Caves
and few scattered retreat of lesser importance in the same region. The series of Caves at Ajanta is probably in some respects the most interesting and finest of all those to be found in India. They belong exclusively to the Buddhist religion, without any mixture either from the Hindu or Jains form of faith, and they extend through the whole period during which Buddhism prevailed as the dominant religion in India. Chaitya Caves and Viharas; certainly belong to the second century. B.C., and the latest Caves at Ajanta belong to the middle of the 7th century A.D., when Buddhism was tottering to its fall. Between these two periods the 29 Caves found here are spread tolerably over a period of more than eight centuries, with only a break, which occurs not only here, but everywhere, between the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of faith.
But the most interesting feature of these Caves is the paintings on their walls and ceilings, which are still in a state of tolerable completeness. These fresco paintings on the walls of Ajanta Caves have been a source of inspiration to many artists both Indian and foreign. It is generally believed that all the Buddhist Caves were originally adorned with paintings but in nine caves out of ten, these have perished either from the effects of the atmosphere or from wanton damage done by ignorant men. As no such painting exist now in any other series of Buddhist Cave temples of India their being found here adds immensely to the interest of this group.
Only six of the 29 Caves at Ajanta belong to the first division of the Buddhist Caves and consequently to the older or Hinayana sect, the remaining twenty-three belong to the more modern class of the Buddhist Caves of the Mahayana sect. Only sixty miles distant from the Ajanta Caves are situated, the largest and the most varied group of Ellora Cave
temples found in India, consisting as they do some of the largest and finest examples of the works of all three religions, Buddhist, Brahmans and Jains.
The Buddhist Caves, with their contemporary paintings and sculpture, have been only the most vivid and authentic, but almost the only authentic record of the same age, of that form of faith from its origin to its decline and decay in India.