Cave Paintings in India – Reflection of Indian Culture on the Rocks


List of Cave Paintings in India
Ajanta Caves – Saurabh Chatterjee/Flickr

India has a rich history of paintings in its culture and tradition. There are quite a lot of types of paintings and art forms that we have. These include Meenakari paintings, Warli paintings, Madhubani paintings, and Phad paintings that originated centuries ago. Another such type of painting that we will know about today is Cave Paintings. These paintings date back to the pre-historic era and are ancient but still kept preserved and well maintained. The paintings on caves and rock-cut structures survive for many centuries. These cave paintings got their inspiration from nature. These paintings mostly depict gods and goddesses, mythological stories and characters, epics, nature, flora and fauna, humans, and religion. Let’s take a look at some of the cave paintings in India.

1. Ajanta Caves

Famous Cave Paintings in India, Ajanta

The Ajanta caves are Buddhist caves. These are located at a distance of around 100 km from the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra. The Ajanta caves contain the oldest Indian paintings which were made around 1 st century BC. Other than that, the caves contain many portraits and illustrations. They depict the Life of Buddha, his rebirth, and his preaching.

There are many frescoes, murals, paintings, and rock-cut sculptures inside the caves. The Ajanta caves have beautiful frescoes painted all over the walls and the ceilings. These frescoes and paintings represent court life, processions, feasts, people working, festivals and events, and scenes from nature like animals, birds, and flowers. They mostly revolve around Lord Buddha and the most common theme is Jataka-the incarnations of Lord Buddha. They also depict yakshas, nagas and Ganga, and the Yamuna- the river goddesses, etc. The artists made the paintings in wet plaster. Then they put a layer of lime plaster over the paintings to protect and preserve them.

The Ajanta cave paintings are also known as the masterpieces of Buddhist art. It is one of the best examples of ancient Indian art. There are a total of 30 caves in Ajanta which have some wonderful, brightly – colored paintings. Some of the famous paintings of the Ajanta caves are the one which shows a procession of elephants, one which shows a dancer and women musicians, the Chhadanta Jataka in Cave 10, and Bodhisattva – an elephant with six tusks. The Ajanta caves have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2. Ellora Caves

Cave Paintings in India, Ellora
Image-Santanu Sen/Flickr

The Ellora caves are situated in the Charandari Hills. It is located at a distance of about 29 km from the city of Aurangabad, Maharashtra, and about 100 km from the Ajanta caves. The place contains over 100 caves out of which 34 caves are open for the public. These caves feature and celebrate Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Out of these caves, 5 caves have these paintings. They contain engraved pre-historic paintings divided into two sections. One section depicts Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi. The other section portrays Lord Shiva and his followers and the procession of Apsaras and Shaivas. Caves 32 and 33 are Jain temples that contain remains of some beautiful murals. These caves are from around the 9th century.

Kailasanatha, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, Cave 16 was built around 760 – 860 AD. It contains some of the best-preserved paintings which have been repainted almost three times. This Kailasanatha or Kailash temple, a chariot-shaped monument in Cave 16, is the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world. The Hindu caves, built around 600 – 875 AD, contain paintings based on Apsaras, trees, nature, and deities whereas the Buddhist caves, built around 550 – 750 AD, contain paintings based on the Lord Buddha. The Jain caves were built around 800 – 1000 AD and they contain some magnificent murals. Some famous paintings are of Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi with clouds as a backdrop and Ravan ki Khai. The Ellora caves are one of the largest rock-cut Hindu temple caves all over the world and they have also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

3. Elephanta Caves

Cave Paintings in India, Elephanta Caves
Image-Arian Zwegers/Flickr

Elephanta caves, also known as, Gharapuri (city of caves) are located on the Elephanta Island of Mumbai, Maharashtra. These historic caves contain several ancient Hindu temples, paintings, sculptures, carvings, etc. These caves depict Hinduism and Buddhism. These caves consist of five Hindu caves and two Buddhist caves. The paintings here are brightly colored and mostly represent the artist’s culture. Cave 1 is also known as the grand cave or the great cave. There are many sculptures here like Ardhanarishvara, Ravananugraha, Yogishvara, and Hindu deities such as Kartikeya, Ganesha, Dvarapala, Lord Shiva, etc. There is also a Trimurti statue which is around 20 feet high. It is also the most important sculpture of this cave. To reach the cave, one has to climb 120 steps.

The most popular and celebrated carvings of the Elephanta caves are the large monolithic Trimurti Sadashiva, Nataraja, and Yogishvara. These paintings and artworks were made between the 5th and the 9th century. There is also a carving depicting Kalyanasundara, the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, where one can see many gods and goddesses, Brahma, Vishnu, King Parvata, Chandra (moon god), and apsaras witnessing and blessing the wedding. The Elephanta caves were also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

4. Sittanavasal Caves

Cave Paintings in India, Sittanavasal Cave

The Sittanavasal Cave is also known as the Arivar Koil. It is a Jain cave located in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu. This cave was created by Jains and is a rock-cut cave temple of the Arihants. This cave was built in the 2nd century. it contains remains of many well-known murals which dated back to the 7th century. The paintings here were done with vegetable and mineral dyes and colors which include black, blue, white, yellow, green, and orange. The paintings were made over a thin wet layer of lime plaster.

The Sittanavasal cave depicts Jainism and to reach the cave, one has to climb around 100 steps. The main themes of paintings are lotus pond, lotus flowers, two dancing figures, lilies, geese, fish, buffaloes, and elephants. Another common theme of paintings was Jain
Samavasarana, meaning the attainment of nirvana and Khatika bhumi. There are decorative and beautiful paintings of the sanctum and a lotus tank, men, flowers, birds, animals, fishes, and a dancing girl, the king and the queen all over the pillars and the ceilings. These Sittanavasal cave paintings depict the Pandyan period of the 9th century. They also contain inscriptions from the 9th and the 10th century. The paintings and the artwork of the Sittanavasal caves are very similar. It is believed to be connected to the Ajanta caves. The technique which was used in making these paintings is called fresco-secco.

5. Bhimbetka Caves

Oldest cave paintings in India, Bhimbetka Cave
Image-Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia

The Bhimbetka rock shelters situated in Central India is an archaeological site from the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. These rock shelters are located in the Raisen district in the state of Madhya Pradesh. There are traces of the Stone Age at the site. The site also contains seven hills with over 750 rock shelters and caves. There are beautiful, prehistoric cave paintings among which some are even 10,000 years old. Some common themes of these cave paintings were animals, dancing and hunting, elephant, deer, peacock, and snake. The paintings here belong to several different periods like the early historic, the medieval period, and the Chalcolithic age. Some paintings included gatherers, metals, horse riding, and fighting. Some caves here even date back to 100,000 years. The most common colors used in these paintings were red and white.

These rock shelters consist of over 600 caves and even the ceilings of these caves are decorated. These decorative paintings depict religious motifs, tree gods, magical sky chariots, humans, war scenes with kings and soldiers on horses, and people enjoying and living daily life. The place has a well-known rock caked “Zoo Rock”. It has paintings of bison, deer, bear, peacock, snake, and the sun god on it. Bhimbetka is the oldest known rock art in India. This place was named “Bhimbetka” after Bhima, a Pandava from Mahabharata. The name was derived from Bhim Bhatika which means the place where Bheem used to sit. The Bhimbetka rock shelters were also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

6. Lenyadri Caves 

Cave Paintings in India, Lenyadri Caves 
Image – Wikimedia

The word “Lenyadri” can be interpreted as “a  mountainous cave.” This word comes from ‘Lena,’ (‘Cave’ in Marathi ) and ‘adri’ (‘stone’ in Sanskrit). There are about 40 rock-cut caves in Lenyadri. The most well-known and frequented is the set of 30 caverns in a small group facing south. These caves were established as a Buddhist monastery in the 1st – 3rd centuries AD. One of the Buddhist residences afterwards became a prominent Hindu god Ganesh shrine. Lenyadri is listed on the major Ashtavinayaks: the eight most honoured Ganeshas of Maharashtra. These paintings are said to be at least 250 years old, as they have yet to be found an accurate record of their origin. For now, however, their origin can be considered more or less from the Peshwa era, because the style of this era is identical. Steps 283 cut stones grouped in 10 stairs which were constructed in the 19th century are used to reach the caves. According to the canon of time – Hinayana, the Buddhists created these caves. There are two big shrines in the group of 30 caverns — chaitya griha and one mini chaitya. Other caves for monks — viharas – have been built. The majority of viharas are composed of a porch, centre hall and cells placed around the main hall. Hill features four additional rocky caverns that are older than the main group caves. A little chaitya with a graved entrance design – lotus, geometrical motifs, is one of the caves. Shrines are located in other caves. Traces of old cave paintings and inscriptions have remained in the caves of Lenyadri.

7. Bagh Caves

Cave Paintings in India, Bagh Caves
Image – Wikimedia

Situated in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, on the banks of the Baghani River, these rock-cut caves have the most beautiful murals that early man has ever done. Only 5 of the first 9 caverns have survived up to now. The tradition has it that the Buddhist monk Dataka sculpted such caves in the late fourth – sixth centuries AD. For mural paintings, the Bagh Caves are often appreciated. The walls and ceilings were coated in brownish orange with thick mud plaster. Lime-priming was done over this plaster and paintings were subsequently applied. This is also called a tempera technique that refers to the use of a paint medium that is permanently quick-drying, made of a coloured pigment and a water-soluble binding substance.

Ajanta Caves are considered to be the only examples of these cave paintings in the outside world. However, it has been proved that these paintings have existed from much before. And this did not end with Ajanta, but was supported in many places of India by people of many faiths.

Only the cave no. 3 and 4 had endured the ravages of time when the caves in Bagh were first discovered. Bagh’s walls depict the Indian classical art in its “golden age.”

8. Armamalai Caves  

Image – Wikimedia

Armamalai cave is a natural cave, that in the 8th century was remade into a Jain temple. The cave comprises paintings, petroglyphs, rock paintings from the Saints of the Jains of the 8th century. These are on the walls of the cave and the frescoes on the roof. The artworks have been produced by using colours on the fine limestone surface and dense exterior dirt. These paintings were painted by Jain monks who resided in them during the ancient Tamil kingdom in the time when their faith flourished. Two methods of frescoing and tempera are employed in the caves. They look like Sittanavasal Cave, old Jain Caves, Bagh Caves, old Buddhist cave in Madhya Pradesh. The cave paintings are seen in India as medieval rock sculptures.

In the late 1960s, rock paintings were uncovered by archaeologists in the cave. The old Pallava Dynasty was founded by Gabriel Jouveau-Dubreuil, who died in 1945. Jouveau Dubreuil stated that he discovered a cave from information he obtained on the copper plate of Udayendiram that sounded like Kumaramangalam to the village, Pallava Ruler Nandivarman II. He was able to locate a cave in western Malayampattu upon further investigation. Photos illustrate the native histories of Jainism as well as Astathik Palakas pictures of Agni, Vayu, Kubera, Eesanya, Indra, Yama, Niruthi and Varuna. There are plant and swans are represented in a petroglyph. The cave walls also include Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. Most of the art and paintings in these caves have been destroyed for varying reasons.

9. Badami caves

Bhootnath Temple, Badami – Saurabh Chatterjee/Flickr

One of the best preserved structures of ancient India is the Badami or Vatapi, as was originally known. The paintings in the rock-cut caves belong mostly to the sixth and eighth centuries. The caverns of Badami were a major source of inspiration for Mahabalipuram’s structures. The monarch of Pallava fascinated by art and architecture in the caves in Badami Chalukya and came up with the idea to imitate his realm in the same way. There is a clear message of this in the ruins of Mahabalipuram. Later history also presents Chalukyas indication of Pallava’s architectural signs.

The earliest relics of the Hindu paintings are badami mural paintings. Many could not withstand the impact of time, but some of them have survived. The paintings were destroyed during the time of Puleksin I’s son King Mangalishwara. The Vatapi’s caves were completely ornamented with walls; several were puranas-inspired. The surviving ones are Shiva and Parvathi’s paintings as well as several other figures.

The pictures have been lavishly adorned since the ruins clearly indicate the grandeur and splendour of India’s ancient times. The pictures have brought together religions as the art is part of the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist inclinations, which in those times demonstrated the prevalence of secularism and tolerance. The 4th cave features Adinata’s wall art, the tirthankara of Jain.

10. Adamgarh Hills

Image – Wikimedia

The hills of Adamgarh are positioned 2 km to the south of the village of Hoshangabad beside the Narmada river. Manoranjan Ghosh found rock shelters in 1922, D.H. Gordon and other archaeologists such as Mitra (1927, CE), Silberrad (1932), Brown (1932) and Hunter (1935) carried out the futhtur required research. Adamgarh is home to roughly 18 rock shelters; 11 of which contain visible artwork, some faded with time, others because of visitor damage. The shelters are largely made of small paintings with Shelter No. 10 being highly interesting since paintings from different times are overlaid on the other.

The paintings are simplistic, less creative and in most cases without clear physical proportions. The human figures are painted in red, dark brown and white only, while the figurines of animals are a little more detailed. In Australia, South Africa, East Spain and South America, the activity of people and animals has been exceptionally trapped on the walls, which may be well compared by their numerous pictures. In fact there are paintings of numerous creatures such as oxen, monkeys, horses, fish, peacocks, and in one case giraffes, and even fighting scenes, horsemen, soldiers with bows and arrows, and swords. Trees have also been depicted, but the lack of detail makes it rather hard to identify.

11. Jogimara Caves

Image – Wikimedia

Jogimara Cave, regarded as a symbol of the legacy of Chhattisgarh, is located in the district of Surguja city of Ambikapur. This old cave is decorated with drawings of animals, birds and humans which date back to around 300 BC. The cave also features an inscription written in Brahmi, which is regarded as the first written message of love to be documented on earth. There are no religious motifs in the paintings represented in this cave, but natural aspects are shown. Legend has it that heroes of the Ramayan — brothers, Rama and Lakshman and Rama’s wife Sita – hid here during their exile. 

These caves measure approximately 10x6x6 feet. On them, there are numerous paintings of animals, people, birds and flowers. Each picture is painted with a red outline on white plaster. The design on a number of panels – homes (architecture), animals and individuals – depict a variety of things. On the boundaries, there have been recurring motifs of fish, makara, man, lions etc.

White ants, dripping water down the walls and the inadequate Indian environment ruined the plaster of the walls on which the artwork was made. Likewise, the structural buildings created during that period were without a doubt made of wood and unbaked brick, which hindered them from being long-lasting. It has been assumed that the surface of these constructions was achieved by crudely made plaster soil and in some cases were painted. In Jogimara,  an entire example of the edifices with the art of the time has not been found yet. 

These caves are positioned in a wonderful natural environment, an enormous mountain jungle. The caves are accessible in a natural tunnel in order to make this happen.

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