No. 1. Front of the Cave at Bâjâ, from a Photograph
No. 1. Front of the Cave at Bâjâ, from a Photograph

It is fortunate that in the midst of all these perplexities and uncertainties there is still one thread which, if firmly grasped, will lead us with safety through the labyrinth, and land us on firm ground, on which we may base our explorations in search of further knowledge. India is covered with buildings from north to south, and of all ages, from the first introduction of stone architecture in the third century B.C. down to the present day. With scarcely an exception, these are marked with strongly developed ethnographic peculiarities, which are easily read and cannot be mistaken. Many of these have inscriptions upon them, from which the relative dates, at least, can be ascertained, and their chronological sequence followed without hesitation. In addition to this, nearly all those before the Moslem conquest have sculptures or paintings, which give a most vivid picture of the forms of faith to which they were dedicated, and of the manners and customs, as well of the state of civilisation of the country at the time they were erected.

As mentioned above, the history of Buddhism as a state religion begins with the conversion of Aśoka, in the third century B.C., and as it happens, he was the first to excavate a cave for religious purposes . He also was probably the author of the sculptures on the Buddha Gava rails,1 but whether this is certain or not, we have in the wondrous collection of sculptures found by General Cunningham at Bharhut a complete picture of Buddhism, and of the arts and manners of the natives of India in the second century before Christ.2 The tale is then taken up with the gateways at Sanchi, belonging to the first century of our era, which are equally full and equally interesting.3 To these follow the rails at Amravati4 in the fourth century, showing a considerable technical advance, though accompanied with a decline of that vigour which characterised the earlier examples. From the fourth century, to the decline of Buddhism in the seventh, there exist a superfluity of illustrations of its progress, in the sculptures and painting at Ajaṇṭâ and in the western caves, while the monasteries of Gandhara, beyond the Indus in the north-west, supply a most interesting parallel series of illustrations. These last were executed under a singularly classical influence, whose origin has not yet been investigated, though it would be almost impossible to overrate its importance.5

We have thus either carved in stone or painted on plaster as complete a series of contemporary illustrations as could almost be desired of the rise, progress, and decline of Buddhism during the whole of the 1,000 years in which it existed as an important religion in India. We have also a continuation of the series illustrating the mode in which the present religious forms of India grew out of former faiths, and took the shapes in which they now exist in almost every part of India.

Were all these materials either collected together in museums or published in such a form as to be easily accessible to the public,6 we would possess a more vivid and more authentic picture, not only of the ethnography, but of the ever varying forms of Indian civilisation, than is to be obtained from any books, or any other form of evidence now available.

The one defect in this mode of illustration is that it does not extend far enough back in time, to be all that is wanted. Neither in India, nor indeed anywhere else, were the Aryans a building race, nor did their cultivation of the fine arts ever reach that point at which it sufficed for historical illustration. They chose and throughout adhered, to the phonetic mode of expression, as both higher and more intellectual, and in this they were no doubt right in so far as all the higher forms of human intellectual expression are concerned. But books perish, and may be changed and altered, and after all do not present so vivid and so permanent an illustration of contemporary feelings as those which may be expressed by buildings in stone, or by forms, in carving or in colour.

Be this as it may, it is in consequence of this peculiarity of the Aryan mind, that the history of art in India begins with the upheaval of the Turanian element, and the introduction of Buddhism as a state religion under Aśoka in the middle of the third century B.C., and it is consequently with that king’s reign that our illustrations drawn from Indian architecture practically begin.

When this fact was first announced, now some forty years ago, the evidence on which it rested was to some extent negative. No building had then been found which could pretend to an earlier date, nor has any one been discovered since; but till we can feel sure that we know all the buildings in India, there is no absolute certainty that some earlier example may not be brought to light. At present, however, with the solitary exception of Jarasandha-ka- Baithak, to be described presently, no building is known to exist nor any cave, possessing any architectural character, whose date can be extended back to the time when Alexander the Great visited India. It may, of course, be disputed whether or not it was, in consequence of hints received from the Greeks that the Indians first adopted stone for architectural purposes; but the coincidence is certain, and in the present state of our knowledge may be looked upon as an established fact. At the same time though it is almost equally certain that stone was used in India as a building material for engineering purposes and for foundations, yet it is quite certain that nothing that can properly be called architecture is to be found there till considerably after Alexander’s time.7

Besides the negative evidence above alluded to, we now have direct evidence of the fact in a form that hardly admits of dispute. We have caves like this one at Bhâjâ, which was excavated certainly after Aśoka’s time, in which not only every decorative feature is directly copied from a wooden original, but the whole of the front, the ribs of the roof, and all the difficult parts of the construction were originally in wood, and a good deal of the original woodwork remains in the cave at the present hour. But more than this, as will be observed in the woodcut, the posts dividing the nave from the aisles all slope inwards. In a wooden building having a circular roof, the timber work of which was from its form liable to spread, it was intelligible that the posts that supported it, should be placed sloping inwards, so as to counteract the thrust. No people, however, who had ever built or seen a stone pillar, would have adopted such a solecism in the rock when copying the wooden halls in which their assemblies had been held and their worship had previously been performed. In order to follow the lines of these sloping pillars, the jambs of the doorways were made to slope inwards also, and there is no better test of age than the extent to which the system is carried. By degrees the pillars and the jambs become more and more upright, the woodwork disappeared as an ornament, and was replaced by forms more and more lithic, till long before the last caves were excavated we can barely recognise, and may almost forget, the wooden forms from which they took their origin.

Though therefore it is more than probable that the Indians borrowed the idea of using stone for architectural purposes from the Greeks, or to speak more correctly, from western foreigners bearing the Greek appellation of Yavanas, it is equally certain that they did not adopt any of the forms of Greek architecture or any details from the same source. It is indeed one of the principal points of interest in this style, that we see its origin in the wood, and can trace its development into stone, without any foreign admixture. It is one of the most original and independent styles in the whole world, and consequently one of the most instructive for the philosophic study of the rise and progress of architectural forms.

While asserting thus broadly that stone architecture commenced in India only 250 years before Christ, there are two points that should not be overlooked, not that they are likely to disturb the facts, but they may modify the inferences to be drawn from them. The first of these is the curious curvilinear form of the Śikharas or spires of Hindu temples, which cannot at present, at least, be traced back to any wooden original. It is true the earliest example whose date can be fixed with anything like certainty is the great temple at Bhuvaneswar,8 which was erected in the 7th century of our era. It is however then complete in all essentials, and though we can follow its gradual attenuation down to the present day, when it becomes almost as tall, in proportion, as a gothic spire, we cannot advance one step backwards towards its origin. My impression is, that it was originally invented in the plains of Bengal, where stone is very rare indeed, and that the form was adopted to suit a brick and terra-cotta construction for which it is perfectly adapted.9 But it may also be derived from some lithic form of which we have now no knowledge, but be this as it may, the uncertainty that prevails regarding the origin of this form prevents us from saying absolutely that there were no original forms of stone architecture in India anterior to the time of the Greeks. Whether, however, it was derived from wood or brick or stone, it may be the elaboration of some Dasyu form of temple of which we have now no trace, and regarding which it is consequently idle to speculate. But till we can more nearly bridge over the 7 or 8 centuries that elapsed between the first Buddhist caves and the earliest known examples of Hindu architecture, we cannot tell what may have happened in the interval. For our present purposes it is sufficient to say that if there is no evidence that the temples of the Hindus were derived from a wooden original, there is as little that would lead us to suspect that the form arose from any necessity of stone construction.10

Even, however, though it may be proved to demonstration that stone was not employed for architectural purposes before the age of Aśoka, we must still guard ourselves from the assumption that it was either from want of knowledge or of skill that this was so. They seem deliberately to have preferred wood, and in every case where great durability was not aimed at, and where fire was not to be dreaded, they no doubt were right. Larger spaces could far more easily be roofed over with wood than with stone, and carvings and decoration more easily and effectually applied. They think so in Burmah to the present day, and had they not thought so in India in the third century B.C., it is clear, from what they did at Bharhut and Buddha Gâya, that they could as easily have employed stone then, as they do now. At Bharhut, for instance, the precision with which architectural decorations are carved in stone 150 years B.C. has hardly been surpassed in India at any time, and whatever we may think of the drawing of the figure sculptures, there can be no hesitation as to the mechanical skill with which they are executed. The same is true of what we find at Buddha Gâya, and of the gateways at Sanchi. Though the forms are all essentially borrowed from wooden constructions, the execution shows a proficiency in cutting and carving stone materials that could only be derived from long experience.

As hinted above, the only stone building yet found in India that has any pretension to be dated before Aśoka’s reign is one having the popular name of Jarasandha-ka-Baithak,11 at Rajgir. It is partially described by General Cunningham in the third volume of his Archæological Reports, but not with such detail, as he no doubt would have bestowed upon it, had he been aware of its importance. As will be seen from the annexed woodcut, it is a tower about 85 feet square at base and sloping upwards for 20 or 28 feet12 to a platform measuring 74 feet by 78. It is built wholly of unhewn stones, neatly fitted together without mortar; and its most remarkable peculiarity is that it contains 15 cells, one of which is shown in the woodcut. They are from 6 to 7 feet in length, with about half that in breadth. Their position in height is not clearly marked in General Cunningham’s drawing, but Mr. Broadley describes them as on the level of the ground, and adds that they are inhabited up to this day, at times, by Nágas or Sâdbus, Jogis whose bodies are constantly smeared with ashes.13 Immediately behind this Baithak General Cunningham discovered a cave, which he unhesitatingly identifies the Pipala Cave, where, according to Fahian, Buddha was accustomed to sit in deep meditation after his mid-day meal.14 It is a rude cavern some 25 by 28 feet, the roof of which has partially fallen in. It seems, at one time to have been partially lined with brick, but is otherwise quite rude and unornamented. The General considers it undoubtedly the quarry hole from which the stones were taken to build the Baithak, and either it, or the tower in Hiuen Thsang’s time bore the name of the palace of the Asuras.[ fn]Julien’s Hiuen Thsang, iii. p. 24.

The interest of this group, for our present purposes, rests principally on the three following considerations:—

First, we have a cave with which Buddha’s name seems inseparably connected. It is rude and unhewn, like all those which, so far as we at present know, are assigned to his age.

Secondly, we have the earliest Vihâra or monastery yet found in India, built of unhewn stones, and wholly unornamented from an architectural point of view. Originally it may have been three storeys in height, and with steps leading to each, but these are gone and probably cannot now be recovered.15

Thirdly, though this at present may be considered as purely speculative, the arrangements of the Baithak point almost undoubtedly to Assyria as the country from which its forms were derived, and the Birs Nimrud,16 with its range of little cells on two sides, seems only a gigantic model of what is here copied on a small and rude scale. Without attempting to lay too much stress on the name Asura,17 the recent discovery by General Cunningham of a procession headed by a winged human-headed bull,18 points beyond all doubt to an Assyrian origin, and fifty other things tend in the same direction with more or less distinctness. This is not the place, however, to insist upon them, as they have very little direct bearing on the subject of this work. It is well, however, to indicate their existence, as Assyrian architecture, in the form in which it is found copied in stone at Persepolis, is the only style to which we can look for any suggestions to explain the origin of many forms and details found in the western caves, as well as in the Gandhâra monasteries.

When the various points hinted at above are fairly grasped, they add immensely to the interest of the caves to be described in the following pages. More than this, however, as the Buddhists were beyond doubt the earliest cave excavators in India, and the only ones for more than a thousand years after the death of the founder of that religion, these rock-cut temples form the only connecting link between the Nirvâṇa and the earliest Buddhist scriptures which have reached our times, in their present form.19 Whether looked on from an ethnological, a historical, or a religious point of view, the Buddhist caves, with their contemporary sculpture and paintings, became not 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. If it is also true—which we have at present no reason for doubting—that the Buddhists were the first to use any permanent materials for building and sculptural purposes in the caves, combined with the few fragments of structural buildings that remain, they have left a record which is quite unique in India. It is, however, a representation which for vividness and completeness can hardly be surpassed by any lithic record in any other country, of their feelings and aspirations during the whole period of their existence.

Although the Brahmanical and Jaina caves, which succeeded the Buddhist, on the decline of that religion in the sixth and subsequent centuries, are full of interest, and sometimes rival and even surpass them in magnificence, they have neither their originality nor their truthfulness. They are either inappropriate imitations of the caves of the Buddhists, or copies of their own structural temples, whose details were derived from some wooden or brick original, and whose forms were designed for some wholly different application, without the least reference to their being executed as monoliths in the side of a hill. Notwithstanding these defects, however, there is an expression of grandeur, and of quasi eternity, in a temple cut in the rock, which is far greater than can be produced by any structural building of the same dimensions, while the amount of labour evidently required for their elaboration is also an element of greatness that never fails to affect the mind of the spectator. Taken by themselves it may be true that the later series of caves, notwithstanding their splendour, are hardly equal in interest to the earlier ones, notwithstanding their simplicity. It is, however, when looked at as a whole, that the true value of the complete series of rock-cut temples in India becomes apparent. From the rude Pippala cave at Râjgir in which Buddha sat to meditate after his mid-day meal, to the latest Jaina caves in the rock at Grwalior, they form a continuous chain of illustration, extending over more than 2,000 years, such as can hardly in its class be rivalled any where or by any other nation. It is too, infinitely more valuable in India than it would be in any country possessing a literature in which her religious forms and feelings and her political history had been faithfully recorded, in other forms of expression. As in India, however, the written record is so imperfect, and so little to be relied upon, it is to her Arts, and to them only, that we can turn to realise what her position and aspirations were at an earlier age; but this being so, it is fortunate they enable us to do this in a manner at once so complete and so satisfactory.

  • 1. General Cunningham’s Archæological Report, vol. i., Plates VIII. to XI., and Babu Rajendralala Mitra’s Buddha Gaya, Plates XXXIV. to XXXVIII., and one photograph, Plate L. As none of these plates, which are lithographs, are satisfactory, it is to be hoped that the whole may some day be photographed, like the last. There is no monument in India more important for the history of Art than this rail, which is probably the oldest example of Hindu sculpture we possess.
  • 2. Description of the Stupa at Bharhut, by Gen. A. Cunningham, 4to., London, 1879.
  • 3. Illustrated in the first 45 plates of Tree and Serpent Worship, 2nd Ed. 4to., London, 1873.
  • 4. Illustrated in the 55 remaining plates of that work. 28
  • 5. Neither the Ajanta frescoes nor the Gandhara sculptures have yet been published. The latter exist in the museums of Lahore, South Kensington, and Gen. Cunningham’s possession. Photographs of nearly all the known specimens are in my possession.—J. F.
  • 6. This could easily and speedily be done, as almost all these antiquities are public property, and nine-tenths of them have been photographed, and the negatives exist, generally in the hands of the Government. The only obstacle is the apathy and indifference of the public, and of those who might be expected to take most interest in the matter.
  • 7. Even in Alexander’s time, according to Megasthene (Strabo p. 702), the walls of the capital city, Palibothra, were constructed in wood only. A portion of the fortifications of minor cities were probably of the same convenient though combustible material. Notwithstanding this, Babu Rajendralâla Mitra in his work on Buddha Gaya, p. 167, and 168, asserts that the walls of this city were of brick, and as his authority for this, quotes the passage from Megasthenes above referred to. Besides being in brick, he adds (p. 168), apparently on his own authority, that they were 30 feet in height. In so far as the testimony of a trustworthy eye witness is concerned, this statement of Megasthenes is entirely at variance with the Babu’s contention, for the use of stone generally, for architectural purposes in India before Alexander’s time; and Protanto confirms the statements made above in the text.
  • 8.  History of Indian Architecture, page 422, Woodcut 233
  • 9. Ibid., page 223, Woodcut 124. 32
  • 10. In a recent number of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. xlvii., Part I., for 1878, Mr. Growse, of the B.C.S., expresses astonishment that I should perceive any difficulty in understanding whence the form of these temples was derived. There are at Mathura several abnormal Hindu temples erected during the reign of the tolerant Akbar, the śikharas of which are octagonal in plan, and with curved vertical outlines, from which Mr. Growse concludes that the form of the Hindu śikharas unquestionably originates in the Buddhist Stûpas. I have long been personally perfectly familiar with these Mathura temples, and knowing when they were erected, always considered them as attempts on the part of the Hindus of Akbar’s day to assimilate their outlines to those of the domes of their Moslem masters which were the most charactirestic and most beautiful features of their architecture. If these outlines had been derived from stûpas, the earliest would have been those that resemble these Buddhist forms most, but the direct contrary is the fact. The earliest, like those at Bhuvaneśwar are the squarest in plan, and the most unlike Buddhist forms that exist, and it is strange that the similarity should only be most developed, in the most modern, under Akbar. The subject I confess appears to me as mysterious as it was before I became acquainted with Mr. Growse’s lucubrations.—J.F.
  • 11. There is another erection bearing the same name at Giryek, about 7 or 8 miles eastward of Rajgir; that however is a brick stûpa of comparatively modern date, and probably as General Cunningham suggests, the Hansa Stupa or goose tower, and derives its name from a very famous Buddhist Jataka which he quotes. Reports, vol. i. p. 18, Plate XV.
  • 12. Broadley in Indian Antiquary, vol. i. p. 72.

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  • 13. Broadley in Indian Antiquary, vol. i. p. 72.
  • 14. Beal’s Fahian, clxxx. p. 117.
  • 15. In Bengal at the present clay in remote villages, the inhabitants construct three- storeyed pyramids in mud, when they have no permanent temples, and generally plant a Tulsi plant on the top. These temples are of course Vaishṇava.
  • 16. History of Architecture, vol. i., woodcuts 47 and 48, p. 153.
  • 17. I have always been of the opinion of Buchanan Hamilton (Behar, p. 21), that the term Asura really meant Assyrian; but these nominal similarities are generally so treacherous that I have never dared to say so. Recent researches, however, seem to confirm to a very great extent the influence Assyria had in Magadha anterior to the advent of Buddha.
  • 18. Cunningham, Reports, vol. iii. p. 99, Plate XXVIII,
  • 19. The Mahawanso and other Ceylonese scriptures were reduced to the present form by Buddhaghosa in the beginning of the oth century a.d. It was then, too, that Fa Hian, the earliest Chinese pilgrim, travelled in India.

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