The dates of the various groups of Buddhist caves, especially of the earliest ones, have not yet been ascertained with sufficient precision to admit of their being presented in anything like a tabular form. Their relative dates can generally be fixed, and their position in the sequence is sufficiently obvious, but till the chronology of the period is determined with more certainty than it is at present, epochal dates can hardly be attached either to the groups or to individual caves without the risk of their being upset by subsequent investigations. It is probable, however, that before long this state of affairs may be altered for the better. All the more important caves are inscribed, and when these inscriptions are re-examined by competent scholars, with the additional light that can now be thrown upon them, it seems more than probable that the uncertainty that now hangs on their dates may be removed. It unfortunately happens, however, that the names in these inscriptions are either those of private individuals, whose personality affords no information or, if of royal personages, they are of kings whose date has hitherto been only approximately ascertained. If we could depend on the Pauranik lists they would nearly suffice to remove the difficulty, but they have not yet been brought sufficiently into accord with the numismatic and paleographic evidence to be implicitly relied upon, though the discrepancies seem gradually disappearing.
As a rule, the inscriptions are devoid of epochal dates, and when such exist the era from which they are calculated is in no instance specified.1 If it should turn out, as is more than probable, that no era was used, at that age, in Western India, except that of Saka (A.D. 78-9), one great source of uncertainty would be removed. But even then, till a greater number of dated inscriptions than are at present known are found in these caves, they do not suffice to enable us to arrange them all in chronological order.
Under these circumstances we are forced to rely a great deal more than is desirable on palæographic evidence. In relative dates the varying progressive changes which the alphabetic forms assume are invaluable, and generally a safe guide; but for epochal dates they are comparatively useless. The local or geographical position of the place where an inscription is found is often a cause of greater change in the characters employed, than distance of time. It is only when the characters are compared within a certain limited area that they can be successfully employed for the purposes of chronology. Even then the results derived from such indications can only be considered as approximative, and never as capable of any great precision.
The architectural character of the caves is a far more distinct and constant characteristic than the alphabetic form of their inscriptions. All the caves have architectural features, and these, as in all true styles, all over the world change according to a certain law of progression that can never be mistaken when sufficient materials exist for comparison. In Europe it has of late years been allowed to supersede all other evidence in ascertaining the age of mediæval or classical buildings, and in no single instance has an appeal from its decision been sustained. If, for instance, we take such a cave as that at Bhâjâ (woodcut No.1), the whole of the front of which was constructed in wood, and where the pin holes still exist, by means of which the wooden ornaments were originally attached to the rock. Where the wooden ribs of the roof still remain in situ, and where the rock-cut pillars of the nave slope inwards in imitation of wooden posts, we may feel sure that we are at the very cradle of stone-cut architecture, and cannot get much further back without reaching a state of affairs where wood and wood only was employed. When on the other hand we compare this with the façade of the Lomas Rishi cave in Behar (woodcut No.3), which we know was excavated by Aśoka B.C. 250, we find the two so essentially identical, in style that we may fix the date of the Bhâjâ cave at least as early as 200 B.C., and in doing so we may feel certain we do not err by many years, or in ascribing it to too ancient a date.
If starting from this point we take a series of four such Chaitya caves as those of Bhâjâ, Bedsa, Kârlê, and Nasik—to be described hereafter—and allow 50 years interval between each, we bring our history down nearly to the Christian era. When we look at the extent of the changes introduced, and the quantity of examples we have to interpolate, it seems improbable to allow a less period between each, nor that the position of any of these milestones can be shifted more than ten or a dozen years without a violation of the surest principles of archæology.
After the Christian era, it is not quite so easy to arrange the sequence of the caves, not from any change in the principles in which this should be done, but from the variety of the features in the examples, and the distance from each other of the localities in which they are found. It also appears that after the earlier centuries of our era there seems to have been a pause in cave excavations. After the fifth and sixth centuries, however, when they were resumed, there is no longer any difficulty in ascertaining the age of any cave with almost as much precision as can be desired.
The science of numismatics opens another source from which we may hope to obtain a considerable amount of precise information as to the age of the caves at some not distant date. In Gujarât and the cave region north of Bombay a great number of coins have been found belonging to a dynasty generally lrnown as the Sah, kings of Saurâshṭra. Most of these bear dates from some unspecified era. The earlier coins are not dated, but the second senes range from 102 to 271 at least,2 while the number of kings who reigned was certainly not less than 25 or 26.3
Unfortunately numismatists have not yet been able to make up their minds as to the era from which these dates are to be reckoned. Mr. Newton assumes that it was the era of Vicramaditya, 56 B.C., but without stopping to inquire if that era had then been established. Mr. Thomas and others assume that they commenced earlier; but on the whole it seems most probable that the era was that of Saka, A.D. 78-9, and if this is so we have a thread extending through our cave history down to the year 350 A.D., which eventually may be of the greatest use in enabling us to fix the dates of the caves belonging to that period of history.
When all these various sources of information come to be thoroughly investigated there can be little doubt that we shall obtain the dates of all the caves with all the precision that can be desired. But when actual dates are not available it is probable we must still to a great extent depend on the indications obtained from palæography and architecture. The first, as just mentioned, may be used as a useful guide to relative dates where no other or better materials are available. The latter have been found in Europe, and still more in Asia, to be infallible, yielding results that admit of no dispute, and which are more generally relied upon by antiquaries than those derived from any other source.
Pending this being done, as an approximately chronological arrangement, the several groups of Buddhist Caves may be placed in the following order:—
1. The oldest caves at Junâgadh, the groups at Sânâ, Talâja, and other places in Kâthiâwar, may be considered as varying from 250 B.C. to the Christian era.
2. A number of groups in the Konkan and Dekhan, all to the south of Bombay, and all bearing a general character of small plain dwellings for Bhikshus, with flat-roofed shrines for the Dâgoba and Vihâras. The chief groups in the Konkan are at Kuḍâ, and in the neighbourhood of Mhâṛ and Kol; those in the Dekhan on the other side of the Sahyâdri Hills or Ghâṭs are chiefly at Karâḍâh, about 30 miles south of Sâtârâ, and at Wäi and Śirwal, north of the same town. These range perhaps from 200 B.C. to A.D. 50.
3. Almost due east of Bombay, in the Ghâṭs, and close to the line of railway leading to Poona, there are important groups of caves at Kondâṇé, Bhâjâ, Bêḍsâ, and Kârlé, each with a Chaitya cave of some architectural importance; and with these more notable groups may be taken those at Śailarwâḍi, Ambivlé, &c., all in the same neighbourhood. These may be placed within the three and a half centuries that elapsed between B.C. 250 and A.D. 100.
4. A fourth group may be formed of the caves at Junnar, about 50 miles north of Poona, the Nâsik Buddhist Caves, about 50 miles north of Junnar, the Pitalkhorá Buddhist Caves, 84 miles E.N.E.from Nâsik, and the earliest of the Ajaṇṭâ Caves, 55 miles east of Pitalkhora. These are of various ages, the oldest Cave at Nâsik being about 100 B.C., and the later ones there belonging to the second or third century A.D., while there are some that have been excavated or altered by the Mahâyâna sect at as late a date as the seventh century. The Junnar groups contain no excavation of note later than the second, or early in the third century, A.D., and many of the caves are perhaps one or two centuries earlier, while the earliest of those of Ajaṇṭâ may range from B.C. 150 to the end of the first century of the Christian era.
5. The fifth section will include those at Marôl or Kondivté, and the earlier portions of the great series at Kâṇhêri, in the island of Salsette, at the head of Bombay harbour, which may be ascribed to the period between B.C. 100 and A.D. 150.
These bring us down to nearly the end of the second century of the Christian era, and include all the known examples belonging to the first or Hinâyâna division of Buddhist Caves of Western India. These, when looked at as a whole, are easily to be distinguished from the more modern examples, first from their greater simplicity in ornament, and it may also be said by their grandeur of conception as well as from the total absence of figures of Buddha or of Saints as objects of worship.
The second or more recent series of Buddhist Caves belonging to the Mahâyâna sect, extending from the fourth to nearly the eighth century, comprises the following groups:—
1. A cave or two storeyed hall in the Uparkot or Fort of Junâgadh, in Kâṭhiâwâr probably of about A.D. 300; and,
2. Ajaṇṭâ, the later members of the group, A.D. 250-650 or even later; and with these may be joined the small group known as Ghatoṭkach, near the village of Jinjâlâ, about nine miles from Ajaṇṭâ, and which date from about 500 to 600 A.D.
3. The caves at Aurangâbâd in the north-west of the Nizam's territories, are so much like the later ones at Ajaṇṭâ in general style, though the arrangements differ, that we may refer them to about the same age, though they belong to a different school of Buddhists. They principally belong to the seventh century. Some are even later than 650 A.D.
4. Nearly as important as either of these, is the well known Buddhist group at Elurâ. Though somewhat overshadowed by the splendour of the Brahmanical and Jaina caves which succeeded them in the same locality, they are both extensive and interesting. They may be considered as ranging from A.D. 450 to 700.
5. In the south of Mâlwâ, near the village of Bâgh, is a group of Buddhist Caves belonging to one of the purer schools of the Hinayâna sect. There is no Chaitya Cave in the series as it now exists, but several caves have fallen in. This group may be placed about A.D. 350 to 450.
6. Many of the Salsette Caves at Kaṇhêri and Magathana in Bombay harbour are of comparatively recent date, and their range is very extensive. They may be placed between A.D. 150 and 850.
7. A small group of caves at Ḍhânk, in the same province, circa A.D. 700.
8. The Buddhist Caves at Dhamnâr and at Kholvi must extend down to A.D. 700 at least, if not to even a later date.
It is hardly probable that any subsequent researches will disturb this chronology, to any material extent. A thorough revision of the inscriptions, however, especially if it should result in enabling us to fix the dates of the Andhrabhritya kings with certainty, would give the list a precision in which, it must be confessed, it is in some instances deficient at present.4
- 1. In his Ancient Geography of India, Gen. Cunningham has quoted one, at page 533, as dated in the year 80 of the Sakaditya Kala, and repeats this at page xxi. of the introduction of his First Annual Report. Unfortunately, however, neither Lieut. Brett's copy of this inscription (J. B. B. R. A. S., vol. v. No. 10, p. 22) nor Mr. Weat's more exact transcript, vol. vii. of the same Journal, No. 39, p. 9, bear out the General's translation, which cannot consequently be relied upon.
- 2. Newton on J. B. B., R. A. S., vol. viii. p. 27, et seq.
- 3. Thomas in Burgess, 2ndReport, p. 44.
- 4. Before leaving this branch of the subject, it may be interesting to allude to tho curious similarities that exist betweeen some of the Buddhist forms just referred to, and many of those which are found in Europe in the middle ages.
The form of the Chaitya caves and the position of the altar and choir must strike anyone who compares these plans with those of early Christian churches, but the essential analogy that exists between the dâgoba and the altar is even more striking. Every dâgoba had a relic in or on the table under the umbrella. There are evidences of this in every known instance, while no mediæval altar was an altar, in a religious sense, until a relic had been put into it or under it. This is, in fact, what constitutes it an altar.
The monasteries too, though existing before the Christian era, are in their forms and institutions so like those afterwards adopted in Europe, that their investigation opens up numerous important questions, that ought to interest, but can hardly be entered upon in a work like the present.