What lies in those dark unexplored caves? What secrets do they hold and what lies on the other side of them? As children, we were, and many still are, intrigued by caves. India has her own share of great caves, many of which are home to outstanding works of art and sculpture. Ajanta and Ellora is the first name that springs to mind when we think about caves in India. Tucked away in dense forests, the caves not only provided shelter, but also offered the appropriate conditions for living a monastic life. In this blog, we tell you the 11 most famous caves in India that are a must visit to gain an understanding of India’s great artistic traditions.
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1. Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Aurangabad
Ajanta and Ellora Caves, situated in the Jalgaon city of Maharashtra, are undoubtedly amongst the most famous caves in India that are a must visit. Besides being UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they represent the zenith of Indian rock-cut architecture. These caves have sheltered people belonging to different religions, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. Ajanta is a group of 29 caves dating back to the 2nd to 6th century AD, while Ellora is a group of 34 caves dating back to the 6th to 11th centuries AD. While the caves at Ajanta are predominantly Buddhist, those at Ellora are a mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. The paintings and sculptures contained in these caves are a testimony to the architectural excellence achieved during that period.
2. Elephanta Caves, Mumbai
Elephanta Caves, one of the most famous caves in India, lies just 10km from Mumbai. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these caves are located on the Elephanta Island, a place with its own fascinating historical legacy. The main cave is spread out on the Gun Hill, and contains incredible sculptures of Lord Shiva in various postures and in different forms. The panels also depict the five stages in the life of an ascetic, with the ultimate stage being that of Lord Shiva. The main cave is also the most complex of all the three caves, which are also referred to as east and west wings of the main cave. These wings probably served as the residencies of the ascetics.
3. Badami Caves, Karnataka
The Chalukyas were great lovers of architetcure, and the Badami Caves is an example of that. These caves possess an enormous religious significance. Situated at the mouth of a ravine, these caves date back to the 6th and 7th century AD. There are a total of four caves, out of which three are Brahminical temples and the fourth a Jain temple. The caves are adorned with exquisite sculptures and consist of images of Hindu gods, Mahavira and other Jain Tirthankaras. In Cave 1, you come across the carvings of an 18 armed dancing Shiva, a two-handed Ganesh and other figures. Caves 2 and 3 are Vaishnavite and Shaivite caves.
4. Tabo, Himachal Pradesh
Tabo Caves lie just opposite Tabo village on Spiti Valley. Carved out from the hills, these caves were used for meditation by Buddhist monks besides serving as their refuge during winters. Some of the larger caves functioned as assembly halls while the smaller caves were used as dwellings. While exploring these caves, you will come across several prayer flags which indicate that meditation is still practiced inside these caves. The atmosphere inside is as you would expect at such places: calm and quiet.
5. Dungeshwari Cave Temples, Bihar
Dungeshwari Cave temples, situated about 12km of Bodhgaya, is one of the most famous cave temples of India. It holds a great religious significance to the Buddhists as it was here that Gautama Buddha spent time in meditation. It was also here that he realized the significance of the middle path in the road to enlightenment. Two shrines commemorate this special event. In one of the cave temples, there is a golden statue of the emaciated form of the Buddha depicting his penance, while the other temple contains an enormous statue of the Buddha. There is also a statue of the Hindu goddess Dungeshwari inside the cave. Locally though, they are famous as Mahakal caves. Apart from the Buddhists, for whom these caves are one of the holiest sites in India, these caves attract common people too for the solitude and tranquility that they provide.
6. Undavalli Caves, Andhra Pradesh
Undavalli Caves, situated on the bank of River Krishna at a distance of about 8km from Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh, are one of the must visit caves in India because they are a fine example of outstanding rock-cut architecture. These caves are carved out of solid sandstone and dedicated to the Vishnukundin kings. One of the caves here contains an enormous statue of Lord Vishnu in a reclining posture. Its one of the sights which will leave you quite enchanted. There are other shrines in the cave which are dedicated to Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The first floor however, contains pictures of Lord Buddha and Buddhism in general. As a visitor, the exquisite craftsmanship on display at these caves will leave you utterly impressed.
7. Khandagiri Caves, Odisha
Khandagiri Caves is located at a close proximity to Bhubaneshwar. A group of 15 caves, they are one of the earliest examples of Jain rock-cut structures and are believed to have been used during the rule of King Kharavela. The most important cave in Khandagiri is the Ananta Cave and depicts women, athletes and elephants.
8. Borra Caves, Andhra Pradesh
Borra Caves are located at a distance of almost 90km north of Vishakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Its really a natural wonder and is almost 150 million years old. It was discovered by the British geologist, William King, in 1807. The Borra Caves contain a naturally formed Shiva Lingam and for this reason, is highly revered by the tribal people inhabiting the villages around the caves. Inside the caves, one comes across curious natural formations including mother-child, human brain, crocodile and Shiv-Parvati. Of particular attraction are the Shivalingam and the idol of the cow called Kamadhenu.
9. Karla Caves, Maharashtra
Karla Caves, located in close proximity to Lonavala, itself a prominent tourist attraction, is one of the best caves to visit in India. One of the earliest examples of early Buddhist temple art in India, it dates back to 200 BC. An interesting aspect of these caves are their resemblance to wooden architecture, despite them being rock-cut architecture. One of the most important part of the Karla Caves is the chaityagriha, the largest of its kind in India. Visitors to the caves are particularly fascinated by the arched entrances, vaulted interiors, Ashokan Pillar at the front along with a stone facade and torana.
10. Mawsmai Caves, Meghalaya
Mawsmai Caves are one of the most beautiful caves in Northeast India. Tourists coming to Meghalaya often make it a point to visit these caves. The caves consist of natural limestone formations which have formed gradually over the years. It’s interesting to know that the caves are fully lighted and consist of an impressive number of passages and chambers. The stalactite and stalagmite formations are quite pleasing to look at. Some caves have giant openings while some caves are so narrow that one has to crawl through to go past them.
11. Pataleshwar Caves, Maharashtra
Pataleshwar Caves date back to the 8th century AD and bear a striking similarity to Ellora. They are dedicated to Lord Shiva and contain his shrine. It’s fascinating to know that the entire cave is carved out of a simple rock, thus displaying incredible architectural brilliance. Sculptures of Sita, Ram and Laxman, besides other Hindu gods and goddesses, are found inside the temple.