The Shelter of Caves, Part 10


BY: SUN STAFF - 26.4 2017

Lord Vamana, Garbhagrha at Badami

A study of famous caves in ancient Bharat.

Cave Symbology in Vedic Temple Architecture

In our last segment we closed with a description of the Burmese Ananda Temple, which is a replica of the ancient Nandamu Cave temple in the Himalayas. That temple design incorporated various Vedic temple styles commonly found in North India. And in fact, the symbology of caves is a formally recognized element of traditional Vedic temple architecture.

Dr. Stella Kramrisch, one of the West's most prominent specialists in ancient Indian art and architecture, addressed the symbology of caves in temple architecture in several of her books and lectures. She described in great technical detail, paraphrased below, how elements of both mountains and the shelter of caves are inherent aspects of temple design.

Meru, Mandara and Kailasa are the first three names amongst the twenty types of temples described in the early texts, the Brhat Samhita and the Matsya Purana. All three are the names of the Mountain which is the axis of the world; that is Meru, the pole of this earth; Mandara as churning rod planted on Visnu, the tortoise, during the Satya Yuga; and Kailasa, as seat of Siva in the Himalaya. In these names rises the temple, the image (deity), aim and destination of this world edifice.

There is no equivalent term in Western architecture to fit the high shape of a Hindu temple, its superstructure. This superstructure has the height of a spire, and fulfils the function of a roof. Its verticality is unobstructed by any horizontal roof line. If halls (mandapa) are added to the Prasada, their high roofs ascend in relatively lower peaks, graded in height and isolating one from the next. ('Prasada' is a term used to describe the main body of a temple's superstructure.)

Below the towering superstructure is the garbhagrha, the 'womb of the house', a small chamber, square, in the majority of preserved temples, and dark as a cave in a mountain. It is the innermost sanctuary of the vimana, and the entire temple. In its interior it has four plain walls. They are massive and their continuity is broken only by the entrance in the front wall. There is no other source of light. If the door is closed, the interior is dark.

The Garbhagrha (cave-like inner sanctum)


In the larger temples, where one or several halls precede the sanctuary, the deity is but faintly lit by the light of day as it reaches across the hall to the inner sanctum… a dim light just sufficient to set off the deity against the darkness of its chamber. The darkness deepens towards the corners even though oil lamps may illumine the deity during ritual worship (puja).

Darkness too, descends on the deity from the top of the cell, in the belly of the tower. The limits of the garbhagrha, the sanctuary, are more felt than seen, though even in the largest temples it remains in actual dimensions a chamber of small size, surrounded by walls and often by spacious halls leading towards it. In many temples, particularly in the South India, the size of the garbhagrha is but a small fraction of the overall, often massively large temple structures. This too emphasizes the notion of the cave deep within the mountain.

The category comprising the four main types of temple architecture fashioned after the cave, according to Brhat Samhita, is called Guharaja, the King of caves (LV. 17). In this category are interior structures that feature the Round, the Square, the Octagonal and the Sixteen-sided. All should be dark inside, "so that light from outside will not enter these Prasadas" (Br. Samh. LV, 25; 28).

Guharaja, King of caves, is a name as suggestive as it is unique among the ever-increasing types of temples enumerated and described in the texts. The name however occurs also as part of the names of actual temples, such as the 'Kuraja (Guharaja) Bir' Temple. Kuhara, or cave, is a synonym of sala, or room, in the Bhavisya Purana, where the type of temple called Meru is described as having many kuharas (Bh. P. CXXX. 27).

The language of these ancient texts connects the mountain and the cave while describing works of architecture, or forms of nature, and also the residences of different classes of demigods: Devas and Danavas, Pannagas, Yaksas, Raksasas, Guhyas, Gandharvas, Vidyadharas, Siddhas, Kinnaras and Apsaras. They live in Indra's grove on Mount Sitanta, which is full of rock and cave-houses.

The Vayu Purana tells of the various kinds of residences of the gods on the different mountains. It is a sastric topography of the natural mountains where the gods reside, and of their habitations on great mountain ranges with many peaks -- it is not a description of temples built by man on mountain tops for the gods to dwell in.

The caves are ancient residences of the gods. It is there too, and not only on the banks of rivers that they love to dwell. Their presence in the caves is felt so strongly that cave and god are one; "on the Visakha Mountain there is a great dwelling belonging to Guha, the Secret one (Karttikeya), the god who is very fond of living in caves" (Guha; Vayu Purana, XXXIX. 55).



The symbology of caves in Burmese temples, whether entirely spawned by the monks' design at Nandamu Temple or whether generally influenced by North Indian temples, is pervasive. In Burma, many brick built temples with inner spaces are simply called ku, or cave. According to Kramrisch:

"One of the temples at Pagan bears the name Shwe Ku, Golden cave. The Burmese Glass Palace chronicle tells about the erection of the Ananda temple of Pagan, how King Kyanzittha requested the eight Arhats to produce by their concentrated thought an image of the cave Nandamula in the Gandhamadan mountain. This they did and the King built a large Ku = Guha, a 'cave', of temple in the likeness of the cave Nandamula and called it Nanda. The name of the cave, which properly is the Garbhagrha, appears here as that of the whole Prasada."

Cave and Mountain, in the architecture of Greater India, are names for the total temple, ku (guha) in Burma, giri (mountain) in Cambodia, and 'Meru', in the high exterior shape of the Prasada. The interior with its cave darkness corresponds to the deity known ab intra (from within). The exterior with its mountain slopes along the superstructure and the perpendicular walls of the Prasada displays to the light of day, the seed which has taken root, and sprouted. This seed is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, expanded into His many inconceivable forms, plenary portions and associates, each one residing in a holy place.