Pitalkhora Caves, the Brazen Glen, Maharasthra

high-definition creative commons photographs from the Pitalkhora Caves, near Ellora, Maharasthra, being early rock-cut caves with extant paintings from the later period, together with a description.

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The Pitalkhora Caves
Description from Sahapedia


Pitalkhora is an isolated monastic complex situated far away from the Sahyadri (Western Ghats) clusters in the Satamala range. It is located in the north-west of Aurangabad district, about 70 km west of Ajanta caves, 40 km west of the Ellora caves and nearly 25 km west of Kannad. It is also within a protected forest known as the Gautala Wild Life Sanctuary. It lies alongside an ancient trade route that connected the Deccan plateau with the port of Bharuch on the west and the ancient city of Ujjain to the north.

The caves are located in a valley, and one has to climb down steep steps to reach them. A stream, which is usually full during the monsoons, crosses the path midway. After crossing over it by way of an iron bridge constructed by the Archaeological Survey of India, one can reach the caves.

Pitalkhora, also popularly known as the Brazen Glen, houses some of the earliest rock-cut architecture. They have been cut out of a variety of basalt rock which is said to weather faster than the rocks found in other parts of Maharashtra. Out of the 14 caves, five are Chaitya Halls and the rest are vihāras.

The caves have been cut on the vertical scarps on either side of a ravine. Since the rock in this area deteriorates quickly, most of the caves have been poorly preserved. Pitalkhora is one of the earliest centres of rock-cut architecture in western India.

All the caves belong to the early phase, and there is little evidence of architectural activity from later periods. However, it is clear that these caves were in use during Mahāyāna times, as evidenced by the paintings of the Buddha seen on the pillars in the main Chaitya Hall (Cave 3 above). The caves can be divided into two groups – one to the right of the ravine and the other to the left.

This site has been identified with Petrigala mentioned by Ptolemy and Pitangalya described in the Buddhist text Mahāmayūri as the seat of a yakṣa called Sankārin. The inscriptions found here date from c. 250 BC to the third and fourth centuries AD. Two of the records mention Pathitana (Pratisthana, the capital of the imperial Sātavāhanas, modern Paithan) and one mentions Dhanyakataka (modern Dharanikota in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh).

Pitalkhora appears to have played an important role as a seat of innovation as far as architectural developments are concerned. In fact, a comparative chronological study of the various rock-cut Chaitya Halls in western India indicates that it was probably at Pitalkhora that the first attempt to adorn the facade with sculptural decorations was made. Unfortunately, not much of these early attempts have survived.

Also, the earliest attempts to introduce the bell and animal capital pillars can be seen here. The sculptural decorations seen i the basement of Cave 4, and the wealth of loose sculptures found in the forecourt, are indicative of the architectural advancements made at this centre. The diverse architectural styles of Chaitya Halls 3, 10, 11, 12 and 13 appear to be rooted in this spirit of experimentation and innovation.

General Views

Pitalkhora Plan

Chaitya Hall

Cave 3 is the main Chaitya Hall at Pitalkhora. It is an apsidal, vault-roofed prayer hall 9 m high, 10.7 m wide and 26.2 m long. The cave is divided into a nave, and back and side aisles by a row of 37 pillars running parallel to the walls. Only a few of the original pillars are completely preserved. The pillars have simple octagonal shafts, about 0.75 m thick and 4.3 m high. All of them taper upwards and have a slight inward rake.

The ceiling above the aisles is quadrennial and is supported by curved stone beams. A barrel-vaulted roof rises above the triforium in the nave. It probably had curved wooden rafters like those found in the Bhāja and Karle Chaitya Halls, but none have survived.

The rock-cut stūpa was probably semi-circular and was placed at the end of the nave. However, only remains of the drum have survived. It is 4.2 m in diameter and the extant part is about 1.4 m high. There are five oblong sockets on this drum – four on the back and one on the left. These, which had once been plugged with tight-fitting stones, have yielded crystal reliquaries.

The extant pillars have some very fine paintings of the Buddha, some in good condition, others faded, from the Mahāyāna phase of occupation. It is possible to see from this how the Chaitya Halls must have been painted, and would have looked very resplendent in their original forms.

The facade of the cave is plain and open. A flight of 11 steps leads down from the Chaitya Hall to the forecourt below. The upper stairway is flanked by enclosing side stones which slope downwards, and their inner faces are decorated with sculptures of a winged horse and two caryatid dwarf ganas.

There are two inscriptions on the 10th and 11th pillars (from the front) of the right row. One inscription records that that pillar was a gift from Mitadeva of the Gadhikla family. The other says that it was a gift from the sons of Satilghaka. All these donors hailed from Pratishthana.

Other Caves

Cave 9

Cave 9 consists of a hall surrounded by cells on the three inner sides and a veranda in front. There are 15 cells, five on each side, each with a bench in it. The partition walls of the cells are broken. A notable feature of this cave is the rail pattern that runs all along the three inner walls of the hall, above the lintel level of the cells.

The verandah was separated from the hall by a thin wall with a central doorway originally, but this wall is now completely broken. The verandah had a cell on either side.

Adjacent to Cave 9, to its right, is another cave labelled as 9a, which appears to be an annexe to it. It comprises a deep corridor with a cell cut at the left corner in the back wall and three cells in the right wall towards the front, all with a single bench each.

To the left of Cave 9, also an annexe to it, are three cells (labeled as 9b) placed in a row sharing a common verandah. The cells had a bench each. In some of the internal reports of the department, 9a is mentioned as a separate cave, thus making the number of caves ten in the main group and four in the other group.

Caves 10-14

The next group of four caves has been cut in the scarp to the left of the ravine, about a 100 metres away from Cave 1. All the four caves in this group are Chaitya Halls. Cave 10 is an unfinished apsidal Chaitya Hall devoid of aisles and pillars inside. The apsidal hall is 5.4 m deep, 2.5 m wide and 3.8 m high. The side walls of the hall rake inwards slightly and the roof is barrel shaped. A stupa is placed at the apsidal end. Its harmika is broken. The drum’s diameter measures 1.7 m at the base and is 2.3 m high. The sides of the drum taper upwards prominently, and at the brim all round is a band of vedika pattern. In front of the hall is a screen wall about 1.2 m thick, which features a roughly hewn rectangular doorway (1.7 m high and 80 cm wide) and a window which admit slight into the hall. This window is set below a large roughly hewn semicircular arch 2.7 m wide at the base, 2.1 m high and 80 cm deep. This cave dates back to the middle of the second century AD.

Cave 11 consists of three flat-roofed chambers, each with a stūpa. The first stūpa, located opposite the front doorway, is now in a dilapidated state. It had a drum with slightly inclining sides and a dome above carrying the square harmika. The chamber to left (3 m long, 2.2 m diameter) has a central stūpa which is now heavily damaged. But the umbrella carved in the ceiling above this is extant. To the back of the first chamber is another chamber (2.4 m diameter, 3.6 m wide). The stūpa in the centre of this chamber is the best preserved of the group. It has a drum with slightly inclining sides adorned with a decorative rim featuring vedika design. The harmika rises in two stages – the lower level is decorated with vedika pattern, while the upper level has four rectangular studs in its corners. This carries the capital with five square plates of successively increasing dimensions. In the roof, a circular umbrella is carved, but its shaft is lost. Two holes have been carved on the back of the dome, and these appear to have been meant for receiving relics. The layout of the cave and the stuūpa forms indicate that these were made in different times, datable to the late second and third centuries AD.

Cave 12 is is a Chaitya Hall situated a little away to the west from Cave 11. This cave consists of an apsidal hall (6.6 m diameter, 2.3 m high, 4.6 m wide) but has no pillars. The roof is barrel vaulted and is decorated with ribs crossed by rafters, all cut in stone. At the back, the roof is fashioned as a quarter sphere with the curved ribs meeting at a point at the top. Just below this on the floor stood a stūpa which has been recently reconstructed. On the head of the dome is an oblong mortise which was meant to receive the harmika.

Cave 13 is a Chaitya Hall, an apsidal hall which is 8.5 m deep, 4.5 m wide and 4.5 m high. Two rows of pillars originally met in the semicircular back, dividing the hall into a central nave and side aisles. The back part is slightly enlarged, and the cave looks like a circular cell with an oblong hall in front. The cave dates back to the latter part of second century BC. The vaulted roof over the nave has stone ribs and rafters as in Cave 12. The stūpa that stood at the apsidal end of the nave is almost ruined.


Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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