Barabar Caves – Thousand Years Old Proof of Secularism of India

Barabar Caves – Thousand Years Old Proof of Secularism of India

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Barabar Caves are among the oldest rock-cut out caves of India. These incredible caves are situated at a distance of about 24 km from Gaya in Makhdumpur area in the Jehanabad District of Bihar state. Considering their historical, religious, and archaeological significance Barabar Caves cannot be considered less than treasure.  These caves hold history, culture, heritage, and lots more.

Barabar Caves Overview:

A Total of 7 ancient caves are housed in the twin hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni; there are four caves in Barabar and three in Nagarjuni hills. These caves are assigned to 3rd century BC (273-232 BCE) i.e period of Ashoka the Great and his grandson Dasaratha Maurya.

Barabar Caves were initially assigned to Ajivika Sect during the reign of Ashoka the great but over the years these were occupied by various religious groups. These were used by various religious sects for religious and spiritual purposes like Chanting, meditating, worshipping, etc.

These caves were dedicated to spiritual sects of Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and Ajivika religions.

The Barabar caves are among the oldest caves found in India but the first specimen of rock-cut structure/architecture is believed to be the Cave at Rajgir called Son Bhandar, Bihar this cave was possibly the location of first Buddhist council and is considered related to Pre Mauryan times. This cave had simple architecture it has unadorned doorway, roughly vaulted and oblong chamber.       

These historical caves are a magnificent example of ancient Indian heritage. As these caves were built by Ashoka (who himself was a Buddhist) for another faith called Ajivika, proves that Ashoka was a secular, religiously tolerant and broadminded ruler who respected every faith and gave them equal status.

Barabar caves are named: Lomas Rishi Cave, Karan Chaupar, Visva  Zoppri, and Sudama cave. These caves are believed to have been dedicated to Ajivika Sect. All 7 these caves are carved out of granite, these have 2 chambers that have really nicely polished surface that does not bear any embellishments or sculptures.

As one chant or speaks inside these caves the sound echoes amazingly, these long-lasting echoes make people excited and curious. Spending some time here one will definitely feel spiritual solitude in the surroundings and within one’s own self.  

These historic caves have notable architectural features, for example, these caves were the first ones to incorporate ‘Chaitya Arch’ in stone.

Some Mauryan period inscriptions can be seen inside these caves which have given us a good idea of that period, their history, association, the status of the various sects, etc.  

Most of the Barabar caves had two chambers the 1st one was a rectangular hall that was used as an assembly hall for the worshippers to gather around. The other one was a circular domed chamber which was comparatively smaller in size, this chamber was used for worshipping/ praying, although the rooms are empty now, the inner one perhaps had a stupa or similar structure installed.

Barabar caves

As per the inscriptions of Sudama caves, the four caves of Barabar hills were dedicated to Ajivika sect by Ashoka the great in 261 BC.

Inscriptions present on Nagarjuni hills inform us that it belongs to the period of Dasaratha Maurya i.e. grandson of Ashoka the great, which proofs that Ajivikas kept getting the support of Mauryan empire for a long time. Ajivikas were supported by Nanda and Mauryas but after that, their downfall began so much so that the faith dissolved completely and today not even a single Ajivika text is available. There is only a limited amount of information available about Ajivika in Buddhist and Jain texts.   

What was Ajivika?  

Ajivika faith came into existence almost along Buddhism. The founder of Ajivika faith was Makkhali Gosala he was contemporary of Gautam Buddha and companion of 24th Tirthankara of Jains, Mahavir Jain. 

Like Buddhists and Jains, Ajivikas also did not believe in Vedas. Ajivikas were atheists and believed in determinism, they followed Nastika Darsana. They were among the new thinkers of that era who wanted to discover the truth of life in their ways (through Sramana tradition). 

Ajivika faith once was a competitor of Jain and Buddhist faiths. It is believed that during the 1st century BC Ajivika faith was at its peaks so much so that was considered a threat for Buddhist faith.

Ajivika lost its glory in the post-Mauryan period. As of today, there are no texts available of this faith. How and why did the Ajivika faith get vanished completely? This question remains unanswered. It gets little mention in Jain and Buddhist text which do not reflect positively on the faith. Ajivikas believed that there is no free will and everything is predetermined and no one and nothing can change what is already fated.  

After the Ajivika faith wiped out, the Barabar caves were occupied by Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists.

The caves were built during a different era, out of these Sudama is considered oldest.

Karan Chaupar Cave:

This ancient cave bears inscriptions of 3rd century BC, some of the inscription of the cave tells about practice of retirement in Buddhism in monsoon. The inscriptions and sculptures infer that a part of the Barabar caves was meant exclusively for the Buddhist monk. The Karan Chaupar Cave has polished walls and single rectangular room.

Lomas Rishi cave:

This is the only cave of the group that was never completed; it does not bear any inscriptions as well (as it was never completed). There is a conflict of opinion regarding the reason why it was left incomplete. Some believe that the reason this cave could not be completed was because structural rock slide difficulties which resulted in halting the structure building. Others believe that the caves were built during the reign of Last Mauryan King, as the King was assassinated and his rule ended abruptly the process could not be completed.  

Barabar caves

Distinguishing feature of this two room cave is its splendidly adorned door that has stupa carved in the middle and elephants moving towards it from both sides. It incorporated feature of the contemporary timer architecture.

On the caves door one can see the use of Chaitya arch which later was incorporated in temple structures.

Sudama Cave:

Sudama Cave is considered to be the oldest of these caves by many. It has mandapa, and vaulted chambers inside it. The cave also has an arched ceiling and inscription of its entrance. The shiny smooth walls if the cave creates a mirror effect inside the cave.  

Visvakarma or Viswa Mitra Cave:

 The steps of Ashoka lead one to Visvakarma or Viswa Mitra Cave. The inscription of the entrance speaks that this cave was dedicated to Ajivikas. The cave is a two-room structure, it is the only cave of the lot that does not have any post-Ashoka Inscription.


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Read about other must visit places of Bihar Sher Shah Suri TombMahabodhi TempleKesariya StupaAgam KuanGol GharViramshila University, Nalanda University

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