Rock Cut Structures of the Ancient World, Lalibela and Ajanta

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Fresco at Lalibela, Ethiopia

Detail of Fresco, Ajanta, India

Apsara, Ajanta, India

Fresco, Ajanta, India

Sleeping Buddha, Ellora, India

Fresco, Ethiopia

Detail, Fresco, Ethiopia

Ellora, India

Ellora, India

Had a very interesting conversation recently with a newly met person through a friend. I mostly listened as the numbing heat was sending me into a slumber to even try any reply at all. Bat an eyelid, it felt like a presentation of the recent development of Addis in Ethiopia, which was interesting as it frolicked my keen interest in Art, Culture and Anthropology probably stemming from my Fine Arts educational background along with Museology. The conversation brought the topic of Ethiopia’s rock-cut church of Lalibela in focus. An area of strong fascination I have of rock cut structures.

Lalibela rock cut collection of churches and recollection rooms were built during the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (a member of the Zagwe Dynasty, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century). The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the rock-cut churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent as a youth in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
In fact, the most famous face of Lalibela church shows an antique cross of David, taken by the European crusaders in Medieval Age across the continent when the army of Saladdin grew in power and threatened many kingdoms in place along with their faith.
A feat in craftsmanship, the main church of Lalibela springs forth to the sky from the ground from a monolithic block cut upwards. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries, which UNESCO has agreed upon to list it among the World’s Heritage Sites.
A similar structure was erected around the same period in the Ruse area of Bulgaria. Call it a trend? There are a set of monolithic churches, chapels and monasteries hewn from solid rock known as the Churches of Ivanovo. Though the presence of these churches in the cliff side is impressive in itself, the structures are best known for their beautiful and well-preserved medieval frescoes. Christian monks dug out the caves and made the churches in the 13th century and though it’s a bit easier to access now, centuries ago people had to climb the cliff with ropes to get inside.
Fiercely proud of the rich past of their country, Ethiopians of this modern age make it point, when they can to visit the site of Lalibela. And it is this re-affirmation which I admire in a nation. Individuals, who even living far away from their motherland, still feeling flushed with pride when they look back at their culture and heritage. Ethiopia, the hub of many African organisations in the continent, its image truly damned by the media showing emaciated children dying of hunger. Sadly italso shares the place as being the country receiving the highest Humanitarian Aid along with Afghanistan, topping the league as being the poorest country on the planet.
However, all is not bleak. The media never shares good news about Africa. Ethiopian are themselves amazed by the rapid development their country is undergoing. According to the World Bank, the pace of poverty reduction in Ethiopia since 2000 has been impressive, and particularly so, when compared to other African countries. Despite improvements, Ethiopia still has relatively low rates of educational enrolment, access to sanitation, attended births, and challenges remain around investment in the health, safety and education of women and girls.
Although there is some evidence of manufacturing growth starting to reduce poverty in urban centres at the end of the decade, structural change has been remarkably absent from Ethiopia’s story of progress. The majority of Ethiopian households are still engaged in agriculture and in living in rural areas. I got some views of the appreciation of real estate from this person and how the price of a car has plummeted sky high, so much so that sometimes it may cost more than buying a house. Amidst all these promises, Ethiopians by and large would do anything to escape the country. Especially, those who have been educated. The brain drain is massive for a country who has fought war with their neighbour, Eritrea, the sad truth is that youth of both sides know one word – escape.
Nothing compares to the history of the country’s past rulers rolling on pure gold and especially Queen Sheba who stunned King Salomon with her caravan laden with precious gems and gold as gifts when she walked to Jerusalem. Instead of her people running to other lands, many from the Holy land followed her for the promise of a wealthier and better life. And many others did the same when Menelik, her son begotted with King Salomon visited his father. Legend says that even the High Priest of the Holy Land followed Menelik to Abyssinia, ancient Ethiopia.
Coming back to our ‘rock-cut’ conversation I had yesterday, was me mentally re-visiting my PhD research proposal way back in the UK. It was based on challenging the title of ‘Naïve Art’ given to Paul Gauguin’s works to a new appellation with proofs found in the rock cut temples of Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, India. Paul Gauguin according to my hypothesis. was not a ‘savage’ but took Symbolism in his Art from the East. The University was so pleased with my queer proposal and challenge that they immediately assigned me to one of Courtauld’s eminent Professor to be my co-supervisor. The simple reason was also that Courtauld Institute of Art is the main repository of Paul Gauguin’s biggest collection of artworks in the world. Hence, I was chuffed, immensely surprised but nervous at the same time. How could not I have been?
My husband soon offered me to travel and visit any place I wanted for my research. We did the first trip together to see the main centres of my interest, Ajanta and Ellora, which date back to 200 BC and 650 AD when they were continuously occupied by Buddhist Monks in the later age.
I had already visited the site when I was studying in India. However, the span of the Deccan plateau surprised me once again like the first time I saw it. There are more than 1,500 known and recorded rock cut structures in India. Many of these structures contain artwork of global importance, and most are adorned with exquisite stone carvings. These ancient and medieval structures represent significant achievements of structural engineering and craftsmanship. The earliest caves employed by humans were natural caves used by local inhabitants for a variety of purposes, such as shrines and shelters. Evidence suggests that the caves were first occupied and altered during the Mesolithic period (6000 BC).
A bit of locating the history of India here should remind us that the prehistoric settlements and societies in the Indian subcontinent; the blending of Indus Civilisation and Indo-Aryan culture into the Vedic Civilization; the development of Hinduism as a synthesis of various philosophical concepts and thoughts of Indian cultures and traditions, the onset of a succession of powerful dynasties and empires which stretched to Asia Minor to the Far East, South East Asia, for more than two millennia throughout various geographic areas of the subcontinent, including the growth of Muslim dynasties from Persia during the Medieval period intertwined with Hindu powers. It is this latter period which is mostly popularised today and given rise to many unfounded beliefs that Indians beckon with.
The advent of European traders in search of spices resulting in the establishment of the British rule ; and the subsequent independence movement that led to the partition of India and the creation of the Republic of India.
Evidence of anatomically evolved humans in the Indian subcontinent is recorded as long as 75,000 years ago, or with earlier hominids including Homo erectus from about 500,000 years ago. But, the Indus Valley Civilization which spread and flourished in the north western part of the Indian subcontinent from c. 3200 to 1300 BC in present-day Pakistan and northwest India, was the first major civilization in South Asia.
A sophisticated and technologically advanced urban culture developed in the mature Harappan period, from 2600 to 1900 BC. This civilization collapsed at the start of the second millennium BCE and was later followed by the Iron Age Vedic Civilization.
Early examples included overhanging rock decorated with rock-cut designs. The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, a World Heritage Site, are located on the edge of the Deccan Plateau, where dramatic erosion has left massive sandstone outcrops.
This group of 34 monasteries and temples belongs to the last great cave temples of India. Temples were built for three religions – 12 Buddhist temples and monasteries (630 – 700 AD), 17 Hindu shrines (550 – 780 AD) and 5 Jain temples (800 – 1000 AD). Ajanta and Ellora Caves is a group of 29 rock-cut Buddhist temples and monasteries made in the 2nd century BC – 480 AD.
These caves contain some of the richest collections of ancient art in region and represent a phenomenal achievement of humanity. When these caves were discovered in 1819 (after being forgotten for… 1,300 years!), they left much influence on European and American art – numerous artists became essentially obsessed with the copies of Ajanta paintings and sculptures.
These caves represent amazing achievement of engineering. Some of the cave hall spaces without supports are run into kms in size and have been standing for more than 1,500 years without much change.
My husband who has experienced many places of natural wonder was rendered speechless when he saw the sophistication of the rock cut temples and caves. He couldn’t stop questioning me on all the aspects of the caves. Thinking I have all the answers, …. having studied them in length and breath. Encore, I have not taken him to see Mahabali Puram, Elephanta, Badami nor Bhaja, the latter dating 200BC.
Not only the frescoes are spell binding by their advanced skills in drawing and paintings, but their utilisation of for-shortening and sense of proportion. We are not talking of basic carvings and the naïve style of frescoes of Lalibela. Where Lalibela’s frescoes stood out with their rigid, 2D comic like flat coloured and thick outlined figures with similar faces and treatment of the globular eyes, Ajanta knew the grace of movement, curves, motion, fine details, shades of different tones of one colour, gestural narrative which the figures carried effortlessly. The artists used the dry fresco method instead of wet pigments which gave only pure single colours in Lalibela’s frescoes. All the paintings appear to be the work of painters at least as used to decorating palaces as temples, and show a familiarity with and interest in details of the life of a wealthy court.
We know from literary sources that painting and sculpture were widely practised and appreciated in the courts of the Gupta period. Unlike much Indian painting, compositions are not laid out in horizontal compartments like a frieze, but show large scenes spreading in all directions from a single figure or group at the centre. The ceilings are also painted with sophisticated and elaborate decorative motifs, many derived from sculpture.
We wonder whether it was a matter of the available resources known to man before brick and mortar, steel or iron bars, for craftsmen to have devised and created such wonders. Many countries have their glorious testimony to the architectural feats, some more well known than others, due to accessibility and literature, or simply having acquired the title of UNESCO Heritage centre.
Like Cappadocia, one of the 73 current provinces of the Republic of Turkey, has one of the most strange and fascinating landscapes of the world. The rocky, scrubby land features bizarre volcanic ‘tufa’ rock formations referred to as ‘Fairy Chimneys’ as well as complex underground cities and buildings cut from the soft ‘tufa’. Many of these are churches, with columns and arches decorating the stony face of an otherwise natural hunk of rock. However, visiting them in 2000, gave me a view of an astute concept of man to counter effect the harsh climate, and no bother given to arts in its real sense. All the structures were basic and functional, providing shelter from enemies and the weather.
The Dazu rock carvings in Chongqing, China are hewn from the cliff side, featuring more than 5,000 statues and over 100,000 Chinese characters of inscriptions or epigraphs. Though Buddhist statues dominate, Taoist and Confucian figures can also be seen which is rather rare in Chinese grotto art. The carvings were made in 650 CE in the Tang Dynasty and continued in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1616-1911).
But we are sure for one thing, than man understood, and traded skilled craftsmen in the same manner as it is done today in the building of tall skyscrapers dotted around the globe. Having said this, Indian craftsmanship is world renowned in many areas, but what I have seen in regal wonders be it in red Schist stone, white marble, black granite, still stand testimony to the world that there are many of those which are lost and dead, to fingers which prefer to tap endlessly on a phone for idle activities rather than cut stone with a chisel. From the view of a temple cut intricately like a giant 3D piece of white lace, Mt Abu, the five legendary marble temples of Dilwara which are a sacred pilgrimage place of the Jains. Some consider them to be one of the most beautiful Jain pilgrimage sites in the world. The marble temples have an opulent entranceway, the simplicity in architecture reflecting Jain values like honesty and frugality. The temples are in the midst of a range of forested hills. A high wall shrouds the temple complex. Although the Jains built some beautiful temples at other places in Rajasthan, some believe that none come close to these in terms of architectural perfection. The ornamental detail spreading over the minutely carved ceilings, doorways, pillars and panels is simply marvellous.

Dilwara temple, Mt Abu, Rajasthan, India

Detail of carved frieze in white marble, Dilwara, Mt Abu, India

Cupolla carved in Marble, Dilwara, Mt Abu
The centuries old constructions around the world symbolize the architectural brilliance of our ancestors. The tools and different materials used for the construction of such wonders of ancient world completely beyond our imagination. It is very hard to believe that the wonders like great wall of China, Colosseum of Rome, Great Pyramid of Giza and Taj Mahal were constructed at a time with no technology.
A Lalibela, an Ajanta or Ellora, Angkor Wat would not be built again ….
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