Western India has been home to a large number of Buddhist caves dating back to the 2nd century BCE. There were mainly three architectural types executed-
- Apsidal vault- roof chaitya halls (found at Ajanta, Pitalkhora, Bhaja);
- Apsidal vault -roof pillarless hall (found at Thana -Nadsur); and
- Flat-roofed quadrangular hall with a circular chamber at the back ( found at Kondivite).
Some chaitya halls feature an open front with a wooden facade that is dominated by a semi-circular chaitya arch. In some cases, there is no dominating chaitya arch window such as at Kondivite. In all Chaitya caves, a stupa is situated at the back.
The standard plan of the apsidal vault-roof variety was modified in the first century BCE with the hall becoming rectangular like in Ajanta Cave No. 9 with a stone-screen wall as the facade. Bedsa, Nashik, Karla, and Kanheri are other places where they can be found.
In the subsequent period, many cave sites had the standard first type of Chaitya hall. The largest rock-cut chaitya hall has been excavated in Karla. The cave has an open courtyard with two pillars, stone screen walls to protect the courtyard from the rain, a veranda, a stone screen wall as a facade, an apsidal vaulted chaitya hall, and a stupa at the back.
In Karla Chaitya hall, you will find figures of animals and humans. Their execution is heavy, and they move in the picture space. The Karla chaitya hall plan is further elaborated in Kanheri Cave No.3. Despite the cave’s interior not being fully finished, it illustrates how the carving progressed over time.
Consequently, the flat-roofed quadrangular variety became the preferred design, which is still prevalent today.
In all the cave sites the Viharas were excavated. Viharas consist of a hall with cells surrounding it. Cave 12 of Ajanta, Cave 11 of Bedsa, Cave No. 1 of Nashik are some of the important vihara caves. Many of the early vihara caves are carved with interior decorative motifs like chaitya arches and the vedica designs over the cell doors of the cave.
Facade design in Nashik Cave Nos. 3, 10, and 17 became a distinct achievement. The vihara caves at Nashik were excavated with front pillars carved with ghata – base and ghata – capital with human figures. One such vihara cave was also excavated at Junnar which is popularly known as Ganeshleni because an image of Ganesha belonging to a later period was installed in it.
Later, a stupa was added at the back of the hall of the vihara and it became a chaitya – vihara. The stupas in the fourth and fifth centuries CE have Buddha images attached. Junnar has the largest cave excavations– more than two hundred caves around the hills of the town — whereas Kanheri in Mumbai has a hundred and eight excavated caves. The most important sites are Ajanta, Pitalkhora, Ellora, Nashik, Bhaja, Junnar, Karla, Kanheri, Ajanta, Ellora, and Kanheri continue to flourish.
Earlier it was presumed that because of the absence of the Buddha image, the caves were considered belonging to the orthodox faith of Buddhism, i.e., the Thervadins, but with the discovery of the Konkan Maurya inscription mentioning the Saka era 322, i.e., 400 CE, it is now satisfactorily proved that the cave activity in western Deccan was an ongoing process and many caves had been carved with Buddha images where the image does not exist anymore. It may also be noted that many caves are converted into modern Hindu shrines and have become popular worshipping sites.