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An early chaitya at Bhaja Caves; wooden architecture imitated in stone, with decorative roof timbers in wood. 2nd century BCE.
Outside the chaitya at Cave 19, Ajanta Caves, also with four zones using small repeated "chaitya arch" motifs.

A chaitya, chaitya hall, chaitya-griha, or caitya is a Buddhist shrine, temple or prayer hall with a stupa at one end.[1] Strictly, the chaitya is actually the stupa itself,[2] and the Indian buildings are chaitya halls, but this distinction is often not observed. Outside India, the term is used for local styles of small stupa-like monuments in Nepal, Cambodia, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Most early examples that survive are Indian rock-cut architecture, but it is agreed that the standard form follows a tradition of free-standing halls made of wood and other plant materials, none of which have survived. This is especially evident in the curving ribbed ceilings, which imitate timber construction, and in the earlier cases timber was used purely decoratively, with wooden ribs added to stone roofs. At the Bhaja Caves and the "Great Chaitya" of the Karla Caves, the original timber ribs actually survive, elsewhere marks on the ceiling show where they once were. Later, the ribs were rock-cut. Often, elements in wood, such as screens, porches and balconies, were added to stone structures. The surviving examples are similar in their broad layout, though the design evolved over the centuries.[3] The broad resemblance between chaityas and the traditional huts still made by the Toda people of the Nilgiri Hills has often been remarked on.[4]

The halls are high and long, but rather narrow. At the far end stands the stupa, which is the focus of devotion. Parikrama, the act of circulambulating or walking around the stupa, was an important ritual and devotional practice, and there is always clear space to allow this. The end of the hall is thus rounded, like the apse in Western architecture.[5] There are always columns along the side walls, going up to the start of the curved roof, and a passage behind the columns, creating aisles and a central nave, and allowing ritual circumambulation or pradakhshina, either immediately around the stupa, or around the passage behind the columns. On the outside there is a porch, often very elaborately decorated, a relatively low entrance way, and above this often a gallery. The only natural light, apart from a little from the entrance way, comes from a large horseshoe-shaped window above the porch, echoing the curve of the roof inside. The overall effect is surprisingly similar to smaller Christian churches from the Early Medieval period, though early chaityas are many centuries earlier.[6]

Chaityas appear at the same sites as the vihara, a strongly-contrasting type of building with a low-ceilinged rectangular central hall, with small cells opening, off it, often on all sides. These often have a shrine set back at the centre of the back wall, containing a stupa in early examples, or a Buddha statue later. The vihara was the key building in Buddhist monastic complexes, used to live, study and pray in. Typical large sites contain several viharas for every chaitya.[7]

The "chaitya arch" as a decorative motif[edit]

The "chaitya arch", gavaksha (Sanscrit gavākṣa), or chandrashala around the large window above the entrance frequently appears repeated as a small motif in decoration, and evolved versions continue into Hindu decoration, long after actual chaityas had ceased to be built. In these cases it can become an elaborate frame, spreading rather wide, around a circular or semi-circular medallion, which may contain a sculpture of a figure or head. An earlier stage is shown here in the entrance to Cave 19 at the Ajanta Caves (c. 475-500), where four horizontal zones of the decoration use repeated "chaitya arch" motifs on an otherwise plain band (two on the projecting porch, and two above). There is a head inside each arch.[8]

Development of the chaitya[edit]

Drawing of the "Great Chaitya" at the Karla Caves, when built, in about 120 CE
The chaitya Cave 26 at Ajanta; the stupa incorporates a large Buddha statue and there are aisles behind the columns, their walls adorned with relief sculptures. A smaller adaption of the Karli model.
The window at the chaitya Cave 10, Ellora, c. 650

Chaityas were constructed for communal worship, which was a novelty in India when Buddhism introduced it.[9] Early chaityas, such as the Bijak ki Pahadi of Viratnagar ascribed to the emperor Ashoka, were built as free-standing structures with the stupa being surrounded by a colonnaded processional path enclosed by an outer wall with a congregation hall adjoining it.[10] The more spectacular and more numerous chaityas, however, were cut into living rock as caves. An ancient practice, rock-cut architecture has had a long tradition in Buddhism. Ancient Buddhist chaityas can be found in sites, especially in Maharashtra, including Caves 9, 10, 19, and 26 at the Ajanta Caves, Cave 4 at the Aurangabad Caves, the "Great Chaitya" at the Karla Caves, and Cave 3 at the Kanheri Caves.[11]

The earliest rock-cut chaityas, similar to free-standing ones, consisted of an inner circular chamber with pillars to create a circular path around the stupa and an outer rectangular hall for the congregation of the devotees. Over the course of time, the wall separating the stupa from the hall was removed to create an apsidal hall with a colonnade around the nave and the stupa.[12]

Chaitya arch around the window, and repeated as a gavaksha motif with railings, Cave 9, Ajanta.

The chaitya at Bhaja Caves is perhaps the earliest surving chaitya hall, constructed in the second century BCE. It consists of an apsidal hall with stupa. The columns slope inwards in the imitation of wooden columns that would have been structurally necessary to keep a roof up. The ceiling is barrel vaulted with ancient wooden ribs set into them. The walls are polished in the Mauryan style. It was faced by a substantial wooden facade, now entirely lost. A large horseshoe-shaped window, the chaitya-window, was set above the arched doorway and the whole portico-area was carved to imitate a multi-storeyed building with balconies and windows and sculptured men and women who observed the scene below. This created the appearance of an ancient Indian mansion.[13][12] This, like a similar facade at the Bedse Caves is an early example of what James Fergusson noted in the nineteenth century: "Everywhere ... in India architectural decoration is made up of small models of large buildings".[14]

In Bhaja, as in other chaityas, the entrance acted as the demarcation between the sacred and the profane. The stupa inside the hall was now completely removed from the sight of anyone outside. In this context, in the first century CE, the earlier veneration of the stupa changed to the veneration of an image of Gautama Buddha. Chaityas were commonly part of a monastic complex, the vihara.

The most important of rock-cut complexes are the Karla Caves, Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, Aurangabad Caves and the Pandavleni Caves. Many pillars have capitals on them, often with carvings of a kneeling elephant mounted on bell-shaped bases.

End of the chaitya hall[edit]

Apparently the last rock-cut chaitya hall to be constructed was Cave 10 at Ellora, in the first half of the 7th century. By this time the role of the chaitya hall was being replaced by the vihara, which had now developed shrine rooms with Buddha images (easily added to older examples), and largely taken over their function for assemblies. The stupa itself had been replaced as a focus for devotion and meditation by the Buddha image, and in Cave 10, as in other late chaityas (for example Cave 26 at Ajanta, illustrated here), there is a large seated Buddha taking up the front of the stupa. Apart from this, the form of the interior is not much different to the earlier examples from several centuries before. But the form of the windows on the exterior has changed greatly, almost entirely dropping the imitation of wooden architecture, and showing a decorative treatment of the wide surround to the chaitya arch that was to be a major style in later temple decoration.[15]

There are few significant remains of structural chaityas (those built outside, of stone or brick), with examples including ruins at Guntupalle and Lalitgiri.[16]


"Caitya", from a root meaning "heaped-up", is a Sanscrit term for a sacred construction of some sort, and has acquired different more specific meanings in different regions, including "caityavṛkṣa" for a sacred tree.[17]


In Nepal, the meaning is somewhat different. A Nepalese chaitya is not a building but a shrine monument consisting of a stupa-like shape on top a plinth, often very elaborately ornamented. They are typically placed in the open air, often in religious compounds, averaging some four to eight feet in height. They are constructed in memory of a dead person by his or her family by the Sherpas, Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs and Newars, among other people of Nepal. The Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley started adding images of the four Tathagatas on the chaitya's four directions mainly after the twelfth century. They are constructed with beautifully carved stone and mud mortar. They are said to consist of the Mahābhūta — earth, air, fire, water and space.[18]


In classical Cambodian art chaityas are boundary markers for sacred sites, generally made in sets of four, placed on the site boundary at the four cardinal directions. They generally take a pillar-like form, often topped with a stupa, and are carved on the body.[19]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michell, 66-67; Harle, 48
  2. ^ Harle, 48
  3. ^ Michell, 66, 374; Harle, 48, 493; Hardy, 39
  4. ^ Narayan Sanyal, Immortal Ajanta, p. 134, Bharati Book Stall, 1984
  5. ^ Michell, 65-66
  6. ^ Michell, 66-67; Harle, 48; R. C. Majumdar quoting James Fergusson on the Great Chaitya at Karla Caves:

    "It resembles an early Christian church in its arrangement; consisting of a nave and side-aisles terminating in an apse or semi-dome, round which the aisle is carried... Fifteen pillars on each side separate the nave from the aisle..."

    — Ancient India, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1977, p.225
  7. ^ Michell, 67
  8. ^ Michell, 69, 342; Harle, 48, 119
  9. ^ Harle, 48
  10. ^ Mitra, D. (1971). Buddhist Monuments. Sahitya Samsad: Calcutta. ISBN 0-89684-490-0.
  11. ^ Michell, relevant entries
  12. ^ a b Dehejia, V. (1972). Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Thames and Hudson: London. ISBN 0-500-69001-4.
  13. ^ ASI, "Bhaja Caves"; Michell, 352
  14. ^ Quoted in Hardy, 18
  15. ^ Harle, 132
  16. ^ Group of Buddhist Monuments, Guntupalli. ASI; ASI, Lalitgiri
  17. ^ Harle, 48
  18. ^ "Shikarakuta (small temple) Chaitya". Retrieved 2012-04-24. 
  19. ^ Jessup, 109-110, 209


  • Dehejia, V. (1997). Indian Art. Phaidon: London. ISBN 0-7148-3496-3
  • Hardy, Adam, Indian Temple Architecture: Form and Transformation : the Karṇāṭa Drāviḍa Tradition, 7th to 13th Centuries, 1995, Abhinav Publications, ISBN 8170173124, 9788170173120, google books
  • Harle, J.C., The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, 2nd edn. 1994, Yale University Press Pelican History of Art, ISBN 0300062176
  • Jessup, Helen Ibbetson, Art and Architecture of Cambodia, 2004, Thames & Hudson (World of Art), ISBN 050020375X
  • Michell, George, The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India, Volume 1: Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, 1989, Penguin Books, ISBN 0140081445

External links[edit]