Colossal Sculptures and Rock-cut Architecture Around the World
This is a list of colossal sculptures and rock-cut artchitecture that were carved in situ (or “in place”), sometimes referred to as “living rock”. Most of these were carved in ancient times.
This list includes two colossal stones that were intended to be moved; however they were never broken free of the quarry in which they were carved and therefore they would be considered carved in situ.
In most cases, especially in India, the sculptures were carved out of “soft” rock like basalt or volcanic tuff. However in some cases they were carved out of harder rock like sandstone, or even granite in the case of the unfinished obelisk.
Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan – sandstone, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban
The two most prominent statues were the giant standing Buddhas Vairocana and Sakyamuni, identified by the different mudras performed. The Buddha popularly called “Solsol” measures 53 meters tall, and “Shahmama” 35 meters – the niches in which the figures stand are 58 and 38 meters from bottom to top.
Before being blown up in 2001 they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world (the 8th century Leshan Giant Buddha is taller, but the statue is sitting). Since then the Spring Temple Buddha has been built in China, and at 128 m (420 ft) it is the tallest statue in the world. Plans for the construction of the Spring Temple Buddha were announced soon after the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas and China condemned the systematic destruction of the Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan.
Smaller Buddha in 1977 (destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban)
Taller Buddha of Bamiyan before and after destruction
Leshan Giant Buddha, China
At 71 metres (233 feet) tall, the statue depicts a seated Maitreya Buddha with his hands resting on his knees. His shoulders are 28 metres wide and his smallest toenail is large enough to easily accommodate a seated person. There is a local saying: “The mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a mountain”. This is partially because the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located is thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha as its heart.
Construction was started in 713, led by a Chinese monk named Haitong. He hoped that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. When funding for the project was threatened, he is said to have gouged out his own eyes to show his piety and sincerity. After his death, however, the construction was stuck due to insufficient funding. About 70 years later, a jiedushi decided to sponsor the project and the construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803.
Apparently the massive construction resulted in so much stone being removed from the cliff face and deposited into the river below that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the waters safe for passing ships.
A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the Leshan Giant Buddha when it was built. It is still in working order. It includes drainage pipes carved into various places on the body, to carry away the water after the rains so as to reduce weathering.
When the Giant Buddha was carved, a huge thirteen story wooden structure, plated in gold, was built to shelter it from rain and sunshine. This structure was destroyed and sacked by the Mongols during the wars at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. From then on, the stone statue was exposed to the elements.
Bingling Temple, China
The Bingling Temple is a series of grottoes filled with Buddhist sculpture carved into natural caves and caverns in a canyon along the Yellow River. It lies just north of where the Yellow River empties into the Liujiaxia Reservoir.
The Great Maitreya Buddha, similar to the Buddhas of Bamiyan
The caves were a work in progress for more than a millennium. The first grotto was begun around 420 CE at the end of the Western Jin Dynasty. Work continued and more grottoes were added during the Wei, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The style of each grottoe can easily be connected to the typical artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.
Over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion, and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the caves and the artistic treasures within. Altogether there are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, and 82 clay sculptures that remain. The relief sculpture and caves filled with buddhas and frescoes line the northern side of the canyon for about 200 meters. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery. These caves culminate at a large natural cavern where wooden walkways precariously wind up the rock face to hidden cliff-side caves and the giant Maitreya Buddha that stands more than 27 meters, or almost 100 feet, tall.
Ajanta Caves, India
The Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India are about 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE. The caves include paintings and sculptures described by the government Archaeological Survey of India as “the finest surviving examples of Indian art, particularly painting”, which are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, with figures of the Buddha and depictions of the Jataka tales. The caves were built in two phases starting around the 2nd century BCE, with the second group of caves built around 400–650 CE according to older accounts, or all in a brief period between 460 to 480 according to the recent proposals of Walter M. Spink. The site is a protected monument in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, and since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The entrance to cave 19
Ajanta, Cave 26
The Ajanta caves are cut into the side of a cliff that is on the south side of a U-shaped gorge on the small river Waghora (or Wagura), and although they are now along and above a modern pathway running across the cliff they were originally reached by individual stairs or ladders from the side of the river 35 to 110 feet below.
The area was previously heavily forested, and after the site ceased to be used the caves were covered by jungle until accidentally rediscovered in 1819 by a British officer on a hunting party. They are Buddhist monastic buildings, apparently representing a number of distinct “monasteries” or colleges. The caves are numbered 1 to 28 according to their place along the path, beginning at the entrance. Several are unfinished and some barely begun and others are small shrines, included in the traditional numbering as e.g. “9A”; “Cave 15A” was still hidden under rubble when the numbering was done. Further round the gorge are a number of waterfalls, which when the river is high are audible from outside the caves.
The caves form the largest corpus of early Indian wall-painting; indeed other survivals from the area of modern India are very few indeed, though they are related to 5th-century paintings at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. The elaborate architectural carving in many caves is also very rare, and the style of the many figure sculptures is a highly local one, found only at a couple of nearby contemporary sites, although the Ajanta tradition can be related to the later Hindu Ellora Caves and other sites.
Badami Cave Temples, India – sandstone
The Badami cave temples are a complex of temples located at Badami, a town in the Bagalkot District in the north part of Karnataka, India. They are considered an example of Indian rock-cut architecture, especially Badami Chalukya Architecture. Badami, the capital of the Early Chalukyas, who ruled much of Karnataka in the 6th to 8th centuries, lies at the mouth of a ravine with rocky hills on either side and a town tank in which water from the ravine flows. The town is known for its ancient cave temples carved out of the sandstone hills above.
Badami cave temple
Vishnu image in Vaishnava Cave temple No. 3
Jain image of Parshvanath, Cave No. 4
The Badami cave temples are composed of four caves, all carved out of the soft Badami sandstone on a hill cliff in the late 6th to 7th centuries. The planning of four caves is simple. The entrance is a verandah (mukha mandapa) with stone columns and brackets, a distinctive feature of these caves, leading to a columned mandapa – main hall (also maha mandapa) and then to the small square shrine (sanctum sanctorum, garbhaghrha) cut deep into the cave. The temple caves represent different religious sects. Among them, two (cave 2 and 3) are dedicated to god Vishnu, one to god Shiva (cave 1) and the fourth (cave 4) is a Jain temple. The first three are devoted to the Vedic faith and the fourth cave is the only Jain temple at Badami.
The cave temples date back to 600 and 700 CE. Their architecture is a blend of North Indian Nagara Style and South Indian Dravidian style. As described above each cave has a sanctum sanctorum, a mandapa, a verandah and pillars. The cave temples also bear exquisite carvings, sculptures and beautiful murals. Important part of historical heritage at Badami cave temples are inscriptions in old Kannada script. There is also the fifth cave temple in Badami – Buddhist temple in natural cave which can be entered only on all fours.
Barabar Caves, India – oldest rockcut cave of India
The Barabar Caves are the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in India, mostly dating from the Mauryan period (322–185 BCE), and some with Ashokan inscriptions, located in the Jehanabad District of Bihar, India, 24 km north of Gaya.
These caves are situated in the twin hills of Barabar (four caves) and Nagarjuni (three caves) – caves of the 1.6 km distant Nagarjuni Hill sometimes are singled out as Nagarjuni Caves. These rock-cut chambers date back to the 3rd century BC, Maurya period, of Ashoka (r. 273 BC to 232 BC.) and his son, Dasaratha. Though Buddhists themselves, they allowed various Jain sects to flourish under a policy of religious tolerance. These caves were used by ascetics from the Ajivika sect, founded by Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and of Mahavira, the last and 24th Tirthankara of Jainism. Also found at the site were several rock-cut Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.
Sudama and Lomas Rishi Caves at Barabar, Bihar, 1870 photo
Mauryan architecture in the Barabar Mounts. Grotto of Lomas Rishi. 3rd century BCE
Most caves at Barabar consist of two chambers, carved entirely out of granite, with a highly polished internal surface and exciting echo effect. The first chamber was meant for worshippers to congregate in a large rectangular hall, and the second, a small, circular, domed chamber for worship, this inner chamber probably had a small stupa like structure, at some point, though they are now empty.
Ellora Caves, India
Ellora also known as Ellooru, is an archaeological site, 29 km (18 mi) North-West of the city of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra built by the Rashtrakuta dynasty. Well known for its monumental caves, Ellora is a World Heritage Site. Ellora represents the epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture. The 34 “caves” – actually structures excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills. Buddhist, Hindu and Jain rock-cut temples and viharas and mathas were built between the 5th century and 10th century. The 12 Buddhist (caves 1–12), 17 Hindu (caves 13–29) and 5 Jain (caves 30–34) caves, built in proximity, demonstrate the religious harmony prevalent during this period of Indian history. It is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India.
Hindu cave Rameshvara (Cave 21) has figurines of river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna at the entrance
Ellora caves. Cave 16. A rock bridge connects Nandi Mandap to the center temple.
Cave 16, also known as the Kailasa or the Kailasanatha, is the unrivaled centerpiece of Ellora.
This is designed to recall Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva – looks like a freestanding, multi-storeyed temple complex, but it was carved out of one single rock, and covers an area double the size of Parthenon in Athens. Initially the temple was covered with white plaster thus even more increasing the similarity to snow-covered Mount Kailash.
All the carvings are done in more than one level. A two-storeyed gateway resembling a South Indian Gopura opens to reveal a U-shaped courtyard. The courtyard is edged by columned galleries three storeys high. The galleries are punctuated by huge sculpted panels, and alcoves containing enormous sculptures of a variety of deities. Originally flying bridges of stone connected these galleries to central temple structures, but these have fallen.
Links to Other important Indian Temples:
- Kanheri Caves, India
- List of India cave temples
- Vijayanagara, India
- Mahabalipuram, India – partly granite
The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Bagastana, meaning “the place of god”) is a multi-lingual inscription located on Mount Behistun in the Kermanshah Province of Iran, near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran.
Darius I the Great’s inscription
The route up to the inscription
Authored by Darius the Great sometime between his coronation as king of the Persian Empire in the summer of 522 BC and his death in autumn of 486 BC, the inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius, including his ancestry and lineage. Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the deaths of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II in which he fought nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian Empire. The inscription states in detail that the rebellions, which had resulted from the deaths of Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses II, were orchestrated by several impostors and their co-conspirators in various cities throughout the empire, each of whom falsely proclaimed kinghood during the upheaval following Cyrus’s death.
Darius the Great proclaimed himself victorious in all battles during the period of upheaval, attributing his success to the “grace of Ahura Mazda”.
The inscription includes three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a later form of Akkadian). In effect, then, the inscription is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs: the document most crucial in the decipherment of a previously lost script.
The inscription is approximately 15 metres high by 25 metres wide and 100 metres up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana, respectively). The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 593 lines in eight columns, and the Babylonian text is in 112 lines. The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius I, the Great, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying on his back before him. The supine figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata. Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and nine one-metre figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples. Faravahar floats above, giving his blessing to the king. One figure appears to have been added after the others were completed, as was Darius’s beard, which is a separate block of stone attached with iron pins and lead.
Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran
Naqsh-e Rustam is an ancient necropolis located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis, in Fars Province, Iran. It lies a few hundred meters from Naqsh-e Rajab.
Panorama of Naqsh-e Rustam
Naqsh-e Rustam at dawn
Bas relief nagsh-e-rostam
The oldest relief at Naqsh-i Rustam is severely damaged and dates to c. 1000 BC. It depicts a faint image of a man with unusual head-gear and is thought to be Elamite in origin. The depiction is part of a larger mural, most of which was removed at the command of Bahram II. The man with the unusual cap gives the site its name, Naqsh-e Rostam, “Picture of Rostam”, because the relief was locally believed to be a depiction of the mythical hero Rostam.
Naqsh-e Rajab, Iran
Naqsh-e Rajab is an archaeological site just east of Istakhr and about 12 km north of Persepolis. Together with Naqsh-e Rustam, which lies less than a kilometer away, the site is part of the Marvdasht cultural complex. Together, the two sites are a tentative candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status. Naqsh-e Rajab is the site of four limestone rockface inscriptions and bas-reliefs that date to the early Sassanid era.
Naqsh-e Rajab – Shapur parade
Petra, Jordan – sandstone
Petra is a historical and archaeological city in the southern Jordanian governorate of Ma’an, that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Another name for Petra is the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved.
Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, it is a symbol of Jordan, as well as its most-visited tourist attraction. It lies on the slope of Jebel al-Madhbah (identified by some as the biblical Mount Hor) in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time” in a Newdigate Prize-winning poem by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”.
See: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Petra was chosen by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”
The Monolithic Stones near Baalbek, Lebanon – limestone
The Stone of the Pregnant Woman or Stone of the South is a Roman monolith in Baalbek (ancient Heliopolis), Lebanon. Together with another ancient stone block nearby, it is among the largest monoliths ever quarried by men. The two building blocks were intended for the close-by Roman temple complex (?) possibly as an addition to the so-called trilith which was characterized by a monolithic gigantism unparalled in antiquity.
The Stone of the Pregnant Woman aka Stone of the South
The stone block still lies in the ancient quarry at a distance of 900 m from the Heliopolis temple complex. In 1996, a geodetic team of the Austrian city of Linz conducted topographical measurements at the site which aimed at establishing the exact dimensions of the two monoliths and their possible use in the construction of the gigantic Jupiter temple. According to their calculations, the block weighs 1,000.12 t, thus practically confirming older learned estimations such as by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Adam.
The established dimensions of the rectangular limestone block are:
20.31–20.76 m length
4 m width at base
4.14–5.29 m width at top
4.21–4.32 m height
A second ancient monolith was discovered in the same quarry in the 1990s. With its weight estimated at 1,242 t, it even surpasses the dimension of the Stone of the Pregnant Woman.
The established dimensions of the rectangular limestone block, on the assumption that it continues its shape in the hidden parts underground, are:
19.5–20.5 m length
4.34–4.56 m width
4.5 m height
Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia
Mada’in Saleh, also called Al-Hijr, el Hijr, and Hegra (so in Greek and Latin, e.g. by Pliny), is a pre-Islamic archaeological site located in the Al-Ula sector, within the Al Madinah Region of Saudi Arabia. A majority of the vestiges date from the Nabatean kingdom (1st century CE). The site constitutes the kingdom’s southernmost and largest settlement after Petra, its capital. Traces of Lihyanite and Roman occupation before and after the Nabatean rule, respectively, can also be found in situ. Accounts from the Qur’an place the settlement of the area by the tribe of Thamud after Noah but before Moses, which can be interpreted as the 3rd millennium BC.
According to the Islamic text, the Thamudis, who would carve out homes in the mountains, were punished by Allah for their persistent practice of idol worship, the non-believers being struck by a sound wave. Thus, the site has earned a reputation down to contemporary times as a cursed place— an image which the national government is attempting to overcome as it seeks to develop Mada’in Saleh, officially protected as an archaeological site since 1972, for its tourism potential.
In 2008 UNESCO proclaimed Mada’in Saleh as a site of patrimony, becoming Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site. It was chosen for its well-preserved remains from late antiquity, especially the 131 rock-cut monumental tombs, with their elaborately ornamented façades, of the Nabatean kingdom.
A row of tombs from the al-Khuraymat group, Mada’in Saleh.
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka – granite
Sigiriya (Lion Rock) is located in the central Matale District of the Central Province, Sri Lanka in an area dominated by a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa the site was selected by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 AD) for his new capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. On a small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The name of this place is derived from this structure —Sihgiri, the Lion Rock. The capital and the royal palace were abandoned after the king’s death. It was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. Sigiriya today is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning. It is the most visited historic site in Sri Lanka.
Article Source: Wikipedia: List of colossal sculpture in situ
Please send your comments and suggestions about adding examples of prominent rock-cut architecture and sculptures we did not mention in this post.