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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rock-Cut Rocks!

The Treasury at Petra, once thought to
actually have been a treasury, or tax house, but
current speculation suggests a library.

Most people are familiar with the rock-cut caves of Petra.  This 6th century BCE capital of the Nabateans, an ancient group of Arabs, is Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, the site was abandoned and forgotten until 1812, when a Swiss explorer rediscovered it.

The "Monastery" at Petra.
Photo by Berthold Werner

Petra’s largest monument is a temple, the "Monastery", which has an inscription to Obodas I and dates to the 1st century BCE.  Obodas I was King of the Nabateans from 96 - 85 BCE.  After his death, he was worshipped as a deity, hence the temple in his honor.  Famed for its water conduit system, as well as its architecture, Petra is also home to thousands of tombs.

Rock houses in Cappadocia.

There is a distinction between decorated natural caves, and man-made and designed ones.  Many rock-cut edifices often emulate the designs of wooden architecture, both in their facades and in their interiors.  There are rock-cut monuments in many regions of the world.  Some are dwellings, such as in Cappadocia in Turkey.  Petra is many known for its tombs, and in India most were monasteries and temples.

Cave 16, the Kailasanatha Temple.
Image courtesy of Frontline.

One of the most remarkable sites anywhere in the world is the UNESCO World Heritage site in Ellora, India.  There are 34 monasteries and temples built for a distance of over a mile in length, chiseled into a high basalt cliff.  Understand, these were carved from the top of the cliff down, inside and out.  There are no added elements, everything is made of the same rock - over a mile of carvings. This includes the basic structures, the sculptures, and the reliefs.

Image courtesy of UNESCO.

Roughly dated from 600 - 1,000 CE, the prodigious planning and work involved is mind-blowing.  Most likely they started out with a leveled field, and probably used some kind of grid system.  Working from the back to the front, and likewise from top to bottom, it is thought that they excavated a certain number of feet down and then across to eliminate the need for scaffolding.  The decorations were very detailed and ornate, and it is difficult to imagine the kind of imaging they did without aid of computers.  No doubt models were used, but no evidence exists of them.    

Image courtesy of UNESCO

Many of the structures were made to look like wood - the material used for palaces and other buildings, which is why they no longer exist.  Since these were dedicated to spiritual purposes, it was fitting they were made from a material that would not deteriorate but be everlasting.

Cave 10, also known as the "Carpenter's Cave".
Notice the emulation of wooden beams arching the ceiling.

These were not far from a trade route, and another remarkable fact is that the temples were built for three distinct religions traditions:  Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain. This is a testament to the religious tolerance that existed.  Imagine the discourse and sharing between the adherents of all three faiths.

Modern puja at the Buddhist "Carpenter's Cave".
(Puja is a ritual showing reverence, in this case to a 15-foot Buddha, also seen above.)
Some of these multi-story buildings included living quarters, sleeping facilities, kitchens, and other rooms required for daily life.  In addition, many have courtyards.

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What is arguably the "jewel" of the site is Cave 16, also known as the Kailasanatha.  Designed to look like Mount Kailash, the abode of the Hindu god Shiva, it covers an area twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens.  The design of this temple is standard for ones dedicated to Shiva, and has three structures in the courtyard.  There is a large sculpture of Nandi, Shiva's vehicle which is a sacred bull, in front of the central temple, which houses the lingam (a phallic symbol iconic of Shiva).  This structure has at its base life-size elephants that are bearing its weight.  Behind it is the Shiva temple, which is carved with niches, windows, and sculptures.  While most of the deities depicted are Shaivite (related to Shiva), inside the temple on the right the deities are Vaishnavite (related to the god Vishnu).

One of the most famous themes in Indian art is the depiction of the demon Ravana trying to lift Mount Kailash.  The Kailasanatha has an excellent example of this theme within, and it has become an icon of Indian art.  This particular temple took a hundred years to complete, and 200,000 tons of rock are estimated to have been removed.  

Shiva and consort Parvati on Mt. Kailash with the demon Ravana below.
Image courtesy of Nagcharan
Neither words nor images can convey the astonishing and stunning wonder of this site. The beauty of the art, combined with the wonder of the execution of the entire site, is overwhelming.  If there is one place in the world that you must see, I highly recommend this one.  I know, I've been here.  Those few days are one of the highlights of my life.
Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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