The practice of excavating clusters of rooms or niches into the sides of cliffs and mountains to create cave temples originated in India and spread with Buddhism via Central Asia to China.
Buddhist cave sites were often chosen for their scenic beauty, sometimes by passing monks who had seen Buddhist visions at a particular spot or were entranced by the spiritual aura of the sites. Cave temples were the focus of worship and meditation, not only for the communities of monks who resided there, but also for visiting pilgrims and traders.
The isolation of these sites serves to intensify the spiritual connection experienced by visitors. While some places of worship use architectural height to draw attention up to the heavens, these cave temples highlight the value of spiritual treasures that lie within.
The Pindaya Caves – Myanmar
The southernmost Pindaya cave can be entered and extends for about 490 feet along a well-worn path. It is known for its interior which contains over 8,000 images of Buddha. Some of the older statues and images in the cave have inscriptions dating to the late 18th century, or early Konbaung period, and the earliest one dates from 1773. There may be some images without inscriptions that are older, but based on the style elements, Than Tun believes that none of them is older than the early 18th century and even suggests 1750 as the earliest possible date.
2 – Yungang Grottoes – China
The Yungang Grottoes, in Datong city, Shanxi Province, with their 252 caves and 51,000 statues, represent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Five Caves created by Tan Yao, with their strict unity of layout and design, constitute a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art.
3 – Khao Luang Cave Temple – Thailand
The impressive caves are set in Khao Luang hill which is almost 100 meters high, just North of Petchaburi town. They consist of a number of caverns filled with beautifully illuminated golden Buddha images, several chedis and a great number of stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
King Mongkut (Rama IV) who reigned the Kingdom from 1851 until 1868 used the cave to study Buddhism and to meditate. He had a large number of Buddha images placed in the Khao Luang cave.
4 – Tham Erawan – Thailand
Tham Erawan is a cave inside a stone mountain called Pha Tham Chang, right on the border of Amphoe Wangsaphung of Loei and Amphoe Na Wang of Nong Bua Lamphu. Tham Erawan is accessible via a winding staircase of 600 steps.
There is a large Buddha statue at the cave’s entrance. The entrance leads to a huge hall decorated with various types of rock formations. A local folktale, Nang Phom Hom (The Lady with Fragrant Hair), is said to have taken place here. Local souvenir shops are available for sale at a nearby temple.
The cave is 47 kilometers from Nong Bua Lam Phu town. To get there, take Highway No. 210 (Nong Bua Lamphu -Loei), turn right at Km. 13, and continue for approximately 2.7 kilometers.
5 – Sadan Cave – Myanmar
22 kilometres south east of Hpa An you can find the stunning Sadan Cave, which opens into a gigantic cavern filled with Buddhas and pagodas and can be walked all the way through to the other side, under the mountain.
6 – Ellora Caves – India
These 34 monasteries and temples, extending over more than 2 km, were dug side by side in the wall of a high basalt cliff, not far from Aurangabad, in Maharashtra. Ellora, with its uninterrupted sequence of monuments dating from A.D. 600 to 1000, brings the civilization of ancient India to life. Not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India.
7 – Yathae Pyan Cave – Myanmar
The 7th-century artwork of the Kawgun Cave consists of thousands of tiny clay Buddhas and carvings plastered all over the walls and roof of this open cavern. Just over a mile away is the Yathaypyan Cave, which contains several pagodas as well as a few more clay wall carvings.
Kawgun was constructed by King Manuaha after he was defeated in battle and had to take sanctuary in these caves. Impressive as it is today, you can only imagine what it was like a few years back, before a cement factory, in its quest for limestone, started dynamiting the nearby peaks – the vibrations caused great chunks of the art to crash to the floor and shatter.