From the air, the Barabar Caves near Gaya (Bihar) look for all the world like whales sunning themselves in the wilderness! E. M. Forster was so inspired by the caves that they find mention in his book, A Passage to India, as the “Marabar Caves”.
The Barabar Caves were commissioned by Emperor Ashoka (264 BC – 225 BC) as shelter for Ajivika monks (an offshoot of Jainism). At the site, one can also see Hindu and Buddhist sculptures cut in rock.
The caves consist of four chambers–– Lomas Rishi, Sudama, Karan Chaupar and Visva Zopri––carved out from granite, their smooth walled interiors polished to a beautiful shine that remains even today. Barabar’s twin hill, Nagarjuni, which is often included in the Barabar complex has three smaller caves.
Typically, a cave has dual chambers––a large, rectangular one for a congregation and a smaller, circular enclosure that served as a sanctum sanctorum and probably contained a Stupa. The most fascinating aspect of the caves is their unique, lingering echo. A series of sounds produces a most mystical effect.
The Barabar Caves were the earliest of their kind and went on to influence a long tradition of rock cut caves as Buddhism spread eastwards through Asia.