A chaitya, chaitya hall, chaitya-griha, or caitya refers to a shrine,
sanctuary, temple or prayer hall in Indian religions. The term
is most common in Buddhism, where it includes a stupa at one end.
Strictly, the chaitya is actually the stupa itself, and the Indian
buildings are chaitya halls, but this distinction is often not
observed. Outside India, the term is used by Buddhists for local
styles of small stupa-like monuments in Nepal, Cambodia,
elsewhere. In the historical texts of
Jainism and Hinduism, including
those relating to architecture, chaitya refers to a temple, sanctuary
or any sacred monument.
Most early examples of chaitya 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
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. 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.
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.
2 The "chaitya arch" as a decorative motif
3 Development of the chaitya
3.1 End of the chaitya hall
4 Toda hut
8 See also
11 External links
"Caitya", from a root cita or ci meaning "heaped-up", is a Sanskrit
term for a mound or pedestal or "funeral pile". It is a sacred
construction of some sort, and has acquired different more specific
meanings in different regions, including "caityavṛkṣa" for a
According to K.L. Chanchreek, in early Jain literature, caitya mean
ayatanas or temples where monks stayed. It also meant where the Jain
idol was placed in a temple, but broadly it was a symbolism for any
temple. In some texts, these are referred to as arhat-caitya or
jina-caitya, meaning shrines for an Arhat or Jina. Major ancient
Jaina archaeological sites such as the
Kankali Tila near Mathura show
Caitya-tree, Caitya-stupa, Caitya arches with Mahendra-dvajas and
The word caitya appears in the Vedic literature of Hinduism. In early
Buddhist and Hindu literature, a caitya is any 'piled up monument' or
'sacred tree' under which to meet or meditate. Jan Gonda
and other scholars state the meaning of caitya in Hindu texts varies
with context and has the general meaning of any "holy place, place of
worship", a "memorial", or as signifying any "sanctuary" for human
beings, particularly in the Grhya sutras. According to
Robert E. Buswell and Donald S. Lopez, both professors of Buddhist
Studies, the term caitya in
Sanskrit connotes a "tumulus, sanctuary or
shrine", both in Buddhist and non-Buddhist contexts.
The "chaitya arch" as a decorative motif
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 and Jain decoration, long after actual chaitya halls had ceased
to be built by Buddhists. 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
Development of the chaitya
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
The earliest surviving spaces comparable to the chaitya hall date to
the 3rd-century BCE. These are the rock-cut
Barabar Caves (Lomas Rishi
Cave and Sudama Cave), excavated during the reign of
Ashoka by or for
the Ajivikas, a non-Buddhist religious and philosophical group of the
period. According to many scholars, these became "the prototype for
the Buddhist caves of the western Deccan", particularly the chaitya
halls excavated between the 2nd century BCE and 2nd-century CE.
Early chaityas enshrined a stupa with space for congregational worship
by the monks. This reflected one of the early differences between
Buddhism and Hinduism, with
Buddhism favoring congregational
worship in contrast to Hinduism's individual approach. Early chaitya
grhas were cut into living rock as caves. These served as a symbol and
sites of a sangha congregational life (uposatha).
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.
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 surviving 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. 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".
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
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
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
There are few significant remains of structural chaityas (those built
outside, of stone or brick), with examples including ruins at
Guntupalle and Lalitgiri.
A Toda hut.
The broad resemblance between chaityas and the traditional huts still
made by the
Toda people of the
Nilgiri Hills has often been remarked
on. These are crude huts built with wicker bent to produce
arch-shaped roofs, but the models for the chaitya were presumably
larger and much more sophisticated structures.
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
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.
Nepalese form of chaitya
Cambodian sanctuary marker chaitya,
Khleang style, c. 975-1010
Excavated remains of a structural chaitya at Lalitgiri, Odisha, India
Timber ribs on the roof at the Karla Caves; the umbrella over the
stupa is also wood
Decorative chaitya arches and lattice railings, Bedse Caves, 1st
Stupa inside Cave 10, Ellora, the last chaitya hall built, the Buddha
image now dominating the stupa.
^ a b c Kevin Trainor (1997). Relics, Ritual, and Representation in
Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravada Tradition.
Cambridge University Press. pp. 33–38, 89–90 with footnotes.
^ a b Robert E. Buswell Jr.;
Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2013). The Princeton
Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. p. 161.
^ Michell, 66-67; Harle, 48
^ Harle (1994), 48
^ a b K.L. Chanchreek (2004). Jaina Art and Architecture: Northern and
Eastern India. Shree. pp. 21–22.
^ a b
Jan Gonda (1980). Vedic Ritual. BRILL Academic.
pp. 418–419. ISBN 90-04-06210-6.
^ a b Stella Kramrisch (1946). The Hindu Temple, Volume 1. Motilal
Banarsidass. pp. 147–149 with footnote 150.
^ Michell, 66, 374; Harle, 48, 493; Hardy, 39
^ Michell, 65-66
^ Michell, 66-67; Harle, 48;
R. C. Majumdar quoting James Fergusson on
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
^ Michell, 67
^ Harle (1994), 26, 48
^ Harle, 26, 48
^ a b Umakant Premanand Shah (1987). Jaina Iconography. Abhinav
Publications. pp. 9–14. ISBN 978-81-7017-208-6.
^ Mohan Lal Mehta (1969). Jaina Culture. P.V. Research Institute.
^ a b M. Sparreboom (1985). Chariots in the Veda. BRILL Academic.
pp. 63–72 with footnotes. ISBN 90-04-07590-9.
^ Caitya, Encyclopaedia Britannica
^ Michell, 69, 342; Harle, 48, 119
^ Pia Brancaccio (2010). The Buddhist Caves at Aurangabad:
Transformations in Art and Religion. BRILL Academic. pp. 26–27.
^ James C. Harle (1994). The Art and Architecture of the Indian
Subcontinent. Yale University Press. p. 48.
^ Michael K. Jerryson (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary
Buddhism. Oxford University Press. pp. 445–446.
^ a b Dehejia, V. (1972). Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Thames and
Hudson: London. ISBN 0-500-69001-4.
^ ASI, "Bhaja Caves"; Michell, 352
^ Quoted in Hardy, 18
^ Harle, 132
^ Group of Buddhist Monuments, Guntupalli. ASI; ASI, Lalitgiri
^ a b J. Leroy Davidson (1956), Review: The Art of Indian Asia: Its
Mythology and Transformations, The Art Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 2, 1956,
^ Narayan Sanyal, Immortal Ajanta, p. 134, Bharati Book Stall, 1984
^ "Shikarakuta (small temple) Chaitya". Asianart.com. Retrieved
^ Jessup, 109-110, 209
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chaitya.
Dehejia, V. (1997). Indian Art. Phaidon: London.
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,
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
Chaitya Halls compiled by students of School of Planning
& Architecture, New Delhi
Place of worship
Bahá'í House of Worship
Bahá'í House of Worship (Baha'is)
Chaitya/Buddhist temples/monastery (Buddhists)
Church building (Christians)
Hof (Germanic pagans)
Hindu temple/mandir (Hindus)
Jain temple/basadi (Jains)
Shinto shrine/jinja (Shintos)
Taoist temple (Taoists)
Magic circle (Neopagans / Wiccans)
Fire temple (Zoroastrians)