The Rectification of Names: Caves, Grottos or Rock-Cut Temples?

“If the names are not correct, language is without an object.”

Confucius, Translated by Simon Leys. The Analects of Confucius: London and New York: W. W. Norton 1997: 13, 3.

In her 2013 essay, Phyllis Granoff argued that the term ‘cave temple’ conflates two separate types of structures, temples and caves, leading to confusion over our understanding of the function of these:
‘temples are carefully constructed structures… with all the varied architectural elements that beautified secular palaces… dwelling places for the gods or the Buddha or the Jina. Caves, on the other hand, are uncanny natural structures, that may be fantastic by their very nature, leading to other worlds, or frightening in their lack of refinement and their distance from any civilising influence.'(27)

Ajanta, Rock-cut temple 26. Dey Sandip.

Yet the term ‘cave’ continues to be used to describe temples across the scholarly, cultural and tourism fields, with, for example, UNESCO using the labels ‘Mogao Caves’ and ‘Ajanta Caves’ for two of the largest and most important temple sites. Granoff suggests ‘rock-cut’ to describe the form – this is the term generally used for some other sites, for example the churches at Lalibela which appear on the UNESCO listing as ‘Rock-hewn’. However, ‘Buddhist temple’ would generally suffice unless we need to bring attention to the form of these religious structures. We use ‘church’ to describe a building used for Christian worship whether this is rock-cut or built of stone, wood or other materials.

I would take this argument further, and suggest that the widespread use of the term ‘grotto’ — certainly in English — is even more misleading as to the use and function of temples. Grotto, according to the OED, is “A small picturesque cave, especially an artificial one in a park or garden. This was a loan,” so the OED continues, “in the 17th century from the Italian grotta, via Latin from Greek kruptē (see crypt). Such grottos are relatively common features of large gardens of this period, usually placed in or near water and fashioned to look ‘natural’.”

There are therefore at least three structures to be considered:

1. Minimally changed natural cave used for shelter, retreat etc.
2. Artifically enhanced (both in terms of size/shape and in forms of decoration) cave — which might or might not exist before — made to look ‘natural’.
3. Artifically enhanced (both in terms of size/shape and in forms of decoration) cave — which might or might not exist before — made to appear as a free-standing piece of architecture.

Buddhist rock-cut temples, as Granoff points out, clearly belong to 3), that is they were created to resemble free-standing architecture, ie man-made structures, and their naturalness was disguised. This is seen in their carved or painted architectural features, such as arches at the entrance to Ajanta temples or the carved and painted roof beams and lanterndecke ceilings in many of the Dunhuang Mogao temples. In some early caves, wooden architectural elements are added inside the temple, such as Cave 4 at Bamiyan with its wooden lanterndecke.

We can trace this confusion back to the early archaeologists of this sites. Stein, for example, used both grotto and cave. Grotte and grotten as well as caverne and Höhlentempel were used by French and German explorers. While the characters/kanji 窟 and 洞 are found in Chinese and Japanese accounts. However, perhaps it is now time to address the inevitable ambiguities in the use of these terms and agree a more precise vocabulary for use in scholarship to avoid confusion.

Thanks to Imre Galambos, Miki Morita and Simone Raschmann for discussions on the non-English use of these terms.

Phyllis Granoff. 2013. “What’s in a Name? Rethinking ‘Caves’.” In Pia Brancaccio (ed). Living Rock: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain Cave Temples in the Western Deccan. 19–29. Marg 64.4. Mumbai.

This post is the first of a projected series on the importance of agreeing our terminology in scholarship – the ‘rectification of names’. The next post will consider pagodas/stupas.

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2 Responses to The Rectification of Names: Caves, Grottos or Rock-Cut Temples?

  1. partontok says:

    Thanks actually a very interesting point. I think “cave” is probably used for the sake of brevity, though it is very misleading. I suppose etymologically, it could have made sense at some point (from the latin, cavus = hollow). Also, in English, ‘cave’ could previously be used as a verb meaning ‘to hollow out’ or ‘excavate’.
    Secondly, I couldn’t find your contact information – and I know this might sound a bit strange- but, I was wondering if you know anything about my father. Contact me at if you have a spare second to answer a question or two!


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