A chamber at the Kanheri cave complex at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai (Photos: Emmanuel Karbhari)
WHEN A YOUNG MAN BARELY OUT OF HIS TEENS HOLDS TWO large chickens by their feet in his hands and stretches his arms for a picture, a friend nearby shakes his head in disapproval. “This isn’t a picture,” this companion tells him. And then planting a pair of sunglasses on his friend’s face, and plunging headfirst underneath his friend’s legs to lift both the friend and the two chickens upon his shoulder, he says, to the delight of his friends, “This is.” A little cacophony ensues. The photographer starts a loud countdown; the two posers shout and jeer; and the chickens, despite the unenviable fate that awaits them shortly, exude an air of stoic nonchalance.
It’s a raucous scene on a raucous day. Yet, nobody seems to mind this boisterous group. We have climbed Karla, a rock hill near Lonavala in Maharashtra, and reached the premises of the Ekvira temple. And there are people here today everywhere, scurrying to and fro, carrying plastic bags of flowers and prasad, chickens, and sometimes even goats on a leash. A line that had formed outside the temple has within minutes snaked and stretched halfway down the hill. And despite the heat, ever-growing numbers are constantly crawling their way up, some even carrying baskets with a little child atop their heads.
EKVIRA IS A local deity worshipped mostly by the fishing community of Kolis, but whose appeal has spread across various Maharashtrian communities. Animal sacrifice is, interestingly, common here. But after a ban on slaughtering near the temple was enforced, the practice of purchasing chicken or goats at the multiple butcher shops that exist at the base of the hill, and then turning the animals, once blessed at the temple, back to the butchers for the deed (or simply relying on one’s own knife skills in the car park) has developed. From here, the pilgrims board buses back to their homes, carrying the meat in little polythene bags. “Just like prasad,” a devotee explains.
But we aren’t here for the temple today. And after leaving the riotous festivity behind, through a small grilled gate beside the temple, we enter the cool chambers of a grand ancient cave. This is what is commonly referred to as the Great Chaitya cave at Karla. At its entrance is a grand pillar, about 15-metres high, with lions sculpted atop it, followed by an equally magnificent verandah with sculptures of various forms of the Buddha, humans, and elephants. And inside, lit by the softened sunlight streaming through a large horseshoe window atop the entrance, is a stupa at the deep end of the chaitya-griha (prayer hall), a row of colonnades adorned with sculptures on either side. And atop all this, is a remarkable ceiling carrying a vast and exquisite set of wooden planks shaped like ribs that continues to exist more than 2,000 years later. This chaitya-griha, built sometime in the 1st century CE, isn’t just considered among the largest caves of its kind in South Asia; it is also, according to many, the most beautiful among them. And it is easy to see why. To enter it is for your body to register the relief of a sudden drop in temperature, and your mind to process the immediate sensation of being in the presence of something very old and beautiful.
We have come to Karla searching for ancient Buddhist caves in this part of Maharashtra. For most people interested in Buddhism, hitting the “Buddhist circuit” means travelling around the region of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha lived and taught, or, if they are partial to its caves, journeying to the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves in central Maharashtra. But an equally rich tradition of Buddhism also thrived in this western part of the state, both in and not too far from Mumbai, as seen in the many Buddhist caves that dot this region, some of which go as far back as a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, and which continued to be in use in some cases for close to 1,500 years, before being abandoned altogether.
Part of the reason why the faith flourished here isn’t necessarily good karma but location. This western region of the state had many important ports for millennia, with trade routes spreading from the sea into the Deccan and beyond. Since Buddha’s teachings often travelled along trade routes, from the start of the 2nd century BCE onwards, a vast network of rock cave dwellings began to be carved for monks along the trade routes here. “In those days, monks kept moving about spreading the teachings. They needed a place to stay for a few days, and longer during the rains, before moving to the next location. That’s how the caves came up,” says Manjiri Bhalerao, an archaeologist and assistant professor of Indology at the Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth in Pune, who has spent several years studying the Buddhist caves of Maharashtra. Caves were preferred over dwellings made of wood or brick because, as Bhalerao explains, they lasted longer and required less maintenance. Traders, who despite their wealth ranked third in the caste hierarchy of Hinduism, became instantly attracted to Buddhism and became eager donors of under-construction monasteries and prayer halls in these caves. Over time, these caves that started as places for temporary stay expanded to become large and revered monasteries.
The Kanheri caves, situated inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, are a good example of how Buddhist caves developed over time. Built gradually, starting sometime in the 1st century BCE, it became an important religious centre between the 2nd and 10th centuries CE, and then saw a decline from the 11th century onwards until its abandonment, it is claimed, by the 15th century CE, or so. Visiting the site and looking at its architecture and sculptures, one can witness how various forms of Buddhism developed over time—from the Hinayana tradition to Mahayana, and later its tantric form—and also how different sects sometimes co-existed in different caves at the same site.
IT IS AN unusually warm Saturday morning when I find myself at the gates of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. An already hot summer is in the grip of a severe heatwave, and, as the day progresses, it will only get worse. But large numbers of cyclists, trekkers, runners, and families are here today, willing to brave whatever the summer will throw their way so long as they can swap the tedium of the urban jungle for the adventures of a real one for a day.
Once the gates open and after a brief wait, I join a small number of people boarding BEST bus number 188, the only bus whose route starts and ends within the park. Leaving behind the people thronging the national park, the spotted deer and monkeys that one frequently comes across, the small settlements of tribals inside the park, we begin climbing a small hill, until 20 minutes later, when we are deposited at the starting point of the Kanheri caves.
The Kanheri caves are a complex of about 110 caves spread across a large black hill, from which the place derives its name. (Kanheri originates from Krishnagiri, which means black hill.) The caves range from large elaborate prayer halls and exquisite structures to spaces so tiny that they can give travellers the distinct impression that Mumbai’s builders are perhaps following an ancient tradition when designing the city’s matchbox-sized apartments. These caves were of course built over centuries, and they reflect the choices and aesthetics of various Buddhist schools of thought. Gazing at the names inscribed in a variety of scripts, from Pali to Greek and Japanese, one can tell that its donors came from across the world. Their donations may have had a single purpose (the earning of religious merit), but two millennia later, their names have become part of a unique historical record.
Despite the crowds gathered at the park below, at Kanheri itself, the 20-odd guards at the caves, far outnumber its visitors. After one leaves behind the caves at the bottom—which includes the chaitya-griha at Cave number 3, a grand prayer hall with a stupa that is believed to have been built as an imitation of the Great Chaitya of the Karla Caves—the few visitors that were visible, now completely disappear.
I move from one cave to another, enjoying the brief respite from the sun, bumping only into more guards. I strike up a conversation with one, and before I have realised it, I find that he has appointed himself my tour guide. He takes me to some of the important caves, pointing out the essential sculptures—and even the only patch of painting visible on a ceiling—and the still-functioning cisterns. The caves here carried a sophisticated system of water supply consisting of cisterns that some contend served water all through the year even when the region was experiencing a drought. And today, one can see large pipes drawing out water from cisterns for the guards’ use. In fact, the guard accompanying me takes me to a cave from whose cistern he fills a bottle of cold drinking water. He also lets me in on a secret. Their real job, he says, is protecting the caves from amorous couples who might wish to declare their love on the walls, or who, starved of space in the city, might use the solitude for worse.
Kanheri, some have argued, became one of the most important Buddhist sites in western India. It is believed that it served as an offshoot of the monastery at the ancient port city of Sopara. But over time, it became an independent site, supported by many villages and towns nearby, and attracted some of the most important Buddhist teachers and students of the day, including, according to some scholars, Xuanzang in the 7th century, who is believed to have recorded the goings-on at the site in his travelogue.
After I manage to shake off the guard, I climb right to the top of the Kanheri hill. Looking all around, at the forest that encircles the caves as it must have for millennia, and shutting my mind to the view of the metropolis on the east that fills my vision, I can’t help but feel that the only difference between this place now and then is the life that thrummed in its caves once, monks whose chants and rituals must have echoed through the forests, and who perhaps, like me, complained of the heat.
Kanheri, some have argued, became one of the most important Buddhist sites in western India. It is believed that it served as an offshoot of the monastery at the ancient port city of Sopara. But over time, it became an independent site, supported by many villages and towns nearby, and attracted some of the most important Buddhist teachers and students of the day
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KANHERI ISN’T THE only complex of Buddhist caves in this region. And after having spent the day here, I’m some 125 kilometres away the next morning at the equally important cave complex in Karla. This might be a comparatively smaller site in size, but its Great Chaitya can rival any structure built in that period.
Nobody seems to really know when the Ekvira temple first came up outside the Great Chaitya. Many suggest that it came up after the decline of Buddhism. But some say it could have preceded the construction of these caves. “We know for a fact that many Buddhist sites were built at places where animal sacrifice took place, as a way to discourage people from killing animals. Maybe, the Karla caves did the same, and once Buddhism disappeared, the old tradition returned,” says Bhalerao.
At the crowded base of the Karla caves, we decide to explore one more Buddhist cave complex, about 7.5 kilometres away, that is considered even older than the caves at both Kanheri and Karla.
The Bhaja caves, totalling 22 caves, date back to the 2nd century BCE. As we climb the hill today, it is already noon, and there are but just a handful of us. During the monsoon, this is a beautiful climb, filled with little streams and greenery all around. But today, it is unbearable. Looking around, it is as though the landscape is dissolving in the heat. When you find some shade, and catch your breath, you can notice, at a distance, a flag waving on a nearby hill. This is the Lohagad Fort, an important hill-fort that once belonged to the Maratha Empire, and right below, what must have once been a jungle, but consists now of vast open fields.
The most remarkable of the caves at Bhaja is its chaitya-griha. Although smaller (and older), it is built like the Great Chaitya at Karla, with curved wooden ribs on the ceiling, supported on two sides by a series of colonnades. But at the entrance, today stands a large gaping hole. Archaeologists believe that there was once a substantial wooden façade here, but that is now entirely lost. Around the corner, are a collection of 14 small stupas, where the remains of some important Buddhist teachers are interred.
As I stroll around, I return to the chaitya-griha where a small group of people are sitting. Removing my shoes as mandated, and sitting on its cool floors under a canopy of wooden ribs, a perceivable silence growing among us, we gaze out, like probably so many before us for millennia, into the fury of the day outside.