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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kanheri Caves (Mumbai)

Several years ago while trying to locate the footprints of the Satavahana rule in Dakshina Kosala, I learnt about their inscriptional evidences  at Kanheri, Naneghat and Nashik (Pandav Leni) rock cut caves. I was curious to visit these holy places of the Buddhist regime, from that time onwards, so as to spend some moments living in the ancient past.
Although I have visited Mumbai numerous times, my friends over there were either reluctant or uninterested to take me to Kanheri (Krishna Giri) which was otherwise comfortably reachable. Last year during a routine visit to Mumbai I made up my mind to visit Kanheri Caves by myself. Moreover, my son was also with me. Incidentally my younger brother in law got enthused to accompany us. On one morning after breakfast, we three of us, boarded a suburban train from Dadar (West) and landed at Borivli within 30/40 minutes. Fearing that we may have to remain hungry, we located a good restaurant and had our fill. While we were out of the restaurant, we spotted a vacant auto which took us to the main gate of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. We got inside the main gate after buying the entry tickets. We were happy to see a Tourism Development Corporation bus parked inside, which takes people to the Kanheri Caves, situated 6 kilometers deep inside the park. Unfortunately there were few people around  and the driver bluntly told us that the bus wont move unless there are adequate number of passengers. We were loosing time. Fortunately a van entering the park stopped by our side and offered us a lift for Rs.100. We readily agreed and boarded the van. The vehicle entered the dense forest winding its way through the lush greenery. The surrounding flora and fauna and the forest smell was a feast to our eyes and nostrils. Well here is a place in Mumbai where people can breathe fresh air and revitalize themselves. Within 10 minutes,  there appeared a hoarding of the Archaeological Department with a booth dispensing entry tickets. We were dropped at this point asking us to be back within 2 hours. The vehicle then pulled itself to the parking place. We bought the necessary tickets and took the stairs carved out on the surface of  hard volcanic rock.

Kanheri is the largest Buddhist site in India  in terms of the number of caves made in a single hill.  In the western part of India, Buddhism was introduced at Sopara which was once the capital of Aparantaka (North Konkan) way back in the 3rd Century BC. From that time onwards Kanheri being closer to Sopara was developed as a seat of learning for the Heenayana branch of Buddhism. Later it also continued to play its educational role for the Mahayana branch as well. Its history spans from as early as 3rd Century BC to as late as 11th Century AD. That makes it a unique site  that has gone through the rise and decline of Buddhism in India. The earliest rock cut cells, devoid of images or any other ornamentation, dates back to that period of Heenayana form of Buddhism. On the other hand the cells and Viharas (monasteries) with Buddha’s images and other designs belong to the Mahayana cult. Chiseling the hill and making monasteries etc. has however  continued up to the 9th Century AD.

Having completed climbing our first phase of the stairs. we found ourselves in a relatively leveled ground with the rock cut structures staring at us. At first sight we had a notion of having seen similar structures elsewhere. Then we recalled the Petra in Jordan which we never visited but had seen them through movie clips/photographs.There were many people exploring that particular structure. We also proceeded in that direction. It was a Chaitya Griha.
 This top one  is  at Kanheri
 This is the one at Karla (Lonavla)
Outwardly it did not look ornate but when we entered, it was a stunning experience. At the point of entry itself, there stood two Buddha’s on either side of the porch. They are supposed to be the tallest images in India.  A very large hall with an arched  roof (barrel vaulted) at the end of which there was a stupa with a semispherical top, the object of worship in the Chaitya. There were ornate pillars on either side. I loudly said “I shall cherish this experience” to which my brother in law reminded me of another such Chaita Griha at Karla near Lonavla. The Chaitya Griha there is said to be much more larger and beautiful. In fact it is the  largest cave Chaitya in India whereas the one at Kanheri is reckoned as the second largest.

Once after getting rid of my emotions/notions, I started discovering faults. Yes, the six pillars at the right end were simply square, there was nothing great about them. Also the pillars lacked symmetry. Anyway this was the place for the monks to meditate and referred to as Cave No.3. One of the most important ones at Kanheri. It is 26.36 meters long, 13.66 meters wide and 12.9 meters high. This was made during the reign of the Satavahana ruler Yajn Shri Satkarni (172 – 201 AD). However he was a Hindu ruler but was tolerant towards Buddhism or else he would not have funded this project. As an evidence he has left his inscription in Brahmi script of that period.

Two structural stupas existed near the Chaitya Griha (Shrine). One was built of stone and when dug up, it yielded two copper urns containing  ash, a small golden box with a piece of cloth, a silver box containing rubies, pearls, some golden pieces and a copper plate of the year 324 AD. The second stupa was built of bricks which yielded a stone slab bearing inscriptions in a script which was prevalent in the 5th/6th Century.

It seemed that we had spent considerable time at this chaitya Griha alone and realized that we need to speed up. We swiftly proceeded to the adjacent Cave No.1 which was planned as a two storied structure but remained unfinished. It has huge pillars. Next to it there was the Cave No.2, a small one. There is a stupa inside and the walls adorn Buddha as well as Avalokiteswara.
Cave No.1
Cave No.2
Though the cave clusters are scattered in random, many of them are aligned along some sort of terrace that makes it a common courtyard. The footpaths are connected from such cluster to cluster. In  many cases , especially as you proceed deep into the site, you've to scale the steps carved on the rocky surface to reach the caves. It dawned on us that we may not be able to see all that the place offers, for paucity of time. A fellow tourist advised us that apart from Cave No's.1, 2 and 3 Caves numbered as 11, 41, 67, 89 and 90 have sculptures carved on their walls. Therefore we hurriedly proceeded towards Cave No.11. This is referred to as the Darbar Hall. There is a stupa inside and on both sides there are Cells for residential purposes. Many viharas have benches and seats carved as integral part of the caves. Several inscriptions could also be encountered on its walls. Cave No.41 is said to be unique where Avalokiteswara is represented with 4 hands and 11 heads. Such an iconography of this sage is not obtainable anywhere in India. Avalokiteswara is said to have declined Enlightenment unless salvation of all the lesser mortals comes along.In the walls of Cave No.67 there are sculptures carved out representing the Jataka stories. 
Darbar Hall

Inscription of Satavahanas
All these Cells and/or Viharas have a pillared verandah in the front. A cistern is located in the courtyard right next to the entrance of a cave. They served as water storage tanks for the daily use of the residents. We could  see the grooves and channel networks that direct rainwater to the cisterns. What is thus collected during the monsoon season could be preserved in the cistern for the summer. There are even some large open ponds excavated on the surface of the rock. Probably these served as community utility for bathing and washing clothes. Right beneath, at the cleft of two hilly formations is the remains of a dam. Here too the water stored was for community usage and for agriculture. A very beautiful example of water management by our ancestors.
Water Channel
There is a long stairway to the top of the hill, carved in the hard rock, in a superbly preserved condition. At the top there is a large cremation ground where the monks were being cremated. Number of structural  stupas, small and large made of bricks  reportedly exist there. However we had to contain our temptation and had to return from Cave No.67. When we were back at the parking site of our vehicle, we found the driver blowing up. 
Steps leading to the top of the hill
Again at Borivli we caught a local train to take us back to Dadar and from there we hired a taxi to be back at home at Chembur by 7.30 PM. We need to visit again.