Insider’s guide to... Kanheri Caves

  • As told to Oindrilla Gupta, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Apr 28, 2016 20:09 IST
The series of caves tucked inside the heart of Mumbai’s only forest patch date back to 2nd Century AD. (Photo: Aalok Soni/HT )

As we explore the Kanheri Caves nestled inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the scorching heat, we come across natural reservoirs with clean water. “These are ostensibly as old as 2nd century AD,” says Dr Suraj Pandit, archaeologist and the head of the department of Ancient Indian Culture at Mumbai University. He walks us through caves that house inscriptions, sculptural panels and ancient paintings depicting the history of Buddhism in Maharashtra. The caves and the forest surrounding them were once a consolidated village called Magathane. The land was originally owned by Buddhist monks for residential and agricultural purposes. Interestingly, some of the trees in the vicinity are as old as the caves themselves. Unfortunately, they are no longer cared for.

Did you know?

>> The Kanheri caves were built 1,400 years ago. The name originates from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri, which literally translates to black mountain. The hills in which the caves are carved into are made of volcanic rock, and therefore the colour. The surrounding hills, however, are made of basalt.

Cave number 3: This cave has the most number of intact carvings at Kanheri. It also houses a prayer hall called the Chaitya Gruha. Characterised by intricately carved Buddhist sculptures — featuring slender figurines with arched eyebrows and delicate fingers, Stupas (dome-shaped shrines) — the prayer hall looks majestic. (Photo: Aalok Soni/HT )

>> The caves are the only site in western India to have artistic evidence of all the three vehicles of Buddhism — the three phases of the religion in India. The first, called Hinayana, had a no-image worship practice. Its teachings were passed down in Pali, an ancient language of this religious sect. The practitioners of the second phase, Mahayana Buddhists, were the ones who accepted image worship. They believed that every human being can become Buddha, unlike the teaching of the Hinayana sect that believed enlightenment was achievable only by Lord Buddha. Vajrayana Buddhism, the last phase, paved the way for a series of secret practices of worship comprising tantric methods to attain Buddhahood (enlightenment) quickly.

Also read: Rajabai Clock Tower

Cave number 11: The cave bears a close resemblance with cave number five in Ellora, Aurangabad. They are the only caves in India where Buddhist monks hosted group recitations of religious scriptures. They sat around elongated rectangular tables, which are rock cut inside the cave, to do their diurnal practice. The tables have survived till date. (Photo: Aalok Soni/HT )

>> The monks residing in the caves were in close contact with the monks in China through a route in Central Asia called the Silk Route — an ancient international highway which helped in the Asia-wide spread of Buddha’s teachings.

Cave number 41: The cave houses an 11-headed god Avalokiteshwara — the divine power that depicts the compassion of all Buddhas. This is the first and only archeological piece of this deity in India, and the earliest one recorded in the world. (Photo: Aalok Soni/HT )

>> Buddhism was gradually lost in Maharashtra by 1560, which led to the abandonment of the caves. For 300 to 400 years, they remained in a dilapidated condition. After Independence, the Archeological Survey of India decided to take over, revive and conserve the heritage site.

Cave number 90: One of the oldest caves, it is the only one with two Japanese inscriptions engraved in its verandah. It is also the first structure in the world dedicated to housing the Lotus Sutra — the teaching of Buddhism as told by Gautam Budhha, towards the end of his life. (Photo: Aalok Soni/HT )

Also read: Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Historic nightout

Dr Suraj Pandit will host an overnight talk on the secrets of Kanheri Caves, on April 30, 5pm onward.

Where: Sanjay Gandhi National Park, off Western Express Highway, Borivali (E)

Call: 2886 8686

Price: Rs2,000 per person.

The Park is open for visitors every day from 7.30am to 5.30pm.

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