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Cut it out

The Karla and Bhaja caves tell the story of an era gone by, but are lost in modern time.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2013 14:45 IST
Katie Dubey

Mumbai is an onion with layers of history, and we depart the city to get to one. Once on the expressway enroute to Lonavala, the concrete structures melt away and the hills loom up. They have not yet shed their monsoon greenery completely; the sight is soothing to behold. Presently, we are climbing the ghats and emerge on to the hill station of Khandala. Our first halt is at Kamat’s restaurant, right on the highway.

Knowing that nothing will be available at our destination, the Karla caves, we feed ourselves well, stock up on a few water bottles and are on our way. Our next halt is the base of the caves. The car is parked and we begin our climb. Modernity has encroached upon this austere site with vendors, irritatingly persistent, lining the path all the way to the top.

Being a protected monument under the Archeological Survey of India, a ticket is required to enter. Stepping through the gate we pause to gaze and wonder at what lay before us, fashioned over 2,000 years ago with just a hammer and chisel.

Situated at the top of the ghats, the Karla Caves are amongst the oldest Buddhist rock-cut cave shrines in India. Originally called Veluraka, according to the inscriptions and dating back to 2nd century BC; they were excavated around 100 AD. Their construction was in two phases; the first during the reign of the Satvahannas, from 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD; the second commenced in 5th century AD and continued to the 10th. Karla is a complex of 16 caves, of which cave no.8 — the chaitya griha or prayer hall, is the most astounding and the largest of its kind in India. The roof of the hall is fitted with curved wooden ribs and longitudinal rafters, and is just one of the two surviving examples of early wooden roofing in temple architecture; the other is Bhaja. The object of worship is the single enormous stupa placed at the back of the hall. The other unique feature is the enormous lion pillar in front of the hall. Over the past decades, the caves have been vandalised and misused and so only a few are open to view.

Bhaja caves, a stone’s throw away at eight kilometers, lies in the same vicinity. The climb is much steeper, but cleaner and unencumbered. Past the gates, one can rest on the parapet of the monument compound and soak in the astounding mountain vistas before moving around. The chaitya griha of Bhaja is much smaller, but essentially, this is the sister cave of Karla. If in an adventurous mood, scramble up the rocks to view the stone dwellings of the monks — the viharas, where even the bed is cut stone; a subterranean tank for water harvesting, a row of stupas honouring the dead and at the edge of the cliff a gorgeous waterfall — life flows on.

Getting there

Karla caves are located between two cities; Mumbai and Pune. They lie 120 kilometers from Mumbai and 55 kilometers

from Pune. Driving time from Mumbai would be two to three hours depending upon the traffic; and from Pune, about an hour and a half.

Airports: Mumbai; Pune.

Nearest railway station: Lonavala can be accessed from Mumbai and Pune.

Buses of the MSTC ply from Dadar and leave regularly at intervals of 30 minutes, halting at Lonavala.

Maharashtra tourism also has day trips.

Staying there

Karla and Bhaja can be done as a day trip to and from Mumbai or Pune.

Overnight accommodation is available in Lonavala at several hotels.

Amongst the 5 stars are Fariyas and Dukes in Khandala.