History, Travel

Kanheri Caves (Part I)

A group of saffron-clad monks climbed up the sides of a hill that stood prominently over the forested island. At the top, they were greeted by a massive outcrop of black rock from which the rest of the island could be seen. A seasonal rivulet gushed down the slopes during the rainy season. As far as the eye could see, the land was cloaked in green. The leader of the monks decided that this was the perfect spot to build their monastery. The hill was Kanheri located on the island of Salsette off the Western coast of India, the year sometime around 100 CE.

It’s been over thirty years since I left India. My initial visits home were spaced about two years apart and in the last decade, I’ve been making annual trips home. My trips are primarily to spend time with my family, but of late, I’ve been trying to sneak in a short visit to a place of historic interest. The last time I was home, I visited the Kanheri caves. Located in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, in Borivili, a suburb of Mumbai, these caves were home to Buddhist monks for over a thousand years. I had visited the Elephanta Caves on my previous visit and so it seemed natural to visit the caves that predate the Elephanta Caves.

ASI Sign at the base of Kanheri Hill

Every child in India is familiar with the story of Gautama Siddhartha, known as the Buddha. Much of my early knowledge came from Amar Chitra Katha comics (Eternal stories in pictures). My high school subject on Religious and Cultural History had a decent primer on the life of the Buddha and Buddhism. My true introduction to Buddhism came via Thich Nhat Hanh’s excellent book “Old Path White Clouds,” a very readable biography of the Buddha and his teachings. He writes that the Buddha spent much of the year traveling to different kingdoms to spread his message but camped in groves or forests during the rainy season. After his death, monastic orders stopped their peripatetic ways and settled in monasteries or Viharas. Some of these became temples and living quarters hewn out of solid rock.

“Kanheri” originates from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri. Krishna – black or dark-hued and Giri – mountain. The black mountain of Krishnagiri is comprised of Basalt a volcanic rock. The monks who had chosen Kanheri to establish their Vihara (monastery) around 100 CE were inspired by the teachings of the Buddha who had lived a mere 600 years ago. I say “mere” as the cosmic concept of time in Hinduism and Buddhism is cyclical and not linear and spans billions of years. It is only fitting then that geologists estimate the rock that the monks chose had been formed a mere 66 million odd years ago from volcanic flows that also formed the Deccan Traps.

Google Earth Image of Kanheri Hill. The caves can be seen. To the top left of the images are the water storage tanks.

Buddhism spread organically in the first couple of centuries of its existence. It received a boost when Ashoka (third century BCE), the Mauryan king adopted Buddhism and spent much of his rule propagating Buddhism across Asia. He is reputed to have built 84000 stupas across the sub-continent. These dome-shaped structures housed relics of the Buddha or other venerated teachers and served as a focal point of worship. Besides stupas, Ashoka erected pillars with inscriptions. By the time the Kanheri caves were settled, the Mauryan empire had collapsed and the region was ruled by the Satavahanas.

Map showing the layout of the Caves

I will digress here to provide a very brief overview of the life of the Buddha as well as some aspects of Buddhism as I will be referring to them while describing the caves. Siddharta Gautama was born as a prince of the Shakya clan around the 6th century BCE in Lumbini which is in present-day Nepal. An astrologer had predicted that he would either become a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father, wishing him to become the former, shielded him from all hardships. When he was 29, he encountered the four sights of sickness, aging, death, and a wandering ascetic. Giving up his royal life, he became a renunciant and sought enlightenment. After six years, he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi (tree of awakening, sacred fig) tree in Bodh Gaya (Northeast India). He spent the remainder of his life traveling across North India teaching the way to overcome suffering and attain Nirvana (a state of enlightenment and perfect peace). He died at the age of 80. The Buddha told stories of his previous births that traced his evolution to his current life. These stories are known as the Jataka tales and are still very popular in India. A being that is destined for enlightenment is called a Bodhisattva.

Kanheri is roughly 20 miles from the center of Mumbai. When it was settled, Mumbai was far from the bustling metropolis of today. Kanheri itself is located on the island of Salsette which was a large island in comparison to the 7 islands to its south. The monastery was likely built here as it was close to the trading centers of Sopara and Kalyan which were a rich source of endowments. These ports traded with the Roman Empire. I landed at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park at 10 am on a Tuesday. Cars have to be parked at the entrance and I had a choice of walking, renting a bicycle, taking a bus, or hiring a private cab to travel the 4 miles to the caves. I opted to rent a private cab and hired a guide for $40. I likely overpaid for these services but I was strapped for time and I’m not comfortable or great at haggling. My guide was good though and I didn’t regret the fee that I paid. Tickets for the attraction have to be bought at the entrance and I paid Rs 90 (approx $1).

Chital (Spotted Deer) in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park

The cab wound its way up the hill and the guide chatted with me about the wildlife. The caves themselves are in a wildlife sanctuary famed for its leopard population. When we reached the top, he explained that there were 109 caves in total but there were about half a dozen caves of interest. These caves are not natural formations but are carved into the rock. A Google Earth image shows the extent to which the caves were cut into the sides of the rock. The guide suggested that we visit Cave 3 at the end. “It is the most important cave here,” he remarked.

I’ve often wondered how these caves were carved. Owen Kail in his book “Buddhist Cave Temples of India” writes that the process could be understood from unfinished caves that were abandoned at various stages of their excavation. He describes the process as follows: The first step involved clearing a section of the steep hill until it became perpendicular affording a level surface for the rock-cutters. The facade of the chaitya or vihara was marked out on the exposed vertical surface. A window was cut open to remove debris. The window was left open till the work was finished after which it was covered with a wooden framework. The excavation began at the top of the facade and moved downward, progressing from the front to the rear. The excavated rock was used to form the forecourt in front of the facade. To ensure correct alignment, a rough driftway was cut which was removed once the floor was finished. All this, powered by human muscle, wielding chisels and hammers! These are not caves in the true sense, however, the early English archaeologists who “discovered” these structures called them caves and the name has stuck.

Cave 1 which is unfinished. The cobblestones are a recent addition

These caves are carved at different elevations. The lower levels are easily accessible but the ones at a higher elevation are accessed via steep steps cut into the rock. We started at cave 1 and made our way up the hill. Cave 1 has a couple of pillars at the entrance and was likely meant to be a vihara but was abandoned probably due to the unstable nature of the rock.

Cave 2 is amongst the largest caves.

Cave 2 houses 3 stupas, one of which is a dilapidated condition. One of the stupas has a stepped harmika that surrounds the spire (yasti) that rises from the top of the dome. The harmika represents heaven and is seen as the connection between the earthly realm and the celestial realms. It is topped by the chatra (umbrella) which consists of umbrella-like discs stacked atop the spire. It represents the spiritual authority of Buddha’s teachings. The stupa without the harmika showed signs of damage and my guide said that this was a consequence of coconuts being broken over the stupa at some point in time by local worshippers who thought that this represented the Shiva Linga venerated by Hindus. I don’t know how far this story is true but Hinduism is a syncretic religion and any religious symbol that is unearthed and has claims of divinity is often venerated.

Stupas in Cave 2. The one to the left has the Harmika and Chatra

It is thought that this cave was excavated over several centuries. It houses several statues of the Buddha in various forms of meditation. It also has residential cells for the monks with long benches along the rear walls. Cave 2 also has a series of rock-cut water cisterns that trap rainwater. The inscription is in Brahmi script (Prakrit language) from the second century CE and says that the cisterns were the gifts of a goldsmith called Swamidatta from Kalyan and by Puavasu the son of a trader Chita from Kalyan. Dr. Shobana Gokhale in her book “Kanheri Inscriptions” says the script reads “Kalianasa negamasa Chita Kiyasa Punavasuya tasa podhi deyadhamam” and she translates that into “This is the meritorious gift of a cistern by Punavasu the son of a trader Chita from Kalyan”

My guide taking a phone call. A distraction the monks did not have to deal with!

A note regarding the inscriptions. Dr Shobana Gokhale has a detailed list and translations of the inscriptions in her book. These include inscriptions within the caves and epitaphs in the cemetery of stupas built to house the remains of the eminent teachers of the monastery. The original inscriptions were in Brahmi script, some were translated in the nineteenth century by British archaeologists. Much of what we know about Ashoka is thanks to James Prinsep who deciphered the Brahmi script in the 1830s. While Sanskrit enjoyed a continued scholarship, Brahmi was forgotten. Brahmi as a script was used by various languages and deciphering the script helped unlock India’s past. The inscriptions at Kanheri not only talk of Buddhist teachings but also of donations made by various individuals along with names of contemporary rulers. This helps historians date the caves and get an idea of the socio-economic and political conditions at that time.

From left to right: Cave 4 and Cave 3
Stupa inside Cave 4. Elaborately carved panels adorn the walls

Cave 4 is small and houses a stupa. The ASI sign informs the visitor that an inscription dated to the 2nd century CE indicates that the stupa was a gift by Shivapalitanika, the wife of a goldsmith named Dhamanaka in honor of Thera Dhammapala. The well-known Thera Dhammapala was a Buddhist Theradava commentator who lived in South India between the 5th and 6th century CE. I suspect the inscription refers to a different commentator by the same name.

An inscription in Brahmi that reads “Of the queen of the illustrious Satakarni Vasisthiputra descended from the race of Karddamaka king and daughter of the Mahaksatrapa Rudra of the confidential minister Sateraka, a water cistern, the meritorious gift”
Cave 5 with water cisterns. The inscription is on the wall

Caves 5 and 6 house water cisterns. Dr. Shobana Gokhale’s book deciphers the original inscription as “Of the queen of the illustrious Satakarni Vasisthiputra descended from the race of Karddamaka king and daughter of the Mahaksatrapa Rudra of the confidential minister Sateraka, a water cistern, the meritorious gift”. She writes that this inscription is significant as it records the relationship between the two regional powers of that period: the Satavahanas and the Ksatrapas, who had a fractious relationship at times.

Cave 7 – A Vihara (residence for monks)

Cave 7 is a vihara with two residential cells and 3 cisterns. Dr Gokhale’s book dates the inscription to the 2nd century CE and translates it to “A water cistern, the meritorious gift of Sulasadatta, son of the goldsmith Rohinimitra of Cherul (modern Chaula in Raigad district, Maharashtra)

Cave 11 – The Darbar Hall
Cave 11 – Shrine to the Buddha and a carved pillar

Cave 11 is one of the largest excavated caves and is now known as the Darbar Hall. It was used as an assembly hall. It has two parallel platforms that run along the center of the hall. I’m not sure if the platforms were used as benches or tables. The ASI sign says the cave was excavated in the 9th century CE. There is a shrine to the Buddha as well as residential cells. Dr. Gokhale translates one of the inscriptions to read that sometime around 854 CE, Avighanakara, a devout worshipper of the Buddha from the region of Gauda (Bihar), made a permanent endowment of one hundred drammas (a form of currency) for the construction of the meditation room and the robes of the monks residing in the vihara at Krishnagiri.

Status of the Buddha flanking the entrance to cave 34.
Fresco on the ceiling of Cave 34

Cave 34 is well preserved. It has a pillared verandah with a water cistern at the right. It houses a shrine inside to the Buddha and the doorway is flanked by two standing images of the Buddha. The remnants of a fresco painted on the ceiling are a special feature of this cave. Incidentally, the shrine is bare and my guide said that is to signify the spot that would be occupied by the future Buddha. The concept of a future Buddha known as the Maitreya is prominent in the Mahayana school of Buddhism. He is said to be a Bodhisattva who resides in the Tusita heaven. Buddhism has the concept of multiple heavens or celestial realms and the Tusita heaven is characterized by joy and contentment. It is the penultimate realm into which a Bodhisattva is born before he attains enlightenment. I had referred to the vast scale of time in Buddhism. A day in Tusita heaven is considered to be 400 Earth years. A Bodhisattva resides in Tusita for four thousand Tusita years. A Tusita year is 360 days, this represents a staggering 576 million Earth years!

Awaiting the arrival of the Maitreya

As one walks up the hill, tall buildings of Mumbai can be seen on the horizon. The National Park is an oasis in the teeming and bustling metropolis. Those buildings will be gone in a few decades, these caves will continue to be a silent witness to the evolution (and devolution) of the city.

The old and the new coexist in India

To be continued in the next blog post!

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