Kanheri Caves (Part II)

This post is the second in my series of posts on the Kanheri Cave Complex.

While the caves are the main attraction, one cannot help but notice the cisterns constructed for rainwater harvesting. These cisterns are carved into the rock close to several caves. Channels cut into the rock help direct the water from the slope into the cisterns. The cisterns are interconnected so water overflowing from one cistern flows into the next. The importance of cisterns can also be discerned by the inscriptions that record the donations of various individuals who paid for the excavation of these cisterns. The Google Earth Pro view of the hill shows four large storage tanks excavated on the Eastern flank of the hill. I was unaware of the existence of these when I visited the caves, I did however pass a large storage tank close to cave 67.

Cisterns to store rainwater

As my guide led the way, we chatted a little about Buddhism and the life of the Buddha. I asked him about the emaciated Buddha who starved himself in his quest for enlightenment. I hadn’t seen any images representing that phase of Buddha’s life. He replied that the Buddha after undergoing severe austerities realized that he had to adopt a middle way and started eating food again to regain his strength. This story, beautifully narrated by Thich Nhat Hanh, appears at the beginning of his book “Old Path White Clouds.” The girl who offered a dish of rice pudding to Buddha was named Sujata, a name still common in India today.

Many Paths

We climbed up the hill skipping several caves and entered cave 90. It is a small cave but it is completely covered in carvings. My guide pointed to a carving of Avalokiteshwara saving his devotees from the ten dangers. He is flanked by Tara and Bhrukti who are his attendants. Avaoliteshwara is a Bodhisattva and is the embodiment of compassion. The ten dangers are represented by various motifs including an enraged elephant that symbolizes uncontrolled anger, a lion that represents pride and arrogance, a cobra embodying intense hatred and ill will, and a wild animal representing untamed passion and instincts. My guide enumerated other dangers such as a fire, shipwreck, robbers, etc.

Avalokitesvara with Tara and Bhrkuti saving people from ten dangers – Cave 90

There were other carvings too including one of the Buddha seated on his lotus throne, the Padmasana with attendants on either side. It was in this cave that we met a Buddhist monk. My guide addressed him with respect as “Bhante”. I assumed that was the Marathi word for monk, as my guide conversed with him in Marathi. It turns out it is the ancient Pali word for monks. The early Buddhist commentaries were composed in Pali. The monk said he was visiting from Nashik and it was evident this was a pilgrimage. While we were exiting the cave, my guide pointed to graffiti in the form of a Japanese inscription at the entrance of the cave. Carved stylistically, it is in the shape of a sword. Dr Gokhale’s book, “Kanheri Inscriptions” does not refer to this inscription, but she does mention three inscriptions in Pahlavi that record the names of Parsi visitors to this cave, my guide failed to point these out to me. The Japanese inscription is dated to the 12th century CE.

Japanese inscription at the entrance of Cave 90

As I walked along, I noticed that the entrance to some caves was restricted. Cave 93 was one such example and I peered through the grill at some carvings inside. We passed several caves that were likely used as residences and were fairly minimalistic. We walked downhill and made our way to Cave 67. This cave is popularly known as “Chitrashala” or picture gallery. It’s easy to see why it gets this moniker, the walls of the cave are covered with carvings. The cave has a courtyard in the front and a small flight of steps leads to a verandah that then leads into the cave. The cave is large and is illuminated by light streaming in through the main entrance of the cave as well as a couple of side doors. The cave looks even larger as no pillars support the ceiling. Some of the carvings depict the scenes from Jataka Tales.

Entrance to Cave 93 (Chitrashala – picture gallery)

The cave was quite empty when we entered. As I paused to take pictures and admire the carvings, my guide beckoned me to the front. The monk we had met earlier in Cave 90 was seated inside, praying. We sat on the floor close to him and when he was done meditating, my guide requested him to chant a hymn. The monk chanted a few hymns and his voice reverberated in the cave. With my eyes closed I could imagine how the cave must have sounded centuries ago when a group of monks chanted in unison.

Interior of Cave 93

The monk then recited the five precepts (Pancasila) and explained them to me. These form the code of ethics for lay people in Buddhism. The five rules of training are: abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. I thanked him for his benediction and as we stood up and bid goodbye to him a group of school girls entered the cave and the cave now reverberated with their excited voices.

The monk in meditation

Long before the modern lifestyle coaches came up with seven habits of highly effective people, five ways to lose weight, ten foods to avoid, etc the Buddha had enumerated his teachings that are often classified or grouped in sets. There are the four noble truths that form the core of these teachings. Life is filled with suffering and dissatisfaction. Sufferings arise from attachment, desire, and ignorance. Suffering can be ended by giving up attachments and desires. The eightfold path provides a practical guide to relinquishing desires and attachments that leads to the cessation of suffering which ultimately leads to Nirvana. These teachings reflect the analytical mind of the Buddha.

Reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, I was struck by how little the Buddha talks of the metaphysical. There is no talk of a creator deity. His teachings were primarily focused on the human experience and providing a blueprint for alleviating suffering. From an Indian philosophical point of view, Buddhism is a Nastik philosophy (along with Jainism and the Charvakas). These philosophies do not accept the primacy of the Vedas and at that time were bucking the trend of the existing philosophies. Buddhism does have the concept of deities and celestial beings, however, these are also subject to karma and impermanence.

Entrance to Cave 3

My guide then led me to Cave 3. Cave 3 is a chaitya which in Buddhist architecture served as a shrine and prayer hall and usually housed a stupa. It was easy to see why my guide saved this for the last as this is by far the grandest structure at Kanheri. If I had visited this first, the other caves would have paled in comparison. A flight of steps leads up to a forecourt. The forecourt is enclosed by a wall at the front that has various motifs carved into it. Two attendants stand at the top of the steps as one enters the forecourt, their heads are missing now. Two massive pillars flank the entrance that leads into the verandah. Sculptures of donor couples adorn the front walls. On either side of the verandah are large sculptures of the Buddha.

Interior of the Chaitya, notice the vaulted ceiling and semicircular wheel above the Stupa

The sight that greets the visitor as he or she enters the chaitya is stunning. The hall is divided into three bays by two rows of richly carved pillars. The central nave leads to a stupa in the apse. The tall vaulted ceilings are illuminated by sunlight that streams in from the window-like openings carved into the front wall. As I walked around the stupa, my guide pointed to the ceiling and mentioned that it was in the shape of a wheel. The wheel is a highly significant symbol in Buddhism. It represents the teachings of the Buddha and the path to enlightenment. The ceiling probably had wooden rafters at some point in time, the square indentations carved into the walls at the top bear testimony to this. Archaeologists think that the chaitya was completed over several centuries based on the style of the sculptures as well as the inscriptions that record the donations by various individuals.

A view of the Chaitya from the Apse

I walked around the cave trying to take in as much as I could. My mind is so habituated to the style of construction from today where we build up an edifice with components. This magnificent chaitya was constructed by hollowing out rock. Instead of adding, the builders had to subtract to complete their vision. This chaitya was completed over several centuries and had to reflect a continuity in vision for the end state. The chaitya was indeed a good place to end my visit to Kanheri caves and I thanked my guide as we drove down to the gates of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. I was never away from modernity but for a short time, I was transported to an era two millenniums ago.

Carvings atop the pillars

As I researched for supplementary material for this post, I came across pictures and mentions of a necropolis or burial site in Kanheri. These are brick stupas that are housed in caves 84-87 and are thought to have housed relics of prominent monks. My guide had alluded to this when we had started our visit but we never visited these caves. I’m not sure if this was an oversight on his part. There is also a reference to Cave 41 which has the only extant carving in India of the eleven-headed Avalokiteshwara. These carvings are now found in Nepal and Tibet. My guide did not take me to this cave either, perhaps it is one of those caves that has been closed to the public now.

Carving of donor couples, Cave no 3

There seems to be some difference in opinion about the dating of the caves. My guide claimed that the caves were settled during the reign of Ashoka in 3 century BCE. While this area came under the rule of the Mauryas, there is no proof of the settlement then. Dr Shobana Gokhale in her book “Kanheri Inscriptions” says that the caves were settled in the first century BCE. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) sign at the entrance of the caves claims that the caves were occupied from the second century CE to the tenth century CE. These dates are likely based on the dates of the inscriptions found in the caves. The earliest ones date to the rile of the Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni. His reign is dated to the first or second century CE.

One of the two carvings of the Buddha in the verandah of Cave 3

The caves were at their zenith in the third century CE when they became an important seat of Buddhist learning. There is a consensus that Buddhist monks ceased occupying these caves in the tenth century CE. Inscriptions in Japanese and Pahlavi (Persian) from after this period indicate that the caves continued to be visited beyond the tenth century CE. These caves were no doubt known to the locals and probably occupied by ascetics. But as with many Indian monuments, the British were the first to document the structures and carry out excavations.

Tourists, pilgrims, and the monk

When I mentioned that I wanted to visit Kanheri, I was dissuaded by my relatives in Mumbai. They hold memories of school trips to the caves, which were teeming with bats. Trash was dumped in the area and the offensive smell was a turn-off for any potential tourist. I was pleasantly surprised to find the area clean. Security guards were posted to ensure that people did not litter or deface the sculptures. My guide mentioned that the area had received a facelift owing to the recently concluded G20 summit. India is incredibly rich in history and monuments dot the landscape. Sadly, many of them face neglect and are often raided for construction materials. Imbeciles etch their initials and inscribe their lovers’ names or profess their love for them on monuments. Incidentally, there are inscriptions listing the names of Persian, Japanese, Chinese, and British visitors from centuries ago. Graffiti from centuries ago now provides a way to date the monuments.

Before and after Enlightenment

The caves are magnificent no doubt and it is easy to get lost in the grandeur of the carvings. But I will end with an incident that I remember from my visit to the chaitya. Two similar statutes of the Buddha flank the entrance to the chaitya. My guide asked me if I could spot the differences between the two sculptures. I scanned both of them with my untrained eyes. I tried to discern the folds in the garb, the mudras, and so on. Besides the obvious superficial damage, I had to admit that I could not spot the difference. “Look at the brow,” said my guide. “One has a slight furrow in it, the other does not. Once Siddhartha became the Buddha, the enlightened one, his worries ceased!”

The story goes that when the Buddha attained enlightenment, so transformed was he that he appeared to be a supernatural being. Huston Smith, in his book “The World’s Religions,” recounts that Buddha was asked not “Who are you?” but “What are you?” and I will quote from his book: “Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “An angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?” Buddha answered, “I am awake.” Buddhism today has a rich tradition of the supernatural qualities of the Buddha. Perhaps as with all religions, these are post hoc additions. This in my humble opinion takes the focus away from the Buddha’s fantastic original and analytical thought process that focussed on the human mind and suffering. He was one of the great original thinkers, whose ideas and teachings will remain perpetually relevant. The question is how many of us will heed his words and truly awaken!

2 thoughts on “Kanheri Caves (Part II)

  1. Another beautifully written post, Raj. Such detail with excellent accompanying photos.
    You were certainly blessed to have that particular guide but I suppose he was lucky to have you as his student for they.
    Your friends/relatives who might have dissuaded you from going there may now want to reconsider they suggestion. You definitely got your money’s worth!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Dan! My guide was indeed good but as with many other guides that I’ve encountered in India, he was heavy on the lore and light on historical facts. It worked well in this case though as I could read up on the history later.

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