Mumbai's ancient Kanheri Buddhist caves

Posted on April 26, 2019 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

Kanheri caves

The view of Mumbai's highrise from the top of the hill

 

Before my trip to Mumbai, I was told by my friends from Mumbai that there isn't much sightseeing to do in the city, yet it is up to the visitors to find out what this city really has to offer. And they are right. In fact, I never would have believed that 109-129 ancient Buddhist caves exist right in the middle of this mega city.

Originally I had planned to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Elephanta Caves – a collection of Hindu cave temples located on the Elephanta Island just off Mumbai. But when I learned about the lesser-known Kanheri Buddhist caves located in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, I was deeply intrigued. Since I had insufficient time, I decided to visit the Kanheri caves instead, and splashed out on a private guided tour. This, later turned out to be well worth it.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Monkeys everywhere up in the forest area...

 

The 109-129 Kanheri Caves, are part of a monastic complex that expanded over 1,000 years, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 11th century AD, located up on a hill in the middle of Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the city’s northern edge. The word kanheri comes from the Sanskrit Krishnagiri, which means black mountain; meanwhile the caves are carved out of black basalt rock. These caves saw the rise and decline of Buddhism, so they are hugely significant as they provide us with insights into the development of Buddhism in India.

After about an hour's drive from the hotel, I met up with an elderly female guide who was looking rather distressed. She informed me that the officials were forbidding cars from entering the park (no reason given), and that she had just spent the last hour arguing with them. We then wasted another 30 minutes reasoning with them, and eventually they told us that the only way to visit the park/cave was by a shuttle bus, followed by a short hike up the hill. My guide was slightly reluctant, but I told her that I really wanted to see the caves, and was willing to take a bus and walk up.

The bus ride up the hill took about 15 mins and then we had to walk uphill for another 15-20 mins, which was not as bad as I had expected.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Cave 2, along with cave 1 & 3 were closed on the day of visit

 

I was really grateful that I had a guide with me as she knew the caves like the back of her hand and her knowledge (she studied ancient Indian history) helped me to understand the caves' history, the sculptures, and how the site evolved over the centuries.

It annoyed me when I read some negative comments online written by tourists who complained about the caves for not being 'spectacular' enough. Many of them visited the caves independently without much understanding of the caves' history and significance. I have to stress that if you visit these archaeological sites without a guide, you may be disappointed, so it is worth getting a proper guide to explain things that are not written guide books.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Cave 3 is a Chaityagraha or prayer hall

 

Since there are over 100 caves altogether, with no map to guide visitors, my guide picked some important ones that she felt was worth visiting and in doing so, we did not ramble like other visitors.

Sadly, the most prominent cave near the entrance – Cave 3 – a Chaityagraha or prayer hall with stupa was closed on the day (as well as cave 1 and 2). My guide was bewildered by the closure and told me that she has never seen them closed before! It probably was not my lucky day.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

Buddhism reached its height in India during 268 to 232 BCE thanks to Emperor Ashoka, an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who promoted and spread Buddhism across India and Asia. Throughout the history of the complex, the schools/traditions evolved from Hinayana to Mahayana and then Vajrayana.

Located between three ancient ports, Sopara, Kalyan and Chaul, the Kanheri caves were not only a monastic complex, they were also part of a trade route where merchants would pass by and stay while they were on their 'business trips'. Over time, the complex developed into a residential educational complex funded on the basis of 'Dana' (Donation) by merchants, traders, rich brahmins and members of Royal families who were lay devotees.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Unfinished painting on ceiling of cave 34

 

In the early days of Buddhism, the Buddha was never represented in human form, but through aniconic symbols like footprints and Bodhi tree etc. Hence, the earliest caves here are either simple single or multiple-cell viharas, devoid of decorations and sculptures, and they are used for living, studying and meditating. The stark contrast between the earlier unadored caves and the later ones which feature some stunning Buddhist sculptures and paintings reveal the development of Buddhist art and culture over the centuries.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

Since the monks were in contacts with the Chinese monks through the Silk Road, and these cultural exchanges subsequently influenced the art and architecture of the caves. In some of the caves, the Greco-Buddhist art style is discernible. Greco-Buddhist art originated from the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250 BC- 130 BC), located in today’s Afghanistan due to the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. This art form is characterised by the strong idealistic realism of Hellenistic art and the representations of Buddha in human form, which differs dramatically from the earlier aniconic style.

The unique blend of Classical Greek Art and Buddhist culture flourished in Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) before spreading further into India, and to the rest of South-East Asia. Later, it also spread northward towards Central Asia, China, and eventually Korea, and Japan.

 

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

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As we meandered up the rock-cut steps passing by cave after cave, I struggled to imagine how the builders managed to cut into the massive basalt rock up on a hill surrounded by forests over a thousand years ago. While the earlier caves tend to locate near the water streams, the later and higher caves feature water-cisterns outside that collected rainwater for the dwellings.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

Aside from carved sculptures, statues, reliefs and wall paintings, there are also numerous inscriptions in Brahmi, Devanagari and Pahlavi scripts, and some of which have yet to be deciphered.

While most visitors (including myself) admire the beautifully carved statues and sculptures of the Buddha and Avalokiteshwara, my guide told me that what is more important are the grid patterns assigned to individual deities, since these grid patterns are laid out according to different mandalas.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

 

Thanks to my guide who knew some of the guards well, we even managed to get into a locked cave because she wanted to show me some important features inside. And what is also interesting is that each cave has a stone plinth for a bed, while some have benches outside.

In some of the caves, the empty deity spaces indicate that the statues were removed, but the whereabouts of these statues are unknown.

 

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves  

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

The colours of the volcanic breccia can be seen on the Avalokiteshvara sculptures above

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

The last cave we visited was cave 90, which is one of the most important and famous caves here due to its oldest preserved mandala dating back to the early 6th century AD. I was completely blown away by the carved statues that covered the three walls. The walls feature The Buddha seated in Padmasana (lotus throne) with attendants that are often seen in the Mahayana style, and they are surprisingly well-preserved.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Cave 90

 

As we headed back down, we were able to enjoy the wonderful view of the city in a tranquil setting that seemed impossible in Mumbai. Despite the closure of the three important caves, I was glad to have visited this site, and wish to return again some day. I felt slightly overwhelmed by all the information provided by my guide, and I probably needed more time to linger and absorb the true beauty of the art inside the caves.

Before we parted, my guide also informed me that there are numerous Buddhist caves in the Maharashtra State and urged me to visit them in the future. One of the famous one is the Ajanta Caves, a 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave complex which dates from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE, and it is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I do hope that I will get a chance to visit this site in the future.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

 

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This post was posted in Travel, Nature, Buddhism & meditation, Art, Gardens & parks, Mumbai, India, Archaeology, Indian art, Buddhist art and was tagged with nature, Buddhism, Buddhist art, Mumbai, India, Kanheri caves, Cave art, park

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