The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 20, 2003

The scenic and spiritual caves of Kanheri
Abhilash Gaur

Gajasena and Gajamitra and their wives depicted at the entrance of cave no. 3
Gajasena and Gajamitra and their wives depicted at the entrance of cave no. 3

THE rock beneath my feet is moist and black and the breeze billowing my hair is green and fresh. In the distance — about 10 km away — is a jungle of high-rise buildings standing unusually silent. The mist creeps in and obliterates then completely. Now there is no sign of Mumbai!

I am in Kanheri. A straggler who has arrived when the elements and vandals have already dismantled part of this magnificent 2000-year old stage. Two thousand years ago, a sharp tap on the rock would have drawn curious monks from cells below. Kanheri then was a fledgling monastic settlement of Buddhism’s Hinayana order.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first unembellished cells here were discovered around the first century BC. The Mauryan Empire, known for its patronage of Buddhism, had withered away by then.

Various inscriptions found inside the caves refer to the area as Krishnagiri, Krishnasila, Kanhasila or Kanhagiri, which mean ‘Black Mountain’ or ‘Black Rock’. Kanheri is a likely corruption of Kanhagiri. The rock or mountain in question is apparently the 1,500-foot high, bald, volcanic rock into which most of the cells and halls have been carved.


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The rugged expanse of Borivli National Park
The rugged expanse of Borivli National Park.

In the beginning, the simple unadorned caves were probably meant to shelter wandering ascetics during the rains but, with time, a monastic settlement began taking shape. Archaeologists believe the caves were inhabited round the first century AD.

Several factors made the Kanheri area ripe for a large monastic settlement. First, the dense forest was well suited to a life of asceticism and study. The area received heavy rain and water was easily available throughout the year. Most important, Kanheri was well connected with important trade centers like Sopara, Kalyan, Nasik and Ujjain, which enabled monks from other centres to visit it.

The chaitya or the prayer hall in cave no. 3
The chaitya
or the prayer hall in cave no. 3

In time, the number of cells that were inhabited exceeded 100 and Kanheri became the most important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast. The earliest cells were spartan with the barest minimum amenities, like shelves carved in the rock to sleep on and a couple of cisterns to store water. However, some of the later caves had ornate images of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas carved into their walls. Two of the biggest hall-caves at the site were dug out around the third century, when Kanheri had established itself as an important monastic settlement and donations were easy to come by.

Cave number 3 is the more important of these two caves. In fact, the fa`E7ade of this cave now symbolises Kanheri as the Buland Darwaza does Fatehpur Sikri or the Open Hand Chandigarh.

Cave 3 is a chaitya or prayer hall. It was the last chaitya established by monks of the Hinayana order. There are two large carved images of the Buddha on either side of this cave’s entrance. Two merchant brothers, Gajasena and Gajamitra, funded the conversion into a prayer hall and they are depicted along with their wives on smaller panels.

Where is Kanheri?
Kanheri lies in the middle of Borivli National Park, about 45 km from Mumbai’s busy Churchgate station. For all practical purposes, it is part of Mumbai.
How to get there?
You can take a commuter train to Borivli to save time. Otherwise, take a bus, cab or auto. The national park is within walking distance of Borivli station. However, to get to Kanheri, you would have to walk another 6-7 km, some of it uphill. The bus service has been discontinued and taxis charge Rs 350 for a round trip from the park entrance.

The chaitya is a large hall with a vaulted roof, 34 pillars and a stupa at its far end. The stupa here is cylindrical, unlike the hemispherical stupa at Sanchi. The other large cave served as an assembly hall. It has a large statue of the Buddha, surrounded by idols of Hindu gods and goddesses. A surprising feature of the caves is the network of steps and trails connecting them. No matter how far you go, you can always find a convenient path to the next cave.

The Monsoon, which genuinely lasts from June to October in Mumbai, is the best time to visit Kanheri, as the surrounding forest is at its greenest and the many springs amidst the caves are running. You can make it a leisurely picnic-cum-heritage-tour or, like me, shed some flab by walking the 6 km to and from the caves!