Sunday, January 11, 2004

No love for history, only chaos at the caves of Karle
Abhilash Gaur

Carvings on the outer wall of the chaitya
Carvings on the outer wall of the chaitya

TINY cones crunched under my feet. The smell of eucalyptus enveloped me. It was redolent of childhood and home. A 10-year-old cried out, "Uncle, ball." I rolled it gently, laughing. Childhood and home!

But my home is in the plains while I was standing halfway up a hill, surveying the top where the magnificent caves of Karle stood. Before me, a fiesta was on. Cars were parked haphazardly on the gentle slope. A mishmash of Hindi, Konkani, Marathi, Punjabi and English songs filled the air. Laughter and the cries of children added to the cacophony. Families and groups of friends sat on mats. Large vessels simmered over improvised hearths. There was enough chaos to close a monastery`85

The Buddhist monks who inhabited Karle packed up and left many hundreds of years ago, leaving behind a fabulous but hardy set of rock sculpture. The monks probably never had a face-off with Ekveera, goddess of the coastal people, but today their caves are entirely at the mercy of her devotees.

I had read somewhere that the Karle caves are the only ancient site in Maharashtra to witness a boom in tourist inflow—over 200 per cent annual growth. But the raucous festivity in the field made the report ominous. What kind of 'tourists' was Karle drawing and why?

Carved octagonal pillars inside the Karle chaitya
Carved octagonal pillars inside the Karle chaitya

I didn't have to look for answers. The steps leading up to the caves were lined with shops selling flowers, coconuts, chunnis, tiny packets of prasad and sindoor, idols of various Hindu gods and goddesses and most of all, framed pictures of goddess Ekveera. The crowd on the steps was also entirely made up of excited devotees and revellers: several thousand counting down to the base of the steps.

The shopping, singing and dancing of these people made movement difficult. It took me almost 25 minutes to walk up the hundred-and-some steps.

The ticket window at the site was covered by a long queue. A group of men danced in a circle on my left. The dancing was frenzied, the music loud and the gulal they blew into the air slowly settled on me. Was it Ekveera's blessing? I was too busy surveying the impact of her curse.

The face of the chaitya barred by the Ekveera Devi temple
The face of the chaitya barred by the Ekveera Devi temple

The Buddhist architects of Karle had selected a fabulous site for the caves. The black rock into which the caves were carved lies on a flat terrace, several hundred feet above the hill's base. On that Sunday afternoon, this terrace was milling with Ekveera's devotees.

But it was the temple—a blue and saffron oddity—that shocked me. This 'shrine' has encroached upon Karle's most beautiful cave—the chaitya. One wall of the temple blended into the rock forming the side of the cave's entrance. Though it was not large, the temple obstructed the view of the cave front by standing so close to it. Forget wide angle, a fish eye lens alone could get an unhindered view of the cave's fa`E7ade.

The entry to the chaitya reminded me of a visit to Arnala fort. It had taken me five minutes to figure out a way through the large boats blocking the fort's entrance. But Arnala was just another small fort while the chaitya at Karle is the biggest and most magnificent in India.

A view of the chaitya with the stupa at its end
A view of the chaitya with the stupa at its end

I pushed my way through Ekveera's devotees, cast a glance at the stupendous carvings on the chaitya's front wall and without stopping rushed into the cavernous hall hoping to find some peace and quiet. But my hopes were belied. The dimly lit cave was resounding with the cackle of picnickers and the tinkle of coins striking rock.

Chaityas are meant to be solemn prayer halls and stupas—representative of the Buddha—articles of worship. In Karle, the crowd had devised a game of hurling coins at the stupa's chhatri. A coin's landing atop the chhatri was supposed to fetch luck. I wondered how these people would react if someone carried the same conduct to the Ekveera temple.

Never mind sentiments, the chhatri atop the Karle stupa is made of wood. The Archaeological Survey of India claims it is the original chhatri hence at least 2000 years old. The arched rafters supporting the cave ceiling are also wooden. Their age makes these wooden members priceless. Every coin that hits them chips away a bit of this priceless heritage.

A view of the entire Karle complex. Note the viharas on the upper storey (top left)
A view of the entire Karle complex. Note the viharas on the upper storey (top left)

If the chhatri was under attack by coins, the stupa itself was suffering from the misplaced faith of those who took it to be a lingam. Flowers and sindoor were wedged into every crevice on its face.

The only place spared by this circus was the gallery behind the pillars. I retreated into its dark length and started walking behind the massive octagonal pillars. They numbered 37. Of these, 30 made up the parallel rows running from the cave entrance to the stupa and the remaining seven formed a horse-shoe behind the stupa.

The pillars had beautifully carved capitals, depicting divine couples sitting astride elephants. Their bases bulged out like pots. Just as it spared the wood, the pleasant air of the area had preserved the carvings in near immaculate shape.

It was late afternoon and light had begun streaming into the west-facing chaitya from the wide arched window at the front. It painted the pillars in light and shade. The stupa also seemed warmer in the yellow light. I noticed the crowd had grown thinner. The sun wouldn't set for a couple of hours more but the visitors had a long way to go.


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I stepped out of the chaitya to examine the carvings on the front wall of the cave. Scanning the 45-foot high wall-as tall as a five-storey building-I wondered how the ancients produced symmetrical forms on such a scale. The entire rock face was carved in bas-relief to a 'palace' theme.

The side walls depicted three elephants each at the base. Above the tuskers, the Buddha was carved in various mudras in long straight panels. Above these were the four layers of ornamental windows that imparted the 'palace' look. Some of these windows showed couples looking out of them. 

The men in the carvings were athletic and wore turbans and loincloths while the women had full figures and wore their hair braided.

Depiction of the Buddha in panels at Karle points to later Mahayana influence. It is possible that the Mahayanists took up development of Karle after Hinayana Buddhism went into decline. 

In which case, all the ornamentation on the three walls ought to be credited to them.

A tall stone column with a lion capital stands just outside the chaitya. It is probably an Ashokan pillar: So did the great emperor commission the excavation of these caves? The ASI signboard at the site did not answer this question.

One design aspect that intrigued me at Karle was the existence of multi-storeyed viharas (chambers). Why did the monks choose to carve up to the second floor when they could have easily dug out viharas at the ground level?

Revellers were hanging out of the windows of these viharas, cheering, clapping, whistling and generally having a great time. I left Karle with one last worried look at them.

Where and why

The caves at Karle are amongst the first specimens of rock-sculpted caves in India. They are almost 2300 years old and include the biggest chaitya—a 37.87 X 13.87 X 14.02 m prayer hall.

Near Lonavla, about 110 km from Mumbai.