Sunday, January 25, 2004

Pay dirt: Treasure amidst Mumbai’s trash
Abhilash Gaur

Entrance to cave no. 1 in Kondivita
Entrance to cave no. 1 in Kondivita

WHEN I moved to Mumbai, I thought I had closed my history books for good. When again would I explore the over 1,000 small and big monuments of Delhi, trail the footprints of Rajput princes in Rajasthan or savour the majesty of yesterday’s Oudh?

The only monuments in Mumbai that I could think of were the Gateway of India and the Victoria Terminus. Till, that is, I went walking in the Borivli National Park and discovered the over 2,000 years old Kanheri caves. After that, every weekend opened a new chapter. The 1,000 years old Ambarnath temple, the 450 years old Bassein fort, the Arnala fort, the Vajreshwari temple`85the list of surprises kept increasing. And with it grew the realization that Mumbai’s colonial past is only a footnote in its history.

The city and its suburbs were important centres of trade and religion even 2,000 years ago. The most important evidence of this lies in the ancient cave temples that dot greater Mumbai. Elephanta, on a nearby island, is known the world over and I have written about Kanheri before but this piece is about the unsung caves amidst the slums and shanties of Andheri, Jogeshwari and Borivli.


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Yes, Borivli—the location of Kanheri caves. While Kanheri lies in a national park, in the eastern part of the suburb, there is a much smaller set of caves in Borivli West called Mandapeshwar. Apart from the difference in their scale, Kanheri and Mandapeshwar differ in two important aspects. Firstly, Kanheri is about 2,000 years old while Mandapeshwar is 1,500-1,600 years old. Secondly, Kanheri was a centre of Buddhism while the Mandapeshwar caves are dedicated to lord Shiva.

And yes, I forgot, Mandapeshwar lies not 50 yards from a busy road. The overgrown ground before it is a convenient loo for slum dwellers. It is also a rickshaw stand. Ironically, there are two, not one, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) warning boards in the ground!

The cave face is directly visible from the road. It is a rectangular opening interspersed with four pillars. Steps lead into the centre of the forecourt, which looks into three chambers in the front and an alcove each on either side. The central chamber is the garbhagriha or main shrine. There are carved pillars on either side of its doorway but the chamber itself is devoid of all ornamentation. The chamber on the left is also a rectangular hall but its back wall has a carved panel that has been eroded by seeping water. The chamber on the right, however, is quite plain.

That leaves the two alcoves and Mandapeshwar’s piece de resistance is in the one on the left. One of the alcove’s side walls has been carved top to bottom to depict Shiva as Natraja with celestial beings hovering above. The other alcove is fronted with pillars but is quite plain otherwise.

If Mandapeshwar is a tiny gem, the Jogeshwari complex has a hall that wouldn’t be out of place in Elephanta. Yet, this is the filthiest of Mumbai’s caves. This cave complex lies in Jogeshwari East, a 10 minutes’ walk from the Jogeshwari railway station. The two main caves here are also dedicated to Hindu deities.

The caves lie below ground level. Steps lead down to a plain, rectangular doorway, which opens into a small antechamber with alcoves on either side.

The antechamber opens into a large square cave, which echoes with the shrieks of bats. Bats cover the left half of the ceiling and bat droppings lie all over the floor. Yet, this is the cleanest part of the complex.

Dvarpals on either side of the door opening into the prayer hall at Jogeshwari
Dvarpals on either side of the door opening into the prayer hall at Jogeshwari

Twenty carved pillars, arranged in a square, support the cave ceiling. A doorway on the right leads out to a yard lined with 10 pillars. There are small cells across the yard, which monks and priests must have used as living quarters. Today, they are used as toilets by all and sundry.

Back in the main cave, another doorway leads out into a hall, which would have been grand if only it were clean and dry. But garbage lies packed in its alcoves. Human and animal excreta lies on the floor. It’s a good thing that the carved dvarpals on either side of the door have lost their features to the seeping water, or we wouldn’t be able to meet their gaze`85

Coming out of the hall, you step into an opening before the next cave. Look up and you’ll see shanties crowding the cave roofs. The next cave is like a gallery with steps leading up and out at the far end. There are pillars on either side of the path and traces of carvings on the walls behind the pillars. Only one bas-relief figure of Ganesha on the left wall remains intact. Some devotees went ahead and painted this figure a bright orange while the ASI’s warning board at the top of the steps stood helpless.

Carvings on a wall of the cave housing the stupa
Carvings on a wall of the cave housing the stupa

The Kondivita or Mahakali caves in Andheri East are by far the cleanest of Mumbai’s lesser caves. This complex is fairly big, with around 20 cells and caves, but the stress here is on function, not form.

Like Kanheri, Kondivita was also a centre of Buddhism so the modern name ‘Mahakali Caves’ is misplaced. The caves are carved into a long hillside, which immediately brings to mind Kanheri. But the large pillared chaitya and bas-relief Buddhas of Kanheri are not to be found here. Instead, one small cave in the middle houses a stupa inside a capsule like chamber. The right wall of this cave has a panel depicting a seated Buddha and a few Buddhist legends. Funnily, the stupa has been appropriated by Shaivites as a lingam.

Two other caves in Kondivita merit attention. One is the first cave, which has a multi-tiered look. It was probably used for meditation. The other interesting cave is towards the end of the row. It has a small pillared hall with nine chambers opening into it.

The Kondivita caves may be clean today but they are inhabited by gamblers, drug-addicts and other shady characters. Also, the access roads and the surroundings of the caves are filthy. Any wonder that your relatives in Andheri never offer to show you round the place!

— Photos by the writer