Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Buddhist Cave Monasteries of Mumbai : Kanheri and Mahakali Caves

Pic: Mahakali caves

The Kanheri caves and the Mahakali caves figure amongst the ancient Buddhist caves of Mumbai.

Pic: Kanheri caves

The Kanheri Caves are rock cut caves dating back to first century BC.


They remained in significance right upto the tenth century AD, and served as a Buddhist monastery .


 The cave monastery was prominent due to its proximity to several ports like Sopara, Kalyan, Paithan,Nasik etc.


The caves were patronised by several ruling dynasties like the Satavahanas, Rashtrakutas, Silharas, Traikutas,Chalukyas,Kadambas,Yadavas besides various Maurya ,Kushan and Saka satraps.


These caves have been a witness to all these rulers and also the latter ones like the Portuguese and the British, who subsequently assumed control of the islands.


In the late 10th century, the monk Atisha is said to have studied Buddhist philosophy and meditation at the Kanheri monastery under the teacher Rahulagupta.


Kanheri Caves are located at Mumbai , in the midst of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park , Borivli. They were located on what was known as the island of Salsette, situated near present day Thana.


The word Kanheri is derived from the word Kanhegiri (derived from Krishnagiri), which means the colour of Lord Krishna (or Kanha) viz. dark. This is mainly because the caves have been chiselled out of the ‘black’ volcanic basalt rock which made up the hillocks on Salsette.


The Kanheri caves comprise of 109 caves which were rediscovered by a Dr.James Bird.



They constitute of the Chaityagrihas (Buddhist prayer halls), the Viharas (Buddhist monk residences), Podhis (water cisterns) along with several Shilalekhs (stone inscriptions) in Brahmi, Pahelvi,Prakrit,Sanskrit,Kannada and Devanagari scripts which give us information about the life then and the people who patronized these caves.


The surroundings in Kanheri get particularly scenic in the monsoons as the hilly terrain makes way for several small waterfalls and a backdrop of lush green vegetation.


The entire area is habitated by monkeys, which survive on the fruits and berries growing in the neighbourhood , besides the food provided by the passing picnickers.



Cave 1 is an unfinished chaityagrha, originally planned to have a double-storeyed verandah and a porch, apart from the pillared hall.



Cave no 2, 3 have beautiful large and small Buddha sculptures in seated and standing positions.


Cave no 3 is a chaityagriha with a rectangular hall . There is the typical apse background housing a stupa .



There is also a verandah and a spacious court in the front. The main hall has an array of pillars, each having beautiful sculptures on its abacus.


 The side walls have two huge standing Buddha statues (Amitabha Buddha) besides several other Bodhisatva images and animal carvings.


The walls are decorated with beautifull engravings, motifs and sculpted figurines.


The other significant caves are cave nos 11,34,41,67 and 90 .



Cave no 11, which is a assembly hall flanked by motifs and Buddha sculptures.


Cave no 34 has paintings of Buddha on its ceiling akin to those in Ajanta.


Cave no 41 is also a prominent one with the statue of the four armed and eleven headed Avalokiteshwara , a popular Bodhisatva. It is located in a compartment on the right of the main porch.


The Avalokiteshwara statue exists in cave nos. 67,90 as well delivering his devotees from the eight great perils namely shipwreck, conflagration, wild elephant, lion, serpent, robber, captivity and demon.


Cave no 67 has Jataka tales depicted in form of murals. One comes across several smaller stupas distributed over several caves, many of which had clay tablets with several inscriptions.


 There is also a Buddhist cemetery located in one section which has stupas built over the remains of Buddhist monks.


Rest of the caves are viharas with stone benches in dark cellars, and which provided accomodation to the residing monks besides a place to learn and meditate. The highest cave is situated at 1500 feet above sea level.


Several stone steps, bridges (constructed later) takes one through the various caves situated all over the hill.


Even a day to study all the hundred odd caves and their beautifull sculptures and motifs is not enough.


And without doubt, a visit to the Kanheri caves is enough to leave an everlasting impression on ones mind.


[Reference source: Archaelogical Society of India]



The Mahakali Caves are situated in Andheri east, an populated suburb of Mumbai city, around 5kms from the Andheri suburban railway station. They are also known as Kondivite caves.


They were excavated between 2nd and 6th Century AD for Buddhist monks. They were located in what is now known as the Marol village, Mulgaon, which had several fresh water tanks which have since disappeared.


The chaityagriha which lies in cave no 9 has a stupa enclosed in a room with a curved wall, having a entrance separated by two latticed windows on either side. Over the right window is an inscription in Pali which says, ’Gift of a vihara, with his brother by Pittimba a brahmin of Gotamas gotra , and inhabitant of Pachi Kama.’(Information courtesy ASI, Mumbai).


Outside the inner chaitya are figurines of the Buddha with attendendants carved on the outer right wall.


The other rooms served as Viharas or dwellings for the buddhist monks. There are water tanks outside every vihara.


One wall even has a snake carving, which is probably a latter addition.


Some rooms can be accessed from the main entrance while others which are located in the rear can be seen from the main road itself.


Text and Photographs by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha

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