Home to a 2,400-year-old Buddhist cave complex, the rock-cut cave architectural site of Kanheri is a lesser kno wn wonder in the middle of Mumbai, the glamour capital of India.
Words: Dr Navina Jafa
Mumbai, apart from being the financial capital of India offers a number of attractive tourism experiences. The Art-deco buildings of Mumbai along with the Elephanta caves are UNESCO world heritage sites and other attractions include Art Galleries, Museums, Marine Drive, Gateway of India, Chaupati beach and of course, among several other things the glittering Bollywood world. But amidst the glitz of the economic capital of India, lies a lesser-known group of Buddhist Caves called Kanheri. While local citizens in Mumbai are aware of this absolutely stunning site, most tourists visiting the city often end up going to the Elephanta caves but are not aware or have even heard of the Kanheri Caves which hold immense potential for tourism in Mumbai.
Caves & Geological Heritage
Below the Tropic of Cancer, the geological formation of the Deccan Plateau is rather fascinating and is defined with the layering of igneous rock soil and caves that have inspired patrons since ancient times to commission series of rock-cut cave architecture in the Deccan region. These include the caves of Ajanta, Ellora, Aurangabad, Saptaparni, Barabar, Karle, Pandavelini, Badami, Mamallapuram among several others.
The Kanheri Caves
Situated in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali, the site presents the largest collection of cave excavations on a single hill (numbering almost 90 caves).
Like the early caves at Ajanta, the Kanheri caves date back as early as 3rd century BC but unlike Ajanta (whose glorious period ends by 7th century AD) the Kanheri caves seem to have been in use until 11th century AD. Among the several imperial patron rulers linked with the site, the most significant were the Deccan rulers Satvahanas (2nd century BC to the 1st century AD).
The Satvahanas, as per some historians, were one of the first to have exhibited statecraft like institutions in the Deccan, and some factors that contributed to the vibrancy and their patronage of Kanheri were factors that were ecological, the rise of the agricultural economy, traditional knowledge of craftsmanship, the distinct evolution of trade links and religious movements.
Like Ajanta and Ellora, the Kanheri site has sculptures, paintings, and architecture. There are impressive chaityas (prayer halls) with pillars and vaulted roofs, stupas, and friezes of the Buddha along with viharas (places to stay for Buddhist monks).
The Kanheri Caves differ from the caves of Ajanta in features such as an amazing system of hydraulic engineering with cisterns found in several caves and an aspect unique to this site is the existence of a funerary space.
The Hydraulic Heritage
Kanheri developed its own peculiarities like a well-developed water system, its own agricultural land, satellite settlements and resources for subsistence. There are water-cisterns provided at the entrance of almost every cave in Kanheri. An inscription also mentions the construction of a dam to maintain the water resources.
The Importance of Caves
The most important feature of the site is a recall value of its links with economic heritage reflecting trade networks within India along with those outside. The most important reason was its proximity to important ports like Sopara that had trade links with the West including Greece. Archaeologists have recovered artifacts such as Greek ivory combs from this area. A number of inscriptions found at the site describe and testify complex human networks of castes, merchant guilds and also refer to sources of donations for the site. With over 50 inscriptions, the narratives are the testimony of endless aspirations on the horizons of the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean. Late Dr MN Deshpande, former Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and an authority on the cave architectural sites in the Deccan, believed that the Kanheri caves were one of the richest sites for epigraphic inscriptions evident in multiple ancient languages which include Prakrit, Pali, and Brahmi.
The site served as a retreat for mendicants and space for travellers to acquire spiritual protection against dangers in a journey known as eight perils (Ashtobhaya) for which one gets evidence from sculptural compositions. These are attacks by wild elephants, lions, robbers, serpents, captivity, demons/evil spirits, shipwreck and conflagration.
Scholars have explored and conjectured regarding the role of Buddhist establishments with trade and commerce. James Heitzman in his article Early Buddhism, Trade and Empire compares locational aspects of Buddhist monastic sites and trade routes.
He explains, Buddhist establishments became the platform to bring together all agencies which were involved in exchange including the state agency in a broad sense. The function of each Buddhist establishment was different according to its location, ecological setting, and trade link. These establishments have also been used for resting, repairing or changing carriers.
What to look out for
Cave 3, the Chaitya Cave, is the most visited and documented cave at the site. Perceived as a Buddhist temple, it is beautiful and majestic, the largest and most remarkable of all the caves at Kanheri. This west-facing cave temple has a spacious courtyard in the front, where the entrance is through a gateway in a low parapet wall. This low wall is decorated with an animal frieze at the base and ornamental rail pattern above. The entrance is guarded by dvarpalas. Cave 2 is a vihara (place for monks to stay) with three stupas confined in separate chambers. The 3rd stupa of the cave is an elaborate sculptural scheme with rows of seated Buddhas. Cave number 41 has dramatic sculptures of two standing Buddha figures and the eleven headed Avalokiteshvara (compassionate Buddha). According to a Buddhist legend, Avalokiteshvara transformed into an eleven-headed form with multiple arms to help a large number of people suffering in the world. India, as an experience, is just so immeasurable, like the coiled kundalini that it keeps uncoiling endlessly and one life is not enough to know this expression of human history. One has to understand the symbolism of the site of Kanheri caves, and then come back into the organised chaos of the city of Mumbai.