Rock-Cut Caves of maharashtraThe Buddhist, Jain and hindu rock-cut caves in maharashtra draw thousands of devotees and travellers from around the world each year.
Two thousand fve hundred years ago, Lord Buddha preached his tenets to small gatherings in groves or forest clearings. In the centuries after his Nirvana, Buddhism evolved from solitary asceticism to a monastic order that, in turn, led to the excavation of monumental rock-cut chaityas, prayer halls for congregational worship, discussion and meditation, and viharas/residences for monks. In course of time, Hindu and Jain rock-cut caves also came to be excavated, bequeathing a rich legacy to the region.
A unique expression
The rugged topography of the Deccan plateau stretching across a large part of Maharashtra, lent itself to the excavation of caves into sheer rock faces of mountains. While the Buddhist monasteries are simple spaces, the chaityas are elaborate: they are typically apsidal and divided by a colonnade into a central nave and side aisles that continue behind the apse offering a path for circumambulation of the sacred stupa at the far end of the prayer-hall. A chaitya arch and window were carved on the façade to allow light to flter into the interiors flling it with a peaceful, meditative atmosphere. Over time, interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha led to the belief that merit could be acquired as well as transferred rom one person to another by a devout act; this belief led rulers and merchants to bestow generous gifts on the order which furthered the excavation of prayer halls and monasteries. Evidence also states that in later times, those joining the order could donate their wealth to it and this also fostered the excavation of caves.
The belief emerged that the Buddha and Bodhisattvas (those who strive to be compassionate to evolve and help others) could be represented in images; till then the presence of the Buddha was suggested through symbols such as the horse (representing His renunciation), the Wheel (His frst sermon at the Deer Park), and the stupa (His fnal resting place). In this way, caves came to be decorated with sculpture and paintings that conveyed the life and teachings of Buddha. The stupa that was originally plain surfaced came to bear the image of the Buddha, the walls of caves came alive with frescoes, and the portico was embellished with beautiful sculpture.Into the 21st century, these ancient caves awe devotees and visitors from different parts of the world as they convey a wealth of information spanning the life of Buddha, and the endearing and insightful Jataka tales.
Rock Cut Caves in Maharashtra
Among the scores of small and monumental rock-cut caves in Maharashtra are Bhaja, Bedse and Karla near Pune; Pataleshwar in Pune; Mahakali, Kanheri, Jogeshwari and Mandapeshwar in Mumbai; Elephanta near Mumbai; Ajanta, Ellora and Pitalkhora near Aurangabad; Lenyadri that also has one of the eight revered Ganesha shrines or Ashtavinayak, Junnar; and Pandavleni in Nashik. Of these marvels, the caves at Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta are listed as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO, and Karla stands out for its scale, majesty and as a witness to the different phases of Buddhism.
The voluminous Karla cave -148 ft long and 46 ft high – is the largest and one of the fnest Buddhist chaityas. Apart from its impressive scale, the chaitya (that traces its origins to the second century BC) awes the devotee and visitor with its serenity, sculpture and details.
The towering Lion Pillar in front of the cave, the forecourt lavished with sculpture in neat horizontal bands, the columns within bearing decorative capitals, the simple unadorned stupa, wooden ribs on the ceiling and inscriptions mentioning donors of pillars convey that Karla was a witness to different phases of art and Buddhism.
The thirty Buddhist rock-cut caves at Ajanta sculpted into the curved mountain wall above the curving Waghora River include prayer halls and monasteries, and stand out for their scenic location, exquisite sculpture and frescoes. The caves date from two time periods: 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD, and the 5th century AD when frescoes were painted of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, court and everyday life, and Jataka tales. At Ajanta can be seen prayer halls that depict sculptures of the Buddha within the cave, and those that have a stupa in the main hall but an entrance lavished with Buddha images, and caves with stupa bearing the Buddha image.
The rock-cut architecture of Ellora comprising thirty-four caves include Buddhist, Hindu and Jain shrines, prayer halls and monasteries that speak of the religious harmony of the times as they encompass Hindu (mid-6th to 8th centuries), Buddhist (end-6th till 7th centuries) and Jain shrines (eight till tenth centuries) excavated in close proximity and are regarded as the zenith of cave sculpture in Western India. Of the caves, the Buddhist chaitya Cave 10, also called Vishwakarma, stands out for its elaborately carved façade; Teen Thal for being a large Buddhist monastery; the double storeyed Jain Cave 32 which has a seated fgure of Mahavira and Tirthankaras (Jain saints) for its elaborate sculpture; and Kailash, the Hindu temple complex for its unbelievable plan of being sculpted from top to base and beautiful sculptures!
Carved into the hill, the caves, dated to the 6th century, pay homage to the divine presence and power of Lord Shiva. Of the seven caves, Cave 1 is the gem, as one realises after stepping in through its simple triple-bayed and coming upon a vast columned hall, the shrine with Shiva lingam, and deeply sculpted wall panels exuding power, beauty and majesty. Among these is the magnifcent eighteen foot high Trimurti, the three-headed Shiva where he represents the Trinity of Hindu Gods (Brahma-the Creator, Vishnu-the Preserver and Shiva -the Destroyer); Ardhanarishvara that symbolically unites the male and female expression; the celestial wedding of Shiva and Parvati; Shiva slaying Andhaka demon; Shiva bearing the descent of the Ganges; as well as imposing dwarapalas.
Words: Brinda Gill