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Modern India

Buddhist Cave Monasteries of Mumbai

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 30 May 2010

Kanheri & Mahakali Caves

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


The Kanheri Caves

These are rock cut caves dating back to the first century BC.

They remained of significance right up to the tenth century AD, and served as a Buddhist monastery. The cave monastery was prominent due to its proximity to several ports which included Sopara, Kalyan, Paithan, Nasik, as well as others.

The caves were patronised by several ruling dynasties, including the Satvahanas, Rashtrakutas, Silharas, Traikutas, Chalukyas, Kadambas, and Yadavas besides various Maurya, Kushan and Saka satraps. These caves have borne witness to all these rulers and also later ones including the Portuguese and the British, who subsequently assumed control of the islands.

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

The 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); ie. 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 109 caves which were rediscovered by a Dr James Bird.

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

The surroundings in Kanheri become particularly scenic during the monsoons as the hilly terrain causes several small waterfalls to form against a backdrop of lush green vegetation.

The entire area is inhabited 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.

Caves 2 and 3 have beautiful large and small Buddha sculptures in seated and standing positions.

Cave 3 is a chaityagriha with a rectangular hall. There is a typical apse background housing a stupa. There is also a verandah and a spacious court in the front. The main hall contains an array of pillars, each with beautiful sculptures on its abacus. The side walls have two huge standing Buddha statues besides several other Bodhisatva images and animal carvings. The walls are decorated with beautiful engravings, motifs and sculpted figurines.

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

Cave 11 is an assembly hall flanked by motifs and Buddha sculptures.

Cave 34 has paintings of Buddha on its ceiling akin to those in Ajanta.

Cave 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 Caves 67 and 90, as well delivering his devotees from the eight great perils namely shipwreck, conflagration, wild elephant, lion, serpent, robber, captivity and demon. Cave 67 has Jataka tales depicted in the form of murals. Several smaller stupas are distributed through various caves, many of which also contained 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.

Kanheri Caves of Mumbai
The Kanheri Caves of Mumbai consist of 109 separate caves

In the remainder of the caves are viharas with stone benches in dark cellars, which provided accommodation to the residing monks, besides a place in which to study and meditate. The highest cave is situated at 457 metres above sea level.

Several stone steps, and bridges (which were constructed later) take visitors through the various caves which are situated all over the hill. Spending an entire day in the hundred-odd caves with their beautiful sculptures and motifs is not enough.

Without doubt, a visit to the Kanheri caves will leave an everlasting impression on the minds of its visitors. (Reference source: Archaeological Society of India.)


The Mahakali Caves

These caves are situated in Andheri east, a populated suburb of the city of Mumbai, around five kilometres from Andheri suburban railway station. They are also known as the Kondivite caves. They were excavated between the second and sixth centuries AD for Buddhist monks and were located in what is now known as Marol village, Mulgaon, which contained several fresh water tanks which have since disappeared.

The chaityagriha which lies in Cave 9 has a stupa enclosed in a room with a curved wall, along with an 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 attendants 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 bears a snake carving, which is probably a later addition.

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



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.