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  • Writer's pictureAhana Thapar

Stories in Stone: A History of The Kanheri Caves

Stories in Stone: A History of Kanheri Documentary by Me

Mumbai’s Hidden Jewel

Mumbai. The city of dreams and the city that never sleeps. The financial capital of India. A city filled with colours and cultures and people, cars and traffic and buildings. Areas contrast like black and white, one end with buildings breaking apart, and the other with the facades of shining glass.

A seaport, and a centre of trade for centuries. But what hides within the forests and mountains that the city is blessed with? Culture and a long history of ideological advancement places that one would not imagine residing within a city like Mumbai.

The secret is many series of ancient caves; monasteries that served as centres of learning and trade, along with religion. Sculptures and paintings in styles that we don’t often see in museums or even history books. Once lively places that now lay empty, but yet invite the attention of all those who wander.

My Journey

So… how did I get here? To learning about a historic site in my city. Well, I wanted to do something for my city and my country, something that showed people our old traditions and their beauty. In 2020, I visited Kanheri Caves with a group of students from school. The site was hidden high up on a mountain inside the Sanjay Gandhi National park, an interesting ride to get to. Once we were there, I felt different. Something about the caves made me feel lighter, and more connected with the universe. I felt more connected to Buddhism, which I had been practising daily. I saw the remains of what was once a grand monastery that had seen many great monks over many generations. I saw the generations of the present mill about in this haven of history and culture, but not know anything of its significance and impact. Nor were

What is Kanheri?

The word ‘Kanheri’ was derived from the Hindi word Krishnagiri or Kanha-Giri, which means Krishna’s home. The name was given after the black basalt rocks that form the mountain and the caves carved within. The mountain was formed aeons ago in volcanic eruptions from a now long-extinct volcano, the very volcano that formed the western ghats.

With a collection of 109 caves and the oldest monastery in the west, Kanheri held a lot of significance. When it began, both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism were practised here. Their different art forms are visible in the caves, although Mahayana dominates. The air is naturally cooler because of the surrounding rock, and while the terrain is rocky and uneven, the serenity of the location builds up your energy to see it all.

Kanheri dates back to the 1st Century BC. Which is more than 2023 years old. A lot older than many things we know of, and many philosophies and religions too.

It began as a Vasha Vaasa, or a rain shelter, for passing monks. Monks were and still are expected to lead extremely simple lives, for it was a symbol of them renouncing all material attachments. Buddhism encourages its people to avoid self-indulgence but also self-denial. Buddhist monks, or bhikkhus, follow a strict code of conduct, which includes celibacy. They wore only two robes, accepted all alms given, and were expected to shift locations every two days. They lived on the goodwill of the people around them, and their own purpose to dedicate themselves to the philosophy. Only during the monsoon season, they could stay at monasteries like Kanheri. This was how a small permanent population developed here, for the caves had to be maintained and developed for all those who came by.

The Caves

The second cave is a natural one, and the second largest in the series. It was used as the main shelter for the monks, probably for sleeping. There is a shelf-like structure carved into the wall and an elevated platform for sitting or lying. The cave has two levels, which were once clearly defined. The cave also has three stupas, of three of the greatest monks to ever live at Kanheri. Something unusual about this cave is that there are three stupas in the same shrine, which is not seen anywhere else.

There are three more caves in the same line. They served different purposes. One was a large prayer hall, carved with perfectly circular pillars from top to bottom, panels along them carved intricately. The pillars were chipped by hand, for technology was not very advanced when these caves were built. Inside the cave, these pillars continue, and a large arched ceiling is visible. The cave is set lower than the rest and has what appears to be a large stupa in the back. Between the pillars and the cave walls is a narrow hallway that spans the entire edge of the cave, the walls covered in paintings and carvings of animals and people. It is rather dark in the hallways, meaning they were navigated and carved by the light of lamps.

Cave 3 is the largest and most visited cave at the site, with a substantial courtyard the entrance to which is flanked by two guardians (dvarpalas). One of the highlights of Kanheri Caves has to be the carvings found here on the sidewalls of the vestibule. There are two gigantic 7m high statues of Buddha. The hall, measuring 26m long, 12m wide, and 15m high is spectacular – remember that all of this was carved out of solid rock !! The hall consists of a nave, two aisles, and 34 pillars. Not all of the pillars are finished, which perhaps suggests that this excavation occurred in more than one phase. The finished pillars have carvings of elephants, nagas and humans worshipping stupas, as well as humans riding elephants and horses with lions. Thanks to a foundation inscription we can accurately date this cave. It states that the cave was founded by two merchant brothers, Gajasena and Gajamitra, during the reign of Sri Yajna Satakarni, the Satavahana king. This pinpoints a date to around 180 A.D. which is later than the almost identical Chaitya hall at Karla Caves, which is considered to be of a higher quality in terms of style and art. Scholars have suggested that the reason for this may be that the donors were not able to sufficiently fund the completion of the cave, or that perhaps they died before the work was finished. On leaving the cave, the left courtyard pillar has an unassuming and yet quite significant carving at the base. Here Buddha is shown standing wearing a robe and with a halo behind his head. This small carving is believed by many to be the earliest representation of Buddha among all the caves of western India.

Another cave, cave four, holds an intricately carved dome, and the walls are carved with equally intricate designs and images to tell a story. All of the carvings were done by hand, with a hammer and a chisel. It really is a marvellous feat when we look back at it, because often even with our modern technology we cannot achieve such detail.

The Canal System

Just outside these caves, there are canals, which formed a rainwater collection system. One must stay extremely careful, for they are very deep in some areas and shallow in others, due to the uneven flooring of the caves and paths outside. These canals end in huge tanks, and employ gravity to direct the rainwater into storage. The canals run all the way up the hills, ensuring that a maximum amount of water is collected. This is their main water source, as there is no river or lake nearby. The water stored was then used by the monastery all year round, mainly for cooking, drinking and bathing.

Since pollution was lower during these times and the rocks acted as a natural filter for any remaining impurities, the water was very safe to drink. The rock also naturally kept the water cool, which was useful as this region did not get very cold, and was often very hot.

The Teachings of the Monastery

Monasteries were the first schools and universities in the world. The Bhikkhus were highly educated, which encouraged parents to send their children to learn important concepts. Students of the monastery schools, mainly monks, majored in Buddhist scriptures but also gained some knowledge of the language, handwriting, literature and art, philosophy logic, astronomical Calendar and medicine.

These skills were important to the daily lives of the people and hence were helpful to learn from the most well-versed. The philosophies taught enabled students to live their lives to the fullest.

One of the most important concepts of Buddhism is that everyone has the potential of the universe, and the correct way to unlock it is through practising Buddhism to help us gain wisdom on how to unlock this potential. We hear the story of a baby Krishna, whose mother saw the entire universe inside his mouth when she went to feed him. What could this mean? Simply that each child - and hence each life and each person - has the unlimited potential of the universe, an endless array of possibilities of what they can become. Buddhism helps us to reach our highest potential.

Karma is made up of one’s thoughts, words and actions. So when one thinks, says or does something good, that works towards a goal that they have in mind, the universe will work with them to find the right path to said goal. If we think or talk or act in a manner that shows we don’t want something, that very thing will come back to us. It hence also means that one must treat all with compassion. If we begrudge people, the same kind of people will continue to come into our life, because we are attracting it by dwelling upon it. However, if we see the person with the same value as ourselves, we will not be inhumane. This will help us, and hence our environment, grow into a more positive one.

The Utility of the Site to Trade

The monastery was a highly important location for the transfer of ideas, trade of goods and many more things. Roman monks or Yavana monks would often come by with their trading items and stay at Kanheri. All the traders coming in through the trade route were Buddhists, and this route allowed the philosophy to spread far and wide. Monasteries like Kanheri were guaranteed areas of rest for these traders.

The monks hence became extremely skilled in trade, as they often helped traders bargain for their goods and find value. Through this, the monasteries became crucial to trading, as most traders would stop by. This gave rise to the next purpose that the monasteries held, of post offices and banks for the passing traders.

Monasteries became the first post offices and banks, primarily serving traders. In exchange for a small donation, travellers could have packages or letters delivered to another person passing and collect a response upon arrival. They did the same with their valued possessions, especially if they were going to an area where crime was prominent. Since monasteries were highly respected areas, and often secluded, it was very difficult for the possessions to be at risk of thievery or other crime.

The monastery allowed Buddhism to be shared with cultures all around the world as it was an extremely important trading post where people would come from many kingdoms and different regions for goods. Along with this, they would learn aspects of the lifestyle of the Buddhists and take it with them, which allowed the philosophy to spread far and wide.

The Lives of the Bikkhus

The Bhikkhus live extremely structured lives, which is the form of the highest freedom. According to Buddhism, true freedom is when one can structure their lives to achieve the goal that is the most important to them. From an average standpoint, we perceive freedom to be the ability to do, say, think whatever we want whenever we want. But in reality, this is not freedom as you become a slave of your desires. True freedom is when you choose an end goal and are able to take complete control of your life to work for that goal.

The Fall of the Monastery

The monastery was in heavy use until the 11th century when it fell out of mainstream usage. There remained monks at the monastery, but it didn’t play as vital a role as earlier. During this time, a lot of caves fell into disrepair because of the reduction in usage. It lost its importance as a trading post, and the forest around it became denser. For 400 years the monastery was very rarely used.

When this monastery fell into disuse, there were many art pieces left incomplete, such as this painting along the ceiling of cave 34, and the pillars and carvings in the main chaitya cave. Cave 34 is the only cave at Kanheri where remains of paintings can still be found on the ceiling. This is of Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra (earth touching) gesture. The unfinished painting seems to have originally intended to depict more than one figure. These unfinished artworks suggest that funding for the monastery dried up, or the sponsors died - which would explain the cave falling out of use.

A New Life

In the 15th Century, Japanese monks rediscovered the monastery and used it for their own needs. From this period, Japanese artwork is visible in the later caves of the series. The most notable Japanese influence is in cave 90, along the left wall. Here, there is an inscription of the Gohonzon, which is a Japanese translation of the Lotus Sutra.

It has the main sentence down the centre, which is “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.” This means “I commit myself to the law of cause and effect.” The Lotus Sutra is also known as the Law of the Sun or the Mystic Law, the main philosophy of Buddhism. It states that if you create the right cause; ie: set a goal, pray for it, and put in the correct amount of effort, the universe will listen and give it to you.

The stories of the Kanheri caves are many, and there are still many more to uncover. The site is a haven of history, culture and art that has been preserved over thousands of years. Today, it is a popular picnic spot, and it is wonderful that we can bask in the glory of our history. However, it is also important we understand its significance. The Kanheri Caves are a place every Mumbaikar and visitor to Mumbai must visit.

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