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June - July 2007


Kanheri Caves: Mumbaiís

by Anil Mehta

Twenty six miles north of Mumbai and three miles from Borivali East (an hour train ride from Mumbai) is Sanjay Gandhi National Park, one of the few national parks in India within the limits of a city. It has some interesting wildlife and offers tiger and lion safaris in the fenced off areas of the park.

A front view of Cave 1

Another major attraction of the park is the Buddhist monastic establishment (known as Kanheri Caves) situated further three miles from the park’s main entrance. Dotted over the hills in the virtually unspoilt forest, the entire group consists of more than 100 caves and is one of the biggest monastic settlements in India covering a period of more than one thousand years (1st century BC to 9th century AD). Some belong to early Hinayana school of Buddhism which did not approve image worship, while some to later Mahayana phase (2nd century and after) when the images of the Buddha in human form became permissible. Most of the caves are viharas (dormitories) for monks meant for residence, study and meditation, and few are chaityas (prayer halls) containing a stupa (memorial to the Buddha) inside.

A front facade of Cave 3

Kanheri Caves may not be as spectacular as Ajanta or Ellora but some of its sculpture is superb. Caves are generally small, connected by steep winding paths and steps. A few caves preserve a profusion of carved figures, mostly standing or seated Buddha and accompanying images such as Bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints), female divinities, and wealthy donor couples from the business community. It’s not possible to visit all the caves, but number 1, 3, 11, 89, and 90 should not be missed.

Cave 1 is an incomplete vihara with two thick round pillars in the front similar to those at Elephanta Caves (Mumbai), topped by circular cushion-shaped capitals. It seems that at the beginning it was intended to make this cave two storeyed, but due to defect in rock structure it was left half way.

Cave 3 (2nd to 6th century) with its impressive facade is the largest and architecturally most elaborate. The spacious verandah is supported by massive pillars with sculpted bases and capitals. Two huge, over 20ft tall Buddha with serene expression stand on the side walls of the verandah whereas the entrance to the chaitya is carved with donor couples on each side. The apsidal (semicircular) ended chaitya hall has a vaulted ceiling, a row of thick octagonal columns on either side, and a large hemispherical stupa at the rear with no Buddha image on it (probably the work of Hinayana monks). Formerly the roof of the chaitya had wooden ribs but now no wooden remains are left. Cave 4 is immediately next to Cave 3. It’s a small structure containing a stupa with Buddha on it, and crowned by a stone umbrella (chhatra).

Known as Darbar Hall or Assembly Hall, Cave 11 is a huge vihara and has a verandah with eight octagonal columns and a small shrine at one end. It has a number of small cells carved in its front side. Caves 89 and 90 are well-known for sculptures.

Kanheri Caves also contain numerous inscribed records of considerable historical interest and paintings on the ceilings of the dark cells of some viharas. The paintings depict Buddha in different mudras (postures) implying the work of Buddhist monks belonging to the Mahayana sect.

A panel in Cave 3 showing the donor couples

The way leading to the caves passes through the National Park’s main northern entrance. That means, you will need entrance tickets to the park and the caves. There is a morning and afternoon bus service to the caves from the park. Inquire at the main gate. If the bus is inconvenient, you may have to hire a taxi.

A stupa depicting Buddha in Cave 4

For the serious minded Kanheri Caves offer a rich account of the history and culture of Buddhism in Western India. For the rest they make a great afternoon getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. Take some water and food when you visit them. There is no food outlet on site and one small stall sells tea and soft drinks. The caves are closed on Mondays.

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