It is not uncommon to remember the remarkable Ajanta and Ellora caves near Aurangabad of the Deccan when a mention is made of the rock-cut monasteries in India. But this article brings to light some lesser-known Buddhist rock-cut monasteries of the western ghats and the Konkan Coastal region edging the Arabian Sea. They may be less familiar when compared to Ajanta or Ellora but are no less significant. Accessible from Mumbai, Pune and the neighboring cities, these caves are under the protection of Central and State Government Archaeological Departments.
There are two main categories of rock-cut caves in these Buddhist monasteries, the Chaityas and the Viharas. Chaityas were the shrines or chapels for congregational worship and Viharas were the residential halls with sleeping cells for monks and nuns. A typical Chaitya consisted of an Apsidal plan divided into a nave and side aisles by rows of pillars. The entrance had an arched facade carved out of stone and was filled with a timber screen. Viharas, on the other hand, were quadrangular in plan with cells for the monks on three sides. With the brief introduction, let us look into some striking rock-cut structures of the Deccan region.
Karla, Chaitya, Cave 8 | Rock-Cut Caves
The Karla caves, approximately eleven kilometres east of Lonavala, are a cluster of fifteen Buddhist caves. Cave 8 is the main Chaitya Hall and is also the largest and the most majestic early Buddhist monument in this region. One of the interesting features of this rock-cut masterpiece is that the vaulted ceiling still retains its wooden ribbing. Carbon 14 testing of the ribs has yielded a range from the 4th century BCE to the 1st century BCE. A common motif seen in early Buddhist sites in the Deccan is the couple or Mithuna representation. What we see in Karla is the zenith, representing the suppleness of the body and grace in movement, unlike the early simple, graceless figures. Ornamented with sculptural panels and a monolithic stupa with a wooden umbrella dating to the first century CE, this wonder never fails to impress the heritage enthusiast.
Mahakala, Chaitya, Cave 9
Referred to as Kondivte or Kondivti caves by J M Campbell as they were near the Kondivti village, they are presently known as Mahakala caves. Out of some twenty caves carved into the sides of the basalt outcrop, the Chaitya (Cave 9) is of significant interest. Having a unique plan, it deviates from the typical rock-cut Buddhist chapel. The layout consists of a long hall with a missing front wall that leads to a circular shrine emulating a circular thatched hut. This peculiar plan suggests a date around the second century BCE, thereby making it one of the earliest rock-cut structures in Maharashtra.
Tulja Lena, Chaitya, cave 3
Cave 3 at Tulja Lena outside the region of Junnar in Maharashtra is considered by some scholars to be one of the earliest rock-cut excavations in this region. This is due to the similarity in its appearance to the circular rock-cut shrines in the Barabar caves, Bihar of the third century BCE. Of the eighteen excavations, Cave 3, the circular Chaitya is of architectural importance. Having a diameter of eight metres, it contains a monolithic stupa raised on an unadorned drum and surrounded by twelve simple octagonal columns. Scholars have dated this unique structure to the 2nd- 1st century BCE, making it the first in the Junnar cluster of excavations.
Lenyadri, Cave 7
The largest residential hall or Vihara among all the rock-cut excavations of the Junnar cluster is Cave 7 of Lenyadri. It is one of the most interesting excavations with a rectangular hall of dimensions 17 x 15 metres. A grand veranda precedes the Vihara with eight octagonal columns having pot-shaped bases and inverted pyramidal abacuses crowned by lions, bulls, elephants and tigers. Consisting of nineteen cells for the monks on all three sides, the central one in the rear wall is an enlarged one. Also known as Ganesh Lena, this Vihara has been converted into a shrine to Ganesha, and the cave now forms an important Hindu shrine. The hall is now treated as an assembly hall of the temple or the sabha mandapa.
Pandu Lena, Cave 3 | Rock-Cut Caves
Cave 3, Pandu Lena is one of the biggest and the most detailed viharas of this monastery. The outer porch or the veranda consists of six octagonal columns with cushion shaped capitals. The brackets of these columns take the form of elephants, beasts and bulls with human riders. The plan of this Vihara is almost a square measuring 12 x 14 metres. It consists of eighteen cells for the monks with rock cut beds with two more additional cells accessed through the veranda. The middle of the rear wall is adorned by a panel containing a relief stupa and courtly maidens. Guardians with fleshy bodies are also carved on both sides of the gateway or Torana.
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