Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Treasures Tucked Away - Kanheri Caves

Bombay, the alluring city of dreams, most definitely would seem weird to anyone, what with its crazy hustle and bustle and maddening traffic, a city that never sleeps, a melting pot of Indian cultures, a mix of the old and the new, where the world's finest cars zoom past bullock carts treading the road, just as a train whooshes along the adjacent railway tracks, where you have one of the highest number of millionaires in the world and the most expensive real estate side by side Asia's largest slum, which also happens to be the most profitable slum, where you find a homeless beggar sleeping on the footpath outside the one of the finest hotels in the country, ... the countless paradoxes never cease to amaze me. Maybe therein lies its charm.

It is this mix of the old and new that I love the most, with elegant colonial wonders right in the middle of towering classy glassy buildings and a little bit of history intervening. Our city may not have as much of history to offer as a city like Delhi would, (damn you lucky Delhiites), but we have our own fair share of it. After all, we do have two UNESCO World Heritage Sights in Bombay, the Victoria Terminus Building and the Elephanta Caves. In the shadow of these and other grander buildings that call Bombay their home, a chunk of amazing attractions and places retreat to a nugatory corner, unheralded, and do not get their due recognition. That is the problem with a India, there are just sooooo many sights and a wide variety at that on offer, that it is very difficult to develop and maintain each one of them, and with the paltry sum the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) gets, handling around 3,650 monuments which are of national importance, it is nearly impossible. That is just a miniscule portion of the lakhs of sites which India possesses, for history does not merely run through its veins, it is present in every cell in her body. Through this post and all those upcoming ones, titled Tucked Away Treasures, I hope to do my bit to flash a light on such lesser known wonderful places and sites and bring them out of the darkness and unknownness.

[The Kanheri Caves.]
The first such place that I want to cover, is one that's right in my backyard, but something that I'd never seen until very recently when I went cycling to the Borivali National Park, as I had mentioned in my previous post - Riding the Joy Bicycle; for people always discouraged me saying it's horrible and derelict, abounding in dogs and the homeless and thieves and probably used as a urinal! To think I'd believed some of that! However, au contraire to popular misconception, it is beautiful, picturesque, serene and a must visit for every history buff or art and sculpture freak. I am talking about the Kanheri Caves.

They are situated on a hill in the middle of the Borivali National Park and wherever the eye travels, they see only lush greenery. No wonder the rather reclusive monks chose such a place where they could immerse themselves in months of meditation and reverence to the gods, without anyone interrupting them, save a wild animal. They are rock-cut caves, carved in-situ, out of a basaltic rock outcropping. They derive their name from that basaltic rock. The word Kanheri is derived from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri, meaning black mountain.

The caves open to the public pretty early in the morning, around 7 a.m. and like most historical sites in India, the entry is very cheap, only INR 5. However, here too, the discrimination against foreign nationals continues, charging them 100 bucks for the same. There is at the entrance, what the locals call a 'canteen', which at best is a ramshackle shack, but a lifesaver in the heat, the only oasis in the desert. No wonder the smart villager owning the cottage charges more for everything; simple economics I'd say. 

[The Chaityaa Hall of Cave 3, with its Stupa, carved pillas and fish-belly style ceiling. Some reckless idiot lit diyaas in the niches in the Stupa. From the pillars on the right, looks like the Chaityaa was incomplete.]
[What a serene pensive face!]
There are in all 110 caves, dating from the 1st century B.C. to the 11th century A.D. and ranging from Vihaaraas, or monasteries and Bhikshugrihas where the monks resided to Chaityaas, or shrines, generally with Stupas, where they offered prayers to Buddha. Most of the Vihaaraas are simple square room(s) with rock-cut benches, where the monks lived. It is the Chaaityaa halls which take your breath away, with beautifully carved pillars and carvings of the images of Buddha and various other representations of Buddha as a Stupa, the Bodhi Tree or footprints. The images are typical of the Mahaayaan sect of Buddhism, while representations of Buddha are  in tandem with the tenets of the Hinayaan sect, which did not believe in having idols of Buddha. There are also images of the Boddhisattva and Avalokiteshwar. A number of caves have splendid carvings. Cave 2 has a whole bunch of Stupas and stories in stone figures, running on the walls, but my favourite ones are the ones in Cave 3, especially an image of Buddha near the entrance to the Chaityaa hall is one of the best carved images I've ever seen, the face so calm and serene, you could sit staring at it there for hours and be at peace. Also striking are the huge standing images of the Buddha, which are probably 30 feet tall. The have a humbling effect on you.

[The huge statue had a humbling effect on whoever entered the Chaityaa of Cave 3.]
[One of the most intact inscriptions, this one was in Brahmi outside Cave 3.]
The Caves abound in inscriptions in the Devanagari, Pahlavi and Brahmi scripts, of which only the Devanagari script is still in use. It is the script that is used for Hindi and Marathi to this day. The Brahmi inscriptions outnumber the rest. It is the language from which multiple languages derived their scripts, like Tamil and other Dravidian languages and even the Burmese and Khmer languages. There are even some cave paintings in the post-Ajanta style in Cave 34, though we did not have the time to visit that cave (I'm definitely going to see those on my next trip there).

[The ancient chiselled handrailing still standing intact!]
The Kanheri Caves have huge Podhis or water cisterns, which were cleverly carved to trap and collect rainwater and use it during the hot summer months. They have an ingenious rainwater harvesting system, with canals merging into pools, which are next to almost every cave. The rains transform the caves, enhancing their beauty even further with waterfalls and rivulets running here and there, though they might get slippery. What astonished me was the fact that by the steps leading to Viharas situated higher up on the hill, there were handrails  chiselled out of the same stone and they are still intact!

The Caves are marvellous and provide a great opportunity to study our wonderful history, splendid architecture and ingenious engineering and carving skills. They are so cool on the inside, that one does not even realise that the outside temperature is otherwise ranging between 35° and 40° Celsius. They provide a much needed calm to the souls of restless city-dwellers, irrespective of their religious beliefs; and the greenery around that much needed and elusive fresh air. Although I was saddened by the visible neglect at the Caves. They are not that well maintained. The people who visit them also do not seem to care much about them, littering them, damaging them just so that they could get one cheesy photo and defacing them to prove to their loved ones how eternal their love is. There was not even a single guard to see to it that the site was not being damaged in any way. We must protect and preserve our cultural heritage for the coming generations and for the whole world to see that what a great culture and history we come from, for when the present or future looks ominous, it is always reassuring to have a glorious past to fall back upon, though the way the Indian economy is surging ahead, that doesn't seem necessary, at least for now.

I'd love nothing more than to spend an entire day there. There are more than worth a visit, they are worth a stay!

(This post got delayed despite it being ready as my e-mail account was hacked and password changed. I'll kill whoever did that, unless of course, if it was my hitherto inexistent and dormant split personality.)

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