Till I was told about Kanheri Caves, I had no idea about this ancient piece of history in the city of Mumbai that is primarily known for its existence from the British period onwards. Lying inside the Sanjay Gandhi national park in Borivali, these caves can be accessed through a proper road. The vehicles go more or less till the beginning of the caves. From here take a flight of steps that will take you to the ticket window and then caves.
Kanheri Caves – Tourist Places in Mumbai
Like the more famous cousins in Ajanta and Ellora, these caves had also been excavated from 1st BCE to about 11th AD. They represent both the Mahayana and the Hinayana phase of Buddhism. This is also evident from the fact that in certain caves Buddha is represented through symbols like Stupas and footprints while in others, there are anthropomorphic images of him.
The name Kanheri comes from the name of the hill on which these caves have been carved out – Krishnagiri. It is a volcanic rock. There are 110 caves in total, making it the largest cave group, though some of the caves seem to be incomplete. The caves were on the trade route connecting to Sopara, Nashik, Paithan and Ujjain.
The neatly cut staircase on the rock is worth admiring.
The caves include one huge Chaitya Griha or the prayer hall, a huge dining hall with a low seating long table on two sides. Underground water tanks and a whole lot of viharas or living quarters for the monks with benches in outer courtyards. It is said that by 3rd CE, Kanheri Caves became a permanent settlement for the Buddhists. It was no longer a secluded place for the traveling monks.
Cave No. 3
Cave no 3 or Chaitya Griha is very close to the current day entrance. It has a ceiling design carved like that of a wooden structure similar to Karle Caves near Lonavala. Carved pillars with elephant motifs flank a huge stupa in the middle of this huge hall. This structure is at least double-storeyed but it is difficult to find the way to the upper floors now. Outside the cave on the porch are the huge Buddha figures in high relief. On the front walls are the figures of the donors who sponsored these caves. Outside this cave, you will see a few more stupas. One of which is completely covered and the others are relatively open and people can walk around them.
There is a replica of the typical railings or balustrades that you find around the famous stupas like the ones at Amravati, Sanchi, Bhahrut and the Maha Bodhi temple. The pattern is a typical criss-cross with lotus emblems. Sometime in the 16-17th century, this cave was converted into a Christian church. Though today no sign of this conversion survives.
Viharas follow a similar pattern with a front courtyard having benches to sit, followed by rooms for the monks and the same pattern on the upper floor. The rooms have stone beds. The water tanks are usually placed on either side of the caves. Literature tells us that many visitors from southeastern countries visited this Vihara for studying, establishing it as a center of learning.
Cave no 11 is known as Maharaja or Darbar cave as it appears to be a kind of assembly hall.
Some of the stairs that take you up and down through the caves are in a dilapidated state. It is a big risk to take them unless you are physically fit. Except for the board outside, there are no explanations of any individual caves and that of the motifs there. There is no literature available on the ticket or elsewhere that you can read about. You have to use your knowledge of the other Buddhist caves to observe these caves.
Water Management System in Kanheri Caves
The most interesting thing to observe in these groups of caves is the water management system where a series of streams or canals leading the rainwater to huge underground tanks. This may be an example of the earliest rainwater harvesting system. An excellent example of how carefully the water was managed.
As you walk around the caves you can see the roofs channeling the water collected to the channels outside the caves. The channels, in turn, connect tanks at different levels in a way that no water is lost and there is pure water available across the cave system. This integrated water management system must have been the key reason for the caves to be habitable. Today, it is a matter of study, how a self-sustaining water management system was inbuilt into a cave system excavated in the natural rocks.
I saw a similar water management system in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, which is also carved into the natural rocks.
You can also observe the various inscriptions that are there on the walls though you may not be able to decipher them. 51 inscriptions and 26 epigraphs have been discovered at Kanheri caves in Brahmi, Devanagari, and Pahlavi scripts. Most inscriptions mention the names of the kings and businessmen who patronized these caves. One inscription mentions the marriage of the reigning Satvahana king Satakarni Vashishtiputra. There were inscriptions on copper plates that were also found at Kanheri that is now in the British Museum. ASI board tells that one of the caves here has paintings similar to that of Ajanta. But we could not locate the same and as expected there was no help available.
When I visited the caves, a Yashraj film was being shot here on top of a cave. This is the first time I realized how energy-guzzling the films are and how resource-intensive. For a small non-descript film that will probably go unnoticed, there were at least 100 people working. There were a generator van, a vanity van, and a food van with all the portable furniture and a whole lot of equipment. There were security guards who would not let you get near the shooting place, almost a radius of 100 mt’s, and not let you speak or do anything. Come on, this is a public place, you can not block it for the visitors who have also paid for the ticket, or curb their freedom.
While you are there, you can also visit the Gandhi Smarak. Which is nothing but a canopy on a hilltop that was built in the memory of Mahatma Gandhi when he died? You can get a good 360-degree view of the city from this vantage point.
Sanjay Gandhi National Park
You can walk around the national park and inhale some fresh air. There is a small lake that offers boating. A toy train that takes you around the hill. And a tiger safari makes it a place worth spending a full day here. Though the park is not like other thickly covered national parks, it still acts as lungs for this overpopulated metropolis.
A few km’s away is Mandpeshwar caves, which is a smaller set of caves and these caves were Hindu. There is a huge relief of Shiva in a dancing pose on one of the walls. It is said that there was a huge Shivalinga here but no one knows what happened to it and a new linga is worshiped now. Ironically, these caves were also used as a church for a very long time. The relief of Shiva was covered with a wall, and other reliefs were destroyed. And Christian symbols like the cross were carved out on the walls. The Hindus have now reclaimed it and we saw a huge group of women praying here. Be prepared these caves are located in one of the filthiest surroundings.
Do read – Forms of Shiva at Elephanta Caves
Now, I want to find out the other pieces of pre-British history like Banganga Tank in this city. Some of these are mentioned in this Podcast with our friend Bharat Ghothoskar.