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Beyond Ajanta And Ellora: The Immense Beauty And Richness Of Kanheri Caves

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While local citizens in Mumbai are aware of this absolutely stunning site, especially in the monsoon, not many tourists visiting Mumbai are even aware or have ever heard of the Kanheri caves or Vasai which have huge potential for tourism in Maharashtra.

The history of this ancient civilisation is characterised by an incredible cultural continuity. In each community, the evolution of different languages reflects an imaginative response to geographical resources and spaces. Crossing time and space, communities bonded with each other. There is an inherent societal-behavioural idea of continuity, of constant adaptation and assimilation. Expression of swarajya is containing the diversity through conservation of heritage which includes intangible linguistic as well as tangible sites.

India’s rich linguistic heritage is similar to streams that flow separately but often mingle. In that interaction, one regional culture deepens and enriches the other. Languages are specific to the cultural environment and these manifestations of the need to communicate are dynamic. The creation of states in India on the basis of language erected artificial political boundaries between regions. These served to curb flowing dynamic cultures across areas with shared affinities apart from differences in language or dialect.

Kapila Vatsyayan says that there are 50,000 unread estampages of inscriptions from our monuments and coins lying in the epigraphical sections of the Archaeological Survey of India in Mysore and Nagpur. Inscriptions in innumerable monuments remain undeciphered even today. This is because many of our major languages have more than one script.

For example, Marathi has four, and similarly there are different scripts for Pali, Prakrit, Kharoshti, Arabic, Persian and the Dravidian languages. However, today we have no more than 35 inscription readers, all more than 70 years old. There is an urgent need to invest in a mentorship programme in order to develop a larger pool of skilled people to conserve languages. Otherwise, the stories our monuments can tell will remain unheard.

While it is imperative for the government to prepare policy/vision statements, the principle of less government in the field of culture needs to be followed immediately. There are multiple ministries dealing with matters relating to different aspects of culture. This results in a fragmented approach and piecemeal attention to problems and issues.

The first step could be to bring all these matters under one umbrella ministry or department, alongside the setting up of an advisory body of balanced and progressive cultural professionals, for example Indologists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, linguists and art specialists.

As an example, there is the case of the Kanheri caves, in Mumbai, with over 50 inscriptions that capture the human imagination—an illustration in a manner in which multidisciplinary approaches can be applied in conserving tangible and intangible heritage and promoting holistic tourism.

These are narratives on networks of power, economics, religion, retreats and endless aspirations on the horizons of the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean.

I had first heard of the Kanheri caves from my teacher Dr M.N. Deshpande, who told me that it was one of the richest sites for epigraphic inscriptions evident in multiple ancient languages which include Prakrit, Pali, and Brahmi and reveal knowledge on trade networks, communities, patronage patterns and much more.

Dr Deshpande taught me about a subject that had captured his mind, body and soul all his life. They were the rock cut caves emerging out of the volcanic basalt rock in the Deccan plateau—Badami to Ahihole, Elephanta to Ajanta, Ellora and Kanheri. As an exception, his lectures were also on the Bamiyan Buddha. He worked in the Archaeological Survey of India and later served as the Director General there. Dr Deshpande, ate, breathed and slept rock-cut cave architecture.

The cave routes in the Deccan caught my imagination, and it is with breathlessness I recently approached the site of the Kanheri caves. Situated in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the site is the largest collection of cave excavations on a single hill, almost 90 in number. One can view similarities with the caves in Ajanta.

The caves date back as early as 3rd century BCE, and seem to have been in use until 11th century CE. Among the imperial patrons, the most significant were the Deccan rulers—the Satvahanas (second BCE to first CE). The vast number of inscriptions describes complex human networks of castes, merchant guilds and refers to sources of donations for the site.

Similar to the Ajanta caves, the site appears as a sublime location of a monsoon retreat, for amidst the strewed caves is the lush greenery, chirping birds, innumerable waterfalls, rippling rivers. The site has viharas—or places to stay for Buddhist monks and chaityas—prayer halls. It differs from Ajanta when one encounters an amazing programme on hydraulic engineering with cisterns in several caves and a funerary space (location around cave numbers 85 and 90). The most important feature of the site is a recall value of its links with economic heritage since it was close to important ports like Sopara.

Dr Deshpande had referred to artefacts such as Greek ivory combs which were recovered from this site. The site as a retreat and a safe haven is evident when one sees among the sculptural representation, the friezes on the eight perils which a traveller could encounter. These are called Ashtobhaya and include attacks by wild elephants, lions, robbers, serpents, captivity, demons/evil spirits, shipwreck and conflagration. A similar representation occurs in Ajanta in Cave 1 as well and is located in the outer verandah as a sculptural relief.

Like Ajanta and Ellora, the Kanheri site has sculptures, paintings and architecture. Impressive chaityas with pillars and vaulted roofs, stupas, and friezes of the Buddha among which the two standing Buddha figures and the 11-headed Alokesteshwar are unique. One is definitely amazed at the immense beauty and richness of the site and the bounty of natural environment, a rare space in the globalised city of Mumbai!

While local citizens in Mumbai are aware of this absolutely stunning site, especially in the monsoon, not many tourists visiting Mumbai are even aware or have ever heard of the Kanheri caves or Vasai which have huge potential for tourism in Maharashtra.

India as an experience is just so immeasurable. Like the coiled kundalini it keeps uncoiling endlessly and one life is not enough to know this expression of human history. One has to retreat, and then come back into its organised chaos—just like the caves in Kanheri where the monks realised the eternal essence of hope in the idea of Alokesteshwar—the Boddhisatva of compassion, and who absorbs human suffering to attain swarajya.