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How the Kanheri Caves tell us a secret history of Mumbai

The Kanheri caves in Mumbai are a historical site of immense importance. Lounge visits the caves to unearth the secret religious history of the region

A colossal statue of the Buddha at the Kanheri Caves in Mumbai, (Istockphoto)

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“About three hundred yojanas (about 1,200 miles) from Kannauj in the western direction is the country of Konkana. There is a place in Konkana called Kanheri. Why is it called that? Because it is a place that seems to exist like rootless vines entwined up trees (anheri) into the sky (kha).” From the autobiography of Buddhagyanapada, 9th century CE.

If you travel to Mumbai, and head north from the airport, past the neighbourhoods of Andheri, Goregaon and Malad to Borivali East, you will see a tall, forested hill range keeping pace to your right. To a casual visitor, this sudden vista may seem like an anachronism in this city of skyscrapers by the Arabian Sea.

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However, the thickly forested slopes of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP)—renowned for its population of occasionally jaywalking leopards—has been towering over Salsette, Mumbai’s largest island, for millions of years. Deep inside its southern forests, ringed around a hill of black basalt, lies Kanheri, India’s largest rock-cut cave complex. Although it is fairly well-known, it is nowhere near as famous as the nearby Elephanta or even distant Ajanta and Ellora caves. The truth is, though, that the Kanheri complex is one of the most important historical monuments of western India.

A view of Cave 3 in the Kanheri Caves complex.
A view of Cave 3 in the Kanheri Caves complex. (Istockphoto)

Going into the forest

One pleasantly warm morning in late November, when I take a trundling old BEST bus (complete with a benignly forbidding conductor), from the entrance of the SGNP into the forest, I’d already spent three whole days being hit over the head with sculptural and painted masterpieces at various cave sites in Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora. And yet, nothing prepares me for the monumentality of the mahavihara of Kanheri that lies at the end of the 20-minute ride. The bus winds its way through thick deciduous forests and dusty tracks, over dry beds of seasonal streams, including the main one, Dahisar. The bus is full, mostly with local families from Borivali and Malad, and groups of college kids.

As we move deeper into the hills, it already seems a different world from the vertical metropolis that I had been travelling through not half an hour ago.

We disembark at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) ticket-counter, and climb up steep steps to the main courtyard of the complex, dominated by the huge, grand visage of Cave 3, the site of Kanheri’s main chaitya hall. The hills of Kanheri, much like the Sahyadri Range to the east, is made up of black basalt, the result of the geologically ancient vulcanism that created the Deccan Traps. This profusion of basalt, an igneous rock that is easily malleable, probably explains why Maharashtra is the capital of ancient rock cut architecture in the country. Of the 1,200-odd architectural cave sites excavated in India, a thousand or more are found in the state.

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Kanheri was the home of a large Buddhist community for over one thousand years. A monastic complex, it slowly grew over a thousand years, till it was large enough and important enough to be reckoned a mahavihara, like Nalanda in Bihar. The earliest recorded structures in the complex date to the second century CE, while textual records attest to the continued use of the caves as late as the 12th century. As a result, the complex is an iconographically rich site where you can see religious styles ranging from early Theravada through early and mature Mahayana, and also the beginnings of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Stepping over the threshold of Cave 3, it’s easy to see the continuous evolution in artistic styles. Two giant pillars on either side of the prayer hall’s forecourt are carved with figures and motifs that recall the sculpture of Sanchi, including standing figures, nagas with tentacles under their torso and squat yaksha figures that act as dvarapalas (door-guardians). Just inside of a large screening wall at the end of the forecourt, and just before the entrance to the cave, is a large sculptural gallery with two colossal Buddhas at either end. Two grouped galleries of two standing maithuna (amorous) couples are clearly from the earliest era, while the massed small sculptures of the Buddha in the preaching posture, and his attendant Bodhisattvas, have been dated to the 5th-6th centuries.

The colossal standing Buddhas—over 20 feet high—too are from the 6th century CE. They are in the classic Sarnath style of Gupta-era art, with the Buddha standing with a slight sway of his hips, his eyes half-closed as if in a meditative trance. His left hand holds one end of his flowing robe near the shoulder. The right hand is in the abhaya mudra (wish-granting pose). Each of the statues are carved into a niche and framed by a doorway converging into a classic makara torana arch. In it are carved small flying celestial figures, called vidyadharas, showing their veneration to the Buddha. Just above the Buddha’s head are four small figures, probably gods, paying obeisance to a stupa.

The cave proper is a chaitya hall that is nearly 90ft deep and over 40ft high. It has a classic apsidal plan, with a gigantic stupa in the apse. Two rows of pillars with animal columns divide the cave into a central nave and side aisles. The focus of this architectural design is the stupa, which is unadorned, in keeping with its Theravadin origin.

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Later such chaitya halls found in the region, such as Ajanta’s magnificent Cave 26 or Ellora’s imposing Cave 10, with their distinctive Mahayana flavour, would also feature a colossal, seated Buddha—flanked by the Bodhisatttvas Avalokiteshwara and Vajrapani— carved in sharp relief into the central stupa. Maybe this would have been the case with Kanheri too, but scholars reckon that a paucity of funds probably resulted in the cave remaining relatively unfinished. As it is, given the setting at the base of a hill overlooking a rolling forest, and the sculptural genius on display in the forecourt, Cave 3 is a highly impressive structure.

A view of the Kanheri Caves complex with the forest and the Mumbai skyline in the background.
A view of the Kanheri Caves complex with the forest and the Mumbai skyline in the background. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The true wonders of Kanheri, though, are not monumental sculptures—unlike at Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta—but in the very nature of the site. Think of it like a large resort, with a multitude of its caves in the form of small rock villas built for the use of monks and lay practitioners. Most of the caves—which are fairly small and compact, unlike Cave 3—come with a small forecourt, and a verandah with rock-cut benches. The interior of the caves consist of a main hall, as well as cells for people to sleep in. Some of these cells even have perforated windows for light and air circulation.

Each of the caves also have two cisterns on either side of the verandah, where rainwater was collected for drinking and bathing. This was bolstered by gigantic cisterns dug out on the top of the hill, where rainwater could be collected in the monsoon months. A stream running through the complex was dammed with a bund to create an additional reservoir. The overall effect is that of a bespoke space created to foster seclusion, meditation and contemplation. If you add to that a view of the Arabian Sea afforded to each of the west-facing caves (these days sadly obscured by skyscrapers) the result is luxurious.

The rise of the Tantric Age

Entering Cave 89 is a relief. The afternoon sun over Mumbai is scorching hot, and all the coolness of the morning has disappeared. It is then a pleasure to duck into a quiet, dark cave after climbing up a fight of steep rock-carved stairs. As my eyes adjust to the sudden gloom, I let out a low whistle. Unlike some of the other caves that I’d just visited, this one is a shrine, but a very strange one at that.

Nearly all such caves in Kanheri consist of a large rectangular hall with a recessed room at its head. This is where a large Buddha image is usually found, seated either in the dhyana mudra (meditative posture) in the pralamba-padasana pose, and flanked by two Bodhisattvas. In 89, the main difference is that the hall too is covered wall-to-wall with carvings. It’s just a repetition of one or two motifs, but the sheer act of replication gives it a mesmeric feel. It is a repeat of the main triad, arranged almost like a row of painted wall hangings. These are interspersed by individual standing figures of Avalokiteshwara holding the blue lotus.

Maharashtra's rock-cut caves.
Maharashtra's rock-cut caves.

The cave monastery next to it, 90, brings on a similar hallucinatory effect. Only here the iconographic programme is slightly different. For one, this has a gorgeous sculpture of Avalokiteshwara—flanked by the goddesses Tara and Bhrikuti—in his role as savior of his supplicants from the eight great fears (ashta-maha-bhaya) of the medieval world. This includes being attacked by wild animals or by robbers, and also from shipwreck. Cave 90 also features smaller versions of Cave 3’s colossal Buddhas. The overall effect of these two caves—where such bas relief sculptures are best preserved—is that of the viewer stepping into a three-dimensional mandala. This reminds me of historian Geri H. Malandra’s thesis in her book Unfolding A Mandala: The Buddhist Cave Temples at Ellora (1993), that western Maharashtra sites, especially Ellora, exhibit the first emergence of the Buddhist tantras in art.

One of the most misunderstood and poorly analysed Indian religious developments, the Buddhist tantras grew out of popular Mahayana, probably emerging as written texts sometime in the 6th century CE. From humble beginnings, it later grew into a form of Buddhism that became so distinct that Buddhists gave it its own name: Vajrayana. Modern scholars give it a different name: Esoteric Buddhism.

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Indian and Vietnamese Buddhist monks at Ajanta.
Indian and Vietnamese Buddhist monks at Ajanta. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Broadly speaking, Vajrayana is dependent on secrecy, on enlightened gurus (who may or may not be monks) initiating others in various meditation-and-mantra-led paths to enlightenment. Art historian Rob Linrothe lists its primary features in his book Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities In Early Medieval Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (1999): “The secrecy which surrounds its core teachings, the use of a cryptic language for prayers, the centrality of mystic experience and comprehensive many-layered symbols contribute to a system of belief and praxis…”

A defining element of the Buddhist tantras was the mandala, a sacred geometric space that is imagined by the initiate where she builds up an ordered, hierarchical diagram of deities and divinities, focused on a central Buddha or another Buddhist deity. This visual construct is then used as an aid to deep meditation and rites which helps the sadhaka (seeker) reach enlightenment.

Typically, in Indian history, new religious developments took a century or so to be reflected in artistic depictions. The great masterpieces of Vajrayana art would only be produced after the 8th century CE in places like Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Kashmir. But in the 6th-7th centuries, in Ellora and at Kanheri, the first depictions of mandalas, wrathful deities, enigmatic female divinities, and secret forms of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, had already begun. The Kanheri caves’ three-dimensional mandalas, Cave 41’s stunning sculpture of the ekadasamuka Lokeshwara (eleven-headed Avalokiteshwara, the only one of its kind found in India); the presence of wrathful deities in the Buddhist caves of Aurangabad; the depiction of tantric goddesses Chunda and Mahamayuri and two dimensional mandalas in Ellora were all created at about the same time.

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Emerging from the mists of time

So, who were the people who lived and worked at Kanheri? Were they monks? Were they lay practitioners? The full understanding of early medieval Indian history is often plagued by the fact that we have no clue about the people who created the artworks that have come down to us. Call it an epidemic of self-effacement, but beyond the boastful declarations of kings, ordinary Indians have left very few epigraphic records of who they were, or of their social milieu.

Kanheri is an outlier in this regard. The caves have yielded a rich crop of inscriptions, representing all the different eras of its 1,000-year-old habitation. It has also been recorded in the hagiographies of great Indian monks and tantric masters, and, in an 11th century illustrated palm-leaf manuscript of the Ashtasahisrika Pragyaparamita from the Kathmandu Valley, been also depicted in miniature painting. Known variously through its history as Kanheri, Kanhagiri, Krishnagiri and Kanhasela, the site has been defined by the black (“kanha”, “krishna”) rock out of which it was created.

A miniature painting on an 11th century palm-leaf manuscript from Nepal depicting Kanheri.
A miniature painting on an 11th century palm-leaf manuscript from Nepal depicting Kanheri. (Courtesy University of Cambridge)

The epigraphs found in Kanheri refer to many royal houses, including Satavahana kings of the second century CE, all the way to the great 9th century Rashtrakuta king Amoghavarsha and his local feudatory, Kapardin II of the Silhara dynasty. But the epigraphs record the pious donations of others too. Like Sulasadata from Chaul in Raigad, the son of a goldsmith, who donated a water cistern for Cave 7. A structural stupa next to Cave 3 is actually a funerary memorial for a monk called Dhammapala. It was erected in his memory by Sivapalitanika and her husband Dhamanaka, a goldsmith. A Gajasena, his brother Gajamita, and their wives donated the monumental chaitya of Cave 3.

Cave 21, built around the 6th century, records the donation of a water cistern by Apapapenu, a trader and lay Buddhist upasaka (practitioner) from Kalyan, along with his wife Juvarinika and his mother Dharmadevi. Cave 22 was donated by a Buddhist nun. An enigmatic inscription in Cave 99 records the donation of benches for monks to sit and look out at the sea by a Mitabhuti, an official whose job, as the inscription says, was sagara-paloganam, “to observe the sea”. People came from far and wide to Kanheri. A Gomin Avighnakara travelled all the way from Gauda (Bengal) in the 9th century to make a permanent endowment for the monks of the “Srikrishnagiri mahavihara”, as an inscription records in Cave 11. Cave 90 bears inscriptions in Pahlavi that records the names of Persian migrants who had visited the caves in the 11th century.

An exquisitely carved panel depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in Cave 89 of the Kanheri Caves.
An exquisitely carved panel depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in Cave 89 of the Kanheri Caves. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The continued popularity and importance of Kanheri is also borne out by the fact that two great Indian monks and tantric masters, Buddhagyanapada of Magadha and Atisha Dipankara of Bengal, visited Krishnagiri for tantric initiations in the 9th and 11th centuries respectively. The quote that opens this article is from the autobiography of Buddhagyanapada, a noted master of the Guhyasamaja Tantra, who would form a lineage of masters that is maintained in Tibet to this day. Composed as a travelogue, the book (called the Dvitiyakrama) provides an important social document of Buddhist communities in India at the time. In the narrative, Buddhagyanapada travels to Krishnagiri to study with “the lord of the siddhas”, the acharya (teacher) Rakshapada. The latter’s multi-caste retinue included two Brahmins (Chatrata and Guhyapatra), a Kshatriya (Manjushri), a Vaisya (Punyabhadra), two Sudras (Dipankara and Karnaputra), as well as two sex-workers (Aloki and Sadhushila). Buddhagyanapada would study with Rakshapada for nine years.

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Two centuries later, Atisha Dipankara, a great acharya of Vikramashila, who would later travel to Tibet and set up the Tibetan monastic system as we know it today, also travelled to Krishnagiri to receive his tantric initiation from a master called Rahulagupta. At the end of his three months of practice, Atisha was given a secret tantric name: Guhyagyanavajra. Beside Cave 101 is a gigantic rock cut throne, and it’s tempting to think of a tantric siddhacharya sitting on it, imparting initiation and secret teachings to his followers.

A hidden history of Mumbai

The many hours I spend wandering about the Kanheri caves, climbing up to the top of the hill to view the massive water reservoirs, and straining for an elusive sight of the sea, are full of strange juxtapositions. For one, there is the vaguely post-apocalyptic sight of tall skyscrapers seemingly rising out of the forest. Then there are the caves themselves, gaping maws of darkness under the harsh afternoon sun. Finally, there are the tourists and blithe day-trippers, for whom Kanheri is just a welcome break from their everyday lives, nothing more.

One day, some historian will write the full story of Kanheri, linking it with the great outpouring of wealth and the resultant investment in religious art along the ancient trade routes of western Maharashtra. That nearby Sopara, Kalyan, Junnar and Elephanta were all important ports and trading centres where merchants profited from lucrative trade with Mediterranean and west Asian cultures is well known. The extent to which this influenced and empowered local communities to invest in their preferred religions and create the works of genius at Ajanta, Ellora, Aurangabad, Junnar, Kanheri and Elephanta, is less well known. Who were the artisan families that created local ateliers that supplied the sculptors and painters over hundreds of years? Who were the religious specialists who frequented these sites? What national and international aspirations drove local rulers to invest all the money and time into monumental edifices?

And why did it all fade away?

We may never know. Getting on the return bus out of the forest, along with a family celebrating a young daughter’s birthday with an outing, I am just thankful that Kanheri exists.

The Information: Kanheri Caves

How to get there: The Kanheri Caves are situated in northern Mumbai, inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali East. Entry is through the gates of the National Park. The national park is open from 7:30am-5pm. Closed on Mondays.

Entry Fees:  58 for adults and 31 for children. A BEST shuttle bus service leaves from the national park gates to Kanheri every 15-20 minutes. 10 per adult. The Kanheri Caves is a ticketed ASI monument. 25 for Indian citizens and 300 for foreign nationals. Entry free for children below 15. Kanheri cave timings: 9am-5pm.

Quick Tips: The Kanheri cave complex consists of 102 caves created around two hills. Entry is allowed to all the caves. Especially check out Caves 3, 11, 41, 89, 90 and 101. Walk up to the top of the hill for a great view of ancient water reservoirs, the surrounding forest and the distant city skyline.

You can also go for hikes on various trails in the SGNP, as well as for safaris. Check at the park’s entry gate for rates for these. You can also rent out bicycles for short trips within the park. Be sure to carry plenty of water and also some food.

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