Kanheri caves: In a forest in Mumbai, a secret history of Buddhism

Source: The post is based on the article “In a forest in Mumbai, a secret history of Buddhism” published in the Livemint on 17th November 2022.

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Kanheri cave complex is one of the most important historical monuments of western India.

About Kanheri cave complex

Reason for the name: According to the autobiography of Buddhagyanapada, written in ninth century CE, Kanheri means a place that seems to exist like rootless vines entwined up trees (anheri) into the sky (kha).

Made up of: Much like the Sahyadri Range to the east, the hills of Kanheri are  also made up of black basalt.

Significance of Kanheri to Buddhism: Kanheri was the home of a large Buddhist community for over a thousand years. 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.

These caves are like large resorts, with a multitude of caves in the form of small rock villas built for the use of monks and lay practitioners. One can witness religious styles ranging from early Theravada through early and mature Mahayana, and also the beginnings of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Epigraphs: These refers to many royal houses, including the Satavahana kings of the second century CE, all the way to the great ninth-century Rashtrakuta king Amoghavarsha and his local feudatory, Kapardin II of the Silhara dynasty.

What are some prominent Buddhist architectures in Kanheri caves?

Nearly all 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 seated pralamba-padasana pose, and flanked by two Bodhisattvas.

Cave 3: It is a large sculptural gallery with two colossal Buddhas at either end. The standing Buddhas are over 20ft high and are from the sixth century CE. They are in the classic Sarnath style of Gupta-era art.

Cave 41: It has a stunning sculpture of the ekadasamuka Lokeshwara (11-headed Avalokiteshwara, the only one of its kind found in India).

Cave 90: It has a gorgeous sculpture of Avalokiteshwara—flanked by the goddesses Tara and Bhrikuti—in his role as saviour of his supplicants from the eight great fears (ashta-maha-bhaya) of the medieval world.

It bears inscriptions in Pahlavi that record the names of Persian migrants who had visited the caves in the 11th century.

About rock-cut cave sites in Maharashtra

The first rock-cut caves were excavated in Bihar (the Barabar caves and the Nagarjuni caves) during the reign of emperor Ashoka in the Mauryan era.

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.

The most well-known caves in Maharashtra are the caves at Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad. While these caves were mostly Buddhist, one can find Hindu rock-cut caves at Ellora from the fifth century CE onwards.

The cave architecture reached its apotheosis in the monumental “Kailasa Temple”, or Cave 16, at Ellora.

The trend of rock-cut caves pale out towards the end of the first millennium CE, to be replaced by free-standing stone temples in the Hindu traditions and gigantic stone and wood viharas and temples in the Buddhist traditions.

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