It is late afternoon. I am hungry, nursing a headache and contemplating the 400-odd steps I have to climb to explore a few caves. Sounds like an idea best abandoned. But I’m a lover of history and am egged on by an archaeologist who is ready to accompany and enlighten us on the treasures inside.
We set off to explore the not-so-well-known Bedse Caves near Lonavala, Maharashtra and the early Buddhist rock-cut caves of Bhaja and Karla. Experts believe that before visiting the World Heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora, one must visit these caves, considered an introductory chapter to them.
These caves on hillocks are more than 2,000 years old and were the residence of monks who used to lived austere lives here. Enveloped in the beauty of the Western Ghats, every cave has its own charm and serenity, tailor-made for meditation and solitude.
The ancient route
Archaeologist Sawani Shetye of the Goa-based Bhoomij Heritage group informs us that thousands of years ago, these caves lay on an ancient trade route, running eastward from the Arabian Sea into the Deccan.
Traders used them as shelter on their travels. Our journey started from Pune to the Bhaja Caves, around 60 kilometres away. These are touristy but still convey a sense of peace when you visit them.
Bhaja, a group of 22 rock-cut caves, is the best example of early Buddhist cave architecture dating back to the 2nd Century BC. The important cave is Cave XII, which has a beautiful wooden ceiling in a horseshoe shape, made of Burmese teak more than 2,000 years old. The hall or the chaityagrha has pillars on both sides and a stupa at its centre.
A little ahead are a cluster of stupas which are now covered with a roof. These contain relics and were built by the monks in memory of their gurus.
However, what set apart these caves are the panels or sculptures on walls. They tell the story of the Sun god and Indra. Look out for the carving of a woman playing something that looks like an early version of the tabla!
The latter half of the day was spent in the stunning Karla Caves. These caves developed from the 2nd Century BC to the 5th Century AD. Many traders and Satavahana rulers gave grants for the construction of these caves. The Grand Chaitya (Cave VIII) has massive pillars that have figures of males and females, mounted on animals such lions, elephants, etc. It also has a stupa in the centre.
A 15-metre-high pillar stands at its entrance. A few centuries ago, there were two pillars, but now only one survives. There is the Ekvira temple here. No one knows for sure when this temple was constructed, but now it is a major pilgrimage site, especially for the Koli community of Maharashtra.
Shetye informs us that these caves were situated not far from villages, as monks had to visit the village to gather alms. They had little comfort except the spectacular views.
The Bedse Caves were built during the Satavahana period. Some of the caves appear to have been meditation halls and the acoustics suggest the same. The environment is perfect for meditation, what with the monsoon green as far as the eye can see and no other sound except the gurgle of waterfalls and the screams of the peacocks. And, of course, the calming silence.