NOT MANY TOURISTS KNOW ABOUT THE 109 BUDDHIST CAVES LOCATED IN LION AND TIGER AND GARBAGE COUNTRY JUST TO THE NORTH OF BOMBAY -- and that is a pity, because they are kind of interesting in their own way. I mean, don't come here expecting another Taj Mahal and Elephanta, but the 109 Kanheri Caves do have their own peculiar faded charm. I must admit I didn't choose to go there, I got dragged there by my lecherous guide and his driver, and got showed around by another guide who spoke a strange back-to-front, hyperspeed variant of English. Travelling in India, you have to put up with kind of thing. The caves are located on the edge of one of Asia's largest slums, in the middle of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Driving through the dry woods of the national park, surrounded by monkeys and scavenging children, you get a chance to enact your Deep in the Wilds of India fantasy, and it is a cool experience. There is a Lion Safari Park 500m inside the entrance and safari rides run daily except Monday from 9 am to 5 pm. A Jain community live near the entrance and are very friendly and interesting to talk to.
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WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE KANHERI CAVES AND THE MORE FAMOUS ELEPHANTA CAVES IN BOMBAY HARBOUR? According to Mumbainet.com: "
unlike the artistic extravagance of Elephanta, they are spartan and bare. Situated in the heart of Mumbai's National Park, the complex contains more than a hundred tiny cells cut into the flank of a hill, each fitted with a stone plinth that evidently served as a bed. There is also a congregation hall supported by huge stone pillars that contains the dagoba, a kind of Buddhist shrine. And if you pick your way up the hill you will find channels and cisterns that are remnants of an ancient water system that channeled rainwater into huge urns. In fact, Kanheri is probably the only clue to the rise and fall of Buddhism in Western India."
It would indeed surprise many India visitors that this vast Hindu realm was once almost entirely Buddhist. For such a fleeting moment of time -- under the patronage of the great Indian unifier, Ashoka, who came to the throne in about 268 BC and died approximately 233 BC. In his efforts to propagate Buddhism, Ashoka built shrines and monasteries and inscribed Buddhist teachings on rocks and pillars in many places. At Kanheri these engravings can be seen, written in the ancient Brahmi script. Under Ashoka's rule, Buddhism reached its pinnacle of power, and presumably places like the Kanheri Caves thrived with activity. The empire ebbed, however, leaving behind some Buddhist monks and the deep-sea fishermen called Kolis, whose stone goddess, Mumbadevi, gave her name to the modern metropolis of Mumbai.
According to the Mahaarashtran Tourist Information Site: "The viharas at Kanheri indicate a large monastic settlement which probably began in the 1st century AD when the bhikshus followed the austere Hinayana tradition. The settlement grew into a scholastic centre with a large library and continued through generations of monks for several centuries. The cells are provided with stone beds and cisterns for storing water, and are connected by walkways.
"Over time, the bhikshus enlarged their rock-cut Caves and in each group of viharas one was set aside as a chapel for meditation and the performance of prayer rituals. A stupa, now a votive memorial, was carved at the inner end and the arrangement of columns allowed a circumambulatory passage around it. Over the entrance was the characteristic arch in the shape of a pipal leaf. Originally simple and even severe, as at Bhaja, the chaitya developed into an impressive shrine like the magnificent Karla chaitya of the 2nd century AD -- an inscription here claims that it is the finest in ancient India. Wealthy merchants and townspeople as well as simple villagers from nearby would worship in these temples within Caves and their patronage sustained the sangha, as recorded at Karla.
"The facade of the chaitya grew increasingly elaborate as Hinayana asceticism slowly came to be replaced by the exuberance of Mahayana architecture and sculpture. At Ajanta, the intricate arrangement of horizontal friezes in traditional designs of railings and arches, interspersed with seated and standing figures of Buddha and bodhisattvas almost make a mandala or mystic diagram of the facade. Elaborately carved and decorated, the votive stupas, often adorned with a figure of Buddha, within these later chaityas are a far cry from the original which they resemble only in form.
"As Buddha had forbidden images to be made of himself, in the early years, Buddhist iconography used a variety of symbols to remind the devout of the Enlightened One. The bodhi tree, the empty seat, the wheel of dharma, the deer recalling the sermon at Sarnath, his footprints, all symbolized Buddha who was not depicted in human form till about the 1st century AD. By this time Buddhism had developed into a devotional form of worship and images of Buddha in attitudes of blessing or in deep meditation were installed in the chaityas. Mahayana transformed him into a God and legends of his previous births, the Jataka tales, and episodes from his life inspired the painters and sculptors of Ajanta in the following centuries."
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YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE SO GULLIBLE AS I WAS, WHO TOURED THE PARK WITH A LEECH-LIKE GUIDE. Do it yourself, it is much cheaper and more fun! Visitors can take the train on the Western line (from Churchgate) to Borivali station and then an auto-rickshaw to the Caves. On Sundays and public holidays, a bus service runs from Borivali station to the Caves. The MTDC suburban tour also includes Kanheri in its itinerary.