Kanheri Caves: Origin and Features :
Kanheri caves were one of the major Buddhist centres in Western India during ancient times.
They were built between the 1st century BC to 10th century AD and acted as monastery and learning centre for more than 1000 years.
It is located within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the North of Mumbai and consists of 109 caves.
It was one of the largest Buddhist monastic settlements in India.
The cave complex has 51 ancient inscriptions and 26 epigraphs.
It is famous for its rock-cut monolithic stupas and hundreds of statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas.
It is also known for the water harvesting system developed by ancient engineers thousands of years ago, still in working condition.
The Kanheri monastery was Theravada in origin.
Later it became an important centre for Mahayana doctrine. Initially, it was used during the rainy retreats of the monks.
Once the caves became permanent monasteries, intricate reliefs of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas started to be carved into the walls.
Kanheri became an important centre of Buddhism in western India by the 3rd century AD.
The caves of Kanheri were used for living, learning and religious practices.
The larger caves were chaityas or halls for worship.
The hill in which the caves are situated is known as Krishnagiri or Kanhagiri.
It is a large mass of compact basalt rock.
The highest point of the complex is fifteen hundred fifty feet above sea level.
The caves were built on different levels of the hill.
The majority of the rock-cut caves follow a standard model of a single or double room for monks, with rock-cut benches and a narrow verandah.
They also have a cistern for the collection of water for the daily use of the monks.
Windows and holes cut into walls provided natural light and ventilation to the caves.
The Ancient Water Harvesting System of Kanheri Cave Complex :
The cave complex had a very developed system for water harvesting.
Rock cut cisterns, some filled with water year-round, are still present beside the paths, together with the channels that once conducted water to the monuments.
The caves are present on the three hills.
A stream flows between north and south hill.
The ancient engineers converted the catchment area into a water reservoir by building two small stone walls.
The dam walls are still present today. Five large water tanks were constructed to supply water to all the caves.
These tanks were connected with a network of channels.
Each cave used to have its water cisterns for the daily use of the monks.
Structure and Salient Features of Kanheri Caves:
One can reach this Buddhist site through the gate of Sanjay Gandhi National park.
The entry of the Kanheri cave complex is off the western side of the hill.
Immediately after entry into the complex, one is greeted by the imposing structure of Cave no 1. Cave no 1 is one of the highest caves in the complex.
Though, it is not one of the earliest of the structures.
It was built during the 6th and 7th century. The cave was abandoned at an early age and was left unfinished.
The two high columns of the cave give it a very imposing appearance.
Cave no 2, is one of the oldest structure here.
The front walls of the cave are missing now.
It has got two chambers.
The first chamber has a monolithic stupa with a Harmika.
Harmika is a square structure on the top of the dome of a Buddhist stupa, symbolizing heaven.
It has a beautifully carved, seated Buddha on the rear wall of the cave.
The second chamber also has a monolithic stupa, with traces of polish on the dome.
It is one of the oldest structures in the cave complex, dating back to the 3rd to 2nd century BC.
The cave contains beautiful carvings on the wall, which are of the later era.
The carvings depict preaching Buddha and Avalokiteshwara.
There is a large vihara adjacent to the Stupa, which is more than 16 metres wide.
There is also a two-line inscription in the cave which dates back to the 2nd century AD.
Cave no 3 is the largest and most imposing structure in the complex.
It is also known as the great chaitya.
The work on the cave was started during the 2nd century AD and remains unfinished.
The Chaitya cave was built during different stages spread over several centuries.
The inscriptions at the great chaitya mention that the cave was built during the reign of the Yajnashri Satakarni, who was a Satvahana king.
The cave has got a large court that is walled by a carved ornamental railing.
Large male deities guard the entrance.
Large columns, more than 9 meters in height are carved with male figures.
Figures of Bodhisattvas are carved on the base of the columns.
Before entering the main chaitya, one enters a verandah, the sidewall of which contains a large Buddha figure on each side.
The Buddha figures are more than 6.5 meters in height, carved during the 5th to 6th century AD.
Above the Buddha image deities from heaven are depicted in flying position.
The Buddha statues have their hands opened outwards and downwards, called Varda mudra or boon bestowing mudra
The walls have several smaller Buddha images carved on them.
The great Chaityagriha is very large, 26 meters long and 13.5 meters wide.
There are two rows of octagonal columns.
There are 34 columns in total, most of them contain images of animals, and images of footprints below the bodhi tree.
The height of the cave is more than 13 meters.
The ceiling of the cave was covered with timber, which has all been destroyed now.
There are notches on the ceilings and walls of the caves.
These notches are evidence of the large use of timber in the cave complex.
All columns lead to a large monolithic stupa at the rear of the cave, which is 6 meters in height and 5 meters in diameter.
The cylindrical Stupa provides a divine aura to the interior of the cave.
Two brick stupas were present in front of the chaitya hall, which got destroyed.
One of these structural stupas contained a relic with a copper plate inscription.
Left to the great chaitya is cave no 4, which is a small circular chaitya with a monolithic Stupa.
The harmika of the stupa is connected to the cave ceiling through a chhatra.
Another significant cave in the complex is called Darbar hall, which is cave no 11.
The long verandah of the Darbar hall has eight octagonal columns and two square columns.
The interior of the cave is large, more than 10 meters in length and 22 meters wide.
The Darbar hall contains a preaching Buddha image between the images of Bodhisattvas.
Cave no 34 contains a painting of Buddha on the ceiling, which is the only mural of Kanheri and the oldest example of mural art anywhere at the Buddhist sites of western ghats.
However, the image of Buddha is only partially coloured.
Cave 41 contains a four-armed eleven-headed image of Avalokiteshvara which was not found at any other ancient Buddhist site across India.
Cave 67 is very large and contains some of the most beautiful artwork inside.
The hall is 12 meters in length and 14 meters wide.
The sidewalls and the rear walls are covered with beautiful Buddha images of different sizes.
The small Buddha images alternate with large Buddha images in the standing position.
Cave no 90 has some of the best-preserved images of Buddha in the cave complex.
The sidewall contains the image of Avalikiteshwara holding lotus along with images of Tara and Bhrikti.
The last cave in the complex is cave no 101. Beyond the caves, there is a cemetery of Buddhist monks, who used to live here.
It contains several structural brick stupas, which are not in good condition now.
Kanheri functioned as one of the most significant Buddhist monastic settlement in Western India.
Cave no 66 contains an ancient Japanese inscription by some visiting Japanese pilgrim. The KAnheri caves were linked with Nichiren Buddhism, one of the major Buddhist sects in Japan.
11th-century inscriptions by the visiting Parsis have also been found within the cave complex.
During the ancient ages, the Kanheri settlement was well connected to many trade centres.
These trade centres included Sopara, Kalyan Karla, Bhaja, and Paithan.
The traders and kings of these cities also provided patronage to the monastic complex.
Kanheri was a major centre of Theravada in the beginning and later for Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism.
The decline of Kanheri Cave Complex:
Kanheri is the only Buddhist monastic cave settlement in India, which was continuously inhabited by monks, for more than 1600 years.
Buddhism was in decline in India, after the 10th century.
The Islamic invasions during the eleventh and twelfth centuries dealt a severe blow to Buddhism in western India.
Kanheri survived that onslaught.
Small groups of Buddhist monks continued to occupy the caves.
But Kanheri was not able to survive the religious rage of the Portuguese invasion during the sixteenth century.
The remaining Buddhist ascetics still living in the cave complex were converted into Christianity by them in 1535.
Many of the caves suffered a lot of damage at their hands.
One Fr. Antonio even converted the main Chaitya into the Church of St. Michael.
The monks and students have long left the hills, but the caves and their images still tell the story of its past glory and significance of the major centre of Buddhism that was Kanheri !!
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