Till I was told about these caves, I had no idea about this ancient piece of history in the city of Mumbai that is primarily known for its existence from the British period onwards. Lying inside the Sanjay Gandhi national park in Borivili, these caves can be accessed through a road and the vehicles go more or less till the beginning of the caves. From here take a flight of steps that will take you to ticket window and then caves.
Like the more famous cousins in Ajanta and Ellora, Kanheri caves had also been excavated from 1st BCE to about 11th AD. They represent both the Mahayana and the Hinayana phase of Buddhism. This is also evident from the fact that in certain caves Buddha is represented through symbols like Stupas and footprints while in others there are anthromorphic images of him. The name Kanheri comes from the name of the hill on which these caves have been carved out – Krishnagiri. There are 110 caves in total, making it the largest cave groups, though some of caves seem to be incomplete. Caves include one huge Chitya griha or the prayer hall, a huge dining hall with a low seating long table on two sides, underground water tanks and whole lot of viharas or living quarters for the monks with benches in outer courtyards. It is said that by 3rd CE, Kanheri became a permanent settlement for the Buddhist and was no longer a secluded place for the travelling monks.
Cave no 3 or Chaitya griha is very close to the current day entrance. It has ceiling design carved like that of wooden structure. Carved pillars with elephant motifs flank a huge stupa in the middle of this huge hall. This structure is at least double storeyed but it is difficult to find the way to the upper floors now. Outside the cave in the porch are the huge Buddha figures in high relief. On the front walls are the figures of the donors who sponsored these caves. Outside this cave you will see a few more stupas, one of which is completely covered and the others are relatively open and people can walk around them. There is a replica of the typical railings or balustrades that you find around the famous stupas like the ones at Amravati, Sanchi, Bhahrut and the Maha Bodhi temple. The pattern is a typical criss-cross with lotus emblems. Sometime in 16-17th century, this cave was converted into a Christian church, though today no sign of this conversion survives.
Viharas follow a similar pattern with a front courtyard having benches to sit, followed by rooms for the monks and the same pattern on the upper floor. The water tanks are usually placed on either side of the caves. Literature tells us that many visitors from southeastern countries visited this Vihara for studying, establishing it as a centre of learning.
Some of stairs that take you up and down through the caves are in a dilapidated state and it is a big risk to take them unless you are physically fit. Except for the board outside there are no explanations of any individual caves and that of the motifs there. There is no literature available with the ticket or elsewhere that you can read about. You have to use your knowledge of the other Buddhist caves to observe these caves.
Most interesting thing to observe in these groups of caves is the water management system where a series of streams or canals leading the rainwater to huge underground tanks. This may be an example of earliest rainwater harvesting system, and an excellent example of how carefully the water was managed. You can also observe the various inscriptions that are there on the walls, though you may not be able to decipher them. 51 inscriptions and 26 epigraphs have been discovered at Kanheri. Most inscriptions mention the names of the kings and businessmen who patronized these caves. One instruction mentions the marriage of the reigning king. There were inscriptions on copper plates that were also found at Kanheri that are now in the British Museum. ASI board tells that one of the caves here has paintings similar to that of Ajanta, but we could not locate the same and as expected there was no help available.
When I visited these caves, a Yashraj film was being shot here on top of a cave. And this is the first time I realized how energy guzzling the films are and how resource intensive. For a small non-descript film that will probably go un-noticed, there were at least 100 people working. There was a generator van, a vanity van and a food van with all the portable furniture and whole lot of equipment. There were security guards who would not let you get near the shooting place, almost a radius of 100 mts and not let you speak or do anything. Come on, this is a public place, you can block it for the visitors who have also paid for the ticket, or curb their freedom.
While you are there, you can also visit the Gandhi Samarak, which is nothing but a canopy on a hilltop that was built in the memory of Mahatama Gandhi when he died. You can get a good 360-degree view of the city from this vantage point. You can walk around the national park and inhale some fresh air. There is a small lake that offers boating. A toy train that takes you around the hill and a tiger safari make it a place worth spending a full day here. Though the park in not like other thickly covered national parks, but it still acts as lungs for this over populated metropolis.
A few kms from Kanheri caves is Mandpeshwar caves, which is a smaller set of caves and these caves were Hindu and there is a huge relief of Shiva in dancing pose on one of the walls. It is said that there was a huge Shivalinga here but no one knows what happened to it and a new linga is worshipped now. Ironically, these caves were also used as a church for a very long time and the relief of Shiva was covered with a wall, and other reliefs were destroyed and Christian symbols like cross were carved out on the walls. The Hindus have now reclaimed it and we saw a huge group of women praying here. Be prepared these caves are located in one of the filthiest surroundings.
Now, I want to find out the other pieces of pre-British history in this city. Any clues?