This time around, I did not have to go far from Pune to make a trip down the history lane. Within a distance of 40-50 km from Pune, in the lap of Sahyadri, are some of the oldest and some of the finest rock cut caves of western Maharashtra and probably in whole India. Bhaje, Bedse and Karle are the current locations of these Buddhist caves which date back almost to the start of Christian era.
Now cave is a very ‘primitive’ and sometimes misleading term for these architectures of sizable proportions, decorated with sculptures and mainly having a specific purpose and reason for existence. These ‘caves’ are in fact ‘varsha-vas’ – rain shelters for the Buddhist monks who are travelling all around the year except in rainy seasons. So this was their abode comprising of a place for worship and place for rest. Place for worship is the ‘ChaityaGrih’, a hall with a ‘Stupa’ inside, normally bounded by rows of pillars. ‘Vihar’ on the other hand is an open hall with small ‘roomlets’ attached to it. Each room has a rock bed and nothing else. ‘Stupa’ the most important structure is shaped like a cylinder with a dome shaped top. It has adornments on the periphery called as ‘Vedica’. On the top there is square slab structure tapering downwards and standing above it is the umbrella ‘Chhatravali’. Stupa generally represents memory of Gautama Buddha and hence is worshipped. Many times there are relics found inside the stupa, however in rock cut ‘caves’ stupas are formed from a single rock and hence do not contain anything inside.
There are several such caves – Chaityas in western Maharashtra, mainly because of the solid basalt rock which provided the artisans a good medium to carve and sculpt. Secondly many of the caves are on the historic trade route connecting Konkan coastal trade ports (Kalyan, Sopara) to the then capitals cities Junnar and Paithan. Most of them are built on a height which would take at least half an hour of climb. It is difficult to imagine the life of people who would be sheltered in those places. May be since they were monks who have already won over the worldly ambitions and pleasures, this would be a small step.
The Bedse caves, couple of dots in a long distance on the golden grassy mountain back challenged us as a sturdy climb of well maintained steps lay ahead. The winter morning was fresh and surrounding so serene, the steps just fade away as massive tall pillars, forming the façade of the caves appeared in the eyesight. Bedse caves carved around first century AD, have the distinctive stone pillars with sculptures on the top and perfect round pot bases. There are only 2 pillars marking the verandah but the scale and grandeur is impressive. The outer wall of ‘ChaityaGriha’ is carved in multi storied low relief arches depicting houses, the design being very typical to most of the rock cut caves. The main hall with Stupa is medium sized and lined with simple pillars. Adjacent to this hall is a ‘Vihar’, an open hall and small attached rooms. The sculptures sitting atop the pillar at the height of 20 feet are those of couples sitting on horses or elephants.
The next ‘sweating’ opportunity was ‘Bhaje’. It is very interesting to note that all these 3 places are in close vicinity of each other. Bhaje and Karle are opposite and facing to each other, while Bedse is on the southern slope of the same range in which Bhaje is situated. All these are on the much travelled Pune-Mumbai highway. Bhaje and Karle are always part of school picnic itinerary since it is a just a day trip from Pune or Mumbai.
Again, one more soothing sight came in front of us as we panted our way in midday sun to the Bhaje cave site. A very impressive stone arch leading to a large ChaityaGriha, On the outside, several carved windows and perched on the right side a smallish Vihar, a little further, a water tank brimming and after few footsteps, an area with multiple Stupa. And the wonders do not end here, going further you come across a gallery with some of the intriguing storyboard sculptors. One of the amazing things at Bhaje are the wooden planks which form the semi circular roof above stupa in the ChaityaGriha. It is hard to believe that these planks date back to the days when the caves were carved, which is 2’nd century B.C. Here the wood has competed with the stone in perseverance.
Leaving the open space and silence of Bhaje we headed towards Karle, the last and most rewarding site of this trip. Karle is a later date, almost 2’nd century B.C. work of art and certainly the most beautiful and spanning a larger canvas. The imposing height of the structure, add to it a massive pillar with a four lions on the top, reminiscent of the famous Ashokan pillar at Sarnath and the grand entrance to a very large prayer hall ‘ChaityaGriha’ is almost breathtaking. I say ‘almost’ because the magnificent view is cut off on the side because of a temple of Ekvira Devi which is touching a wall of the cave. The temple is bustling with devotees and is a flourishing place of pilgrimage. It is an interesting site in itself but not when the oil painted colors of the temple dome contrast with serene black stone centuries old architecture glowing in setting sun.
Karle ChaityaGrih is one of the most impressive sites in Indian ancient architectural wonders. A large hall, bordered by series of pillars, just like we saw at Bedse entrance, but this time the number is almost 10 times more. And each one is having carved horse or elephant or bull with male and female riders atop. All the pillars have inverted lotus capital and large round pot base. The Stupa, is also quite big and with an intact wooden chhatravali. All in all the scale of this place is very imposing and the elegance of sculptures very impressive.
In all the three places, Karle, Bhaje and Bedse there are several stone inscriptions which give us a glimpse into the people and their life some twenty centuries back. Most of the inscriptions are ‘sponsorships’ for constructing, rather carving a part of vihar, or a stupa or a flight of stairs or sometimes a sculpture of a ‘yakshi’. And these donations have come from different walks of life such as traders, businessmen, monks, craftsmen even women independently have donated for the benefit. The various carvings in all the caves also help in recreating a picture of the bygone era. Their hairstyles, ornaments, clothes and the confidence on their faces speak a volume about the kind of society it was.
As we started our journey back home with receding rays of sun, the hills faded into dark, the rock carved memories preserved in their heart forever.