A Walk in the Past

January weekends usually have me occupied with the tiresome HR activity of gathering financial proofs—that have been niggling away at me for quite a while—which lasts eventually when the deadline to submit proofs draws nigh, and the pressure from an office manager grows high. But I would succumb to it shortly after realising the repercussions of failing to submit the documents on time.

My weekend to-do list has since grown big with the tasks marked incomplete. Among the long-pending ones, some freshly added required immediate attention. One such was to excavate precise information on how to tend one’s plants in winter and not to kill them, as my horticulture-fan friend has committed the heinous crime of killing her plants partly. Some people claim that they are green-fingered. If so, I would love to meet these meta humans! Rubbish! It’s a matter of adjusting to the right methods of nursing plants, and toying with techniques until one comes across the right one for each plant. The brutal fact is that like all the beasts and humans, plants too, perish with time. Some immediately, as a few expect them to thrive in the vicious wilderness of their sunless shadowy living rooms. Once sweet blossomed bromeliads in a pot dangling by the window that my friend fancied tending to, now a withered shoot, waves goodbye. Now she even struggles to plant a grotty aloe vera in the empty pot that supposedly cures wounds.      

More often my life, like everyone else’s, gets in the doldrums. Week in week out I am required to accomplish the same tasks. Thus a weekend with the same mundane routine, without having to sift through the newly-acquired/gifted reading material I hold dear, seems grudgingly upsetting. After running the unavoidable Sunday errands however, I stashed all the remaining ones away, and took an Uber to the Kanheri Caves in north-west Mumbai. My former colleague and a friend, who is a litterateur by profession and a historian at heart, had me convinced last minute to join the tour she conducted at Kanheri Caves on a surprisingly-breezy and mildly-sunny Sunday morning, with a bunch of history enthusiasts from Mumbai. It luckily proved the ‘time out’ I badly needed on the weekend.

In the midst of the towering skyscrapers, the frenzied rush and sluggish snarls, the murdering fumes and emits alike, it is shocking to believe that Mumbai is home to the largest number of rock-cut Buddhist caves in Maharashtra, located on a single hill that were built anywhere between the 1st century BCE and 10th century CE. Rediscovered by an archaeologist James Bird in 1839, the Kanheri Caves are nestled in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park sprawling over the northern fringes of Mumbai.

A bird’s eye view of the cave exterior | Photo courtesy: Gautam Khetwal

While many of us must have peered at the site from the neighbouring towers, or noticed it while driving past the connecting bylanes, few make the effort to discover the stories about its past. Though it may disinterest many of us at a glance, social media and internet convince us with their bags of tricks. After knowing the buried past in a nutshell, a trudge up the hill to uncover the complete story seems a lot more exciting. Guided tours are blessing for those with limited time for research, and lead to fascinating discoveries in two shakes.

History carved in stone

Cut into an enormous basalt cliff, the Kanheri Caves are splendidly carved, over 100 signature Buddhist caves, criss-crossed with steps. The double-levelled monastery marked as cave no. 1 comprises two large pillars bordering its entrance. A massive hall of worship, an inscription of Yajna Sri Satakarni on the doorjamb, and by its entrance two magnificent Buddha statues in the boon-bestowing stance dot cave no. 3, termed The Great Chaitya (the hall of prayer). Cave no. 4 houses an enormous solid stupa that monks used for meditation. Water channels meander through the pathways and steps and connect with the cisterns of Caves 5 and 6.

An imposing Buddha relief in boon-bestowing stance borders the entrance

It manifests the importance of water conservation, and reflects the thoughtful planning of architecture. Exquisite traces of Buddha and his attendants, the portraits and smaller inscriptions of merchants from whom patronage was received, and partly-constructed beautiful paintings decorate the caves where assemblies were held. The rarely spotted eleven-headed Avalokiteshwara in a few caves, that is important to both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners, were added much later as initially only the symbols and relics of Buddha were worshipped in Buddhism, according to a few researchers. 

The rarely spotted eleven-headed Avalokiteshwara in his gripping iconographic form
Stupa and sculptures of Buddha and his attendants in cave no. 2
Steps and water channels meander through the cave exterior

The trek to the caves on a pleasant wintry morning promises serenity. The playful and harmless simian troops, street hawkers hollering and selling citric fruits by the pathway, and lovers walking arm-in-arm, excite one to amble along a bit more.

Carry a book along or keep a pre-downloaded podcast handy before fetching a ride, as it’s a long journey to the site from South/South Central Mumbai.

Poulomi Das, with whom I went on the site walk thrice to date, conducts the guided tours customised to the needs of participants, for making the heritage spaces and museums more accessible. Prior to the hike at Kanheri, I walked the bylanes of Byculla neighbourhood with her to uncover the hidden stories associated with it; and visited Discovery of India, an exposition at Nehru Science Centre.  

Email her at varnikaz@yahoo.co.in for enquiry. Or log on to http://www.varnikadesigns.com/AboutUs.php for more details.

Photos are taken by the author unless credited otherwise.

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