A trip to the cave temples of Ajanta-Ellora had to be called off to accommodate a day at various government offices to sign some mundane papers. That left open a part of Saturday on my bi-annual whirlwind work trip to India and I was left to find something closer to home. The two choices for a day trip were the island of Elephanta, where, shamefully I have never been despite being a resident of Mumbai for over twenty years and Kanheri caves, that I have visited as a teen but have no living memories of.
Somewhere I read that certain caves at Kanheri are blue prints for Buddhist sculptures and structures of Ellora and then the decision was simple.
Waiting at the gate of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali with an age old friend Vanita in her car, the morning Mumbai traffic already mobile, it was difficult to imagine how anything so historic could be so nearby. The question marks were wiped out once the gates opened promptly at 7:30am and the car was soon swallowed by the lush jungle of the national park that is popularly known as the “lungs of Mumbai.“ The winding road ends at the bottom of a hill that was called Krishnagiri in ancient times, a word that translates to “black mountain”, an apt description for the heap of basalt that the hill is.
We parked and climbed a series of winding stone steps. Soon we were standing outside the structure designated cave 1. Hewn into the bedrock, stood two beautiful columns that supported a second story, the only such structure in this cave complex.
It was quite apparent the caves had been numbered by their proximity to the approach road, the exercise ignoring the historic chronology.
The earliest Buddhist monks moved here about the time Buddhism gained popularity in the country-continent. Alexander, the Great had come, seen, conquered and left several decades ago. Asoka, the Great was already repenting the bloodbath in Kalinga (now Odisha). The country-continent was about to enter several centuries of peace. No written accounts describe where the monks came from. But it takes very little imagination to see them standing on top of this hill, literally within eyesight of ports like Nala Sopara that traded with Greeks and Arabs.
This hill must have been, then, a place of solace away from the day-to-day din, as it is today, from a gritty city not to far away.
The monks belonged to the Himyana sect and build some of the earliest austere viharas. You can see them everywhere if you have the eye (or a good guide.) A series of non-descript steps leading to a sparse room. Latticed windows reveal the need for ventilation because the rock can get hot in summers. A peep inside reveals a platform carved from the basalt, sometimes ever stone pillow.
Life must have been slow and peaceful.
Quarries, living quarters, pottery, waterworks, burial grounds, inscriptions – these are the clues the ancient ones inadvertently leave us. Many of them are abundantly on view at Kanheri. While the burial grounds needs a trek to the top of the hill, the waterworks are ubiquitous. Grooves carved into the rock to collect trickles of water into tiny enclosures and cisterns finally leading to tanks. The age old adage that goes, “You move water, or you move…”
The ancient monks, they moved water. Rainwater was harnessed well. No pun.
Somewhere along, monks belonging to the Mahayana sect moved in. Archaeology shows the two conflicting life philosophies coexisted peacefully, each left to their side of the hillock that they prodigiously carved. One carved more living quarters, the other turned stone into smooth undulating figures.
The mithuna couples on the façade of cave 7 depicts busty nymphets adoring intricate accessories that makes you wonder how the monks stuck to art without letting their imagination run wild.
The sculpting frenzy reached a new height. The chaityagriha – the Buddhist prayer hall - in cave 7 is a glorious example of great ambition meeting awesome skill. The hill side has been drilled into an enormous cavern hall with a vaulted ceiling and a churchesque crafted out of hard rock.
Around 350 CE, all sculpting ceased in this part of the world, as it did everywhere else in India as the dark century of inactivity dawned. A hundred years went by. Then life continued unabated for another seven hundred years before Mogols discovered the Khyber pass.
You have to go to Cave 34 and stare at the unfinished work of art on the roof of the verandah. A new art form was being invented. Painting! The draft lines are still visible, unhesitating, bold straight lines. Mere outlines of forms that would only be completed in the magical place called Ajanta.
Closer to noon, the October heat was pressing down on us like a giant weight. We bought fresh peeled cucumbers garnished with spice and salt and devoured them. Licking the salty water off the fingers, I promised I would come again, a promise that I knew is hard to keep. There is so much that is left to be seen that doubles is an unaffordable luxury. I knew I had to make do with what I had bagged.