KANERI CAVES, A Passage to the lost world of Buddhist Monks

published on June 28, 2006

KANERI CAVES,  A Passage to the lost world of Buddhist Monks

    It was a brilliant day of sunshine. A small group of visitors to the kanheri caves, stood silent in the semidarkness of the Chaitya hall. Someone chanted aum. And aum came back amplified. I remembered a Sanskrit verse that tells of the acoustic quality of the stage in ancient Indian theatre. ” The theater should have the sound system of a mountain-cave.” Here is such a system, the Indian counter part of the Greek amphitheater, shaped by the geographical feature of the respective countries.

    But here no dramas were staged since the Buddha forbade theatrical activities for the monks. The latent artistic expression in man rose in sculptures and paintings in the hay day of Buddhism. If Ajantha is famous for its artistic extravaganza, kanheri caves speak of the austere lives that Buddhist monks led.

    Just 42 km from Mumbai, suburban trains can get you to Kanheri quickly. Far from the mad rush of the city, the unhurried clean Borivli holds the way that leads to the caves. It climbs up through the most beautiful natural surroundings of Sanjai Gandhi National Park. Cars and two wheelers move up. Couples and people in small groups saunter. The zigzag concrete road through overhanging greenery takes you up. Birds, small animals and insects make the place alive.

    The clusters of caves in that honeycombed ravine look like beehives. Set amidst tranquil nature the place must have been the home of serenity herself.

    Clearly a small group of Buddhist monks came here; spent their lives meditating. They cut the living rocks of1500 feet canyon to make tiny cells for their Spartan life of contemplation. Each room has a stone plinth that served as bed. Channels and still functioning cisterns speak of the lost technology of conserving rainwater in huge urns. Slowly the settlement grew over the course of seven centuries (  2nd to the 9th century ).

    Soon the place must have become a centre for learning. Slowly the number of monks must have grown. The site has 109 caves. A cluster shows a special patio where they must have sat and discussed; or sat and stared at nature. They must have lived as a community. The dining hall indicates a community kitchen. The congregation hall is a Buddhist shrine. In those days,  lessons were imparted by word of mouth, as books were still to come. The hall had an acoustic system that catered to the need of the times. 

    Here during their recreation they carved colossal images of Bodhisattvas. Here dedicated to one of the world’s great religions, still remain a thousand plus year old monuments: colossal Buddhas more than 20 feet tall, an 11-headed Bodisattva (Buddhist saint) and even a nagaraja, an ancient pre-Buddhist serpent king guarding the most famous Buddhist chaitya hall at Kanheri.  At this sacred spot was taught,  perhaps the greatest philosophy of all that teaches compassion as the supreme virtue, that advocates the need to nurture Nature.

    Here we met two Buddhist women. We came upon them as they were turning away from one of the sculpted Buddhas in the porch. A conversation developed as it so easily does in such a deserted place. Soon it turned to religion. A couple from England asked them what benefit they expected to gain from making offerings and worshiping the image of the Buddha. “Oh” one of them said, “we do not expect anything, no favors, no particular help. Everything we do in life makes us who we are. By making offerings and by generosity and hospitality we make ourselves clear-sighted.” It was heartening to know that there are people who follow religion in the secular sense. Budhism still survives in their hearts. Although historically, Kanheri stands as the only clue to the rise and fall of Buddhism in Western India


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