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Kanheri Cave Monasteries - Mumbai

‘Beware of panthers,’ the signboard nailed to a tree warns you in the Borivli National Park. It also asks you ‘not to linger in the park after 5.30 p.m.,’ your initial reactions: Aha, panthers in Bombay? Impossible! They must be joking. If ever there are any in this over-crowded metropolis they must be pink-like camparidiluted with soda…

Outside the boundaries of the National Park you can still hear the roar of traffic and the bustle from the bazaars dotting the concrete veins and arteries of suburban Bombay. Borivili station on the Western Railway is five miles away. On holiday public transport buses run from the station to the food of the Kandheri caves inside the park. You can also reach the park from the opposite side – from the Thana station of Central railway, six miles away; or visit it as park of the suburban tour offered by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation.

Your beliefs begin to change as you go deeper into the park. The arid-looking eucalyptus and subabul trees planted by the Forest Department give way to bamboo, sterculia, combretum, rosewood, silk-cottons, strangler figs and countless other species. Suddenly you realize you are not in a city anymore, but inside an untamed forest. What’s that rustling behind that boulder? Don’t be surprised if it’s leopard or a langur.

Stop right at this moment. And listen to your own breathing in the still forest, feel your hammering heartbeats and the cool breeze scented with myriad smells of the jungle – ripening figs and rotting leaves, gurgling streams and musky rocks, sunlight and shade – all strewn together beneath a cloudless blue sky. These are white-backed vultures, with wingspans longer than your arms’ stretch!

This then is the forest experience. Tranquil yet full of frisson; soothing yet scary; one that has the power to put you in touch with yourself (if you have lost out on that contact, that is). At the most mundane level, it makes you marvel at the various shades of green a lush ghat or hill forest can present to the eye.

As you listen to the thrilling song of the magpie perched high atop a teak tree in the National Park, think of the generations of urbanites who came in search of peace to these environs. They were dressed differently of course and spoke different tongues. Some must have come from as far away as Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt and Arabia. Some have left reminders of their search on monuments that have been there for centuries. I am referring to the Kanheri cave monasteries, in the heart of the Borivilli National Park.

As you approach the caves, however, you cannot but become aware of the present times, of picnickers. But even they fall silent once they begin to climb the steps chiseled into trappean hills which lie there, riven by deep ravines and gorges.

Kanheri or Kanhasela as the two inscriptions from the place have named it, is the biggest Buddhist monastic establishment on the Konkan coast. The Portuguese Viceroy, Dom Joao Crasto found it … “so wonderful that it may be ranked among the seven wonders of the world, unless, instead of thinking of them to be the work of men, we attribute them to spirits and the diabolic art of which, I, at least, have no doubt.”

Dom Crasto could not obviously read the Pali inscriptions at Kanheri. Nor would he have known that the architectural activity at Kanheri began three centuries before Christ was born – almost immediately after the introduction of Buddhism in this region. The first simple caves were excavated during the reign of the Satvahana kings who came to the fore after the disintegration of the Mauryan empire in India. In the earliest period the caves were meant to shelter wandering monks during the rainy season. At this time vault-roofed chetiyaghara were in vogue. These are sanctuaries having a stupa as the object of worship. These primitive creations – an undecorated cylindrical drum with a slightly high dome – were made to house the relics of the Buddha or other masters of the order. Woodwork was also used extensively in the monuments. From the 1st century A.D., the caves appear to have been in occupation throughout the year. The monks were provided with cells with stone benches to sleep, along with accessories like a large number of cisterns, refectories and even bathing facilitates. Food, medicine and clothing appear to have been stored. The huge chetiyaghara must have been added during the reign of Gautamiputra Satakarni (A.D. 106-130). Unprecedented in dimension and beauty, the first of its kind on the Konkan coast, it began to attract numbers of monks and laymen alike. A large number of donations appear to have been made by citizens, traders, royal women, even foreigners (yavanas) from nearby cities like Kalyana, Sopara and Thane.

However the latter part of the 3rd century A.D. was the most active period of the Kanheri establishment with numerous of cells being added. It is even suggested that kanheri was a school, with 60 to 70 monks in residence and had dining rooms capable of catering to 120 diners!

An unusual feature at Kanheri is the number of open benches cut into rocks and almost all the caves have benches in their verandahs or front courts. Sit down on one of these. And you realize their purpose at once: with the evening breeze refreshing you from the sea, you might feel “your infinitesimal self dissolving into the infinite nature around.” So enjoyable is this calm contemplation of nature, far from the madding crowd, that you’ll want to stay on for the night. But as the shadows lengthen over the forest, think of the panthers. Should you want to see them, you can stay put at the forest bungalows at the base camp and wait with nightjars, owls and bats beneath the nayan tree under a full moon. That may not still guarantee you an audience with the elusive cat. If on the other hand you have a dog with you, do be very careful. Because panthers just love them…

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