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Karla Caves – A Tribute to Faith

Rock-cut structures are one of the most primitive forms of architecture found in many parts of India. The Karla Caves in Maharasthra, built by Buddhist monks, are one of the finest example of this architectural style.

One convenient feature of touring Maharashtra is that most places are within easy reach of a large town or city. Just an hour’s drive from Poona are the Karla Caves. A decade ago, the area, though close to a city was still considered ‘way out in the wilds’. Now it is almost a suburb of Poona. Weekend bungalows, resorts and government accommodation abound.

The Caves are high in the surrounding hills. A narrow winding path, leads up. Built centuries ago by Buddhist monks, the caves are in keeping with the Buddhist ideas of simplicity. One wonders why this isolated spot was chosen as the site for the caves. After all a rockcut structure high in remote hills is not something immediately associated with a place of worship. Satish Grover, architect and author, gives a vivid insight into the minds of those ancient monk builders… “Until the arrival of the Buddhists there had been little building activity of any consequence in this difficult region. During their very first season in the hills in thatched huts, the monks must have had to face the fury of the rains. Rains which lashed down the hill-side, virtually non-stop for half the year. Rains that could wash away an entire village without leaving a sign and rains that could make worship around a stupa in the open an unpleasant task indeed. Under the circumstances they could have built prayer halls of timber. Wood was at hand from the forest. Bricks baked in the plains could be hoisted up. However, even such a hall would be difficult to maintain and preserve under the unrelenting fury of the monsoon. Only the hills seemed to withstand the ravages. With their great desire to make the Good Law of the Buddha outlast time itself the Buddhist monks decided to carve their sanctuaries out of the living rock of the immovable mountains!

Rock cut structures are one of the earliest and most primitive forms of architecture. They were particularly well adapted to Indian conditions, both material and spiritual. Cool in summer, cosy in winter, cave temples are well adapted to the Indian climate. Low cliffs often mean waterfalls, a stream or simply water percolating down from the tableland above. Unfortunately this pretty picture of dense forests and welcome waterfalls is a thing of the past. Now, the hills around Karla are bald and water is a scarce commodity.

Apart from the climatic suitability the concept of the cave with its elemental, uncreated nature strikes one of the fundamental chords of Indian spiritually. At the same time it must not be forgotten that for every rock cut monastery thee must have been scores of structural buildings of which no trace has survived. So, the Buddhist monks not only built shelters but everlasting tributes to their beliefs.

From the late second century B.C. until the mid-second century A.D. thousands of caves like Karla were excavated in the Sahyadri Hills. They were apparently all for Buddhist communities. These cave sites were not randomly chosen. They were selected in accordance with the Buddhist prescription that the holy man should live not too far from the cities of men- not too near to be distracted, nor too far to make begging rounds impractical or to put the monks out of reach of the people. Naturally the existence of a natural cave was another determining factor.

From this point of view, Karla is excellently situated. It is a natural cave and it also used to be along one of the major caravan trading routes.

The manner in which these cave shrines were dug out is known in its broad outline since a number were abandoned at various stages of construction. Work proceeded from the top downwards, eliminating the need for scaffolding. Caves were created in groups to provide accommodation for outside workers since such undertakings were beyong the resources of aver small community. They consist of two types; chaitya halls and viharas. Chaitya halls were for congregational worship (an activity which fundamentally distinguishes Buddhism from Hinduism). The viharas were the dwelling places of the monks and usually consisted of cells cut into the walls around three sides of a hall. All very austere and demanding great hardships from the body. One enduring feature of these caves is the arched entrances and vaulted interiors. This basic structure was very dear to the Buddhist monks.

The actual process of construction is fascinating. The chosen hill-side was cleared of shrubs and other growth. The entrance-to-be was roughly sketched on the face of the rock wall. Two parallel tunnels were then run to the desired depth and timber wedges driven vertically into the exposed rock at convenient centres. When moistened, these wedges expanded and dislodged large chunks of stone that were removed through the mouth of the cave. Thus the rock was exposed. At this point all the exposed rock would be chiselled and polished and only then would be workmen continue the excavation. Gradually with mere one-fourth inch chisels and hammers as the only tools, the excavation carried on from the ceiling downwards. A tedious process but one that has survived, as Karla textifies. Once excavated, timber trellis work and balconies were added as trimmings.

All through this process the workmen were basically recreating in stone what they would normally have built of timber. But gradually the stone carver’s art became unique. He began to exploit the potential of this new medium. The monumental culmination of this extraordinary art form is the famous mammoth hall at Karla. The gigantic hall, built in the first century A.D. is adorned with architectural motifs, lions and elephants (whose tusks were probably of genuine ivory but no longer exit). The architect of this hall was fully aware of the potential of the visual drama and awe that could be infused into a visitor entering such a vast sacred hall. At the entrance are two enormous fifty foot high columns crowned by glorious lion sculptures. One passes into an ante-room lit by a recessed sun window set in a hue horseshoe archway. The light is wonderfully diffused. The walls are richly sculpted and at one time there were frescoes too. Moving further, in one discerns the most sacred object of veneration looming out of the dark – the stupa. Magic is created by a soft luminosity that filters in through the rows of flanking columns. The stupa seems situated in a fathomless cavern. An aura of deep peace and meditation issues from the place – it is impossible not to be moved.

Though many rock cut techniques evolved over the centuries none have ever rivaled the chaitya hall at Karla. It embodies the powerful relationship between light, space and sculpture that has endowed the caves of the Buddhists with magical qualities beyond the comprehension of day to day architecture.

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