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Imprints from History

From the early Buddhist and Jain periods through to the Mughal, Maratha and British eras, the region of Maharashtra has witnessed the rule of a long procession of rulers – each leaving his or her imprints in the form of secular and religious architectural wonders.

The many rock cut Jain-Buddhist caves and the scores of ports along the western coast stand testimony to the glory of the legendary Hindu revivalists – founders of the Maratha and Peshwa dynasties who challenged the great Mughal Empire and later the British, until their defeat in 1818.

A logical sequence in exploring the architectural heritage of Maharashtra would be fair only if we started at the earliest existing remains – available examples of which are the Rock Cut Caves. All these have several distinct design elements. The Buddhist caves, which are the older ones, are either chaityas (temples) or `viharas (monasteries). The Chaityas are narrow and deep with a stupa at one end of the cave. A row of columns runs on either side within the cave and around the stupa. Viharas, or the monks’ residential quarters were generally composed of rows of cells along both sides of the cave. A small shrine containing an image of Buddha was found at the rear end.

Amongst Rock Cut Architecture – the Ajanta Caves, which were excavated and painted by Buddhist monks, are amongst the oldest and date back to 200 BC-600 A.D. Thirty in number and decorated with remarkable murals, they are regarded universally as India’s artistic treasures. Though the paintings in these caves are referred to as frescoes, the technique essentially is tempera. Technically a fresco is painted on a wet surface where the colour is absorbed into the surface. These, however, have been painted on a dry surface. The rough rock walls were coated with a centimeter thick layer of clay and cow dung mixed with rice husk. A final coat of lime was then applied to produce the finished surface on which the artist painted.

The finest and the most famous paintings are found in caves 1,2,16,17 and 19. The magnificent depiction of the Bodhisattvas (potential Buddhas who out of compassion renounce the attainment of Buddha-hood). Avlokitesvara and Padmapani in cave 1, are particularly well known. The Padmapani image of Buddha – holding the lotus and standing besides his consort – is another famous image. Other famous paintings include the depiction of Buddha’s life and the cameo of a woman and her toilet.

For unknown reasons Ajanta was abandoned in the 7th century, when the artists moved to Ellora, 66 kilometres away. The Ellora cave temples are caved out of a wall side and stretch for about two kilometres from north to south. There are 34 temples in all of these out of which only 12 are Buddhist (Viharas) though even these incorporate Hindu and Jain themes, demonstrating the declining phase of Buddhism. In 1990 the Survey of India announced the discovery of 28 additional caves in the upper hills. Dating possibly from 9th to the 13th century, the vases contain Hindu sculptures.

These are extremely impressive, with the Kailash Temple (cave 16) having a volume twice that of the Parthenon. Approximately 200,000 tonnes of rock was excavated for the construction of what is possibly the world’s largest monolithic structure. Working downwards the craftsmen first chiseled the roof out of the rock and then worked on the interiors, leaving pillars that were decorative rather than functional. Representing Shiva’s Himalayan home, the Kailash Temple is exquisitely sculpted with scenes from Hindu mythology. Each is pulsating with drama, energy, passion and vitality. The other notable caves are 14 (Rava Kakhi), cave 15 (Das Avtara), cave 21 (Ramesvara) and cave 29 (Dumar). There are five Jain caves which though not as spectacular as the Hindu caves are still worthwhile to see.

Aurangabad is the base to get to Ajanta and Ellora. Aurangabad itself had an important role in history. Named after the Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb, it was once the centre of power now recalled by several Muslim structures of which Bibi ka Makbara (Tomb of Aurangzeb’s wife, built by her son) is popularly known as the poor man’s Taj Mahal and is an ungainly replica of the original. There is also Daulatabad Fort just outside the city, built by Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq as an alternative capital to Delhi. His plan to shift the capital wasn’t successful, however, as thousands died on the long march to the new site. While climbing on to the fort one passes a complicated series of defenses including multiple doorways, which elephants could not destroy. These are also spike studded in case the elephants ever attacked. A magnificent tower of victory, the Chand Minar, soars 60 metres high. It was built in 1435 and Qutab Minar in Delhi beats it only by 5 metres. Higher up is the blue tiled Chini mahal Palace where the last king of Golconda was imprisoned for 13 years until his death.

Only three kilometres from Ellora is a holy shrine for the Deccan Muslims where the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was buried when he died in 1707. The Emperors built a battlement around what is now a sleepy little village. His final resting place is a simple courtyard in the Alamgir Dargah. Aurangzeb’s pious austerity extended even to his own tomb, which was paid for by the money he earned himself by copying out the Koran.

Between the capital Bombay and Aurangabad lies the capital of the Maratha empire – Pune. It became the Peshwa capital and was taken over by the British in 1817. The Shahwarwada Palace stands as a legacy of the Peshwas. Built in 1736 it was run down in 1827. Today, what remains are scenic gardens and little signs proclaiming what once stood there. Pune also has its share of rock cut architecture in form of the rock cut Panchaleshwar Temple, a small 8th century temple similar in style to the grand Ellora caves. Twenty five kilometres south-west of Pune is located the Simhagad (lion fort) Fort. It stands atop a 1270 metre hill. In the series of forts, 24 kilometres from Mahabaleshwar stands the Pratapgarh Fort – built in 1656 and 500 steps away from the Mahabaleshwar city. The legend behind the fort is connected with one of the more notable feats in Shivaji’s dramatic life. Raigadh, Torna, Purandhar and Shivneri are other Maratha forts worth a visit.

On the way to Pune from Bombay are the famous towns of Lonavla and Khandala. Twelve kilometres from Lonavla – located high on a hill side – is the famous Hinayana Buddhist cave of Karla. Completed I the 8th century BC, it is perhaps one of the best preserved cave temples of its kind. A carved ‘Sun Window’ allows light to filter through, towards the small stupa at the other end of the narrow cave, giving the space a mystic quality. Delicately carved columns add to the sculptural setting. The pillar topped by four back-to-back lions – an image associated with Ashoka and now the symbol of sovereign India – stands outside the cave. There are some small Viharas around, some of these were later converted into Hindu shrines. Further of from karla, are the twelve Bhaja Caves which date back to 200 BC. A Chaitya, similar to Karla, is the most important among these. South of this is a unique group of 14 stupas of which five are inside the cave and nine are outside. Along this direction six kilometres south-east of Kamshet station are the Behsa Caves newer than the Karla cave. At one time the roof of the main cave was probably painted. There are a number of old forts in the vicinity including the hill top fort, six kilometre from Lohagen Malavli which was taken twice by Shivaji, and lost again on each occasion. Above the Bhaja caves is the Visapur Fort. Another important city of the Maratha empire was Kolhapur, which was the capital of an important Maratha state. The old palace of Kolhapur contains some interesting items including a collection of swords. One of Kolhapur’s Maharaja’s died in Italy and was cremated on the banks of the river Arno where his chatri (Cenotaph) now stands.

Ratnagiri on the coast 130 kilometres west, was the place where ‘Thibaw’ the last Burmese king was interned by the British here from 1886 until his dezath in 1916. Panhala and Pawangarh are interesting hill stations. At Panhala there is a fort dating back to 1192 when Raja Bhoj II had held sway over it. Some Buddhist caves, temples and the Panvla caves are also located around this area.

Located north-east of Aurangabad is the interesting small town of Nasik with its picturesque bathing ghats. Nasik stands on the Godavari river, one of the holiest in the Godavari river, one of the holiest in the Deccan. Like Ujjain, this is the site for the triennial Kumbh Mela which comes here after every 12 years. The Site-Gupha (cave) is linked to a legend since it was from here that Ravana the evil kin of Lanka carried Sita away. Also, nearby is a grove of large banyan trees in which is the house of the panchavati family. The Kapaleswar Temple upstream is said to be the oldest in the town.

About eight kilometres south-west of Nasik, close to the Bombay road are the 21 Hinayana Buddhist caves of Pandu Lena. They date from 1st century BC to the 2nd century AD. Great similarity exists between these and the Karla caves. The most interesting are caves 3, 10 and 18. Cave 3 is a large vihara with some interesting sculptures. Cave 10 is also a vihara. Cave 18 is a chaitya, with a sculpted elaborate façade.

The Buddhists followed by the Jains, Marathas and Peshwas and then the Mughals all left significant symbols of their presence. Then came the British who’s main area of influence was Bombay, the capital of Maharashtra.

Bombay – Relics of The Raj

Perhaps the place to begin exploring Bombay’s colonial legacy is the Gateway of India. Built to commemorate the royal visit of George Vand Queen Mary in 1911 (completed in 1924), the Gateway is a combination of European and Indian ceremonial architecture. The last British troops marched out through this gate when India became independent in 1947. Today it is a favourite haunt of tourists. The Taj Mahal Hotel opposite the Gateway is an important landmark. It was built in 1903 by Jamshethji N. Tata, founder of a prestigious industrial house, to counter a ban on Indians entering the then famous Watson’s hostelry. Many evocative Victorian Gothic buildings can be seen in Fort area, the central business and administrative area, named after the Old Fort of Bombay which was demolished in the sixties. Particularly interesting, close to the Gateway, is the Council Hall, once the Sailor’s Home, which stands in Byzantine gradeur on the site of Bombay’s first British cemetery. The Prince of Wales Museum, across the road, commemorates George V’s first visit to India in 1905. A fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, it houses excellent collections of Indian sculpture, miniature paintings, Nepali and Tibetan art. There is also a natural history gallery.

Flora Fountain, at the commercial heart of Bombay, was erected in honour of Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay during the period of dramatic growth (1862-7). Among other important landmarks are the extravagant Victoria Terminus (VT) and the Municipal Corporation Building opposite, both designed by Stevens. East of Flora Fountain, the simpler St. Thomas’ Cathedral which was once visible from the sea is now surrounded by tall buildings. The classical façade of the old Town Hall (1833) nearby now houses the Asiatic Society with its marvelous library and statues of forgotten times. A similar façade close by belongs to the Mint, built in 1829. Still further east is Ballard Estate with office buildings strongly reminiscent of 19th century London, as is much of Bombay. The University with its Central Clock Tower, the Old Secretariat, the High Court, the PWD (Public Works) Office and the Central Telegraph Office are all at the western end of the old Fort.

For Bombay off the beaten track, head for the southern tip of the island, where tree-lined avenues and a pervasive sense of order characterize the modern military and naval enclave built on the remains of a traditional British cantonment. Most relaxing after the hectic activity of the city, the Afghan Memorial Church was established here in 1847 and later consecrated to the memory of those who lost their lives in the Afghan Wars. A Koli fishing village still survives along the shore towards the end of Cuffe Parade. Wooden boats come in with the day’s catch, and the fisherwomen, their saris tucked between their legs in Maharashtrian style, take it to market. A dawn visit to Sassoon dock, now a fishing harbour and fish market, can be a colourful olfactory experience.

The bazaars north of Victoria Terminus are an exciting medley of colour and sound. There is Crawford Market, which sells almost everything; Mohatta Market, the mammoth cloth market; the famous Chor Bazaar, ‘thieves market’, where Victorian jostles for place with Indian ‘antiques’; and Lal Bazaar. Marine Drive, Bombay’s most famous boulevard, curves gracefully along Back Bay on land reclaimed in 1920. It is particularly spectacular at night, when its along string of street lights is likened to a sparkling necklace. Towards evening it is a popular promenade. Chowpatty Beach to the north also comes to life in the evening.

The Hanging Gardens and Kamla Nehru Park at the crest of Malabar Hill are pleasant spots, the latter offering a panoramic view of south and central Bombay and, by night, the ‘Queen’s Necklace’ along Marine Drive.

Bombay’s many places of worship reflect its cultural diversity. Among the Roman Catholic churches in the city, St. Michael’s at Mahim and the famous shrine of Mount Mary at Bandra are particularly well known. The 500 year old Haji Ali Mosque on a tidal island near the Mahalaxmi Racecourse attracts numerous worshippers. Hindu temples include the thousand-year-old Walkeshwar Babul Nath dedicated to Krishna, Mahalakshmi dedicated to the goddess of wealth, and Mumba Devi honouring the goddess after whom Bombay is named. Several temples also cluster around the Ban Ganga tank at the foot of Malabar Hill, creating an unusual ambience. There are Zoroastrian fire temples all over the city, and on Malabar Hill are the Towers of Silence where the Paris dead are exposed to the elements and the vultures so as to ensure that sacred earth and fire and not polluted. No visitors are allowed.

Destinations Around Bombay

The beach of Juhu, 18 kilometres north of the city centre, is the nearest to the city. Marve and Madh, about forty kilometres away are secluded. A small fishing village near Marve and the remains of an Old Portuguese Church at Madh are main attractions. Manori and Gorai also have lovely beaches. The fishing village at Gorai and its splendid Portuguese Church are worth a visit. The beaches at Kihim, Nagaon and Murud with its island fort can be reached by a combination of ferry and bus.

Krishnagiri Upavan National park, which is forty kilometres from the city, has reservoirs, a Lion ‘Safari Park, Film City and the ancient Kanheri Caves established by Buddhist monks in the 2nd century BC. The Great Chaitya Cave, with its long colonnade and magnificent statues of the Buddha, justifies the climb. The elaborate water supply and disposal system is also interesting.

The rock-cut Hindu Temples at Elaphanta, an island about ten kilometres across the harbour, provide an exciting glimpse of Indian sculpture dating back to about 600 AD. Huge panels depict episodes relating to Lord Shiva, each executed with power, grace and an amazing sense of proportions. The central sculpture represents his three aspects as ‘Creator’ ‘Preserver’ and ‘Destroyer’. Pleasant walks along forested slopes with spectacular views, especially of the new harbour on the mainland, are a delightful bonus.

The state of Maharashtra covers architecture from almost and advent of mankind to the present day offering perhaps one of the widest cross-section in topology and style.

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