Hotels in India » Religion-culture in India » Buddhism in Maharashtra

Buddhism in Maharashtra

Maharashtra today is not a state remembered for its Buddhism but rather and for its international and industrial capital, Mumbai. However, for a thousand years, the present day state of Maharashtra provided a home for Buddhism in India

The Buddha had come from the North in what is now Nepal and spent much of his active life in Bihar to the East. Nevertheless, after his death, Buddhism spread across to different parts of India and, for about 1,000 years, the Western Ghats of Maharashtra were to provide support for this religion. Often this was in more remote areas which the monks and occasionally, nuns, found more favourable for their contemplative lifestyles. One of the most impressive monuments from these times can be found not far from Lonavla near the Bombay-Pune road. Known as the Karla Caves, one can see here a cathedral sized temple carved out of the rock face. Inside there is sculptured work, most notably in the form of a giant sized Buddha.

Maharashtra has produced great Buddhist masters such as Saraha although at that time in the 2nd century BC, there was no Maharashtra as such for it did not come into existence until recent times. Saraha lived in an ancient princely state called Vidarbha near to present day Pune. His father was a Brahmin in the court of King Mahapala. Saraha refused the proffered hand of the King’s daughter preferring to study with a Buddhist master Sri Kirti. Eventually, he found love with the daughter of an arrowsmith and, although she was from a lover, he saw her as a wise woman (dakini) and thus she became his consort. Saraha’s words are still remembered among Buddhists through such texts as The Royal Song of Saraha – “Though there may be many rivers, They are one in the sea. Though there may be many lives One Truth will conquer all.” It seems likely that the Buddhists in this area took over from Shaivites finding some of their places of meditation to be of value. This is apparent in the proximity of the Ellora caves to the jyotirlinga (symbol of Shiva) of Grishneshwar, some thirty kilometres from Aurangabad. The jyotirlinga is a natural protuberance of rock, one of 12 to be found in India. The Buddhists settled in the nearby caves. They contributed a great deal to the interiors of some of these caves, excavating the area to a considerable extent, chiseling out entire temples from the volcanically formed stone. Nowadays, it is the caves at the southern end of the rocky escarpment that are remembered as being Buddhist, and they bear the unmistakable marks of Buddhist art and architecture much of which can be seen today particularly in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. This work would have taken many years to complete and it seems likely that artisans worked alongside the monks who would have been more concerned wikth their devotions. Much of this would have involved chanting, particularly the Sutra of Buddha Shakyamuni, which would have had an extremely powerful effect on the monks involved as such sounds echo wonderfully in the caves. One can try the effect onself by standing in the middle of one of these caves and intoning a manta (chant) such as Om Mani Padma Hum which is a well known Sanskrit mantra that these monks are likely to have used. As one continues to repeat such a sound, the mantra will reverberate and start to give the place a life of its own; one may feel almost massaged by the sound and this is what made the temple caves such an effective place of worship. With an entire assembly of monks, the reverberating sound would have drowned that of individual monks, helping them to realize the truth of anatta, no-self. Inside some of these cave temples (vihara), there are long low level seats that stretch from the door to the statue of Buddha at the far end. These statues of Buddha vary in size and more particularly inform for each cave temple has its own character or aspect of the Buddha’s nature that it wishes to convey. The long stone seats, however, share a common purpose of providing place for the monks to meditate. They would have sat side by side in rows facing inwards.

Such temples bear the signs of being form the Mahayana tradition that is of a wider outlook than the Hinayana that lays more importance on the original instructions of Buddha Shakyamuni. There are also Hinayana caves where there is a circular construction known as a Chaitya which stands at the eastern end of the cave-temple opposite the entrance monks not only sat in front of these but were also able to slowly walk around them while intoning sacred sounds. It is certainly true to say that the artistic development of the caves did not exactly coincide with their occupation by the monks. This historical fact is more clearly demonstrated by the cave temples one hundred kilometres further north at Ajanta to which the Buddhist monk Buddhabhadra has written some praise referring to them as “a memorial in the mountains that will endure as long as the sun and moon continue.” The remoteness of these caves is what prevented them from being destroyed as they lay unused for a thousand years and undiscovered by the general populace who these days visit in droves. It was not until 1819 that a British tiger hunting party happened to notice an ornamented cave entrance from a nearby hilltop. The Nizam of Hyderabad was notified and formal excavations were begun. Restoration was also conducted although at first this proved unsuccessful until a couple of Italian brothers arrived on the scene. The caves are situated in a horsehoe shaped escarpment of rock that lies on a bend of the upper reaches of the Waghora river. While the excavations of Ellora are largely sculptural, although evidence of painting can be found, those at Ajanta reveal good examples of an early Buddhist form of painting that is still similarly practised today by monks elsewhere. The paintings depict the Jatakamala, the past lives of Buddha, in a developed form. The way of painting was to coat the walls in a layer of clay, cow dung and rice husks to the depth of about one and a half centimetres. Upon this a layer of lime was applied resulting in a smooth surface. Colours came from local material such as yellow earth, red ochre and green rock. Brushes were used to fill in the picture until the desired effect was reached while a further technique was applied of toning down the highlights and shading with darker lines.

The influx of artisans was largely the result of patronage by individual donors encouraged by King Harisena. When he died suddenly in 477 much of the artistic work in progress was to grind to a halt. It seems as though the activity of practicing Buddhists was already largely over for the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien had reported in about 400 C.E. that although pilgrims came to the site, the local people did not practice in accord with the Law of Buddha. Had there been a spiritual renaissance in the intervening half century? It seems unlikely. Rather those in power had seen to try and restore the Buddhist faith through their influence and support of artisans. Looking at the artistic remains of Ajanta, Ellora and Karla, all Buddhist sites in present day Maharashtra, one is truck by their artistic excellence and glowing evidence of endeavour. Yet one may also wonder as to who were the people who worshipped in these shrines and whose voices echoed melodiously in the caves. They may not be the ones directly responsible for the creations we now see yet it is largely thanks to their prayers that these sites are what they are today.