It’s an ancient land. And you get to see so much about her nowadays – her colours and her people and her temples and her wildlife. But did you know that India is home to some truly intriguing cave complexes? Here’s a list of some of the most amazing caves and what they have to offer the avid traveler. Feeling good already? Let’s go!
1. Ajanta Caves
Set in the heart of Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, this complex of approximately 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments dates from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE. But they were ‘discovered’ on a presumably blisteringly hot day of -28 April 1819 – by a British officer named John Smith. This fine gentleman led a group of locals armed with axes, spears, torches and drums; and after they cut down the tangled jungle growth he heroically entered the ancient site he had that day ‘discovered’, and proceeded to vandalize a wall by scratching his name and the date over the painting of a bodhisattva.
But apart from that scratch that immortalized said Smith, there is so much waiting for you at Ajanta!
The Ajanta caves are eloquent monuments to the breath taking artistic heritage of India. The caves include paintings and rock-cut sculptures described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form. Caves 16, 17, 1 and 2 of Ajanta form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall-painting. So make sure that you visit these.
The Ajanta caves bear witness to the harmonious cultural and spiritual melting pot that India has always been. Buddhist art, patronized by dynasties like the Satvahanas and Vakatakas who were followers of Hinduism; travelling merchants and Buddhist monks both using the caves as resting places; commerce and renunciation, everything co-existed in the peace that continues to reign supreme in this quiet corner of the world.
Visit Ajanta caves. Come away with that unshakable feeling that when you really, truly believe, anything is possible!
2. Badami Caves
These cave temples, tucked away in north Karnataka, are another sign of the tolerance towards and regard for different religions and beliefs that ancient India had. An inscription in cave 3, a temple dedicated to Vishnu by Mangalesha, puts the date at 578/579 CE, making these temples the oldest firmly dated Hindu cave temples in India. The amazing thing is that the temples are dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu which given the animosity that the Shaivites and Vaishnavites have towards each other is nothing short of miraculous. The caves also have temples dedicated to Jainism and Buddhism.
As you walk through the cave temples one by one and look upon the work of people that lived more than 1500 years ago you start getting a hint and just a hint of how truly ancient India is. You get an inkling of the fact that you are in a country with a living culture more than 2 millennia old.
A visit to these temples might, just might, help us in understanding that different beliefs can not only exist side-by-side but prosper. If not for anything else, visit the Badami cave temples for this one reason – feel the possibilities of peace!
3. Bhaja Caves
The Bhaja Caves complex is a group of 22 rock-cut caves dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Located in the scenic mountains of Lonavala, Maharashtra, the caves are easily accessible from both Mumbai as well as Pune. The Bhaja Caves are Buddhist shrines. The most impressive cave in the Bhaja Caves complex is Cave No 12 – a shrine, chaityagriha. This is the earliest known chaityagriha in India. It has a distinctive, huge, ornate horseshoe arch – it is one of the most photographed architectural elements in the world. (Visit it, and you will know why.) But the amazing architecture apart, the Bhaja Caves are a tribute in stone to the life and times of the Buddha – and what a life it was. The throne that was once his, the humble mound of earth that was his final resting place, his physical manifestations, his spiritual messages – the Bhaja Caves resonate with the living presence of an indelible faith.
And when the Indian sun sets, its last rays enter the Bhaja Caves and set the insides of the old mountains ablaze for a few short minutes. It’s not possible to describe that experience. You’ll just have to feel it.
4. Elephanta Caves
Allow yourself to feel the wonder of how these rock-cut temples were created by carving out rock, and creating the columns, the internal spaces and the images entirely through a process of rock removal. Some of the rock surfaces are highly finished while some are untreated bare rock. Which is not even the point, though, is it. The point, quite poignantly is that this little island gives every visitor a powerful metaphor – cut away the rock, find the shrine inside you! Go visit the Elephanta Caves. Feel empowered!
Step off the Mumbai mainland and ferry away into history to Elephanta Island. Sitting pretty just a short 10 kilometers from the chaos of Mumbai, this island is home to the Elephanta Caves – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This collection of cave temples predominantly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva was built between 5th and 6th century CE. The site, however, shows evidence of a rich cultural past and settlement since possibly the 2nd century BCE. In addition to the Shaivaite temples you will also come across a few Buddhist stupas – as always, Incredible India.
5. Kanheri Caves
Mumbai. The glamour capital of the country? Sure. The financial capital of the country? Definitely. But history, that too 2 millennia old? Nope. Definitely not. That would be your answer, just goes to show how much you really know. Mumbai does have a place that is 2 millennia old. Actually it’s in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, but close enough to Mumbai for the distance to not matter at all. And this is not just any spot but the Kanheri caves, some of the oldest Buddhist caves in the country. And as if that were not enough there are a hundred and nine of them.
The caves are all carved in a single hill about 5 km inside the park from the entrance. This is the only hill without any forest cover on it, basically a big lump of black basalt in the middle of some beautiful forest cover.
The caves themselves are magnificent and their sheer number can keep you occupied for a whole day. However if you are not a history buff or spiritual then perhaps you might want to do something else. And here is where the caves come to your rescue. Firstly they are located in a forested area with hills, which means that the area is beautiful and you could just have a small picnic after you finish your cave visit. In the monsoons it becomes even better with waterfalls and streams to add to the beauty. If that is not your thing then you are in a national park and you could go on a safari. If even that is not your thing then you could go trekking or rappelling, you can even cycle along certain routes. So much to do! It’s true that the Kanheri caves have an interesting location but everything else that you can do there pales in comparison to the caves themselves. Try it. Once you visit these caves the feeling of peace and serenity that you experience there will stay with you. After all, it’s been around, that feeling, for a couple of millennia!