Mumbai is known for its vibrancy. It is famous for the being the corporate kingdom, party magnet, home to the film industry and symbol of cultural fusion. However, a few places of wonder exist in the middle of present day urban setup and are rich in beauty and heritage. Some of them stand tall, while some fight for space and attention, but they definitely add to its vibrancy!

We go back in time when the city of Mumbai was cluster of rocky islands and agricultural lands, sprinkled with interesting caves. These beautiful caves were carved out of basalt rocks, commonly found in the region, and were places of worship and shelter.

Most of the early rock cut temples and rock art were created by Buddhist monks, who found that the best place to spread the message of Buddhism was at the nodes of the trade routes. The hills of Maharashtra, surrounded by sea, were desirable for this purpose. Most caves were in close proximity to major ports at the time.

These sites indicate the flow of religion with the rise and decline of Buddhism in the country, revival of Brahmanical culture (Shaivite culture), effects Portuguese-Maratha invasions and British colonization and the much needed conservation efforts of Archeological Survey of India (ASI).

Here are some of the caves found in present day Mumbai, some I grew up visiting and others discovered in adulthood, in the order of their formation –

Kanheri caves

Located in the heart of beautiful Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Kanheri caves are a collection of around 110 rock-cut caves connected by long and winding trails of steps. They derive their name from Krishna-giri or Kanhagiri, owing to dark basalt rocks they are carved out of (‘Krishna’ means black and ‘giri’ means mountain). Built between 1st century BC and 11th century AD, the period saw the rise and decline of Buddhism.

Around 4th century AD, Kanheri caves attained the status of a Buddhist university and gained popularity. This was also because they were on Salsette island, which had connectivity to ports of Sopara (modern day Nala Sopara), Kalyan, and islands of Bombay and Bassein (modern day Vasai), and had steady stream of tradesmen and travelers.

The caves have viharas (residential chambers for monks), chaitya-griha (meditation hall) and stupas (Buddhist shrines) carved out of a single rock hill. They are also known to have an evolved water harvesting system indicated by the presence of water cisterns in almost every cave, which leave tourists awestruck. There are more than 30 unfinished/weathered paintings of Buddha in the caves.

Some of the artistic highlights are a colossal Buddha and chaitya-griha in Cave 3, sculptures of Lord Buddha in cave 90 and cave 41, and painted ceiling in cave 34.

Timings: 7.30 am to 5 pm

Entry cost: INR 15 per person (Kanheri caves) + INR 50 per person (SGNP entry)

 

(In pictures: Kanheri Caves, colossal Buddha at the entrance of Cave 3, sculptures of Lord Buddha in cave 90, painted ceiling in cave 34 (sourced from the internet))

Mahakali caves

Hidden in the suburbs of Andheri, Mahakali caves are a collection of 19 Buddhist caves. They were carved between 1st and 6th centuries AD, and are also known as Kondivite caves, deriving it from neighboring village with the same name.
It was a monastery and a home to Buddhist monks. Some of these caves have courtyards that were used as prayer halls.

The highlight of these caves is the sculptures in cave number 9, which is a chaitya-griha, showing figures from the Buddhist mythology. They show Lord Buddha with his attendants. The other highlight is the stupa inside a circular chamber in cave number 5. It also has inscriptions in the ancient language of Pali.
It is hard to believe there is a link to history so close to the corporate hub of Mumbai. The caves are located on a hill that overlooks the JVLR and Seepz, and are wrapped in greenery.

Timings: 9 am to 4 pm

Entry cost: INR 25 per person

(In pictures: Mahakali caves, sculptures in cave number 9)

Jogeshwari caves

Considered to be the oldest Hindu cave temple in Mumbai, Jogeshwari caves were the first rock cut temples dedicate to Lord Shiva. It is believed that they were built in 6th century by Hindu priests and Buddhist monks who meditated and worshipped in these cave temples.

They were carved between the excavations of Ajanta caves (near Aurangabad) and Elephanta caves (south of Mumbai). History suggests that artisans went west from Ajanta and built the Jogeshwari cave temple in Mumbai.

Upon entering the cave through a narrow staircase, one comes across a large hall with many pillars (mandapa) and sculptures on the walls, belonging to the Mahayana Buddhist architecture. The 30 feet tall sculptures are assumed to show the marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The central cave houses Goddess Jogeshwari, the patron deity of the region. Idols of Lord Hanuman and Lord Ganesha are also found in surrounding caves.

These ancient caves are fighting a losing battle in competition for space. Their condition is in stark contrast to the world famous Elephanta caves and Kanheri caves, which are nestled on an island and inside the national park respectively. The seclusion from urbanisation and encroachment has helped these heritage sites. The Jogeshwari caves, on the other hand, may not have a long future.

Timing: 6 am to 6 pm

Entry Cost: No cost

(In pictures: Jogeshwari caves, sculptures outside the shrine (sourced from the internet))

Lonad caves

Lonad caves are situated between Kalyan and Bhiwandi, and are a delightful little discovery for history enthusiasts. Popular among cyclists, Lonad caves have a serene route leading to them.

It is believed that the rock-cut temples were built between 5th and 8th centuries AD by Buddhist monks. They used the caves to reside in when they traveled from Sopara port, an established Buddhist center to Junnar, which was the capital of the Satavahana Empire.

The caves have remains of chaitya-griha or meditation hall, which is now converted into a temple. It has shrines dedicated to Lord Ganesh and Khandeshwari devi. The temple is actively worshipped till this day.
Outside the cave and above the pillars are beautiful carvings of Jataka tale of Vishwantara/Vessantara. Vessantara Jataka is basically a tale regarding one of the past lives of Lord Buddha.

Shiva temple in Lonad village: The temple is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD by Shilaharas, then rulers of Thane and Konkan. The Shilaharas were Shiva worshippers. The earliest known reference to this temple is in an inscription in Vasai, from 1st century AD, recording the repairs of a temple of Lord Shiva and the gift of a garden in Lona (modern day Lonad)

Timings: Open all day

Entry cost: No cost

(In pictures: Lonad caves, Shiva temple)

Mandapeshwar caves

Between Borivali and Dahisar is a calmer and lesser known cave temple known as Mandapeshwar cave. These are rock cut shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, built between 6th – 8th centuries AD. They were originally located on the banks of Dahisar river, but later the river changed its course. The river was used by monks to travel between Kanheri caves, which used to be Buddhist university, and Mandapeshwar caves, which were used by the monks for shelter.

The name Mandapeshwar means “Hall of God”, and rightly, the cave has a mandapa supported by 12 pillars used as prayer hall. In addition to it are cells for shelter, wherein the central cell has a shrine. It also has a water cistern system, which keep the caves cool.

The highlight of the cave temple is the magnificent sculpture of six armed Lord Shiva in Nataraja pose (King of dancers). On its right side are assumed to be Goddess Parvati with two attendants and on its left side is a person beating drums. The panel indicates celebration, and it is assumed to depict marriage between Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The upper left corner is occupied by three-headed Brahma.

The reason the sculptures are most ruined in this cave compared to other Buddhist caves is because the temple cave has seen violent invasions by Portuguese, Maratha and British. (Read more)

Timings: Open all day

Entry cost: No cost

(In pictures: Mandapeshwar cave, Natraja sculpture)

Elephanta caves

The most awe-inspiring caves in Mumbai, Elephanta caves continue to draw in tourists till this day. History enthusiast or not, take one look at them and it is impossible to look away!

They are a collection of Hindu and Buddhist caves on the island of Gharapuri (meaning “city of caves”), and are believed to have been carved between 5th and 8th centuries AD. Incidentally, this period also saw decline of Buddhism and revival of Brahmanical traditions. The creators of the caves are debatable, and are most likely considered to be Mauryas of Konkan.

Even before caves dedicated to Lord Shiva were excavated, the island was a Buddhist center. The remains of stupa in some caves are believed to belong to the early phase of Buddhism dating back to 2nd century BC. The caves were an active place of worship.

In the 16th century, the group of islands that form modern day Mumbai came under Portuguese reign. The caves witnessed massive vandalism at the hands of Portuguese soldiers, who used the sculptured panels for shooting practices. In 1970s, the government of India restored the main cave and in 1987 the caves earned the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The caves are famous for larger than life sculptures of Mahesh Murti/Trimurti, Nataraja, Andhakasura Vadh, Kalyanasundar Murti, Gangadhara Shiva, Ardhanarishwara among others.

Timings: 9.30 am to 5.30 pm

Entry cost: INR 205 per person (Ferry) + INR 45 per person (Cave entry)

(In pictures: Sculptures of Natraja, Mahesh Murti, Kalyansundar and Dwarpala)

 

If you’ve read so far, thank you for your time.

If you wish to know more or offer a suggestion, you can shoot me an email at nidhi.thehappychapter@gmail.com or connect with me on
Instagram at @nidhigupta_
(All pictures are taken by me unless mentioned)

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