Maharashtra as we know it today gets its identity mostly from the Maratha Empire and the capital city of Mumbai. But centuries ago, the Western Ghats that snake through the state were home to Buddhists who found solitude among the hills. The caves became a canvas for the monks, who carved out stories and images from their religion as a sign of devotion and to spread their message. Today, these Buddhist caves in Maharashtra remain in immaculate condition. With Buddha Purnima falling on May 10 this year, let’s explore the most famous of these caves. ALSO READ: Festivals in India in May 2017 that you should not miss
Sculpture at Ajanta caves
The Aurangabad district of Maharashtra has quite a collection of Buddhist caves, and the 30 Ajanta Caves are probably the most famous of them. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Ajanta Caves date back to the 2nd century BC and are considered one of the oldest surviving examples of Indian art. The paintings, rock-cut sculptures and architecture here are an example of how art thrived even in the remotest sections of the Ghats. ALSO READ: These 12 interesting facts about the Ajanta Caves will leave you stunned!
Located close to the city of Aurangabad, the Aurangabad Caves are much newer than the Ajanta Caves, dating back to the 6th and 7th century. That’s probably why these 12 caves have been overshadowed by the popular Ajanta and Ellora Caves. They lie just around 9 km from the city center though, making them very easy to reach. The caves lie close to the popular Bibi ka Maqbara mausoleum and are smaller than others in the district. However, their rock-cut sculptures still make for a compelling visit.
The Bedse Caves lie in the district of Pune and date back to the 1st century BC, and they were maintained over the centuries until around 1861. There are two caves here, with a few smaller caves around. The Chaitya cave consists of a large Stupa, while the other cave is a monastery and residential part of the structure. The carvings are not as ornate as those found in other caves in Maharashtra, but they come alive in the early morning sunlight. The Stupa on the outside is also a magnificent sight.
One of the larger groups of caves in this list, the Bhaja Caves were carved out as early as in the 2nd century BC. Located near the popular hill station of Lonavala, there are 22 caves in this group and parts of the cave temple are a protected National Monument. The Bhaja Caves have several noteworthy features, from early examples of wooden architecture and carvings of early forms of dance and music instruments.
The 14 Pitalkhora Caves lie along the Satamala hills of the Western Ghats, with many of them dating to the 3rd century BC, making them older than the Ajanta Caves. In fact, the Pitalkhora Caves are among the earliest forms of rock architecture in the country. They lie around 40 km from the Ellora Caves in Aurangabad District, down a steep flight of stairs and besides a waterfall, making for a scenic backdrop.
Ellora caves in Aurangabad
The Ellora Caves are a UNESCO recognized World Heritage site, and rightfully so. The caves are home to among the largest monastery temple complexes in the world. Here, you can find Buddhist as well as Jain and Hindu artwork, dating to the early centuries of the first millennium. There are 12 Buddhist caves here, although they were built by Hindu dynasties, showing the religious harmony that was prevalent at the time.
The Ghorawadi or Ghorawdeshwar Caves consist of Hindu and Buddhist statues and carvings made around the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. Located along the old NH4 highway that connects Mumbai and Pune, around 40 km from Pune. Carved out from a single stone on top of a hill, the caves are not as popular as some others mentioned in this, but still make for a worthy inclusion in your itinerary if you are travelling along the old highway.
Located in the Jogeshwari suburb of Mumbai, the Jogeshwari Caves are examples of Mahayana Buddhist architecture and lie off the Western Express Highway. The caves today are threatened by encroachers, sewage and waste, and bats, but there is no denying their Buddhist origins and significance. The caves were said to have been carved out sometime between the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. You can still visit the national monument and explore the carvings. ALSO READ: 10 most mysterious caves of India that you must explore!
Lying on a hillside, the popular Kanheri Caves lies within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai and consists of inscriptions, paintings and sculptures carved out between the 1st and 10th centuries CE. There are around 109 caves in this vast complex, with some of them being only recent discoveries. You can find several relief structures of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas here, indicating the importance of the caves as a key Konkan Buddhist settlement.
Located in the town of Karli near Lonavala, the Karla Caves were built between the 2nd century BC and 5th century CE. In fact, parts of the cave shrines date back to 160 BC. The caves lie long what was once a major trade route between the Arabian Sea coast and the Deccan plateau. The Karla Caves are associated with the Mahasamghika Buddhist sect, and consist of a monastery with two grand pillars, although only one of the pillars are present now.
Consisting of 19 monuments built between the 1st century BC and 6th century CE, the Mahakali Caves lie in the Andheri suburb of Mumbai. There are two groups of caves to explore here, with four caves in the northwest group and 15 caves in the southeast. The second group consists of a Chaitya, while the rest of the caves are Viharas and former residential cells for Buddhist monks. You can find several depictions of Buddhist mythic figures and Buddha himself here. The caves are very easy to reach, with buses directly taking you to the caves from the Andheri suburban railway station.
Pandavleni Caves near Nasik
With a history dating to the 2nd century BC, the Pandavleni Caves are an example of Hinayana Buddhist architecture. They are also called Pandu Caves, but they actually have no connection to the heroes of Mahabharata. Considered a holy Buddhist pilgrimage site, the Pandavleni Caves lie around 8 km south of Nashik city and were built as donations by Buddhist kings and traders. They are also called the Trirashmi Cave, with the name derived from the inscription ‘Tiranhu’ seen in the caves. Some of these caves are connected by stone-cut ladders, and you can find steps leading up to the caves from the foot of the hill itself. ALSO READ: Visit these 7 World Heritage Sites in Maharashtra
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