Caves of Mumbai – The Saga of The Maximum City’s Treasure Trove of Rock Art
Maharashtra (Marathi for The Great Country), aptly named for its immensely vast cultural past and present is home to some of the world’s most intriguing cave art. Cave art, otherwise assumed to be paintings and similar depictions of everyday life was not the perspective artisans had when they started chiseling their way onto ancient rocks in this Indian State. What is a tourist attraction today were temples and meditation rooms of the past. What are crowded with vacationers today were once quaint places to meditate in tranquility.
As legendary and historically as well as archaeologically important all the cave art in Maharashtra might be, one can only cover a few elements in one go.
Today’s spotlight is on cave art in Mumbai. Yes, Mumbai. The city which is synonymous with bustling trade, fast-paced life and what people assume as a history which does not go further than 400 years ago, happens to be the home of cave art that date back to as far as 1st century BC.
Mumbai’s millennia-old culturally rich history is lesser known than it’s flamboyant counterparts, but nevertheless, it stands tall and proud to this day.
A Little Gyaan on Mumbai First
A few hundred years ago, Mumbai’s land mass wasn’t the way it is today. It was a bunch of 7 islands strewn close to each other in the Arabian Sea. During the Portuguese rule, these islands were given away as dowry to Britain. When the East India Company arrived, these seven islands – Bombay Island, Parel, Mazgaon, Mahim, Colaba, Worli and Old Woman’s Island – were connected to each other by reclaiming land under the Hornby Vellard Project that was completed in 1784. The city was originally named Bom Baia which means ‘A Good Bay’ in Portuguese.
Although one might think the city has taken shape in the past few hundred years, in reality evidence proves that the city was inhabited, though sparsely since the Stone Age.
Won’t Cave In Just Yet
The cave art in Mumbai that date back to the first century BC stand witness to the heavy duty presence of art and culture back in the day. The three major spots where one can see medieval rock-cut architecture are Elephanta Caves, Kanheri Caves and Mahakali Caves.
Located far apart from each other, all these caves depict Buddhist sculptures and paintings and have been carved out of single rocks each.
1) Elephanta Caves
Located in Gharapuri Island, 10 kilometers off the coast of Mumbai, Elephanta Caves house rock-cut architecture from 5th century AD. There are two sets of caves, one set that have Hindu sculptures dedicated to Lord Shiva and his marriage to his consort, Parvati and the other set are a group of two Buddhist Caves.
Although local belief goes that these caves weren’t made by humans, the Pandavas are credited with the construction of these caves. But in the end, owing to the absence of any inscription found in these caves, one had to look into archaeological records to figure out the actual history.
The main cave has depictions of Ardhanarishwara (Shiva’s half woman-half man form), his marriage to Parvati, Shiva slaying Andhaka the demon and Ravana shaking mount Kailash in massive sculptures that are so breathtaking that one can imagine the effort that must have gone into creating them.
It opens up into a square courtyard which could have been a dance podium considering the slightly raised circular plinth that adorns the center.
Once you visit the caves, you might wonder where the elephant is, considering the name. Do not break your head over it, for the stone elephant that gave the name to this island and which was once located near the caves, now rests at Jijamata Udyan, Mumbai’s only Zoo.
The construction style has been identified as Chalukyan Architechture which involves heavy duty art work, massive pillars, feminine hairstyles and much more. The magnitude of the construction cannot be expressed in words. One has to witness the grandeur in person to feel it.
Despite the mutilations that have scarred these magnificent sculptures, they still look every bit regal as they would have in their hey day.
The sheer difficulty to reach this island (It still takes an hour and a half on a motorized ferry to reach this place from Gateway of India Jetty) and the absence of high tech tools back then makes you wonder how the artisans must have toiled back then.
Elephanta has hence always been and will be a pride of the city we today know as Mumbai.
How to Get There – One has to reach Gateway of India and has to take a ferry to Gharapuri Island. A total fee of Rs. 150 is to be paid for the to-and-fro ferry ride. Once in Gharapuri, one has to pay a tourist tax of Rs. 5/- and an entry fee of Rs.10/- (for Indians).
The last ferry from the island to the mainland leaves at 5 pm so keep a check on time.
2) Kanheri Caves
Located within the limits of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (World’s only national park within city limits) in Borivali, Mumbai’s northernmost end, Kanheri Caves are a group of 109 Buddhist caves that were carved, sculpted and painted on between 1st century BC to 10th century CE.
Unlike the heavy duty sculpting work that adorns Elephanta caves, these caves are minimalistic yet artsy. Each cave is a set of carvings, some sculptures and a water cistern. Back in the day they were used by Buddhist monks to meditate and study. The bigger caves (fewer in comparison to the viharas(meditation rooms)) stand tall and grand and were used for group worship and prayers. A total of 51 legible inscriptions and 26 epigraphs can be seen on the site. These inscriptions vary in their languages from Brahmi, Devnagari and Pehlavi.
The most distinctive sculpture is of the revered Buddhist God, Avalokiteshvara.
There also happens to be an unfinished painting of Buddha in cave no 34. The markings on this unfinished piece of art are worth recording to understand their system of arting images.
Many a sculpture is mutilated and there are many reasons why. Negligence has played a huge role in these caves losing their grandeur but the recent efforts by the government has done a lot of good to these structures that have stood the test of time.
The most fascinating part of these cave clusters is that all these caves have their own water system. There is a rock-cut system where fresh water from the nearby rivulets continuously flows into the caves’ water cisterns, thus replenishing it with a constant supply of the miracle potion.
Once in a while, if you are lucky, you might just get to see Buddhist monks meditating in the cells. Yes, monks still come here to meditate in peace.
How to Get There – One has to enter Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali to gain entry to these caves. An entry fee of Rs. 30/- per head will allow access into the park. One can then take the eco-friendly bus that charges Rs. 30/- per head for a one way ride (7 kilometers) to Kanheri Caves. Be on the lookout if you are holding anything in your hand for the monkeys here are notorious.
3) Mahakali Caves
Located right in the heart of Mumbai’s business hub in Andheri are a set of 19 rock cut caves that are Buddhist in nature. These caves were carved out of a single basalt rock between the 1st century BCE and 6thcentury CE. Most of these caves are meditation room for monks and only one cave is a congregation hall of sorts. This congregation hall has the most number of sculptures i.e 7 depictions of Buddha and several other figures from Buddhist mythology.
Most of the figures are mutilated and these caves face the threat of encroachment. Many a slum has cropped up around this, defacing this painstakingly made construction.
What should have been the pride of the city, today lies in a state of decay. Junkies doing their thing, slum dwellers using it for un-called for purposes and lack of government intervention has led to this engineering marvel on the brink of being lost in time.
How to Get There – One can get to Jogeshwari-Vikhroli link road or Andheri Kurla road and drive ahead. It is barely a minute’s drive.
Growing up with such marvels of historic importance in abundance around us, we the citizens of this city have lost value for what we should be cherishing. These structures are not a mere tourist attraction. One must view them as a way to connect to our past. The city’s past. The thought process of human beings can be tracked only by what our past has left for us.
These wonders are gift from the past and we must treasure these. What is the purpose of further existence if we do not know what great people from the past have passed on to us? With no knowledge flowing in, our society faces a threat of becoming nothing more than an urban ruin.
One must make sure they do not block the course of knowledge. Negligence to safeguard what was our history will lead to a void in our knowledge bank. This is an appeal to all those who feel or do not yet feel strongly for the caves, nature and everything else we got on our platter – We got it on our platter. Let the future get it too. The Other Home requests all to come forward to save our national heritage.