When the shout-out in one of the dailies mentioned, “exotic Buddhist caves”, I knew I had to go! And I was delighted to know that the tour was organised by a team of an Archaeologist and Indologist, which meant that there would be a rich wealth of information and stories, to satiate the history buff in me.
Somehow, I couldn’t transfer the fees for the tour in time, and pleaded fervently (lol) with Saili Palande Datar, the Co-Founder of Heritage Insights, with whom I travelled, to include me, on the eve of departure. The pleading did work, and I found myself, the next day, with an equally eager and enthusiastic bunch of people ready to explore the lesser-known, 2000 years old cave clusters in Junnar, Maharashtra, India.
I was surprised to know that there are around 185 such caves in the Junnar region alone and many of them yet to be discovered.
It was extremely fascinating to know how these caves came to be developed. After the Samadhi of Gautama Buddha, his disciples took upon the task of spreading Buddhism all over the world, starting with India. Often, they travelled with traders on well-known trade routes. But during the Monsoon, they stayed put in one place for shelter. This was called ‘Varshavaasya’, ‘varsha’ meaning rains and ‘vaasya’ meaning residence. Initially, probably they must have sought out natural caves, but when monks starting extending their stay beyond the four months of Varshavaasya, they started building permanent monasteries and cave dwellings.
The funding for building the monasteries came mainly from the traders who would seek shelter and food in exchange for funds. The type of funds varied from wood, vessels, grains, cloth, etc.
Several inscriptions on the stone also revealed that projects within the cave complex too were sponsored, like water reservoirs, or specific pillars, as an act of ‘punya’ (mertit), or benevolent actions done specifically for the atonement of sins or to appease the Gods that be. This is similar to what we see in parks or buildings, stating that the seats or certain amenities have been donated by a certain person. It was also amusing to note that several parts of the monastery like meditation cells, or the ceiling or relief work was left unfinished due to shortage of funds, much like some construction projects of today. Some things don’t change even in 2000 years, I thought to myself!
And who were these traders and where did they come from? These were Roman traders who carried out trade via sea, through Egypt, Alexandria and Arabia. The ports where the ships were anchored were Bhrugukachh (Bharuch in Gujarat), Shurparak (now known as Nalasopara in Mumbai) and Calliena (Kalyan near Mumbai). The Romans carried cotton, ivory, spices, silk, pearls, and exotic fauna like tigers, cheetah, peacock, and rhinos to Europe and in return brought gold, silver, wine and slave women to India. The goods brought would be loaded onto bullocks which passed via different ghats to reach important cities in the Deccan region like Junnar, Pratishthan (Paithan), Nasik and Tagar (Ter).
The then major dynasties of India, the Satvahana and Kshatrapa fought amongst themselves to control the trade routes, as that would mean a lot of wealth as the passes or ‘ghats’ on the Western Ghats were used as collection points for taxes, equivalent to the toll that we have today. It was interesting to know that for traders who used the pass often, they even had discounts similar to the discount on monthly toll passes of today.
So, the cave monasteries and the Indo-Roman trade had a symbiotic relationship each thriving on the other. But after the 2nd century BC, the Roman economy collapsed thus impacting the trade which ground to a halt towards the 3rd century CE (Christ Era).
Our first stop was at Manmodi Hill, where after a short uphill trek we reached the cave named Amba-Ambika.
During the briefing, Yashodhan Joshi, another Co-Founder of Heritage Insights, showed us the map of the ancient Indo-Roman trade route and also handed copies of the ancient Brahmi script (the language used was Prakrit with a few words of Sanskrit origin) which we used later to understand inscriptions (with a lot of difficulties). All the caves we visited were carved out from the mountain or hill. The cave cluster called Amba-Ambika derives its name from the sculpture of Goddess Ambika which was carved by the Jains in the 9th and 10th century CE after the caves were abandoned by the Buddhist monks. This was a two-stories cave cluster with an unfinished Chaitya Griha (prayer hall with a stupa at one end). Two pot-based pillars at the entrance were re-constructed by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and were hence of a different colour. Around 50 inscriptions regarding donations made for the construction of this cave have been found in the Chaitya Griha.
Further down the Amba-Ambika caves are the Bhutlinga caves, named after the main Chaitya Griha with ‘naga’ (snake) and ‘garuda’ (eagle) motifs and the stupa which is considered a ‘Shivlinga’ by locals. The façade of the cave was very well done and was donated by an Indo-Greek trader (locally called yavans) named Chanda, as we learnt from an inscription.
The third group we visited is called Bhimashankar, named after a large sculpture in the Chaitya which the locals have named Bhima. Here the roof of the Chaitya was flat as opposed to the unfinished domed ceiling in Amba-Ambika.
All these three cave groups were built or rather carved between 1st to 3rd centuries CE. Considering that entire caves had to be cut out from the hill, one would think that it would have taken a hundred years for them to have been built. But Saili, the archaeologist in the team said that one cave cluster would have taken around 15-20 years. This, as well as other facts about the life of the monks and ruling dynasties, have been gleaned from years of research by scholars through various sources like coins, inscriptions, references to the names on inscriptions found in the literature of the period, etc.
By this time, we were satiated by this interesting history and it was time to satiate our hunger.
We headed to an eatery in an agro-tourism enterprise called Amantran and after a lip-smacking traditional lunch, headed to the Tulja cave group.
The name derives from the deity Goddess Tulja whose shrine was built in a much later period in one of the abandoned caves. This cave group is considered much older than the rest by scholars, which means it was built in the 1st century CE or even earlier. There was a circular Chaitya Griha here as opposed to the hall like spaces in the previous caves with 12 octagonal pillars around it which indicates that it is from an earlier period.
Our last stop was a cave in Naneghat. On the way to the cave, we were greeted by a giant stone pot which was believed to have been used for tax collection by the then queen of the ruling Satvahana Dynasty called Nayanika or Naganika. This is not a Buddhist cave but was built more as a commemoration of the main political people of the time. In this cave, all the three walls of the cave were covered with inscriptions which give a lot of details about the politics of the time. The names of Gautami Putra Satkarni and his wife Nayanika, who was a very influential queen feature prominently in the inscriptions. The inscriptions also talk about the Yagnas that Nayanika performed and the donations she made for the Satvahana Empire. At one, inscriptions were serving as labels to the now absent statues of different people like Naganika and her husband.
We spent some time in Naneghat taking in the panoramic views under the crescent moon before boarding the bus. This trip was surely a heady mix of heritage, history, information, and being transported for a brief moment, to the life that was, 2000 years ago!