The stories of Kanheri are spread over time and space. They begin somewhere in the 1st century B.C.E., when the first monks passed by, and stayed in caverns hidden in these hills. Then came others, who excavated these caves, to live in, to study, and to promote their religion, to discuss their beliefs. Time passed, and as the social and political scene changed, Kanheri changed too. The caves spread over three hills, then satellite settlements began, and patrons came from far and wide. Inscriptions talk of donors who came all the way from Central Asia, the North East Frontier region and Eastern India. Along them came their influences, which are seen in the art of Kanheri.
|A Stupa in Cave 36, with remnants of paintings on the ceiling|
Most of the older caves were basic structures, excavated into the rock, meant to live in, and to pray. Only a few of the early caves had courtyards, and while most of them were bare of sculptural detail, remnants of plaster and presence of post holes indicate that the caves must, even then, have been plastered over, and painted in bright colours. Sadly, little remains of these paintings, except one small portion on the ceiling of Cave 34.
Cave number 3, which dates back to the 2nd century, the first phase of Kanheri, during the Satavahana rule, has one of the earliest sculptures of the Buddha in Southern India, carved into one of the two massive pillars in the courtyard. It has a strong resemblance to bronze images of the Buddha from the same period.
|Buddha sculpture (top) on pillar outside Cave 3, Kanheri|
On the outer parapet wall of Cave 3 are carved a variety of animals, including a Bactrian Camel, which clearly shows the influence of traders from foreign lands, across the silk route. These influences can be seen in the art atop the pillars of the apsidal hall of the cave, where the Stupa is the main object of worship.
The other sculptures in Cave 3, as well as most of the other caves, are intrusive, and belong to a later period, the late 5th and early 6th centuries C.E. By then, cave excavation had stopped (except for a few stray cases), and focus had shifted to patrons commissioning sculptures and carvings instead of caves. The two massive Buddhas, standing on either side of the entrance passage in Cave 3 are magnificent examples of work of this period.
|Standing Buddha, Cave 3|
Besides them, the cave also has two pairs of couples, possibly donors, carved on either side of the entrance. Their size, posture and ornaments speak volumes of their importance.
|Donor images, Cave 3, Kanheri|
Cave 3 is easily the most impressive cave at Kanheri, and it is also the only cave most visitors see in detail, among the 100-odd caves here. It was fascinating to learn, therefore, that things aren’t too different from the way they were, centuries ago. It is believed, that Cave 3 was the main Chaityagriha, the central place of worship, meant more for the visitors, rather than for the monks who lived here.
Visitors to Kanheri – pilgrims, traders, wandering monks, rich merchants seeking divine blessings, local farmers and landowners – would have all come here, to the big clearing. Here, they might have offered worship at the Chaitya, met the chief monks, discussed possibility of offerings, or donations, or simply listened to a discourse.
Only a few visitors would have ventured further, just as only some do today, into the higher reaches of the mountain, where groups of caves speak of different sects and varied belief systems of those who lived here. While most are indeed Viharas, or residences of the monks, there are a few Chaityas here as well, with either Stupas or cells with images of the Buddha.
Cave number 12, for instance, has an apsidal set of post holes within the cave, indicating the presence of a structure, possibly moveable, and made of wood. It could, indeed, have been a miniature Stupa, similar to the one in Cave 3, meant for worship by the monks, near their living spaces.
Cave 90 has a small, empty niche on the back wall, which suggests the presence of an idol here at some point of time.
Among the intrusive carvings, the most popular theme at Kanheri is the Srasvasti Miracle.
The Sravasti miracle refers to the Buddha performing the miracle of causing a mango tree to sprout in a day, and creating a huge array of representations of himself under it. The event is believed to have occurred at Sravasti, the then capital of Kosala.
This episode is seen repeatedly on the walls of the caves at Kanheri. Cave 89 has an especially fine one, with the Mango tree clearly visible above the Buddha’s head, with leaves, mangoes, birds and a monkey carved into it. The Buddha is seated on a lotus, flanked by the Bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani, as Chauri bearers, also standing on lotuses. The stalk of the central lotus is held by the Nagas Nanda and Upananda, attended by two Nagis.
Cave 67 also has Sravasti miracle panels carved into the wall. There are multiple panels here, of varying sizes, suggesting that the bigger ones were carved first, and the later ones fit into the space available.
There are also trinity panels, depicting the Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas, and all these panels are believed to have been carved during the second and third phases of Kanheri, when cave excavations had come to a halt, and rich patrons arranged to have these panels carved for gaining religious merit.
One of the more interesting panels is in cave 90, which, at first glance, appears to be a Sravasti miracle. However, there are four figures instead of two, under the lotus. Looking closer, it is evident that the two figures at the lowest level are the Nagas, supporting the lotus. Among the other two pairs of figures above them, one appears to be Shakra, or Indra, by his crown, and behind him, is his Vajrapurusha, with folded hands, and the emblem of the Vajra on his crown. The other pair appears to be a Gandharva and an Apsara. This panel is believed to depict Shakra’s visit to the Buddha.
Another interesting depiction is in Cave 67, where, in the passageway, on one side, is the story of Sumedha, and the Dipankara Buddha. Sumedha is said to have been a hermit, who laid down his hair on the ground, so that the Buddha could cross a puddle, without soiling his feet. It is believed that Sumedha was none other than Gautama himself, in a previous birth, which lends more importance to this episode. The panel depicts the Dipankara Buddha, with Sumedha at his feet, his hair spread before him. This depiction is seen more often in Gandhara Art, and later in Mathura art, and its presence here clearly speaks of the varied influences that came to Kanheri via the trade routes.
Among the other forms of Buddha, Avalokiteshwara is seen in many of the caves. However, the most unique form is that of the 11 headed Avalokiteshwara, who stands on one side of the Buddha, in Cave 41. This is believed to be the only such depiction in stone, in India. Indeed, it is also the earliest known sculptural depiction of this deity in the world!
This is just a small glimpse of the sculptural art at Kanheri. Imagine then, the magnitude of art, in the 100-odd caves, which exist here. Imagine the bustling place it must once have been, with a constant stream of visitors, bringing with them, their own stories, leaving their influences behind, taking more with them as they left.
And this isn’t the only art at Kanheri either.
Cave 87 is located far from the main group. Getting here is an adventure by itself. The path, which appears and disappears with every curve of the hill, and involves clambering down precariously perched boulders, is scary, to put it mildly. Yet, the adventure is worth it, for the sight which greets us at the end.
This is the Nirvanaveethi, the path to salvation, and what is believed to be the burial ground of Kanheri, thanks to the innumerable brick Stupas here. The Stupas have been recently restored, though the caves are in a sad state, with most of the sculptures unrecognisable. However, the brick Stupas themselves, against the natural landscape, themselves are a work of art!
While we associate Kanheri with caves, and excavations into the rock, structures were built here, with stone as well. A narrow path leads us upwards, to one of the peaks, where a crumbling stone structure tells us that there was once a temple here, not excavated, but built of stone. It might have been a temple to the Buddha, but nothing remains to tell us more of it.
Another structure, built between the hills, is a dam, to direct the water from the natural streams and rivers which flow down the mountain. Built centuries ago, this dam, along with the excellent water channels and cisterns near the caves, speak of the brilliance of those who planned them. These are works of art too, from which we can learn to combine functionality and aesthetics even today!
Further uphill, scattered stones talk of a structure built much later – probably a fort during the Bahamani rule. At the highest point of the hill, are incisions made into the rock. Here, we assume, temporary structures would have been erected. Regular such incisions along the way speak of processions being brought here. Local tribes continue to come here, to worship the deity of the hills and the forests.
As I stand there, at the highest point of Kanheri, on the final day of the three day site seminar, I am overwhelmed – by the whole experience during the three days, the stories I have heard, but above all, the feeling of being in a sacred space.
That this space is sacred, is evident from the number of people who came here, over a millennium, seeking that elusive spiritual bliss. That Kanheri grew, from being simply a religious centre, to a monastery, to a teaching centre, tells us how the sacredness endured, through time.
Note: Almost everything I have written is based on what I learnt, during the Kanheri Site Seminar with Dr. Suraj Pandit. The imagination and the words are my own, of course, though it wouldn’t have possible to see Kanheri the way I did, if it wasn’t for the invaluable experience of Dr. Pandit, Dr. Anand Kanitkar and Mr. Vinayak Parab. Thank you so much Sirs, for showing us Kanheri the way you did.