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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: The Bhaje, Bedse, and Karla Caves

A little over half way from Bombay to Pune there's a resort town--an old hill station--Lonavala or Lonavla, just high enough at 2,000 feet to provide some relief from coastal humidity. It's probably the most accessible of all India's hill stations, because the major highway east from Bombay passes this way; so does the old, still busy railway. The town's most famous product must be chikki, a hard candy, usually with nuts in a sugar matrix, but the historic feature is the cluster of Buddhist caves a few miles farther east and approximately from the second century B.C. They're why we came.

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Trudge, trudge, trudge. Someday, someone should write a history of how the ASI--or Archaeological Survey of India--has gone about its work, including providing access to its treasures. The Bhaje caves are almost in sight now, behind the lovely ticket kiosk. In the background there's a fine view of one of the flat-topped lava flows so characteristic of this part of the country.

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Bingo. The arch is the entrance to a chaitya or prayer hall. The other caves are mostly monasteries, basically living quarters. The flights of stairs, of course, are more ASI handiwork.

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Surely scholarship has advanced lightyears since two canny Scots, James Fergusson and James Burgess, published The Cave Temples of India in 1880. Good luck finding better descriptions! Here's Burgess on this cave: "The Chaitya Cave of the Group No. XII. is one of the most interesting in India... The wooden screen that originally closed its front is, of course, gone, but we can easily restore it, in the mind's eye, from the literal copies of it in the rock which we find at Bedsa, Karle, and elsewhere, aided by the mortices cut in the floor and at the sides, showing how the timbers were originally attached to the rock. When this is realised it seems impossible that anyone can look at these caves and not see that we have reached the incunabula of stone architecture in India. It is a building of a people accustomed to wooden buildings, and those only, but here petrified into the more durable material. There is not one feature nor one detail which is not essentially wooden throughout...." Burgess is relentlessly factual, and you wait in vain for him to say something about how the cave makes him feel.

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When he speaks of this cave as the incunabula of stone architecture, he's thinking at least in part of the five-inch taper of the columns, a feature that increases stability in a wooden building but probably weakens one of stone.

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Here are some of the mortices he writes of. He also says that the first four beams or girders are now missing. Which begs the question: can the beams here be 2,000 years old, or has the ASI does some renovation?

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At the head of the cave there's a dagoba consisting of a cylinder, a garbha or dome, and a relic box (and a pigeon). It's hard not looking instead at the wood frame, whose only purpose can have been to make the ancient monks feel at home in a wooden structure.

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The box has the classic so-called Buddhist railing. Most of the dagoba is hewn from bedrock, but the upper box is not. Since we can't climb up, we'll take Burgess at his word when he says it is a separate block hollowed out to contain a relic long gone.

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How's this for woodwork?

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Is that elegant or what? Burgess in a footnote indicates that some of the wood is original: "Application having been made to the Government of Bombay to prevent the villagers from pulling down more of the woodwork, and to fix what seemed to be in danger of falling, the engineer entrusted with the work inserted new ribs wherever he thought one had been pulled down; in fact attempted a restoration." But which timbers? A few? Most?

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Some of the columns have decorative features, usually of flowers. The one on the right Burgess takes to be a fan.

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Why the decoration on otherwise severely plain columns?

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The most exotic feature of the cave, right up there with the timbers, is this figure of a woman. Burgess says only that it is "a female figure high up on the left side of the front, much weather-worn, but with a beaded belt about the loins." Perhaps that is all that can be said, except that in the context of a cave itself so rigid, this figure is inexpressibly graceful. And then there's the only problem: what do monks want with a lovely female?

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We'll work our way down the line of monasteries.

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Here's one cave with a set of dagobas marking the tombs of monks.

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Some of the dagobas are still fused with the ceiling.

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Now here's a puzzle. The concrete platform is obviously modern, but how then could the columns be anything else?

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So the columns are ASI work, as are the curved beams, which are absent in old photographs. The figures on the wall are old, however, and the subject of debate.

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Here they are up closer. The conventional interpretation is that the one on the left is Surya, while the one on the right is Indra. Along comes Edward Johnston, ex-ICS and then professor of Sanskrit at Oxford. In the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, 1939, pp. 1-7, he writes that "...the present writer fails to see what advantage is gained from putting a purely baseless label to some work of art in order to provide it with a name." Oh, those British academics.

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So much for Surya. Johnston writes: "The chariot has two wheels and is drawn by four horses abreast; these facts alone are sufficient in my view to negative the identification with Surya. In the chariot are standing three deities of more or less equal size, which fact alone prevents us from equating them with Surya, Pingala and Dandin..." Instead, "I had always taken this scene to represent the war between Sakka and the Asuras as told in Samyuttanikaya I,224-5." But of course. A similar story appears in the Kulavaka-Jataka, in which the Buddha flees in his chariot as asuras rise against him. To spare the birds terrified by his chariot, the Buddha turns his chariot around to sacrifice himself. The asuras, misinterpreting this as the arrival of reinforcements, flee.

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As for Indra: "I do not claim finality in the solution I put forward here... I can only propose as a solution that we should see a reference in the relief to Samyuttanikaya, I, 1032-104, the second of the Marasamyuttas, in which Mara created the form of a gigantic elephant to frighten the Buddha.... [Note that] the elephant holds a third tree in his trunk, as if he had just torn it up in his rage."

Johnston, writing when travel was not so easy as it is today, concludes that "it would certainly be desirable that the next competent person who visits the cave should examine the relief with care and report its contents fully, as conclusions drawn from the photographs are exposed to error from misapprehension of the details." It seems that Johnston himself never saw the reliefs except in photographs.

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What would he have made of these figures?

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Close-up.

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Close-up.

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Another figure in the group.

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And more.

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The interior of the cave seems comparatively plain but you can't go inside to check it out.

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We've jumped over the ridge and are going to start the climb up to the Bedse cave. En route: an irrigated flower garden, presumably for sale to hotels in Mumbai or Pune.

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Puff, puff.

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Detail: maybe an older stairway has been buried by the ASI.

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We've climbed up about 300 feet. Yes, that's the Mumbai Highway you can see bent in the distance; nearer to us it disappears into a tunnel.

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Bingo. Here's Burgess again: the prayer hall or chaitya is "reached by a passage 12 or 13 yards in length, cut through the rock, left in front to fit in order to get sufficiently back to obtain the necessary height for the facade."

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The "capital of the Persepolitan type, grooved vertically, supported a fluted torus in a square frame... over which lie four thin square tiles, each projecting over the one below. On each corner of these last crouch elephants, horses, bullocks, sphinxes, with male and female riders executed with very considerable freedom...."

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I love that "very considerable freedom."

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Close-up. How can one reconcile such figures with the austere teaching of the Buddha? On this, Burgess is silent.

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Close-up.

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The sides of the porch are covered with the rail pattern and chaitya window ornaments. Burgess again: "This and the complete absence of any figure of Buddha is one of the most decisive proofs of the early and Hinayana character of these caves."

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The base for posts.

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Burgess: "All the wood-work has disappeared within the last twenty years, for Westergaard (in 1844) described it as ribbed, and a writer in the Oriental Christian Spectator, about 1861, found fragments of the timber lying on the floor." The columns at one time were painted, but in 1871 "a local official, under the idea of 'cleaning' this fine cave, had the whole beslobbered with whitewash, and obliterated all the paintings." The whitewash has been removed, along with the paintings.

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The dagoba fencing is meticulous.

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The mortices anchored timbers, of course.

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Ornaments including a dharmachakra are carved on the columns.

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Flowers, too, and other symbols.

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An umbrella once rose from the relic box; only the base remains. Original? Hard to say.

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Next to the prayer hall is something very unusual: a monastery shaped like a prayer hall. Burgess writes that it is "quite unique in its kind... How it has been closed in front is not very clear...."

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There are 11 cells, each with a bench for sleeping. "Their doors are surmounted by Chaitya-arches connected by a string-course of 'rail-pattern.'"

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At some later date, a deity has been carved in the back wall.

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The monastery has its own water supply, a well.

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View from the inside.

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And now the much more popular hike up to the Karla or Karle Caves. The nice thing about running a trinket shop along a path like this is that you don't have to carry trash down to the bottom. Gravity does the trick eventually.

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A quiet morning.

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Up top, monasteries, including at least one with two floors.

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Can't you hear the realtor talking about "good bones" and "potential"?

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After all these centuries, you'd think that Buddha would call it quits.

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Upper floor this way, but there's not much up there.

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Back to Burgess: "This chaitya is, without exception, the largest and finest, as well as the best preserved, of its class." At this point he quotes his colleague Fergusson, who had written that the cave "was excavated at a time when the style was in its greatest purity. In it, all the architectural defects of the previous examples are removed; the pillars of the nave are quite perpendicular. The original screen is superseded by one in stone ornamented with sculpture." The chaitya was "closed in front by an outer screen, composed of two stout octagonal pillars, without either base or capital, supporting what is now a plain mass of rock, but which was once ornamented by a wooden galley, forming the principal ornament of the facade.Above this, a dwarf colonnade or attic of four columns between pilasters admitted light to the great window...."

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The lion one has its twin, but that site is now occupied by a Shiva temple, a corner of which appears in the previous picture.

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The porch.

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"The screen is cut in the rock as at Bedsa, and not in wood as at Bhaja..." "A few years ago I reported that this screen was leaning out, and in danger of falling. Mr. Fergusson wrote me to endeavour to have it restored, and after some delay this was effected under the superintendence of Colonel Goodfellow, R.E., Executive Engineer of the district. Mr. Fergusson remarks, "It wold be a thosand pities if this, which is the only original screen in India, were allowed to perish." "The pairs of large figures on each side of the doors alone appear, like those at Kanheri, to have belonged to the original design." In other words, the images of the Buddha and attendants that appear above the large figures seem to be later additions replacing the fencing pattern.

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On the sides, too, the Buddhas are later additions, carved under Mahayana influences.

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But who are the large figures?

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No renouncers these.

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Quite the contrary.

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Any theories?

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We can cool off inside, where "fifteen pillars on each side separate the nave from the aisles; each pillar has a tall base, an octagonal shaft, and richly ornamented capital, on which kneel two elephants, each bearing two figures, generally a man and a woman, but sometimes two females, all very much better executed than such ornaments usually are. ... Seven pillars behind the altar are plain octagonal piers... We can walk around the dagoba, because there are none of the barriers that exist at Ajanta. Those barries are not just an ASI fetish. "It does not appear whether the votary was admitted beyond the colonnade under the front, the rest being devoted to the priests and the ceremonies... and he therefore never could see whence the light came, and stood in comparative shade himself, so as to heighten its effect considerably."

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Here are the "richly ornamented capital[s], on which kneel two elephants, each bearing two figures, generally a man and a woman, but sometimes two females, all very much better executed than such ornaments usually are."

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More ornaments, plus an inscription.

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Burgess writes that the chaitya is "ornamented, even at this day, by a series of wooden ribs, almost certainly coeval with the excavation, which prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the roof is not a copy of a masonry arch, but of some sort of timber construction of which we cannot now very well understand. Remarkably, there still stands "a wooden umbrella, much blackened by age and smoke, but almost entire."


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