While browsing the Mumbai suburbs on Google maps one day, I noticed a vast expanse of green called “Sanjay Gandhi National Park” stuck plumb in the middle of the greater Mumbai mainland. Intrigued, I researched further and found it to be quite popular with the locals in the Northern suburbs. After some online searches combined with some non-Quoraesque Quora with colleagues, I discovered that the park was home to leopards and some ancient Buddhist caves called Kanheri caves. Notwithstanding the cats, the caves, and the park itself, was worth a visit, I was told.
We decided to check out the caves on the long weekend of MahaShivratri. Big mistake. We got to the park by 9 am only to discover hordes of people , mostly poor, queuing for a bus ride to the caves. Cars were not allowed and the government was sponsoring bus rides to Kanheri for all. Quite shocked to see such a resurgence in Buddhism in Mumbai, I asked a local park official what the commotion was all about. He informed us that there was a swayambhu (spontaneous) Shiva lingam in the Kanheri caves and we had stumbled into a national pilgrimage event in local Mumbai. So we contented ourselves with a glimpse of a heron in the Mahatma Gandhi memorial garden in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and headed home.
Some months later, and wiser, we set out early morning on a Sunday, – perhaps the only time every week when Mumbai is once again a civilized city – to visit Kanheri once again. As we entered the park at about 8:45 am, it was like entering an oasis. Once can see signs of encroachment, a few shanties here and there, but the greenery was vast and overwhelming, especially after being hurled through the crippled roads and haphazard concrete of Mumbai for the prior few months.
The caves were about a 15 minute drive into the park. The park was definitely popular with locals. There were joggers, cyclists, couples on bikes, walkers all along till we got to the caves. One could park the cars at the entrance to the mountain sides that contain the over 100 caves, some small and some major, that were built from 1st century B.C till 11th century AD.
The touring area had been developed reasonably well with railed pathways and stairs for all ages. Yet, one could turn the visit into a moderate exercise by walking up the hills rather than taking the easier pathways. The caves were obviously used by monks for meditation, but it seems highly likely that the monks had lived around there, sponsored by local kings at a time when Buddhism flourished in India post Ashoka.
Each cave contained statues of Buddha in various different styles, some cut into rock, some of Buddha as Avalokiteshwara, or on a lotus, or lying down, indicating the different eras when the caves were built. Seeing the various statues, I thought of the derision that is sometime poured on devout hindus for practicing idol worship. Yet, other religions create their own idols, be it in sculpture or painting, so why point fingers at a people practicing worship in their own way?
One of the caves looked like a dining hall, some other caves looked like they might have been used as places to sleep, and some were clearly meant for meditation. There were about 110 caves dotting the hillside, but caves 11, 34, 41 and 67 were marked as must-see for their size and for the artistry. Cave 67, for instance, had 1000 sculptures of Buddha. Cave 34 had a colour painting, but it was on the roof and hard to spot in the darkness.
Walking in and around the caves does create a sense of history and awe, given that that Buddhist monks walked on the same ground some 2000 years ago. However, completely unexpected was the visual treat one gets as one climbs up the hills. Dense greenery, stains on a mountain hinting at an impending waterfall once the monsoon kicks in, a solitary white temple eaten up by trees, the wonderful vistas of Mumbai city in the backdrop of lush green hills. Most wonderful of all, a cooling breeze smelling of fresh air, drying off a sultry Mumbai. It was, of all things, the hardest thing to leave behind as we wound our way down before the noon heat kicked in.
A few helpful tips, not available anywhere on the net unfortunately.
- You can drive all the way to the caves, or you can park at a couple of spots along the way and walk the rest. Car costs Rs. 80 per person.
- Alternatively, there are buses available at the entry point of the park to the caves.
- The entry point on the Western Express Highway is at the junction for Borivali station.
- Unlike in the Canary Islands, one has to pay the government here. Rs 5 entry to the caves for Indians. Separate price for foreigners, not sure how much.
- Cameras, with flash, are allowed but I would not recommend using the flash..
More photos on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chetanroy/sets/72157630263765370/