The ancient Kanheri Caves of north Mumbai lie within the forest on a rocky plateau in the present day Sanjay Gandhi National Park [SGNP]. Lat long: 19°13’ N; 72°55’ E
This is a highly under rated attraction, well worth at least a half day trip for both visitors to, and local residents of Bombay. An early start is recommended to beat Mumbai's infamous heat, and combined with the National Park, this makes a good picnic - provided you pack your hamper from home for apart from biscuits and tea available at the caves site, and fruits hawked by the tribal vendors, no food is sold within the national park.
Closest suburban railway station: Borivili East on the Western Churchgate line.
Entry via the SGNP main gate at the W.E. Highway in Borivili East. Tickets for vehicle and per head need to be purchased to enter the SGNP which is open from 7.30am. Additional entry tickets per head [Rs 5/- for Indians] to be bought at the Kanheri Caves site which is approximately 5km inside the park. The cave site is managed by the Archaeological Survey of India [ASI].
Guides can be engaged at Kanheri from amongst moonlighting ASI staff. Rates negotiable at approx. 100 - 200 INR. At least two hours are required for an introductory visit to this ancient site. History and archaeology buffs will naturally want to spend longer and make repeated visits.
It is worth walking right up to the rocky plateau atop the caves to enjoy the breeze and lovely view of suburban Mumbai, the dense forests of SGNP and a glimpse of the Tulsi Lake. In the monsoons, the pathways are treacherously slippery but the scenery is stunningly beautiful with lush greenery, waterfalls and streams in abundance. In heavy rains, some of the caves themselves turn into spectacular waterfalls!
Some historical facts:
Kanheri or Krishnagiri, Kanhasela, Kanhagiri as it was once known, is a 2000 year old Buddhist site from the period 3BC to 11AD.
In its heyday, Kanheri was a major centre of Buddhist learning, due to its proximity to the ancient sea port of Sopara, present day Nala Sopara. Both the Hinayana and Mahayana paths of Buddhism were established here. The older, austere caves are the Hinayana influence and the ornately carved and embellished caves from the Mahayana stream.
The ancient site has an elaborate rainwater harvesting and drainage system, still in place and very much in use even today.
Kanheri has the largest number of cave excavations in a single hill, with Chaityagrihas i.e. places of worship, Viharas or monasteries, Water cisterns and cemetary.
Several inscriptions at Kanheri, refer to the ancient Buddhist sites of Sopara, Nasika, Chemuli, Kalyana, Amravati etc.
Cave 3 is the most prominent Chaityagriha c. 172-201 A.D. This chaityagrha is the second largest in India, after Karla which it closely resembles. The outside walls have two huge sculptures of standing Buddha and other Bodhisattva images. These sculptures are circa the 5th – 6th centuries A.D.
Cave 1 is unfinished, also a chaityagriha, c. 5th – 6th centuries A.D.
Cave 11 consists of a huge hall with a front verandah and a shrine on the back wall of Buddha in dharmacakrapravardana mudra.
Some of the caves have stone carvings and sculptures. Buddha is standing or seated, some times flanked by Bodhisattvas, and rarely with consorts. Sculptures of Avalokitesvara can be seen in a few caves along with depictions from the Jataka.
The cemetary is on an isolated terrace, where stone and brick structural stupas were erected on the charred remains of distinguished monks.
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