Kanheri Caves, with over 50 inscriptions captures the human imagination. These are narratives on networks of power, economics, religion, retreats and endless aspirations on the horizons of the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean…www.navinajafa.com
Sitting beside Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan year after year, one had the luxury of listening to a Zen master on Indian art and culture for nearly four decades. Once when conversing on archaeology she remarked:
“The basis of Archaeology and its Art history has to begin from geological heritage, after all one has to ponder on the history of the material from which the tangible is created…. Another point to note…How can anyone approach conservation of buildings without paying attention to epigraphic inscriptions on the bodies of the monuments…the inscriptions are the voice of monuments?… if any built heritage site has epigraphic inscriptions the first thing a conservationist has to do is comprehend those writings. One has to understand the holistic significance of a heritage site…”
 Navina Jafa in conversation with Kapila Vatsyayan, Delhi, 1991
I had first heard of the Kanheri caves from my other teacher Dr. M.N. Deshpande, who told me that it was one of the richest sites for epigraphic inscriptions evident in multiple ancient languages which include Prakrit, Pali, and Brahmi and reveal knowledge on trade networks, communities, patronage patterns and much more.
Dr. Deshpande taught me about a subject that had captured his mind, body and soul all his life, they were the rock cut caves emerging out of the volcanic basalt rock in the Deccan plateau- Badami, to Ahihole, Elephanta to Ajanta, Ellora and Kanheri and as an exception his lectures were also on the Bamiyan Buddha. He worked in the Archaeological Survey of India and later served as Director General of the Survey. Dr. Deshpande, ate, breathed and slept rock cut cave architecture.
Between these two masters, the caves routes in the Deccan caught my imagination, and it is with that breathlessness I recently approached the site of the Kanheri Caves in Bombay/ Mumbai. Situated in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the site is the largest collection of cave excavations on a single hill almost 90 in number. One can view similarities with the caves in Ajanta.
The caves date back as early as 3rd century BC, and seem to have been in use until 11thc AD. Among the imperial patrons the most significant were the Deccan rulers – Satvahanas (2nd BC to 1st AD). The vast number of inscriptions describe complex human networks of castes, merchant guilds and also refer to sources of donations for the site.
Similar to the Ajanta Caves, the site appears as a sublime location of monsoon retreat, for amidst the strewed caves is the lush greenery, chirping birds, innumerable waterfalls, rippling rivers. The site has viharas – or places to stay for Buddhist monks and chaityas -prayer halls. It differs from Ajanta when one encounters an amazing program on hydraulic engineering with cisterns in several caves and a funerary space (location around cave number 85and 90). The most important feature of the site is a recall value of its links with economic heritage since it was close to important ports like Sopara.
Dr. Deshpande had referred to artefacts such as Greek ivory combs which were recovered from this site. The site as a retreat and a safe haven is evident when one sees among the sculptural representation the friezes on the eight perils which a traveler could encounter. These are called Ashtobhaya and include – attacks by wild elephants, by lions, robber, serpents, captivity, demons/evil spirits, shipwreck and conflagration. A similar representation occurs in Ajanta in Cave 1 as well and is located in the outer verandah as a sculptural relief.
Like Ajanta and Ellora, the Kanheri site has sculptures, paintings and architecture. Impressive chaityas with pillars and vaulted roofs, stupas, and friezes of the Buddha among which the two standing Buddha figures and the 11 headed Alokesteshwar are unique. One is definitely amazed at the immense beauty and richness of the site and the bounty of natural environment, a rare space in the present globalized city of Mumbai!
There are two aspects that need mention: One, at this point of time there is a dearth of linguistic specialists on ancient languages in India, and those who are alive are in advance age. There is an urgent need for the Ministry of Culture to initiate a mentorship program. Linked with this is the presence of the large number of scrolls which were photographed during the colonial and post-colonial period from monuments in India which are lying in the inscription office of the Archeological Survey of India in Mysore, the question is the linkages between conservation practices on tangible heritage and the promotion of linguistic heritage. ( please read http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/strange-affinities/ )
Secondly, while local citizens in Mumbai are aware of this absolutely stunning site, especially in the Monsoon, not many tourists visiting Mumbai are even aware or have ever heard of the Kanheri Caves or Vasai which remain potential for the tourism in Maharashtra.
India as an experience is just so immeasurable, like the coiled kundalini it keeps uncoiling endlessly and one life is not enough to know this expression of human history. One has to retreat, and then come back into its organized chaos – just like the caves in Kanheri where the monks realized the eternal essence of hope in the idea of Alokesteshwar – the Boddhisatva of compassion, and who absorbs human suffering.