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Friday, November 19, 2010

A Trilogy of Karla, Bhaje & Bedse Caves : A Photo Travelogue

Date of visit : 8.12.2009

The cave trilogy of Karla, Bhaja and Bedse is located in close proximity to the hill station of Lonavala.
During the winters the surroundings appear dried. Ideally people prefer visiting Lonavala in the monsoons, when there is romance in the air. The ambience get endowed with lush greenery , running streams, waterfalls and a eerie blanket of fog and mist.
No wonder this region was picked by Buddhist monks as a perfect setting for their temples and monasteries . Where else could they have experienced such tranquility, but amidst the natural beauty of the Sahyadri mountains? This was their gateway to Nirvana.
We started around nine ‘o’ clock in the morning. It took us an hour by car to reach Karla (the distance between Pune is around 45 kms and another 5- 6 kms to Karla). We had a light breakfast at a local restaurant anticipating an arduous climb.

The first of the caves that we encountered was in Karla (ancient name Valuraka) itself. Also located alongside the caves is the temple dedicated to Goddess Ekvira. We had to buy entry tickets to proceed to the caves. Below the mountain the local villagers begin hawking their wares. These encroachments continue right along the steep 350 stepped way to the caves.
We were startled by a small snake that came out of the cracks (which are abundant in the stone steps). But it slithered past us into the adjoining bushes. The villagers also didn’t seem very perturbed by the snake, as we assumed it was a daily occurrence for them.

There were a lot of tourists that were proceeding to the caves and an equal number of devotees to pay their obeisance to Goddess Ekvira. People not used to climbing these steep stairs were seen panting and taking rest on those huge stone stairs. We soon joined these groups. The blazing sun also saps your energy, though its intensity is less severe in the winters.

Once you reach the top you are required to buy your entrance tickets, which were surprising paid more attention to, than the actual site (as you later discover).

On entering the premises you are captivated by the collosal grandeur of the structure. These caves (three in number)had been carved out of the rock solid mountains by Buddhist (Theravada) monks around 2nd century BC. Kings from the Satavahana dynasty (Vashisthaputa Pulamavi) , the Saka kshatrapas (Usavadatta , son in law of Nahapana) and Yavanas from Dhenukakata & Umehakakata (unknown towns) patronised these caves. Their details of donations (from as far as Sopara or present day Nalasopara, Vejayamti or present day Banarasi in N.Kanara) made to the monasteries are mentioned in form of inscriptions on the stone walls, pillars.
There were subsequent additions to the structure in the forthcoming years. The initial structures being made by Hinayana Buddhists, there were no images of the Buddha, but the caves passed hands to the Mahayanas ( by 7th century AD) and Buddha sculptures (Buddha preaching while being seated on a lion engraved throne besides sculptures of three huge beautifully carved elephants) made way in the caves.

pic:Shivalinga in a cave (right side from the chaityagriha)
pic: Hanumana stone carving outside the cave.

Later Hindu dwellings led to the formation of Hindu temples inside the premises with statues of Godess Ekvira being the most prominent.

The main cascade is adorned by an huge horse shoe shaped arch like a archivolt, with a beautiful motifs around it. There is a huge lion column with a beautifully carved gateway. In the outer porch is a vestibule outlined by walls with carvings of couples and elephants. This area once sported a balcony.

We are then lead into the Chaitya griha or the prayer hall which seats a round domed 148 feet Stupa with a centrally placed umbrella. The hall is supported by a ribbed ceiling with an array of pillars having intricate engravings of animals and humans alike.The hall dimensions are 124 ft . by 461/2 ft. And is 45 ft. High (38 metres by 14 metres by 13.8 metres).

 Inside are these important features, the columns ( pillars, 37 in number ), the roof vault and the great sun window.The roof is distinctly wooden , probably made of timber.

 The caves are multi storeyed with Viharas (15 nos.) constructed for the monks. The viharas have carved stone beds where the monks used to rest.

pic:Buddha carving (left side of chaityagriha)

pic: chaityagriha vestibule carvings

I was awestruck by the quality of architecture two thousand years back. I wondered about the technology used and the skill of the artisans. Its difficult to imagine that this entire cave temple was built from the mighty mountain with just a chisel and a hammer.

Pic: inscriptions in brahmi (below) and modi (above) scripts mentioning donation details to the monastery

We spent about an hour in Karla and then proceeded towards the Bhaja caves, which are located near the village Malavali (around 10kms away from Karla). We passed through a railway gate before reaching the village.
Here too we had to park our vehicle at the foothills.

To reach the Bhaja caves , we had to climb around 250 steep elongated stone stairs.
We again encountered another (probably Dhaaman) snake going past us. This time we weren’t startled as before and proceeded with our journey. Its just that , from there onwards we were carefull about selecting our resting places, lest we encounter anymore snakes.

Bhaja caves are a group of 18 rock cut caves dating back to 2nd century BC. The architectural design of the Bhaja caves is similar to that of the Karla caves. There is one Chaitya griha and ten Viharas. They house 14 stupas, 5 inside and 9 outside the caves. There are excellent structures and beautifull carvings inside the caves.

The most prominent structure is the Chaityagriha. The hall is about 17 mtrs in length and around 8 mtrs in breadth. The hall is divided into a central nave and side aisles divided by 27 pillars in two straight row which forms a semi circle at the back. The ceiling of the nave is vaulted and original wooden beams are fixed. The pillars are plain octagons and they taper inwards.

A Stupa, which is a hemispherical dome on a cylindrical drum , is placed at the back for worship and measures 3.45 mtrs in diameter. The stupa has a railing pattern called ‘harmika’ and a provision of hole at the top for affixing a wooden umbrella.
The façade of the Chaityagriha is highly decorated . On either side of the central arch are a series of miniature chaitya arches over railing patterns.

Cave 18 is a monastery and consists of a rectangular hall with a front pillared verandah. The hall has two cells each on the back and the right side, while on the left side is a bench. These pillars have a square base and top with octagonal shape at the middle. Two doors from the verandah lead to the hall. They are flanked by lavishly bejeweled ‘dwarapalas’ (doorkeepers).

pic: a carving resembling the greek mythological character Pegasus (a horse with wings)

The verandah of this monastery has two famous sculptural reliefs. One depicts a person assumed to be the Sun God Surya. To the left is a person (assumed Lord Indra) driving an elephant carrying an ankusha (elephant goad), with attendants carrying a banner and spear.
Apart from cave 18,there are other caves that as simple monasteries. Amongst them, there is one with a circular cell and a stupa inside and a circular cell with an oblong verandah.

One irregular excavation is identified as a cemetery, and has 14 rock cut stupas bearing the names of the ‘sthaviras’ in whose memory they were made.

The last cave has a waterfall alongside it, where the monks may have taken their daily baths. [ details courtesy Archaelogical Survey of India ]

On the left hand side there are stairs which lead to the upper storeys of the caves. They also acted probably as Viharas for the Buddhist monks.

After spending an hour in Bhaja, we proceded towards the last of the cave trilogy of the Malvan region i.e the Bedse caves. They are situated near Kamshet next to the Bedse village.As per some recrods these caves were earlier nown as Maakurd caves. These caves are probably the most isolated of the three and also the most difficult to access. We had to park the car in the fields of Bedse village. We were fortunate to come across a friendly village lad named Mukesh, whom we realized was deaf and dumb. He gestured us that he would show us around and we didn’t have the heart to refuse him.

Mukesh seemed to be a pro and swiftly climbed the 350 odd stone stairs , which were even bigger and more steeper than the previous ones. They left us panting, while Mukesh easily made it to the top, oblivious of the fact that we were left far behind.

But the difficult climb was worth it, especially when we came face to face with the Bedse caves. The magnificent structure was imposing.

The façade of the Chaityagriha (Giant stupa, pillars, arches et all) , though very similar to Karla and Bhaja, was equally enamouring. But instead of a giant horse-shoe shaped main door, the façade has a door at the height of a single floor and a horse shoe shaped window over this door. On either side of this entrance and window are multiple bands of horseshoe windows. A fluted projection on either side adds to the elegance of the façade. In front of the façade, supporting the roof of the porch stands four gigantic pillars. Beautifully dressed couples are portrayed as sitting on horses and elephants. The horses and elephants are in kneeling posture with their feet projecting out of the capital.

The interiors of the Chaitya house rows of huge pillars standing on either sides. At the centre of the semicircular end is the stupa with a protruding lotus bud image carved on the top.

On the left (outside the chaityagriha) we came across many stone Stupas and also a cubicle like room with a huge pillar inside that probably resembled another stupa. To the right was another cave structure with idols of Hindu deities probably used by the villagers of Bedse.

We spent around half an hour seeing Bedse caves until the sun started setting. We had to make it out of Bedse before dark. So we hastened our journey downwards.

We thanked Mukesh for showing us the way and started back for Pune, leaving behind fond memories of a memorable trip down history lane.

[ Text: Abhijit Rajadhyaksha , Photographs : Abhijit Rajadhyaksha and Banibrata Das ]


  1. Nice photos and description Abhijit, nice blog!

  2. Interesting Blog, and seems to be really helpful for me as I am planning to visit, atleast Baje Caves, this weekend. Thanks a ton for sharing complete details of the trip.

  3. Try n make Bhaje and Karla else Bhaje and Lohagad in the same trip. Have a good time.

  4. a nice video on Karla Caves -