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Bhaja Karla Caves 

KARLA & BHAJA CAVES - HIGH-WATER MARK OF BUDDHIST ARCHITECTURE

Distance from Lonavla Station: 12km.
Location: North-East

Built In: 160 B.C.

Transportation mode: S.T. Bus, or One can hire bicycle or private taxi up to the Karla caves.

The principal cave is the largest Chaitya among Buddhist cave in the country, Being 15meters wide and 16 meters high. The most remarkable feature of the cave is its arched roof supported by wooden beams which have astonishingly survived the onslaught of elements for more than 2,000 years. The Wooden Umbrella above the Chaitya is unique in the Buddhist caves around the world. There is absolutely no sign of any corrosion. It is the finest example of the kind perhaps in the world.

These are among the oldest caves in India and date back all the way to 160 B.C To get to Karla you have to take a 12km drive along the highway towards Pune and turn left a little after passing MTDC's Holiday home and then drive further 3km down a narrow road. Regular S.T bus services are available. From the base it is a stiff 600 feet climb to the top and it is recommended that adequate water is carried along by you.

At the entrance of the principal cave is the temple of Goddess Ekvira visited by thousands of devotees from the coastal region around Mumbai during the annual fair falling in April (chaitra) and also during Navratri. Ekvira temple is on the right side of the main cave while at the left side is a lofty column with three lions on its top.

Religion and art are so closely inter-linked in India that some of the best works of art are a part of places of worship, endorsing spiritual aspirations of an aesthetically advanced civilization. Nowhere is this more evident than in cave-temples, India's most spectacular contribution to the world of art.  This type of rock -cut construction has also been found in Egypt, Assyria, Iran, Greece and Palestine.  However nowhere have they been built in such profusion as in India where there are about 1200 cave temples, the largest number being in Western India and the Deccan. Actually the word cave-temple is a misnomer as it gives the impression that carvings were inserted into naturally formed caves or grottoes.  On the other hand the greatness of these monuments arises from the fact that they are fully manmade , with whole mountainsides dug into and then carved.  The correct appellation would be rock cut sculpture and architecture as these are skilfully wrought temples carved out of solid rock. The method of construction is even more fascinating.  The simple implements used were the pick, chisel, and hammer.  Artisans worked on whole mountainsides,  digging into the rock with a pick, working top downwards (avoiding scaffolding) and front backwards, covering small areas  of the rock face at one time.

Then with the hammer and chisel , pillars and intricate sculptures were carved by one set of people all at one time.  Such was the artistic excellence of the artisans and the genius of the designers, as the architecture is geometrically perfect and the engineering designs flawless. There are about 1000 rock cut caves in Western India, a large number of which are about Lonavla whose original name , Lenauli, means the places of many caves (lena meaning cave). Of these the most famous are at Karla, Bhaja, Bedsa and Kondane.

The concept of retreating to solitary caves in forests or mountains for meditation was common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism so that , where no natural caves existed, it was but one more step to carve out a cave.  However, in a view of the importance of monasticism in Buddhism, the largest number of caves are Buddhist in origin.  Amongst these caves were the Chaitya (Chapel or Cathedral ) for the holding of prayers and rituals and the Vihara (monastery ) for the residence of Buddhist monks. There were two periods of high creative activity in the building of  rock- cut temples in this area, the first from the 02nd century B.C. to the 02nd century AD. and the second from the 05th to the 10th centuries AD.  In the early period Hinayana Buddhism (or the Little Vehicle) prevailed and in the latter, Mahayana Buddhism (or the Great Vehicle). In the Hinayana period, to which Karla belongs , the architectural design was wood based, being copies of wooden buildings of an earlier age.  Also, as the Buddha, not wanting to be deified , had decreed that after his death, "neither the gods nor men shall see him ", in this period he is represented by symbols.  The lotus or elephant , symbolizing his birth, the bodhi tree under which he attained Nirvana ( enlightenment) , the wheel of law which he set in motion , a stupa or mound symbolizing his death, a throne symbolizing that he is a prince among men, his footsteps which the Buddha is represented in sculptures and paintings of the early phase. 

Dating back to the 02nd century B.C., the monuments at Karla are at a distance of 11 km. From Lonavla and just a little off the Bombay- Pune road . There is one large Chaitya or prayer hall and several niharas or monasteries of this group on a hill 150 metres high.  The steps of the hill were built in the same period. Off all the cave temples of India, the Great Chaitya at Karla is considered one of the greatest monuments in the  world of art.  One of the inspirations inside the cave describe it as the most outstanding rock- cut hall in Jambudvipa (the ancient name for India). The Karla Chaitya is one of those rare instances of magnificent pillars framing the entrances to a cave.  At the entrance  stands a huge pillar over 15  metres high, with lion capitals as in the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath.  However, the matching pillar has broken down and in its place is a temple to Goddess Ekveera , which  is a place of local pilgrims even today. In the outer porch is a vestibule outlined by walls with carvings of couples and elephants.  This area once sported a balcony. The main hall, called the Great Chaitya or the great cathedral, is majestic in size and the largest of its kind.  It is 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 or pillars, the roof vault and the great sun window. There are 37 columns in all of which 30 have interesting capitals showing prosperous men and women riding elephants and horses yet bowing in humility to the Great Buddha.

The valued roof has wooden supports giving an idea of what wood built architecture used to be like 2000 years ago, the only place in India where 2000 year old woodwork can be seen.  The roof at the carved end resembles a Gothic vault. At the far end of the hall stands a stupa , literally meaning funeral mound, above which is held an umbrella , a symbol of royalty. The whole system of lighting depends on the great Chaitya window through which cleverly diffused light with its lights and shadows gives a great sense of solemnity to the scene.  Few cave temples can match that at Karla for its light and shade effects. Belonging to a great period of Indian history, it is natural that Karla had great impact on Buddhist art the world over. This Great Chaitya of Karla was once a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world, so that, even today , as one walks in, one feels the vibrations of prayers of 2000 years, of hushed whispers of pilgrims , of the chanting of yellow- clad monks.
 
It is roughly 3 kms. from the main road , to the 18 Bhaja caves. They are in a lusher, greener setting than the Karla caves, and are thought to date from around 200 B.C. Ten of these caves are Viharas , while cave 12 is a Chaitya , similar in style to the Karla cave and the most important. About 50 mts. past this is a strange group of 14 Stupas, five inside and nine outside the caves. The last cave on the South side has some fine sculptures. A few minutes' walk past the last cave is a beautiful waterfall which, during the monsoon and shortly afterwards, has enough water for a good swim. From the waterfall you can see some old forts.

 

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