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Karla Caves


Built in : 3rd-2nd century BC
Built by : Buddhist monks
Location : Karla (Maharashtra)


The Buddhist caves at Karla are one of the finest examples of ancient rock-cut caves to be found in India. The magnificent hall that adorns the main cave reflects the high degree of architectural skills of the artisans who carved and embellished the caves on such a difficult terrain.


Rock-cut structures are one of the most primitive forms of architecture and are found in many places in India. The first rock-cut temples are a part of the Buddhist style of architecture, which originated in India after the death of Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism). The main monuments in the architectural repertoire of Buddhist style are (a) the stupa (hemispheric funerary mounds built over the remains of Lord Buddha, and other Buddhist saints and teachers); (b) the chaitya (large hall for congregation and worship, having a central holy image or relic in one end); (c) the viharas (monasteries, where Buddhist monks stayed); and (d) the rock-cut caves.

The rock-cut caves are the most interesting part of Buddhist style of architecture. Cool in summer, cozy in winter, these rock-cut caves are particularly well adapted to Indian conditions, both material and spiritual. Apart from the climatic suitability, the concept of the cave strikes one of the fundamental chords of Indian spirituality-of being one with nature. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that for every rock-cut monastery there must have been scores of structural buildings of which no trace has survived. So, the Buddhist monks built not just shelters but everlasting tributes to their beliefs. The Buddhist monks diligently carved out replicas of stupas, chaitya halls, images and shrines out of rocky hillsides. The Karla Caves in Maharasthra are one of the finest examples of this architectural style.


The Buddhist monks generally chose isolated rocky outcrops and hillsides to make rock-cut caves, which housed prayer halls or chaityas within them. From the late 2nd century BC until the mid-2nd century AD, thousands of caves like Karla were excavated in the Sahyadri Hills. They were apparently meant for all Buddhist communities. These cave sites were not randomly chosen. They were selected in accordance with the Buddhist prescription that the holy men should live neither too near nor too far from the cities-not too near to be distracted by material life, nor too far to make begging rounds impractical or to put the monks out of reach of people. Naturally, the existence of a natural cave was another determining factor. From this point of view, Karla was excellently situated. It was a natural cave and also used to be along one of the major caravan trading routes.


The large number of cave shrines abandoned at various stages of construction gives us a broad outline of the manner in which they were dug out. Work proceeded from the top downwards, eliminating the need for scaffolding. Caves were created in groups to provide accommodation for outside workers, since such undertakings were beyond the resources of a very small religious community. They consist of two types: chaitya halls and viharas. Chaitya halls were for congregational worship (an activity that fundamentally distinguishes Buddhism from Hinduism). The viharas were the dwelling place of the monks and usually consisted of cells cut into the walls around three sides of a hall-all very austere and demanding great hardships from the body. One enduring features of these caves is the arched entrances and vaulted interiors.

The actual process of construction is fascinating. The chosen hillside was cleared of shrubs and other growth. The parallel tunnels were then run to the desired depth and timber wedges driven vertically into the exposed rock at convenient centers. When moistened, these wedges expanded and dislodged large chunks of stone that were removed through the mouth of the cave. Thus the rock was exposed. At this point all the exposed rock would be chiseled and polished and only then would the workmen continue the excavation. Gradually, with mere one-fourth-inch chisels and hammers as the tools, the excavation was carried on from the ceiling downward-a tedious process but one that has survived, as Karla testifies. Once excavated, timber trelliswork and balconies were added as trimmings.


Karla caves are located between the important cities of Mumbai and Pune, and can be easily accessed from both. Karla is about 120 km from Mumbai and about 55 km from Pune. Karla does not have an airport and the nearest airports are located in Mumbai and Pune. Both Mumbai and Pune are important railheads near Karla, but the local Malavli rail station is in Bhaja village, which is located about 5 km south of Karla town. The actual Karla caves are located north of the small town of Karla and can be reached after a steep climb of around 20 minutes. Travelers can also take buses and taxis from Mumbai and Pune to reach Karla caves. The important hill stations of Lonavala and Khandala are located close to these ancient caves. Lonavala is just 11 km west of Karla town, while Khandala is 16 km from here. Buses plying between Mumbai and Pune generally halt in Karla.