Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bhaja Caves: Story of the mysterious simplicity

Not more than an hour’s drive from where I live stands a magnificent trio of ancient Buddhist rock-cut caves. These are carved out in the hills of Sahyadri mountain range and are situated near the villages Karla, Bedse and Bhaja (today’s story is about ‘Bhaja’ caves among the three). In the modern map these locations seem random and obscure, but historically these were religious centers along the ancient trade routes which eventually connected all southern trade centers to the eminent ‘Silk route’ in the north of India.

Bhaja caves date back to 200 B.C., a period of the ‘Satavahana’ dynasty. Artistically, these caves are not as decorative and grand as the other Indian rock cut architectural sites like Ellora, Elephanta caves or Mahabalipuram, but for me, they have always held a mesmerizing appeal. For a long time I failed to understand what fascinated me so much in this relatively plain looking architecture and I visited Bhaja several times searching for the explanation. Finally, I realized that the answers were hidden in the ‘Cultural history’ rather than the ‘Architectural history’!

The central prayer hall(Chaitya Griha) with ‘Stupa’ (Mound like structure depicts Buddha)

These caves are from ‘Hinayana’ period (literally meaning an ‘abandoned vehicle’ or ‘smaller vehicle’) of Buddhism, when Buddhism was just 200 years old. In later years, Buddhism saw a decline in India but expanded in other civilizations. Around 5th century A.D., Buddhism came back to India, but in a changed form – it was now a ‘Mahayana’ (literally meaning a ‘greater vehicle’) school, far more complex, ritualistic and definitive compared to the ‘smaller vehicle’ that existed 700 years before it. Under this new school, not just the way of worshiping Buddha changed, but the architecture, religious motifs and even Buddha’s depiction saw a transformation. Things became ornamental, very decorative and indeed very beautiful! Without doubt it was a glorious time period for art and sculpture in India. The important rock-cut caves were re-carved, a human depiction for Buddha was carved out of ancient simple Stupas (mound-like structure), patrons, chariots, processions, nymphs and elephants now adorned the walls of the caves.

But this wave of change seems to have bypassed the Bhaja caves, now why did this happen? Perhaps these caves were not very important, or perhaps they were no longer on the strategic trade routes, or perhaps they got ensconced in the belts of newly developed forests. The exact reason is not known. But as a result, a very simple, extraordinarily beautiful (not the ornamental beauty) and well balanced original thought stands in the form of Bhaja Caves! I love to drive down there on a weekend to inhale the simplicity of that thought and when I come back home I feel less tangled.


notmassproduced said...

fascinating and beautiful - you are so lucky to have a place like this so close for you to visit

Debu Barve said...

Yes, I really agree with you.:)

Kiran Gosavi said...

Hope these places are taken care as our heritage, since I saw last, karala was completely loosing its importance and was not maintained atall. I had also heard that these 'Stupas' are older then 'Ajanta'. Will visit this soon.

Debu Barve said...


Your concern in right. But to my surprise, 'Archeological Department of India' has drastically changed their approach towards conservation in recent years.They have certainly taken it beyond the level of just collecting entry fees.:)

I am hoping that things will improve further.They will for sure!

Satish said...

I don't know why I have not yet visited for last 40 years! Since long back I was told that it is not at all clean and can't really see anything. Foul smell and dampness. But with your history feel like visiting soon. Hope ASI maintained it clean after collecting fees for years. Thanks for write up.

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