Long before the era of electric tools, craftsmen armed with only hammers and chisels scooped out entire mountainsides to create some of the most breathtaking pieces of architecture — the rock-cut caves. Manjiri Bhalerao, archaeologist and associate professor of Indology at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune, tells The Indian Express how these caves contain stories of Buddhism in India, rainfall trapped in cisterns and dangers of the trade route.
Dr Manjiri Bhalerao was a child of 10 when she went for a picnic with her family to the rock-cut caves of Ellora near her hometown, Aurangabad. All she remembers of the trip was the tasty food and games with her visiting cousins. Now, an archaeologist and associate professor of Indology at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune, Bhalerao is a part of an effort to raise awareness about the magnificent rock cut caves of Maharashtra. “Only when people understand the significance of rock cut caves, will they appreciate it. Only when they appreciate it will they be interested in protecting it posterity,” she says. She held a workshop, organised by Heritage India, on Saturday and will conduct a site seminar at Bhaja and Karla rock cut caves on June 2. Excerpts from a conversation:
How deep is the ignorance about rock cut caves?
The caves at Nashik are called Pandavleni caves because, in India, we think everything is made by the Pandavas or Ram. This is because people don’t understand the meaning of the images in the caves.The sculptures show Buddha and the Bodhisattvas; four or five people standing in a queue. People think these are the Pandavas. They cannot identify the image of Buddha and, instead, think of him as a Pandava, which gives the caves their name. This is the condition of understanding of heritage around us. Caves occur naturally but a rock-cut cave is a man-made piece of architecture. The rock-cut caves, which we see in India, are associated with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and were made for the followers of these religions. We need to appreciate that making a rock-cut cave was risky and labour-intensive. If the craftsman made a mistake, there was no alternative as you cannot change the plan.
How many rock-cut caves are present in India, and how many in Maharashtra?
There are approximately 1,500 rock-cut caves in India, of which 70-80 per cent are in Maharashtra because of the Sahyadri mountain range. These volcanic rocks are good for carving. The trade routes wound through the Western Ghats.Most of the caves are along the trade routes. Some scholars believe that the traders would keep their luggage at the base and spend the night in a cave. Almost all caves have water tanks or cisterns carved in the rocks. The volcanic rock of the Sahyadris is porous, so from the top of the mountain, the water would percolate to the rocks below. Those 2nd century B.C. architects knew how to catch the stream. There are huge tanks that have water for the whole year. Even when there is drought outside, these water tanks never dry and that is true even today.
Why were caves made when there were cheaper alternatives in terms of wood and brick?
Monks were not supposed to stay at one place for very long. They were supposed to leave after one night and two days or three days and two nights. Their mission was to move around and spread the religion. Only in the monsoon, could they stay in a vihara (constructed in gardens of rich patrons) continuously for three months. Once they left, the vihara would fall into disrepair and need maintenance. The solution was to explore a construction in stone, either stone buildings or excavating rocks to create residences that would last till the sun and moon are there.
How did commerce and religion meet in the rock-cut caves?
In those days, traders would move in groups as travelling alone was fraught with danger. The roads were home to wild animals and robbers. Monks would travel with the caravan of traders, telling them about the teachings of Buddha during the journey. The traders found that here was a religion in which they were equal to everybody else unlike the contemporary Hindu society, in which they occupied the third run, after the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. The traders, attracted to Buddhism, would ask the monks, ‘What are your requirements’ because, in India, there is a huge importance given to the meritorious activity that gives one the punya, which could take you to heaven. The traders would invest the money in guilds or shrenis and the shrenis would give interest, out of which the needs of the monks would be satisfied.
What was the design plan of the caves, and their function?
We see that some rock was scooped out from a mountain and the negative space was used to create two types of areas. One of these was the chaitya griha, from chaitya meaning stupa and griha for house. The chaityagriha was a place for congregation. People would sit here, chant, worship or meditate. The viharas are the other type of space inside the caves. There was an open courtyard at the centre and rooms around it. This is a typical Indian plan of a house, which you get from Harappan times. Buddhism started in 600 BC but the earliest Buddhist caves we get are from 2nd century BC.
How did the rock-cut caves, meant for temporary stay, transform into monasteries?
In the later years of their lives, the old monks and the unwell began to stay on in the caves. Donations also started coming in, in huge amounts. There had to be somebody constantly at the monastery to look after the management of the donations of food grain, medicine, cash and clothes. This is around 1st century A.D..
When did you first begin to see rock cut caves with an intellectual eye?
It was when I was completing my post-graduation in archaeology from Deccan College in 1992. The first-year syllabus included Buddhism and we went to Karla and Bhaja. The grandeur, the hugeness and size of the monument indicated how the old craftsmen must have worked in those days, only with the help of hammers and chisels. Karla is considered one of the grandest caves in the country and there is an inscription that says “Uttamam Jambudweepam” or “This is the best cave in India’. India was called Jambudweep. The owner was clearly boasting that what he had made was the best. There was, of course, no single owner as it was made by a cooperative. From other inscriptions on pillars, we find that some traders were Greek and prefixed their names with yavana, a word that indicated Ionian Greeks who had migrated to India.
Which is your favourite rock-cut cave?
I love the Pitalkhora cave for its location. There is a huge waterfall and the caves are behind it. Generally, we have to climb a hill to go to a cave but, in this case, we have to go downwards to go to the cave.The waterfall has damaged the caves and you have to go along the waterfall. Now, of course, ASI has constructed a bridge. The first time I went to Pitalkhora, I had to go inside the waterfall. Inside, one is rewarded with beautiful sculptures and some remains of paintings. Ajanta is also a beautiful site and a world heritage site. It is near the river Waghora, which is named because tigers used to come and drink water here. We don’t know what was the case when the monks were living there. The British discovered it, exactly 200 years ago on 28th April 1819.
What is the kind of art we can see inside rock-cut caves?
Religious art, mostly. The most famous paintings at Ajanta were made in the second phase – from the 4th or 5thcentury AD – and not the first phase, which was in the 2nd century BC. We largely see paintings because these were easier to make, quicker and cheaper than sculptures. Some lesser -known caves from the late Hinayana or early Mahayana phase, between first century AD to 4th century AD, are very small caves and not decorated at all. Probably, the patrons were not very rich.
Have the caves disintegrated over time?
Not all caves are in bad shape. Basalt is a porous rock and, in hot weather, the pores open up and the rocks start detaching from the main matrix. In cases, such as Aurangabad, some caves were damaged in landslides and, now, the ASI has restored them. Most of the caves are in good shape. Accessibility, though, is a problem. They don’t have good steps to enter the caves and you have to climb rocks and, sometimes, it isn’t rock but a scree. In the old days, there were some steps carved into the rocks as you can see in Bhaja. The caves were made so that they would not need maintenance but, sometimes, they do need maintenance.