Thursday, August 29, 2013

A beautiful trip to Bedse Caves

- By Deepa Krishnan

Ever since the monsoon season started, I have been wanting to see the Western Ghats in all their green glory. Finally we found the time, a perfect day, half sunny, half cloudy, and we set out for the Buddhist Caves at Bedse. 
The mountains ahead of us
Most people living in Bombay don't know that the spread of Buddhism on the West Coast of India began in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region; in what we today call Nallasopara (the next train station on the Western line immediately after Vasai). The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (273 to 276 BC) sent an emissary called Dharmarakshita to Sopara (it was at that time major trading port). Ashoka's Edict at Sopara is now in the Prince of Wales Museum, but you can see a photo and translation of the edict here

The Buddhist monks found the perpendicular cliffs of the Sahyadris eminently suitable for their monsoon prayer retreats. What may have started as a small rock-excavation experiment of the monks turned into a very major architectural trend, with over 1200 cave temples excavated in India. Of these, 800 are in Western India, and thankfully for Mumbaikars, several of them are very close to Mumbai.

With about 2 hours of drive (from Sion), we made it to Bedse. On the way, we saw several waterfalls, and the mountains clouded in beautiful mist. Once we cleared Kamshet and turned off into the rural areas, we were in for a visual treat. Everything was green and moist, with countless small waterfalls. It was very quiet, with no traffic noise. There were cowherds everywhere, keeping an eye on cattle. Women of the villages walked by the side of the road, fetching water and washing clothes. The road went right upto the base of the caves; although it was narrow and could take only one car at a time. 
Rural scenes and first view of Bedse Caves
(the caves are midway up this low hill,
between two waterfalls)
From the base of the hill, there are 450 steps up, to reach the caves. The climb is spectacular, green, inviting, with beautiful views. You can stop every now and then to catch your breath and admire the scenery. I got my first very beautiful photo of a little frog, who was perhaps frightened into stillness by our proximity.
Steps with lots of space to rest.
They were slippery in the rain.
Once we huffed and pufed our way to the top, we got our first proper glimpse of the cave entrance: a grand pillar half-hidden by the rock. It lay to our right, inviting us in. To our left was a small stupa, and near the stupa were the underground water cisterns, cleverly designed to store drinking water all through the year. We walked into the pillared entrance, and found some stunning carvings waiting for us. 
Because we went early, we had the entire place to ourselves (awesome!).
The earliest Buddhist caves in the Deccan belong to the Hinayana faith, and were excavated between 2 BC and 2 AD. Bedse, along with its neighbours Karle (Karla) and Bhaja, belong to this early phase. The primary enabling factor was the rise of the Satavaahanas, a dynasty that practised Brahmanism (a Vedic religion which was a predecessor of modern-day Hinduism). The Satavaahanas brought peace and prosperity to the Deccan; it was a period of flourishing trade with the Mediterranean as well as with other parts of India. The Satavaahana kings seem to have been perfectly happy to let Buddhism flourish. Maybe the lines of division between various sects were not as sharply defined as they are today; or maybe they were secular leaders. Or maybe the Brahmins did not perceive these monks as any sort of threat to their way of life. Who knows?

We entered through the pillared portico, and saw a beautiful chaitya-griha (prayer hall) of the Hinayana style. 
Chaitya-griha (left) and pillar outside
Here are the typical characteristics of a chaitya-griha in Buddhist rock-cut architecture: you can see ALL of them in the chaitya above.
  • First, the typical chaitya is apsidal in plan. Apsidal means that the altar end of the chaitya is curved in a semi-circular fashion. In Buddhist chaitya-grihas, you have a long rectangular main body, with an apse at the end.
  • Second, the roof is usually entirely barrel-vaulted from end to end. In fact, I have not seen any Buddhist chaitya without a vaulted roof.
  • Third, the nave (the main central part of the chaitya) and the sides are clearly defined through a series of pillars. 
  • Fourth, there is a stupa (containing sacred relics, usually ashes of monks) at the remote end of the nave. 
  • Fifth, if a chaitya-griha belongs to the Hinayana period, you will not see carved images of the Buddha (this is why I simply LOVED the caves at Bedse, not a single Buddha figure anywhere, stark, simple, a place of meditation and prayer, a philosophy rather than a cult, and a true reflection of Buddhism as the Buddha conceived it).
There are more reasons why Bedse is the perfect specimen of a Hinayana settlement. In determining the chronology of rock-cut caves, architects usually look at how closely the features tend to copy wooden prototypes. The older a chaitya-griha is, the more likely it is to have wood-like carvings and features, including grilled lattice-work windows. I was delighted to find all of these at Bedse.
Typical Hinayana architecture
Apart from the chaitya, there is yet another cave in Bedse, this one is a "sanghaaraama". This word means "resting place of the Sangha". Often the word vihaara is used instead of sanghaarama, but really a vihaara is more like a monastic settlement, than a single resting place. The typical sanghaarama or vihaara has two architectural features, both of which are perfectly illustrated in Bedse. There is usually a central hall; with flanking residential cells. The hall may be square or curved. At Bedse, our guide Dahibhate showed us a series of 12 cells. One of them had a rock window to peer out into the world; perhaps the ancient equivalent of the "corner office" with the view :)  
Sanghaarama/vihaara with rock window and residential cells.
We had to walk through a mini-waterfall to enter.
You don't have to be a fan of Buddhist caves to enjoy Bedse. If you go in the monsoon season, the views and the greenery are reward enough; and the exercise is good for all us city-bred folks. It is super-romantic as well :)
The Sahyadris are truly a treasure, they are my escape when I want to get drunk on the beauty of nature. So close to Mumbai, and so accessible! Especially in the monsoons, there are so many waterfalls everywhere and so many things to see. Bedse Village at the base of the mountains has a lot of rice farming going on and it's fun to walk through the narrow road that goes through the village (I like to make-believe that I am a farmer, OK, I know that is stupid!).

But seriously, don't wait for the "right" day, don't let the weather or work or the daily grind get to you this monsoon season. Take a day - you need just half a day, really - and go out to the mountains. They are there, waiting for you...go today if you can!


Magic in You.. said...

Thanks Deepa..another beautiful post.. the simplicity of this place really makes me think of giving up the corporate life & turning into a farmer :)

santosh athani said...

Deepa and buddies..super narration..i traveled and learned so much stuff with you...Big Thanks ...

santosh athani

Ananva said...

You take us to places one would otherwise not have known. Thank you!

Narayanan Kalidas said...

Hi Ms. Krishnan,

I chanced upon your blog today and simply loved it. Both your photographs and your descriptions are very good - I am particularly enamoured by your photos of the Buddhist cave temples at Bedse.

Just one piece of feedback. 'Hinayana', meaning, 'the low, degraded vehicle' is a pejorative used by the practitioners of the later Buddhist schools, which styled themselves 'Mahayana', meaning, 'the great vehicle' to refer to the early school of Buddhism. The practitioners of the early form of Buddhism, who today form the majority in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, refer to their faith as 'Theravada', a Pali word derived from the Sanskrit word, 'Sthaviravada',meaning, 'The Doctrine of the Elders'. None of the school textbooks in India mention this, so most people unknowingly refer to the early school of Buddhism by the pejorative that the practitioners of the later schools coined for it.

Your blog is unique in that it serves to bring people closer to the many cultures of this land by writing about them in a beautiful, respectful manner. In that spirit, I request you to change 'Hinayana' to 'Theravada' or 'Sthaviravada' in your blog.

Best regards,

Kalidas Narayanan Iyer

Deepa Krishnan said...

Thank you Kalidas Narayan Iyer. I will read up more about the terminology.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deepa,
I am from mumbai now settled in US/. I often come back to your blog to see things as a mumbaikar. Thanks for posting about this place. Never knew and plan to visit it the next time i am there.Also I find your blog very interesting to read.Simple and Sweet.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Saw you on Times foodie episode. It was a good show.

Kaustubh said...

You may want to visit "Bhaje" near Karla/Lonavala if you haven't been there already. The often slippery trek from Karla caves entrance at the highway (near Malavali) to Bhaje and then on to Lohagad makes for a great full day's plan - especially with the monsoon in a bloom.

BTW, saw you and your mom with The Foodie and wished the TV could deliver the food along with audio-visual.

Deb said...

Thank you for the lovely writing. Would it be advisable to visit these caves in mid-December or should I visit them during the monsoons? Thanks in advance.