Pune to Karla: Backyard travel

Discovering magnificent rock-cut caves close to home

The temple dedicated to the goddess Ekvira is built at the mouth of the main entrance to the Karla Caves. Photo: Nirdesh Singh
The temple dedicated to the goddess Ekvira is built at the mouth of the main entrance to the Karla Caves. Photo: Nirdesh Singh

The fascinating thing about most Indian towns and cities is that even the smallest, most obscure place can pack a punch for the traveller. Whether it’s food, history or adventure, I have never struggled to suggest a place, near my home in Pune, to friends who visit from different parts of the world. So when my house guests, Neil and Regine from Paris, enquired about a quick getaway, my mind swung from well-known Lonavala to a place that doesn’t have the trappings of a popular spot but is flavourful nevertheless. The village of Karli, about 11km from Lonavala, and its showstopper, the Karla Caves.

Given that I had not gone on a backyard discovery for a long time myself, I joined them over the weekend for a day-long trip. 

It was a cool September day, and we were in no particular hurry to speed through breakfast, for Karli is only 60km from Pune. Once we had left the city’s clogged streets, the drive was divine. The silvery tarmac clung to the misty hillside as we swung along its curves for an hour till we reached the base village. At this point, we had to veer off on to a bumpy road which led to the parking area for the caves, in the shadow of a hill that we had to climb.

Along the 250-odd steps that curved along the bend of the hill, small shops selling snacks like misal pav and batata wada came as a welcome distraction. And whenever we felt a little too fatigued, the thought of seeing one of the oldest Buddhist rock-cut caves in India and a temple to the goddess Ekvira were fuel enough. Of course, no matter how valiantly we climbed the steep steps, we couldn’t match the locals who leapt up with the agility of mountain goats, sacks of coconuts strapped to their backs. 

Closer to the top, as the hillside opened up into a semi-circular space, the sound of gurgling water greeted us—a small waterfall plunges from the top, partly revealing the caves embedded in the hillside. A caretaker, a retired Archaeological Survey of India employee, accosted us skilfully and before we knew it, he had appointed himself our guide.  

Built around the fourth century, the 16 rock-cut caves are a repository of architectural influences. The entrance to the main cave, called the Chaitya, is elaborate, marked with sculptures of humans and animals—mainly horses and elephants. A massive wooden arch offers a glimpse of the use of wood and stone in that era. The sprawling prayer hall, with pillars on either side, leads to a grand stupa, topped with a wooden umbrella.

Just next to the caves stands the temple of the Ekvira goddess, worshipped by fishermen. We just had time to peek into the sanctum before we started the walk back, taking a loop on slippery, uneven steps that led to a square cave with windows. Here, we discovered the viharas, rooms where Buddhist monks would retire for their long meditation sessions.  

As we trudged down the hillside, back to the parking lot, I wondered what life would have been like for the monks. Such intense solitude must have been demanding. Maybe the gorgeous view provided some relief.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The writer tweets at @manjiriprabhu. 

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