It’s hard to imagine that one of the most densely populated cities in the world is home to a 2,400-year-old Buddhist cave complex hidden in plain sight. Its location inside the 103.8 sq.km Sanjay Gandhi National Park (one of the largest within a city) in Mumbai’s western suburb of Borivali certainly adds to its appeal. Though the national park is one of the most visited in Asia, with over 2 million visitors annually, not many value the caves beyond their backdrop appeal for their selfies. The fact that you can get here in just over an hour is a big plus.

That you can get to the Kanheri caves in just over an hour is a big plus.
That you can get to the Kanheri caves in just over an hour is a big plus.

Long before “Bombay" became a commercial hub, Sopara and Kalyan were the two main ports in the region that traded with ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. The 45km land route between these ports passed through this forest and the link to other trade centres like Nasik and Ujjain made it the perfect place for patronage from merchants. And thus, Buddhism arrived in Aparantha (Western India) at Sopara. Though the island of Salsette is rich in rock-cut Buddhist caves—Marol, Mahakali, Magathana, Mandapeshwar and Jogeshwari—Kanheri is the most extensive of the lot.

Between 1st century BC and 10th century CE, Kanheri was the biggest university in western India and an important Buddhist settlement. The place was known as Krishnagiri or Black Mountain after the dark basalt rock. With the passage of time it became Kanhagiri and eventually Kanheri.

The first definitive reference of Kanheri came from Portuguese naval officer and former viceroy, Joao de Castro, who left a glowing tribute—“A thing certainly not within the power of man, so wonderful that it may be ranked among the seven wonders of the world, unless, instead of thinking them to be the work of men, we attribute them to spirits."

With the decline of Buddhism, the area lay shrouded by forests until British archeologist James Bird rediscovered it in 1839. Kanheri is hailed as the single largest Buddhist site in the country with the most number of cave excavations on one hill. These include Chaitya Grihas (places of worship), viharas (monasteries), podhis (cisterns to harvest rainwater), rock-cut benches and plinths that functioned as beds, and a wealth of Buddhist sculptures, relief carvings, paintings and inscriptions dating from 1st century BC to 10th century CE.

The massive complex has 109 caves interconnected by steps cut into the rock surface. The double-storeyed vihara of Cave 1 has two large pillars framing its entrance, while Cave 3, dubbed ‘The Great Chaitya’, has two imposing Buddha statues, an inscription of Yajna Sri Satakarni (170 CE) on the doorjamb and a massive pillared prayer hall. Cave 4 has a solid dagoba or stupa with relics used for meditation. Caves 5 and 6 were actually water cisterns highlighting the emphasis laid on water conservation using rock cut channels. Caves where grand assemblies were held, traces of lovely unfinished paintings on the ceiling, ornate carvings and sculptures of Buddha and his attendants and rare depiction of an eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara (A Bodhisattva) are seen in some of the caves.

The trail continues to the summit from where you can behold the entire landscape of western Mumbai from Versova and Gorai islands to Powai’s high-rises on the other side. Despite overzealous visitors and wild troops of monkeys, the trudge uphill promises a sense of peace. By dusk, the caves of Kanheri return to their original state, the way they were centuries ago. The wind wafts through cool dark chambers, echoing the sonorous chants of monks who once dwelt within.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The authors tweet at @anuragamuffin and @priyaganapathy. Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com.

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Mumbai to Kanheri cave

Distance: 27km

Time: 1 hour

Top tip: Attractions at Sanjay Gandhi National Park include the Tulsi lake, lion and tiger safari (adult 61, child 24), nature trails, the Gandhi Tekdi memorial and boating (2-seater 36, 4-seater 73). Don’t visit on public holidays to avoid crowds. All activities, except in Gandhi Tekdi and Kanheri cave, are closed on Monday. Wear comfortable footwear with good grip because of the rocky surface.

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