Bhaja Caves-ancient Buddhist Caves in Maharashtra, India

The Chaityagriha (Shrine) of the Bhaja group of caves
The Chaityagriha (Shrine) of the Bhaja group of caves

Introduction

If you are interested in ancient Indian History or Architecture, there are certain places where your thirst will be quenched. Of these, the rock cut caves dating back to 2nd century BC in the hills & mountains of the Western Ghats & Sahyadri range in present day Maharashtra are the perfect places you can venture. Besides the world famous If Ajanta & Ellora caves, there are many lesser known but nevertheless important caves dotted over the mountains. Among these, the rock cut caves of Karla, Bhaja & Bedsa which are situated near the currently popular hill stations of Lonavala- Khandla are worth visiting.

I’m writing here on the Bhaja (or Bhaje) caves.

Geography

Bhaja caves are situated in a hill near Bhaja village, only 12-13 km from Lonavala, close to the Mumbai-Pune Highway. The other group of rock cut caves, viz. the Karla caves is only 4-5 km from the Bhaja caves. Bedsa caves are also nearby.

In Bhaja, there is a staircase with about 250 steps in the hill to hike up to the caves, which are situated roughly 400 feet above the village of Bhaja.

The steps going up the hill to the caves; Bhaja
The steps going up the hill to the caves; Bhaja

History of Bhaja caves

In Bhaja there are 22 caves of various sizes belonging to the Heenyana sect of Buddhism. These are dated to be of 2nd century BC. There are some names inscribed here, the persons belonging to the 2nd century BC. As in Karla, the Bhaja caves were also constructed mainly with the donations of small time merchants & common people.

The caves in Bhaja

Though there are 22 caves in Bhaja , majority are either very simple Vihara (dwelling places ) or destroyed. An important part of Bhaja caves is a group of medium sized Stupa-s numbering 14 in total. These are supposed to be the tombs of important monks who lived here some 2200 years ago.

A Vihara in Bhaja, with a small Shiva Lingam on the floor which must be a later addition
A Vihara in Bhaja, with a small Shiva Lingam on the floor which must be a later addition
The Stupa-s in the cemetry
The Stupa-s in the cemetry
Vihara in upper floor; Bhaja
Vihara in upper floor; Bhaja
Vihara in upper floor; Bhaja
Vihara in upper floor; Bhaja

The architecture of Bhaja caves

The architecture of Bhaja caves bear strong resemblance to the Karla caves, though artistically Karla caves are definitely a notch superior. The same Chaityagriha pattern with wooden ribs on roof with the Stupa (symbol of Lord Buddha) in the rear portion of the Chaityagriha hall, the same type of rows of pillars in the main hall to divide it into 3 portions (one central nave & two aisles on two sides), the same austere living rooms of the monks in the decoration-less Vihara-s – the similarity only proves that both the sites were constructed by the same or similar architects.

Chaityagriha of Bhaja
Chaityagriha of Bhaja
Chaityagriha of Karla
Chaityagriha of Karla

The Chaityagriha of Bhaja caves

It is the main structure found in the excavation done here. A big hall with high ceiling with wooden arches, & the stupa at the rear end, the Chaityagriha strongly reminds that of Karla, though it is much smaller & less grandiose in comparison. The rows of pillars which are used to separate the nave from the aisles are also without decorations.

The entrance to the Chaityagriha , Bhaja
The entrance to the Chaityagriha , Bhaja
The Chaityagriha, Bhaja : please note the plain pillars
The Chaityagriha, Bhaja : please note the plain pillars
The lower ends of the arch type wooden ribs in the roof of Chaityagriha, Bhaja
The lower ends of the arch type wooden ribs in the roof of Chaityagriha, Bhaja
The arch type wooden ribs in the roof of Chaityagriha, Bhaja
The arch type wooden ribs in the roof of Chaityagriha, Bhaja

The Cemetry with Stupas of Bhaja

This is a specialty of Bhaja. In total 14 medium sized Stupas are excavated here which are believed to be the tombs of important monks. This area is designated as a cemetery.

The stupa-s in the cemetry, Bhaja
The stupa-s in the cemetry, Bhaja
The stupa-s in the cemetry, Bhaja
The stupa-s in the cemetry, Bhaja

The Surya cave, Bhaja

The cave 18 is often called the Surya cave as there is an image of Surya or Sun god here. It is a monastery (Vihara) with a veranda in front with 6 pillars. The veranda has two important sculpture. One depicts the Sun God Surya in a chariot driven by 4 horses. The other is the image of Lord Indra, the King of gods on an elephant.

Another interesting figure is that of a lady playing the Indian percussion instrument Tabla.

The roof of the veranda has arched stone ribs instead of wooden ribs as seen in the Chaityagriha.

The veranda of Surya cave from thr front
The veranda of Surya cave from thr front
Sculpture of Surya Cave, Bhaja
Sculpture of Surya Cave, Bhaja
Surya Deva on left & Indra Deva on right
Surya Deva on left & Indra Deva on right
Sculpture of Surya Cave, Bhaja
Sculpture of Surya Cave, Bhaja
The stone arch type ribs in the Surya cave, Bhaja
The stone arch type ribs in the Surya cave, Bhaja
Sculptures of Surya cave, Bhaja
Sculptures of Surya cave, Bhaja
Surya Deva
Surya Deva
Indra Deva
Indra Deva

Conclusion

Compared to the rush & raucous of Karla (mostly due to the presence of the temple of Hindu goddess Ekbira), the environment of Bhaja is calm & serene. The view from the top is beautiful to say the least. On west, there are the undulating hills stretching to the horizon. You can see the Bhaja village at the foothill, & the Mumbai-Pune highway at a distance. The atmosphere of Bhaja will definitely soothe your nerves.

View from Bhaja caves
View from Bhaja caves

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