Caves are not merely the abodes of people living thousands of years ago. The discovery of caves has also led to an understanding of the world as it existed during those times and the cultural, social and religious practices of people that influenced the generations that followed them. Maharashtra has some of the most interesting cave sites in the country and the three that you must definitely visit are located at Bhaja, Bedse and Karla – known for their Buddhist affiliations.
The Bhaja caves are situated about 56 kilometers northwest from Pune on the Pune – Mumbai highway in the Maval taluka of Pune district. There are 25 Buddhist caves at this site. These were excavated from 2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE. There is only one chaityagriha (prayer hall with a stupa inside) and the rest are viharas (residential cave with independent cells within). It is one of the earliest rock-cut chaityagrihas in Maharashtra.
Along with the other caves is a stupa gallery. This is a group of 14 rock-cut stupas excavated in the memory of some venerable monks. Some of these stupas bear inscriptions with the names of the monks. There a few inscriptions in the caves at Bhaja, including a wooden rib in the chaityagriha. The viharas at Bhaja are carved in two levels. There are a few double-storied viharas too. There is only one vihara at Bhaja that has some sculptural decoration. This cave has elaborate narrative sculptures in the verandah, probably depicting a story along with some sculptures of the guardians. There are a few rock-cut tanks at Bhaja. However, there is not a single sculpture of the Buddha at this site, though there are some traces of a painting of the Buddha in the chaityagriha.
Bedse is situated in the Maval taluka of Pune district and is situated about 45 kilometers northwest from Pune. It can be approached by taking a diversion at Kamshet. The caves at this site were excavated during 1st century BCE. There are two finished and two unfinished Buddhist caves at Bedse along with some rock–cut cisterns and a memorial stupa. The chaityagriha is carved with a stone screen and a verandah has tall pillars with beautifully carved images of animals and riders. The vihara at Bedse is unique for its apsidal plan and vaulted roof.
The inscription on the door frame of a cell in the courtyard of the chaityagriha records a donation of a person from Nashik. The cave excavation activity at this site continued till late 1st century CE. There are a few traces of paintings on the pillars of the chaityagriha. The caves at Bedse are considered an important stage in the development of Buddhist cave architecture in India.
Karla is also situated in the Maval taluka of Pune district on the Pune-Mumbai highway and is just 8 kilometers from Bhaja. These caves were excavated from 1st century CE to 5th – 6th centuries CE. Though there are only 15 caves at Karla, it is one of the most famous Buddhist rock-cut cave sites in India. The main chaityagriha, one of the largest in India, is very important from architectural, sculptural and inscriptional points of view. These sculptures can be seen in the verandah as well as on the pillar capitals inside the chaityagriha. Many pillars in the hall bear inscriptions in Brahmi script and Prakrit language, which mention the names of the donors and the places from where they had come. There are also some long inscriptions written by the royal families of the 1st – 2nd centuries CE. The pillars in the hall have some traces of the paintings belonging to the 5th – 6th centuries CE.
There are a few sculptures in the verandah of the chaityagriha which are believed to be of the donors. Many sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas were also carved in the verandah after 5th century CE. A shrine of Goddess Ekvira came up in front of the chaityagriha after the caves were deserted. Today this is considered very important and thousands of people visit to pay their reverence to the deity.
Nearest airport: Pune
Nearest railway station is at Malavli. Lonavla station, 10 km from Karle is the most convenient base for visiting Karle- Bhaje – Bedse caves.
40 kms away from Pune, on the Pune-Mumbai highway are Karle and Bhaje Caves. Karle caves are 4 kms North towards from Malavli station. Bhaje caves are 2 kms south from Malavali station.