Rock-cut structures are one of the most primitive forms of architecture found in several parts of India. The Karla Caves in Maharashtra, built by Buddhist monks, are one of the finest examples of this architectural style.
The Caves are high on the surrounding hills. A narrow winding path leads up. Built centuries ago by Buddhist monks, the caves are in keeping with the Buddhist ideas of simplicity. One wonders why this isolated spot was chosen as the site for the caves. After all, a rock-cut structure high in the remote hills is not something immediately associated with a place of worship. Until the arrival of the Buddhists, there had been little building activity of any consequence in this difficult terrain. During their very first season in the hills in thatched huts, the monks must have had to face the fury of the rains. Rains, which lashed down the hillside non-stop for half the year. Rains that could wash away an entire village without leaving a sign and rains that could make worship around a stupa in the open an unpleasant task indeed. Under the circumstances, they could have built prayer halls of timber. Wood was at hand from the forest. Bricks baked in the plains could be hoisted up. However, even such a hall would have been difficult to maintain and preserve under the unrelenting fury of the monsoon. Only the hills seemed to withstand the ravages. With their great desire to make the Good Law of the Buddha outlast time itself, the Buddhist monks decided to carve their sanctuaries out of the living rock of the immovable mountains.
Rock cut structures are one of the earliest and most primitive forms of architecture. They were particularly well adapted to Indian conditions, both material and spiritual. Cool in summer, cozy in winter, cave temples are well adapted to the Indian climate. Low cliffs often mean waterfalls, a stream or simply water percolating down from the tableland above. Unfortunately, this pretty picture of dense forests and welcome waterfalls is a thing of the past. Now, the hills around Karla are bald and water is a scarce commodity.
From the late second century BC till the mid-second century AD, thousands of caves like Karla were built in the Sahyadri Hills. They were apparently all for Buddhist communities. These cave sites were not randomly chosen. They were selected in accordance with the Buddhist prescription that the holy man should live neither too near nor too far from the cities-not too near to be distracted, nor too far to make begging rounds impractical or to put the monks out of reach of people. Naturally, the existence of a natural cave was another determining factor.
Karla was a natural cave, excellently situated, and also used to be along one of the major caravan trading routes. This made Karla an excellent choice for the monks to build the cave shrines here.
The manner in which these cave shrines were dug out is known in its broad outline since a number were abandoned at various stages of construction. Work proceeded from the top downwards, eliminating the need for a scaffolding. Caves were created in groups to provide accommodation for outside workers since such undertakings were beyond the resources of a very small community.
They consist of two types: chaitya halls and viharas. Chaitya halls were for congregational worship (an activity which fundamentally distinguishes Buddhism from Hinduism). The viharas were the dwelling place of the monks and usually consisted of cells cut into the walls around three sides of a hall. All very austere and demanding great hardships from the body. Enduring feature of these caves are the arched entrances and vaulted interiors. This basic structure was very dear to the Buddhist monks.
The actual process of construction is fascinating. The chosen hillside was cleared of shrubs and other growth. The parallel tunnels were then run to the desired depth and timber wedges driven vertically into the exposed rock at convenient centers. When moistened, these wedges expanded and dislodged large chunks of stone that were removed through the mouth of the cave. Thus, the rock was exposed. At this point all the exposed rock were chiseled and polished and only then the workmen continued the excavation. Gradually, with mere one fourth inch chisels and hammers as the tools, the excavation was carried on from the ceiling downward. A tedious process but one that has survived, as Karla testifies. Once excavated timber trelliswork and balconies were added as trimmings.
Cave Paintings Of Karla
The workman recreated in stone what they would normally have built of timber. Gradually the stone carver's art became unique. He began to exploit the potential of this new medium. The monumental culmination of this extraordinary art form is the famous mammoth hall at Karla. The gigantic hall, built in the first century AD is adorned with architectural motifs; lions and elephants whose tusks were probably of genuine ivory but no longer exist. The architect of this hall was fully aware of the potential of the visual drama and awe that could be infused into a visitor entering such a vast, sacred hall. At the entrance are two enormous 50 feet high columns crowned by glorious lion sculptures. One passes into an anteroom lit by a recessed sun window set in a huge horseshoe archway. The light is wonderfully diffused. The walls are richly sculpted and at one time there were frescoes too. Moving further in, one discerns the most sacred object of veneration looming out of the dark-the stupa. Magic is created by a soft luminosity that filters in through the rows of flanking columns. The stupa seems situated in a fathomless cavern. Though many rock cut techniques evolved over the centuries none have ever rivaled the chaitya hall at Karla. It embodies the powerful relationship that has endowed the caves of the Buddhists with magical qualities beyond the comprehension of day-to-day architecture.
How To Reach
Karla caves are situated around 11 km away from Lonavala, a famous hills station and at just an hour's drive from Pune. Buses are available from Lonavala, Pune 77 km away, and Mumbai 105 km away. The Karla railway station is situated around three km from the caves.