Kanheri Cave Complex

Part 1

Kanheri cave complex is situated inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the Borivali region of Mumbai. Before the merge of seven isles, after land reclamation during 19th and 20th century CE, this area was known as the Salsette island. This is one of the most populated island in the world. This island is bounded by Vasai Creek on the north, Ulhas River on the north-east, Thane Creek and Bombay Harbor on the east and by the Arabian Sea on the south and west.

Present high population density has very different reasons altogether however it appears that this island would have been quite populated in the ancient and medieval times. This can be derived from the number of caves, monasteries and shrines excavated on the single hill of Kanheri and similar complexes nearby like that of Jogeshwari, Mahakali and Mandapeshvar. The island would have presented an ideal location for the settlement of the Buddhist community during those times.

The hill in which these caves are excavated was variously known as Krishna-giri, Kanha-giri etc. as evident from inscriptions found here. J Stevenson mentions that the hill was called as Kanha, and later with its Marathi appellation Kanheri. The location of the hill lying over an ancient trade route would have provided an opportunity for the merchant community to come into contact of the Buddhist monks. This resulted in continuous patronage from the merchant guilds for quite a long period.

It is widely accepted that these excavation were started during the Hinayana period. With few exceptions, Kanheri caves are mostly small excavations consisting of a porch or verandah followed by a hall. The hall usually has cells on lateral or back wall. Stone benches are usually provided in the porch and in the cells. J Burgess mentions that stone benches in cells are elsewhere found in Hinayana excavations. The caves were extensively remodeled and sculpted during the Mahayana period.

It has always perplexed me that how scholars find out whether an art work is contemporary with the original scheme or is a later addition. Scholars unanimously agree that the sculptures on the caves at Kanheri were added during the Mahayana phase. One argument might come from the iconographic development.  It is widely accepted that the Buddhist iconography was evolved during the Mahayana phase. In this context, large and advance sculptures could not be executed before that phase.

Leese mentions that sculptures in bold relief could be considered contemporary however sculptures in niche create a doubt if these are of later additions. However this is not always true. Donor couples and large Buddha sculptures in the Chaitya cave at Kanheri are all done in niche, however the former is considered of the Hinyana period while the latter is said to be that of the Mahayana.

About the artists or superintendent of these excavations, J Stevenson points to a name ‘Dhenuka-kata’ which is found in Kanheri and Karle inscriptions. Inscription No 11 of Bird’s list in Karle inscriptions, Dhenuka-kata is mentioned to be a Yavan (Greek) while inscription No 7 of Stevenson’s list of Kanheri inscriptions he is called just an artist. Stevenson thinks that Dhekuka-kata stands for Xenocrates. This however is a wrong interpretation. Inscription of the Chaitya cave (No 5 of Gokhale) mentions that the excavation is supervised by a Buddhist monk Seumala and executed by monk Bodhika.

There has been an interesting story related to the tooth relic of Buddha. J Stevenson interprets an inscription and tells that it reads ‘Buddha tooth cave’. He suggests that the cave where the inscription is found was excavated temporarily while the stupa, in which the tooth relic was to be kept permanently, was under construction.  The final resting place of the tooth relic was in the stupa opposite the great temple cave, which was excavated by Dr. Bird as evident from a copper plate grant found during this excavation. However no tooth was discovered during Bird’s excavation as the stupa was already opened and emptied before his time.

Bhagvanlal Indraji translated the copper-plate however did not mention any reference to the tooth relic. V V Mirashi who later translated the same charter, mentions that the last line of the charter reads, ‘a canine tooth’. However this tooth could not be the famous Buddha tooth relic which at present is kept in a stupa in Sri Lanka. Mirashi mentions that this tooth relic would be of the Buddhist monk in whose owner that stupa was erected as evident from the copper-plate charter.

Being a Buddhist site, Kanheri could not have avoided its comparison with the other famous sites like Ellora, Ajanta and Nasik etc. Scholars have tried in the past to establish some kind of relationship between these Buddhist centers. Ellora has clear evidences suggesting the influence of Vajrayana Buddhism in later periods. Presence of female companions with Avalokiteshvara on few sculptures at Kanheri instigated scholars to suggest Vajrayana influence over Kanheri. Dulari Qureshi is among the recent ones to advocate this hypothesis. However, Debala Mitra is not in full support of it as he mentions that though we find female divinities in company of Bodhisattvas however full-fledged deities of the typical Vajrayana pantheon like those of Ellora are absent at Kanheri.

Kanheri’s advantage of location – Various inscriptions at Kanheri refers to gifts of caves, cisterns etc. from the merchants and businessmen hailing from nearby trade centers like Sopara, Kalyan, Nasik, Paithan etc. Antiquity of Sopara, Nasik, Kalyan and Paithan is well established. Kanheri was well within approachable reach to the ancient ports of Sopara, Kalyan and Chaul which would have provided an opportunity for the merchant and traders to come into contact of the Buddhist brotherhood.

Numerous inscriptions at Kanheri refers to gifts and endowments from traders hailing from these ancient sea-ports. Kanheri was also fortunate in being connected to other inland trade centers via road. An ancient trade-route connected it Paithan via Nasik and Junnar, all well known ancient trade centers, as suggested by Dr Pandit. Ancient trade routes connected Sopara to north Indian centers like Ujjain and Bharuch. Such a location for Kanheri would have provided ample advantages in getting patronage from the rich community of traders. It would not be incorrect that this factor would have been instrumental in keeping this complex functional till 11th-12th century CE since its advent.

Water System at Kanheri – It is a fact that almost all visitors of early 19th and 20th century appreciated the water system of this cave complex. Dr. Suraj Pandit writes that Kanheri had developed its own peculiarities like a well-developed water system, its own agricultural land, satellite settlements and resources for subsistence. There are water-cisterns provided at the entrance of almost each cave at Kanheri. An inscription also mentions the construction of a dam, of course to maintain the water resources.

Dr. Pandit has carried extensive studies about the water-conservation and connectivity at Kanheri complex. He tells that these caves are located on three hills. A water stream flows between northern ans southern hill and collect water into a tank at the eastern end. Ancient engineers converted this catchment area into a small reservoir by constructing two small walls. At some later time, this catchment area was taken by Hindus who constructed a temple and a matha dedicated to Shiva.

Most of the caves are located at the southern hill. To support water supply to all these caves, five water tanks were constructed. Most of the cisterns are connected to these tanks and each other with a network of small channels. On the eastern hill, there is a place known as Gomukh where natural spring water was collected. It seems that the inhabitants tried their best to utilize every drop of rain water, Dr Pandit states. His study of water management system at Kanheri provides a glimpse of changes and restorations of rain water harvesting techniques spanning across a millennium.

Kanheri as a University – Do we have evidences that the Buddhist center at Kanheri acted as a university? I was not able to find any definite reference suggesting such a hypothesis however Dr Suraj Pandit had written a paper talking on this topic. However I am not able to get that paper, may be in future I will be able to enhance this article with reference to that paper.

All the above three points, Kanheri’s position, its advanced water-system and it reputation as a university, were discussed to understand the reasons why Kanheri was able to sustain itself for over a millennium whereas the other Buddhist sites were not able to do so.  Evidences from inscriptions and limited excavation at Kanheri suggests that it was functional and inhabited by the Buddhist monks at least till 11th century CE. Presence of 15th century Bahmani dynasty coins found inside a votive stupa, probably extended this period further to 2-3 centuries.

What advantages Kanheri had over other sites that it was able to sustain itself for such a long period? Himanshu Prabha Ray tries to answer this with reference to the changes observed in the worship rituals of the Buddhists since its inception. His conclusion is that Kanheri was able to attract Buddhist pilgrims even when the other similar monstaries were abondoned. He argues that the different construction phases at Kanheri are in sync with the changing behavior of the rituals involved in the Buddhist pilgrimage.

Movement from aniconic forms to anthropomorphic forms of Buddha, and later veneration to votive stupas reflects the changes observed in the worship model of the Buddhists. Donation of these votive stupas was a major component of Buddhsit pilgrimage. Ray writes that excavation carried out by Bird confirms that many votive stupas at Kanheri were donated by visiting pilgrims. However, there is another theory which suggests that these were erected in the memory of the residing monks and that area was referred as Nacropolis of Kanheri. Position of Kanheri provided a great advantge in sustaining itself for this long period, states Ray.

Dating – J Stevenson mentions that there is no date found in any Kanheri inscriptions. He probably is right however few inscriptions mention the reigning monarchs which helps in fixing the period of the excavation. An inscription (No 5 of Gokhale) on the main Chaitya cave refers itself to the reign of the Satavahana king Sri Yajna Satakarni (167-196 CE). Based upon this, the caves can be fairly placed to around 180 CE. But this probably is not the earliest inscription at the side.

An another inscription (No 16 of Gokhale) refers to the queen of the Satavahana king Vasisthiputra Sri-Satakarni (130-160 CE). Vasisthiputra Satakarni was succeeded by Sri-Yajna Satakarni. As the inscription does not mention the ruler in direct terms, hence it is probable that the inscription was engraved after his death. That puts the date of the inscription after 160 CE. This is the earliest definitive date of the Kanheri cave complex. However the complex of course is older than 160 CE as this inscription only refers to a gift of a water-cistern but not of a cave. The copper-plate grant found by James Bird refers to the Traikutaka reign and is dated in year 245 of unspecified era. Mirashi and other scholars take this year of the Kalchuri Era which corresponds to 494-95 CE.

Cave 1


Cave 1 – This is the first cave encountered when you enter the complex. This is an unfinished cave and faces west. Two huge pillars at the verandah supports a gigantic beam. These pillars are similar to the pillars of the main cave at Elephanta, square base, multi-faceted shaft, amalaka (cushion) capital topped with rectangular abacus. There was a plan to make it two storied however the plan was dropped probably due to defect in the rock. There is no sculpture and no inscription found inside this excavation.

Cave 2


Cave 2 – This is a big excavation facing west. It is consisting of a vihara and three stupas. These stupas are confined in their separate chambers. These chambers are separated from the vihara, and hence these many be considered as separate detached chaityas in themselves. However it seems that there would have been a large wooden roof in front of this excavation, common to its two stupas and vihara. Mortise holes on the front façade are evidence of existence of such a screen in the past. Now a question rises that why there was a need of multiple stupas in this shrine?

Cave 2 - Stupa 1


The first stupa from right is very much intact with his harmika still attached to the original rock above. On the back wall of the chamber is a sculpture panel  where Buddha is shown seated on a throne supported by two lions. This throne is rested above a lotus whose stalk is held by two nagas at the bottom. Buddha is shown seated with his legs pendant and in vyakhana mudra. From what remains, it seems that he is holding a lotus stalk, which suggests that he is Padmapani Avalokiteshvara. He is accompanied with two chauri-bearers, one is holding a rod in his hand. Two flying gandharvas carrying flower garlands are in the top corners. As this sculpture is executed inside a niche, this suggests that this is a later addition which probably was carried in the Mahayana period.

The second stupa from the right is incomplete. The question is whether this was left in between or did not survive the toll of time. Usually the rock architecture is top to bottom, and if applies here, it suggests that this stupa would have carved top down. In that case we should have some remains still attached to its roof, which in this case is absent. So was this stupa planned bottom-up?  Observing the third stupa of this cave, this can ascertained that the stupas were carved not top-bottom always.

Cave 2 - Stupa 3


The third stupa has an elaborate sculptural scheme. All these sculptural elements were of later period, and one evidence in support of these is that these are executed in a niche. Can this evidence be taken on its face value? An argument in support is that why the builder take pain in carving a niche, instead a projected relief would be less time consuming in this case. Probably someone having experience in architecture can throw light on this.

On the left side wall are six large panels at the bottom and above these are eight small panels. There is a large panel at the end which equals to the height of adjacent small and large panel. Buddha seated with pendant legs and in vyakhana mudra (teaching attitude) is the common motif appearing in all these panels.  All the six panels at bottom depict Buddha in this attitude. In the above row of eight panels, seven are depicting Buddha in this attitude while the last one depicts him seated with crossed legs over a lotus. There are two panels, one above another, at the end of this wall.

Cave 2 - Stupa 3 - Left Wall


V M Mani tells that the seven Buddhas of the top row represent the seven Manushi Buddhas while the last cross-legged Buddha is Maitreya Buddha as he wears a crown. However Maitreya is the fifth Buddha of the present time, hence he should be accompanied with four other Manushi Buddhas instead of seven. Thinking about number seven, a reference of seven Buddhist heavens come in mind. Do these seven Buddhas represent the presiding Buddhas of these seven heavens? Dulari Qureshi identifies the crossed-leg figure as a Bodhisattva representing Manjusri, the Buddhist god of Wisdom.

The largest panel on this wall shows Buddha seated with pendant legs and accompanied with two Bodhisattvas, standing on either side. Is there any scheme or plan while carving these many images where many images are in similar attitude? What is the significance of the six Buddhas depicted in bottom six panels? And what is the meaning of the largest panel on this wall? Or are we pondering too much here and in fact there was no scheme in mind of the architects and sculptors.

On the right side wall are shown four Buddha figures, all standing in almost similar postures. He is standing in varada-mudra (boon giving posture) and with one hand held his robe. In leftmost sculpture, Buddha is standing above a lotus under which stalk are shown a number of devotees.

Litany of Avalokiteshvara


The major attraction among the sculpture here is the large Avalokiteshvara carved on the back wall of the chamber. Cousens refers this as the Buddhist Litany, a prayer to the good lord Padmapani to delier his woshippers from the different forms of battle, murder and sudden death. He is shown standing holding a lotus stalk in hands while the other hand is broken however it might be in abhaya-mudra. Amitabha Buddha is shown above his head, who usually is depicted inside the jata-mukuta of Avalokiteshvara. On either side of him are carved Eight Great Perils against which Avalokiteshvara protects. These perils are shipwrecks, wrongful imprisonment, thieves, conflagration, lions, poisonous snakes, wild elephants and diseases.

Top Part of Litany of Avalokiteshvara


Panels on the left from top are, lion attacking a devotee, thief robbing a devotee (Qureshi)/ a kneeling woman with a child in her arms tries to avoid an old hag (Cousens), disease or death, thief robbing a devote (Qureshi)/ a kneeling man prays a winged figure to save him from one who holds a drawn sword over his head (Cousens), a snake attacking a devotee. Panels on right from the top are, elephant attacking a devotee, naga attacking a devotee, man beating a woman (Qureshi)/ shipwreck (Cousens) and a shipwreck.

On the right of the Avalokiteshvara, there are two panels one above the other. The below panel has Buddha with Padmapani Avalokiteshvara. This Avalokiteshvara is in the similar posture as that of the larger sculpture described above. In the above panel are shown two standing Buddhas with devotees at their feet. Other panels on the left side of the main Avalokiteshvara sculpture also depicts standing Buddhas in various panels.

Right side wall also has many sculptures, all depicting Buddha in standing attitude. The left-most panel on the wall shows Buddha standing over a lotus and nine devotees bowing to him. V M Mani mentions that the nine devotees carved here are the ones who are mentioned in an inscription found in this cave, which are Nanno Vaidya, Rano Bhaskarah, Bharavin, Chelladeva, Boppai, Bhattakhasu etc. Luders and Gokhale, however, only recognize fives names in that inscription but not nine.

This excavation has 5 inscriptions in total. One records a gift of a refectory ‘Sata’ by Nakanaka, an inhabitant of Nasik. Another records five names of the devotees whose names are given above. Another records a gift of a cistern by a goldsmith, Svamidatta, of Kalyana.

The Chaitya Cave


Cave 3 or The Chaitya Cave  – This is the most visited and documented cave at the site. Heber describes it as a Buddhist temple, of great beauty and majesty and the largest and most remarkable of all the caves at Kanheri. Kail tells that though it was never completed but it is a class in itself. This west facing cave-temple has a spacious courtyard, in the front, which is entered through a gateway in a low parapet wall. This low wall is decorated with an animal frieze at the base and ornamental rail pattern above. The entrance is guarded by guardians (dvarpalas).

Parapet Wall


On either side of the forecourt are pillars, not freestanding but attached to the pilaster of the wall. The center of the shaft is interrupted by a cushion, and above the abacus are the remnants of figures. The capital of the northern pilaster has four dwarf figures supporting a round object above. The capital of the southern pilaster has four seated lions. To the left of the court are two cells, outer cave has nice sculptures.



An unattractive stone screen separates the verandah from the courtyard. This screen has three openings, the central one leads into the verandah. The façade of this screen has two tall columns and two pilasters above which is a dwarf colonnade containing five small windows. Many sockets all around the façade and around suggest that there was considerable timber work carried out during those times.

Huge Buddha Image in Verandah


Qureshi tells that the vestibule here compares poorly with that of Bedsa and Karle. On the two side walls of this vestibule are carved two gigantic Buddha images. These images were carved in later Hinayana period. She mentions that these images were not part of the original scheme. She writes that these are not well conceived and very poorly executed. Kail mentions that the height of statues is nearly 7 m. On the left leg of the figure on the northern end are few initials of the people who visited in 1678. These are A Butfer, K. B., J. B., J. S. , 78 which corresponds to Ann Butfer, K Bates, John Butfer and John Shaw.

Left-side Donor Couple


On two sides of the central entrance on this screen are carved four donor couples. These were included in the original scheme hence belong to the same period when this cave was executed. As per Qureshi, these couples are inferior in workmanship and compare poorly with those at Karle. However, it can be said that the style in clothing and makeup which is seen here closely resembles to what we see at other Buddhist center of the same period. Few scholars even went ahead to name this style as ‘Satakarni’ style as the period to which these belong was during the reign of the Satakarni.

A question would arise here, that in the foundation inscription (No 5 of Gokhale) there are only mention of two brothers. This would mean that there were two donor families consisting of two members, two bothers and their wives respectively. However here we see two panels depicting four donor couples. Does it mean that both brothers had one panel each, and in this case, their family consisted of four members, their parents and husband-wife couples? Do we get any assistance from the panels? If their parents are shown then they must be depicted as old couple however it does not appear to be so.

Right-side Donor Couple


Three entrances of the above screen leads a visitor into a spacious hall. Cousens provide the measurements of the hall as 86.5 feet long, 39 feet 10 inches wide including the aisles, and 37 feet 7 inches high which are same as provided by James Fergusson. Dimensions of the inner hall as per Kail are 26 meters (85.3 feet) in length, 12.2 meters (40 feet) wide and 15.2 meters (49.9 feet) in height. There are total 34 pillars inside the hall forming two aisles and one nave. Not all the pillars are finished which suggests that the work was left in between probably. Six pillars, both on the right and left, from the hall entrance are similar in style and decoration.

Chaitya Hall


They all have tiered base, above which an octagonal shaft rises, ending with a square abacus above a cushion capital. Five pillars on the left side are similar to these 12 however these do not have tiered base.  Rest are plain octagonal shafts. The abacus of the finished pillars have two motifs, in one elephants, nagas and humans are shown worshiping a stupa and in another elephant with riders are shown seated juxtaposed, except one where lion and horse riders are shown.

The vaulted ceiling of the nave once would have been fitted with wooden rafters. These wooden artifacts are gone now, however their grooves are still there. James Fergusson takes this as an argument to support his theory that when the Indian artists moved from wood to stone as the construction material, they imitated the architectural elements even though it might not be required. He probably is correct in many of instances, however wooden rafters in such caves might not be just imitation but a decorative element. I get support from Kail who writes that the usage of wooden rafters here is purposeful rather than imitation.



There is a stupa at the apsidal end of this hall. This stupa is Stupa is 4.9 meters in height, measurements as provided by Kail. The harmika above is lost. Mortise holes on the dome suggests some wooden decoration in the past. Kail writes, ‘As a whole, the Kanheri Chaitya is a distinct falling away from the high standard of its forerunner at Karla, showing that it was a final effort before the early phase of rock architecture came to an end’.

Dating of this cave can be done with certainty, thanks to the foundation inscription (No 5 of Gokhale). It reads that this cave was started by two merchant brothers, Gajasena and Gajamitra, during the reign of the Satavahana king Sri Yajna Satakarni (167-196 CE). This sets the date of execution to about 180 CE. An another inscription (No 6 of Gokhale), found opposite of the previous one, mentions various donative projects at various other places, probably executed by the same merchant brothers. These works were few cells in Sopara, a chaitya, hall and few cells in Ambalika Vihara at Kalyan, a chitya with 13 cells at Paithan, a temple and a hall at Rajatalaka (probably Aurangabad) and a monastery at Sadasevaju (its exact identification is not yet done).

With the reliable dating of this cave, 180 CE, Fergusson states that this fixes the hypothesis that it is later than Karle of which it seems to be a literal copy. He mentions that though it is a copy of Karle however it is very inferior in style and art. The probable reasons of this inferiority might be that the donor couple either were not able to cope up with the expenses required to finish the cave or they died before the work was over.

There are about 10 inscriptions in the chaitya. Two large inscriptions on the face of the pillar gate posts are already mentioned above. One inscription mentions a gift of a Buddha image by Buddhaghosha, the pupil of Dharmavatsa, the teacher of Tipitaka. We all are aware of the famous Buddhaghosha, a Buddhist monk of 5th century CE, who studied Tipitaka. Does this inscription refer to the same person? Buddhaghosha was born in Magadha and went to Sri Lanka for further studies. Was it possible that on his way, he passed through Kanheri and donated an image?

Earliest Buddha Image


Early Buddhist Icons – There are two early Buddha images, one on the upper half of the right courtyard pillar and another is on the base of the lower half of the same pillar in the main Chaitya Cave. Debala Mitra mentions that the front pillars of the cave has the distinction of having the earliest representation of Buddha among the western Indian caves. He tells that the figures of Buddha and nagas on these pillars are faintly reminiscent of the art-tradition of the school of Amaravati. Mitra also questions that why the sculptors carved these images at bottom but not at capital where these would be prominent and visible to the visitors.

Marilyn Leese states that despite the seemingly inconsequential of their size and position, these figures exemplify the advent of the Buddhist icon in Western India.  These two icons were put into her attention by Walter Spink. Buddha on the base is shown standing putting his weight equally on both his legs, wearing a robe, and has a halo behind his head. The Buddha on top is seated on a raised platform with crossed legs and a halo behind his head.

On consideration of these two figures as the earliest ones in this cave, Leese mentions that the other sculptures’ style mostly corresponds to Ajanta’s Buddhist sculptures datable to the fifth century CE. Moreover the other figures are intrusively carved, that is, these were added sometime later on the walls. This is evident from the fact that these figures are set in a niche rather than protruding from the walls. On the other hand, the two pillar figures were not afterthoughts but were the integral part of the pillar shaft.

Leese points similarities of these two figures with those of the Kushana icons from Mathura school. Leese also questions whether this pillar should be taken as an integral part of the cave or is it a later addition. She tells that the courtyard pillar and hall’s interior pillars were carved at the same time as there is much similarities in icons presents on both. In this case, it would be appropriate to take that these icons were carved during the reign of Yajnasri Satakarni, probably in the last quarter of the second century CE. As the inscription on the cave mentions that it is the property of the Bhadrayaniyas, a Hinayana sect, Leese mentions that the presence of these early icons suggest that their appearance was sanctioned by the Bhadrayaniyas.

Next Chapter