Bedse Caves – A Unique Buddhist Vihara

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Bedse Caves are located in the Maval taluka of Pune district in Maharashtra. The caves are excavated on the eastern side of a hill range overlooking the valley of Pawana. The old name of the settlement was Marakuda as found in an inscription. The group has nine excavations consisting of a few chaityas, a vihara, and a few water cisterns.

N L Westergaard was the first modern explorer to notice the caves. He wrote a letter to James Bird and the latter published it in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1844.1 Westergaard provided an eyewitness account of the caves. The most useful information in his account was that the pillars inside the apsidal chaityagrha were covered with paintings. However, he says those were so indistinct that nothing could be made out. The next short account was from John Wilson who included these caves in his memoirs of cave temples of western India. Wilson informs that with the approbation of the then Government of India, a commission was formed by the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, “Bombay Commission”, to make preliminary inquiries about the situation, extent, and general character of the antiquities which are subject of investigation.2 The notes prepared by Wilson were under the same commission. In addition to providing measurements of these caves and directions to reach them, his account also fills in various gaps in the earlier account of Westergaard. An article about these caves was also published in the Oriental Christian Spectator in 1861. The writer mentions finding fragments of timber lying on the floor of the chaityagrha.3

A. A. West presented a paper on the inscriptions of the site in 1864.4 He did not provide the full translation of the inscriptions but only the fragments. James Fergusson was the first renowned architect and archeologist to write about the Bedse cave.5 He says the Bedse chaitya shows considerable progress towards lithic construction amongst its contemporary excavations. It has nearly all the features of a well-designed chaitya cave. He compares the pillar capitals with crouching animals to the Persian (Persepolitan) pillar capitals of two addorsed animals. Jas. Burgess covers the caves in detail in his magnum opus on the cave temples of India which he co-authored with James Fergusson.6 He says the caves were locally known as Karunj-Bedsa because of the names of the two villages at the foot of the Supati hill where these excavations were made. The caves were at a height of 300 feet above the plain and 2250 feet above sea level. Apart from the dimensions and other features of the caves, the important information in his account was related to paintings and woodwork. Burgess mentions that all the woodwork mentioned by Westergaard and the writer of the Oriental Christian Spectator has since disappeared. Fragments of paintings could be traced till as late as 1871, however, a local officer under the idea of cleaning this fine cave had the whole whitewashed and obliterated all the paintings. Later in 1883, Burgess also published the inscriptions of these caves.7 Once the caves were known to the scholar community, these started being featured in various monographs on the rock-cut Buddhist shrines, and various travelogues.8

The first comprehensive study of the cave among the large repertoire of Buddhist rock-cut monuments came from Vidya Dehejia. She plotted the known Buddhist cave sites on a map concluding that the early Buddhist caves extend from Karadh in the south to Ajanta and Pitalkhora in the north, with extensions to Saurashtra in the west. This area comprises some twelve principal sites and the total excavations exceeds one thousand. These are cut into the hills and valleys of the Western Ghats, the Deccan Trap basalts. The abundance of underground springs and Deccan Trap basalt provided a convenient rock-cutting choice, leading to numerous excavations. These excavations were located along the ancient trade routes, particularly the ones connecting the ports to important inland towns. Bedse lies on the branch that climbed the Sava Pass or the Kuruvanda Pass near Lonavala.9 She places Bedse caves between 50-30 BCE.10 The next impressive attempt was from S Nagaraju who attempted to place the caves among the repertoire of the Buddhists based on architecture, style, and paleography. He dates the complex to the early part of the first century BCE.11 An important study was carried out by Walter Spink attempting to redate the chaityagrha at Karle. Various scholars have dated the chaityagrha at Karle to the first century BCE. Spink raises some serious doubts and suggests that dating must be brought up to the second and third decades of the second century CE. As inscriptions of Nahapana and his followers are found on the interior pillars at Karle, this proves that the excavation was ongoing when Nahapana conquered the region and took Karle chaityagrha as the first monument for donations and patronage. He takes forward the same approach to Bedse suggesting it was excavated in the middle or later years of the first-century CE.12

Group of caves excavated on the eastern side of the hill
Cave No 1

Cave No 1 – This cave is an unfinished chaityagriha of circular shape. It measures 3 meters in diameter and 1.75 m high.13 In the center is a stupa of circular plinth. A rectangular mass of rock connects the top of the stupa plinth and the ceiling. The doorway is plain and is preceded by an open porch. The cave is bereft of any decoration and all the rough and coarse surfaces, suggesting the work has been stopped in the middle. Nagaraju opines that the space between the stupa plinth and the ceiling was insufficient to carve out the remaining parts of the stupa, i.e. anda (dome), harmika, etc. This probably explains why the cave was left unfinished.14

Cistern No 1

Cistern No 1 – To the north of the above cave, a water cistern with a square opening is cut into the floor of the rock.

Cistern No 1, Cave No 2, and Cistern No 2
Cave No 2

Cave No 2 – This cave follows the same style as Cave No 1. The front portion and the ceiling have collapsed however the circular chamber and its stupa are intact. The stupa has a cylindrical plinth measuring 1.4 m in diameter at the base and 1 m in height.15 At the upper rim of the plinth runs a rail-pattern railing. A 3 feet high dome rises above the plinth. The four holes on its top were probably meant to support a wooden harmika. It appears that Cave No 1 was originally planned to be finished as Cave No 2, however, Cave No 1 was abandoned and thus Cave No 2 was excavated.

Inscription – There is a single-line inscription on the back wall. It reads, “The stupa of … Gobhuti, a hermit living in the forest and mendicant who dwelt on Marakuda [Marakuta]: caused to be made by his pupil, the devoted Asalamita [Ashadhamitra].” Burgess suggests Mara might be the hill’s name in the olden days.16

Water Cistern No 2

Cistern No 2 – To the north of Cave No 2, another water cistern with a square opening is excavated.

Inscription – A three-line inscription is engraved on the back wall of the cistern. It reads, “The meritorious gift of Samadinika the Mahadevi (princess), the Maharathini, daughter of the Mahabhoja and wife of Apadevanaka.”17

Cave No 3

Cave No 3 (Chaityagrha) – It is the principal excavation at the site and the best and biggest. As the rock was slightly sloping, the architects had to make a deep excavation to obtain a plain and straight facade. This deep excavation resulted in a passage, 12 m long and 2.5 m wide, in front of the chaitya. The passage is open and about 9 m high.18 The excess rock mass on either side of the passage is not removed hindering the full and proper view of the front facade of the chaitya. The reasons behind it were unknown as it is the only excavation where such a scheme was implemented. All other chaitya caves excavated in the Western Ghats are without a passage. One probable reason would be that as the extra rock mass does not interfere with the plan and constituents of the chaitya thus it was left to save effort and time.

Bell capital

Horses with riders
Elephants with riders
Horse riders on pilasters
Bulls with riders
Elephants with riders
Elephants and horses with riders

Passing through this passageway, a visitor is led to the front of the chaityagrha looking directly into the veranda and the front screen. The veranda has two huge columns and two pilasters. The base of the columns is a pot-shaped base mounted over a stepped pedestal. Above it rises an octagonal shaft that terminates with an inverted bell capital. The lotus petals on the bell capital are very distinctly carved. The bell capital has a round bulbous cushion (amalaka) within a square frame supporting a stepped abacus. Over the abacus are various crouched addorsed animals with riders, male or female. Among the animals are found elephants, horses, and bulls. Dehejia says the grace and ease with which these animal figures are portrayed reveals a technical accomplishment certainly equal to and perhaps somewhat in advance of the carvings on the Sanchi gateways. She opines that the Bedse architects would have visited Bharhut, Bodh Gaya, and Sanchi, the important centers of stone carving in those days. Perhaps this was responsible for the innovation of tall, slender columns with elaborate capitals.19 The Ashokan column at Sanchi may have inspired the architects to introduce a bell capital with a stepped abacus supporting animal-and-rider crowning figures.20

The veranda is 3.7m deep and 9.2m wide.21 There are two cells each on the lateral sides of the veranda. The cells in chaitya are an unusual feature as chaityas were made for congregational purposes without any residential quarters. The base of the rear wall has vedika (rail-pattern railing) decoration. This decoration motif is also found above the lintels of the doorways and windows. The main doorway measuring 90 by 180 cm is in the center.22 A lattice window is provided on the left and the corresponding space on the right has another smaller entrance, 68 by 167 cm. Chaitya arches surmount these doors and the lattice window. A large chaitya arch, open from the front, is surmounted occupying the space of the central nave inside the hall. The side arms of this large chaitya arch terminate in the middle of the arches surmounting the lattice window and the smaller entrance. This large open chaitya arch allows enough light to highlight the stupa inside the hall. The soffit of these arches is cut with dentils resembling wooden rafter ends. The rest of the space is decorated with meshes of chaitya arches and vedika patterns in three horizontal series lying one above the other. This gives an impression of a four-story structure with each story separated by a vedika railing. The style and decoration scheme of the front is continued on the lateral sides.

The inner apsidal hall is 13.5m long and 6.25m wide. It is divided into a central nave and two side aisles by two rows of pillars. The nave is 3.1m wide and the aisles are 1 m wide. There are twenty-six pillars, thirteen in each row. Except for the two pillars near the front doorway, the rest are all plain octagonal shafts about 3m in height. The roof of the aisles is quadrantal and the nave is barrel-vaulted. Nagaraju asserts that the chaityagrha is remarkably perfect in architectural design. The proportions between the various parts are mathematically arranged and meticulously executed to be an achievement laudable in rock excavation.23 The stupa at the apsidal end has a circular plinth of 2m in diameter. The plinth has two levels, the lower level rises for 1.5m and the upper level to another 1m. The base and rims of the plinth’s levels are decorated with the vedika pattern. The hemispherical dome above the upper plinth is about 1m in height. The harmika has two tiers and is surmounted by a bracket composed of five horizontal plates of increasing dimensions. The uppermost plate has a circular hole in its center. In the hold is inserted a yasti, made of wood, with a hump of calyx design on the top.

Triratna
Dharmachakra with eight spokes mounted over a stepped pedestal
Triratna on the right and srivatsa on the left
Triratna on the left and swirl on the right

A few innermost pillars next to the stupa have various Buddhist symbols engraved on their top portion. Among these symbols are found an eight-spoked dharmachakra mounted over a pedestal, triratna, shrivatsa, lotus, etc. Usually, these symbols correspond to the Ashtamangala symbols of Buddhism. However, at Bedse we have a unique symbol of swirl found here which is not mentioned in any ashtamangalas. A few scholars have identified this symbol as chakra.

Inscription – A single-line inscription is found over the door of a cell at the right end of the veranda. It reads, “The gift of Pushyanaka, son of Seth Ananda, from Nasik.”24

Cistern No 4

Cistern No 3 – It is located a little north of the above chaityagrha. It has a rectangular opening.

Cistern No 4

Cistern No 4 – This underground water cistern is located further north of the above cistern. The rock between cisterns no 3 & 4 has been carved out with provisions of seats in different recesses. These recesses are not spacious enough to provide for a residential cell rather these appear to provide a space for seating overlooking the river valley down.

Cave No 4

Cave No 4 – This cave has a cell in the front and back. It is excavated at a higher level than other caves.

Mahavihara
Entrance with four cells on the sides

Cell doorway with a semicircular rosette motif topped by a railing
Cell doorway with a basket motif followed by a railing

Cave No 5 (Mahavihara) – This was the main residential complex at the site. It has a pillarless apsidal hall with several cells hewn in the inner walls on the three sides. The hall is 5.5m wide and 9.9m deep.25 There are nine cells inside the hall. A few cells have two beds on opposite sides and a few only have provisions for one bed. A chaitya arch surmounts the cell door frames. Vedika (rail pattern) decoration is provided at two levels, the first level is at the base of the chaitya arches and the second level connects the apex of these arches. The soffit of the arches has dentil resembling the wooden rafter ends. The space between the lintel and the chaitya curve is filled with rosettes or a basket motif within a semicircular space topped by a railing. The walls between the two cells have false windows. Four cells are provided next to the entrance to the hall, two on either side.

Goddess Yamai

The crude image of a goddess carved outside a cell is worshipped as Yamai. The tradition ascribes that the four brothers who started the excavation at Bedse were scared away by the goddess to Bhaja and later to Karle.26 Nagaraju opines that this vihara was constructed in two stages as evident from the variations in decoration and the fact that the front cells are a bit receded from the alignment of the inner cells and separated by wide jambs.27 The apsidal hall and its inner cells are coeval with the Chaityagrha at the site. The four cells at the entrance appear earlier. Their decoration is similar to a few earlier caves at Ajanta. The architects might have an idea to convert these existing four cells into a veranda on similar lines to the Chaityagrha.

Cave No 5

Cave No 6 & Cistern No 5 – This cave is located further north of the above Mahavihara. It is a small cell measuring 1.8m by 1.2m. A water cistern is provided next to its entrance.

Observations:

  • Site Selection – Western Ghats is dotted with numerous Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain excavations. Ports on the western coastline of India had been engaged in trade with the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs for centuries before the modern era. These ports were connected to the inland towns via road and inland waterways. This commercial and industrial prosperity resulted in the cultural and financial development of ports and towns. The passes on the Western Ghats served as the natural trade routes. Numerous Buddhist sites were developed on these various trade routes. Bedse is situated on the Kondane pass, an opening from the Deccan to the coast. The other important Buddhist centers lying on this pass are Karle and Bhaja.28 Mandad port in the Raigad district was connected to inland settlements via an ancient route passing through Kuda, Karle, Bhaja, Shelarwadi, and Bedse. Many large and significant Buddist excavations are found on this route suggesting it was a busy route frequented by traders and monks.29
  • Dating – Earlier scholars have dated these caves based on the paleography, style, and architecture in comparison to other contemporary sites. The generally accepted dating for these caves is the first century BCE. However, Spink argues that this dating needs to be brought up by at least two hundred years. He suggests that these caves were excavated during the middle or later decades of the first century CE. His primary argument lies in the inscriptions of Nahapana found in Karle caves suggesting that the Karle cave was excavated sometime during the early first century CE. This argument is still not widely accepted among scholars.

1 Westergaard, N L (1844). A Brief Account of minor Buddha Caves of Beira and Bajah, in the neighbourhood of Karli published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. I, July 1841 to July 1844. pp. 438-439
2 Wilson, John (1851). Memoir on the Cave-Temples and Monasteries, and other Ancient Buddhist, Brahmanical, and Jaina Remains of Western India published in The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Society, vol. III, part II, December 1848 to November 1850. pp. 52-54
3 Fergusson, James & Burgess, James (1880, reprint in 1969). The Cave Temples of India. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. Delhi. p. 229
4 West, Arthur A (1972). Copies of Inscriptions from the Caves near Bedsa, with a Plan published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. VIII (1864-1866). pp. 222-224
5 Fergusson, James (1876). History of Indian and Eastern Architecture. John Murray. London. pp. 112-116
6 Fergusson, James & Burgess, James (1880, reprint in 1969). The Cave Temples of India. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. Delhi. pp. 228-231
7 Burgess, Jas. (1883). Report on the Buddhist Cave Temples and their Inscriptions. Trubner & Co. London. pp. 22-23
8 Anon (1898). A Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon. John Murray. London. p. 323 | Wauchope, R S (1933). Buddhist Cave Temples of India. Calcutta General Print Co. Ltd. Calcutta (now Kolkata). pp. 52-55 | Valisinha, Devapriya (1948). Buddhist Shrines in India. The Maha Bodhi Society of Ceylon. Colombo. pp. 237-238 | Sen, A C (ed.) (1956). Buddhist Remains in India. Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Delhi. p. 124 | Mitra, Debala (1971). Buddhist Monuments. Sahitya Samsad. Calcutta (now Kolkata). pp. 153-154 | Kail, Owen C (1975). Buddhist Cave Temples of India. Taraporevala. Mumbai. pp. 93-95 | Qureshi, Dulari (2010). Rock-cut Temples of Western India. Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. Delhi. ISBN 9788180902024. pp. 268-273 | Michell, George & Rees, Gethin (2017). Buddhist Rock-cut Monasteries of the Western Ghats. Jaico Books. Delhi. ISBN 9789386867049. pp. 89-92
9 Dehejia, Vidya (1972). Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Cornell University Press. New York. ISBN 080140651X. pp. 30-31
10 Dehejia, Vidya (1972). Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Cornell University Press. New York. ISBN 080140651X. p. 177
11 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 112
12 Spink, Walter (1958). On the Development of Early Buddhist Art in India published in The Art Bulletin, vol. 40, no. 2. pp. 103-104
13 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 107
14 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 107
15 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 107
16 Burgess, Jas & Indraji, Bhagwanlal (1881). Inscriptions from the Cave-Temples of Western India. Government Central Press. Bombay (now Mumbai). p. 89
17 Burgess, Jas & Indraji, Bhagwanlal (1881). Inscriptions from the Cave-Temples of Western India. Government Central Press. Bombay (now Mumbai). p. 90
18 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 108
19 Dehejia, Vidya (1972). Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Cornell University Press. New York. ISBN 080140651X. p. 127
20 Dehejia, Vidya (1972). Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Cornell University Press. New York. ISBN 080140651X. p. 140
21 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 108
22 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 109
23 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 109
24 Burgess, Jas & Indraji, Bhagwanlal (1881). Inscriptions from the Cave-Temples of Western India. Government Central Press. Bombay (now Mumbai). p. 89
25 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 111
26 Lahiri, Nayanjot (2021). Archaeology and the Public Purpose – Writings on and by M. N. Deshpande. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190130480.
27 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 111
28 Margabandhu, C (1965). Trade Contacts between Western India and the Graeco-Roman World in the Early Centuries of the Christian Era published in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 8, no. 3. pp. 316-322
29 Hebalkar, Sharad (1991). Mandad: An Ancient Internation Port published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 52. p. 183

Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by the Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.