Bhaja – A Long Standing Survivor


Bhaja is a small village in the Pune district of Maharashtra. It was one of the important monastic establishments on the trade route passing via Bhorghat. The complex has 29 excavations including natural caverns, water cisterns, etc. These are carved out on a spur of a hill facing west. It is probably the oldest Buddhist establishment that flourished during the Hinayana phase and all the excavations were made during this period. The establishment did not attract patronage during the Mahayana phase and no further extensions were made. The first modern reference to the cave complex is found in the travels of George Annesley, alias Viscount Valentia. He was fascinated with India’s rock-cut monuments and visited many sites in and around Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1804. While going from Karle to Lohagad Fort, he mentioned a series of west-facing caves excavated on a hill that also had the Fort of Visapur at its top. He and his European colleagues did not visit the caves instead they sent a servant to inquire. The servant reported a small arched temple, similar in plan to that at Karle, with plain pillars and no inscription or sculptures.1 The next explorer to notice the caves was N L Westergaard, who wrote a letter to James Bird. The letter was published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1844.2 It was a short eyewitness account of the caves, however, he only provided details of the main chaityagrha and a few inscriptions. John Wilson was the next explorer to include Bhaja in his long account of caves-temples of western India.  His account of caves is very brief with a few addendums in the reading of an inscription.3

Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online

British government acknowledged the importance of inscriptions in the cave complexes and engaged Lieutenant Brett to take copies. These copies were submitted to Dr. Stevenson for translations and interpretations. Dr. Stevenson published his first reading on the Bhaja inscriptions in 1857.4 James Fergusson was the first architecture scholar who studied the rock-cut architecture of India in totality. In his early accounts, he mentions Bhaja as the oldest excavation among the then-known rock-cut shrines of the Western Ghats. He provided a brief description based on the photographs available to him. He opines that it was the first attempt in the rock and the carvers followed the wooden counterparts in every detail and element. However, not every part was executed in stone and many parts were made of wood and fitted to the rock-cut structure. Among these wooden parts, the front screen and ribs of the vaulted roof were major constituents. Interestingly, Fergusson mentions that the cave does not have any inscriptions, however, the earlier accounts were focused on inscriptions among other details.5 His later work, co-authored with Jas. Burgess brings in many improvements and wider coverage. He says the main chaitya cave is one of the most important in the history of cave architecture and is certainly dateable to 200 BCE or earlier. He reiterates there is not one feature nor one detail that is not essentially wooden throughout, or that could have been invented from any form of stone construction or was likely to be used in lithic architecture, except in the rock.6 Fergusson left India in October 1879, and a new cave at Bhaja was excavated in December. Thus, the description of this cave appears as an appendix to his last work. The cave was excavated by Burgess and Cousens. The cave was earlier filled with mud till its ceiling. After the cleaning and excavation, the cave revealed various relief sculptures of utmost importance. Burgess says it is the oldest cave, probably in Western India, as all the sculptures of this cave were only found in the earliest Buddhist works at Bharhut, Sanchi, etc.7

Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online

Burgess and Bhagwanlal Indraji made the first serious attempt at the translation of inscriptions in 1881.8 Burgess improves on his readings in a later work published in 1883.9 The 1885 Poona Gazetteer provides some further details but is largely influenced by previously published accounts.10 The sculptures of the cave, which was excavated in 1879, soon gained curiosity among scholars. Various attempts were made to identify the themes of these sculptural panels. We will discuss these in detail when we describe this particular cave later in our paper. Bhaja appears in various studies related to travel, cave architecture, and Indian art.11 For a long time, the caves were generally accepted to have been excavated around 200 BCE, the dating given to it by Fergusson and Burgess. In the fourth quarter of the last century, a few attempts were made to date the complex in the relative chronology of other Buddhist caves deviating from the generally accepted dating. Vidya Dehejia and Walter Spink were a few prominent scholars who worked on dating and we will discuss these details later in our paper.

Cave Complex – Various scholars have provided different numbers for the excavations in this complex, a few keeping it below 20 and a few above it. We are following the numbering used by S Nagaraju12 and he mentions the complex has 29 excavations in total. This includes natural caverns, water cisterns, and caves excavated beyond the waterfall in the southernmost part of the complex. This numbering system differs from the one used by ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). The measurements of the caves are also taken after Nagaraju in this paper.

Bhaja caves spread from the north to the south facing west

Cave 1 – It is a natural cavern. Nagaraju puts it in his list however the numbering of ASI starts with the next cave.

Cave No 2

Cave No 2 – It is a plain hall measuring 7.5m square and 2.1m high. On its left side is a water cistern. The front portion of the cave has fallen however it once had a veranda and a wall in the front. There are no cells inside the hall, thus, it was probably used by the pilgrims as a resting place.

Cave No 3

Cave No 3 – This cave is adjacent to the previous cave. This is also a plain hall bereft of any cells. A bench runs on the three inner sides. This cave also served as a rest hall for the pilgrims.

Cave No 4

Cave No 4 – It is a small recess in the scarp of the rock.

Cave No 5

Cave No 5 – This cave has a rectangular hall, 6.4m deep and 4.26m long, with three cells in the right and two in the left lateral wall. An attempt to carve out a third cell in the left wall was abandoned later. All cells except one are provided with stone beds. Two windows flank the entrance door in the center. Stone benches are provided below the windows. The cave is bereft of any decoration.

Caves beyond No 5
Cave No 6


Cave No 6 – This cave has a square hall, 4.26m square, with three cells on its rear wall and two cells on either side. The left corner cell has an extra inner cell. Stone beds are provided in all the cells. The cell doorways are slightly projected in the front and slightly taper at the top. A large chaitya arch covers the doorway of the central cell in the rear wall. The other cells do not have similar arches over their doorways however all these cells are connected at the top of doorways via a vedika railing interspersed with small chaitya arches over the intermediate space between. This railing is extended to the lateral walls. There is an inscription on the back wall of a cell on the left wall. Sufficient light would have been required to read the inscription suggesting the cave did not have a front screen. Due to the missing front screen, the dwellers would have required doors to be fixed in the cell doorways and thus the excavators provided sockets to fix wooden doors.


  1. On the right-hand cell door in the back of the vihara cave no VI, the east of Chaitya14 – reads “The gift of Badha, the plowman’s wife”
Cave No 7

Cave No 7 – The cave has a rectangular hall, 1.8m deep, and 3.6m wide, and its entrance is through a door in the center. The hall has a cell on each side and two in the rear. The cells have a stone bench inside. Vedika railing pattern runs above the doorways across all three sides. The railing is bereft of any chaitya decoration. The cells on the sides have a course of merlons above the vedika railing.

Cave No 8

Cave No 8 – This cave has a rectangular hall with four cells in the back and four in the left wall. All cells except one have stone benches. The right wall is left plain suggesting that the cave was excavated after the adjacent chaitya cave.

Approach to caves 9, 10 & 11
Cave No 9

Cave No 9 – This cave has a square hall with four cells in the back wall and two on the left. The cells in the back wall have stone benches but the ones on the left do not have benches. Nagaraju tries to reconstruct the fallen front portion of the cave suggesting that the front wall of the hall had a doorway in the center flanked by two rectangular windows on either side.13 The holes in the floor suggest wooden frames were inserted in the central doorway. The veranda running throughout the length of the cave is extended to the north to accommodate a cell on the north and two cells in the back wall.

Cave No 10

Cave No 10 – This cave has a rectangular hall scooped so deep that its depth exceeds its width. The hall measures 6.7m deep and 3.7m wide. There are two cells in the rear and three in the right wall. The cells are provided with stone beds. The doorways are executed crudely and do not follow symmetry suggesting work in haste. A reason may be to avoid any damage to the nearby Cave 11, thus it may be surmised that this cave was executed later. A vedika railing runs over a projected portion covering the space between the door lintels and ceiling. The railing is interspersed with chaitya arches at regular intervals. Nagaraju opines that the front veranda of the cave was once supported on pillars evident from the portion of a capital still attached to the overhanging roof.14 The part of a capital found near Cave 7 appears to belong to this cave. The capital has addorsed lions, elephants, and winged horses over a stepped pyramid.

Cave No 11

Cave No 11 – This cave is no longer approachable as most of its front portion has fallen. It has a rectangular hall, 4.8m wide and 3m deep, with three cells in the back wall and one each on the sides. The cells are provided with stone beds. A projected beam runs across all the inner walls covering the space between door lintels and ceiling. This projected beam is decorated with vedika railing pattern interspersed with chaitya arches.

Cave No 12 – Mahachaityagrha

Cave No 12 (Maha-Chaityagrha) – This is the main chaitya of the complex. It has a large rectangular hall, 8.13m wide and 17.08m deep, with an apse at the rear. The entrance to the cave is open with sockets provisioned to hold a wooden screen in the past. It has a large arch with a wide span. The soffit is decorated with rafter ends. The front face has three rows of tiny pin holes suggesting that it was once covered with some wooden screen. The upper part of the facade is decorated with sculptures. Just below the ceiling runs two courses of vedika railings. Little below the railing is a stepped cornice. The topmost band of the cornice is decorated with merlons. The space between the railing and the cornice has rectangular panels adorned with sculptures depicting amorous couples.  with stepped-merlon designs over its topmost band. This top band runs across the width of the facade similar to the railing pattern above. Two smaller chaitya arches are carved over the cornice flanking the main central arch. These arches interrupt the double railing decoration above with their pinnacles touching the ceiling. The space below the cornice is differently addressed on either side of the main arch. The left side has a rectangular panel decorated with a grated window design made of uprights and cross-bars arranged in a crisscross manner. The corresponding space on the right has a rectangular panel adorned with a sculpture of a couple. The space in front of these portions has a railing pattern design. The space below the rectangular column on the left has a sculpture of a yakshi, the corresponding space on the right has fallen.

Twenty-seven pillars arranged in two rows divide the hall into two aisles and one nave. The pillars are simple octagonal shafts, 3.45m long with slight taper at the top. The roof is valued above the nave and quadrantal above the aisles. The upper surface of the vault is covered with arched wooden beams and horizontal parallel reapers intersecting at right angles. A stupa stands in the apse. It has a cylindrical drum carrying a semi-spherical dome topped with a harmika. The curved reapers of the roof above the dome are arranged to meet at its apex right above the stupa. There are three more inscriptions discovered here, two are carved on the curved wooden beams in the ceiling and record the donation of those parts by two persons. These wooden rafters have survived for more than two-thousand years!!

Inscriptions: M N Deshpande visited the caves with Shandar Das, the Archaeological Engineer of the Department of Archaeology, New Delhi in 1958-59. Das discovered one inscription while inspecting the wooden ribs. Despande discovered another inscription on the wooden ribs during his visit with B. Ch. Chhabra. Deshpande says these were the earliest inscriptions discovered any timber work so far found in India.

  1. On the lower portion of the rib’s blade attached to the semi-circular vault in the apse portion to the right of the stupa15 – This inscription is on the twenty-fourth rib as one counts from the front and right-hand side. It is engraved with fairly well-cut Brahmi letters. These letters have a close affinity to the calligraphy of the Ashokan edicts. The inscription reads, “The dedication of Dhamabhaga”.
  2. On the front portion of the rib, twenty-sixth from the front, counting from left or third from the central rib in the apse16 – This inscription is much damaged and fragmentary. It reads, “(si) ridharase (na?)”. It appears the reading may be Siri Dharasenasa. The purpose is not clear owing to the effacement of the letters on the end portion. However, it would be a donative record like the previous one. The paleography appears to be not later than the 2nd century BCE. This is therefore a certain proof of the age of the chaitya cave.
  3. On the left portion of the yakshi figure over the facade of the chaitya cave17 – it reads, “Vam dha”. The letters are similar to Ashokan Brahmi. It is difficult to give the exact significance of these two letters and these may belong to a long inscription.
Cave No 13

Cave No 13 – The excavation has a rectangular hall, 9.1m wide and 4.4m deep. The front portion of the cave is much ruined. Benches are provided on the lateral walls of the hall.  There are five cells in the hall, one each in the back corner, and three in the rear wall. The corner cells have grated windows on their external walls. The cell doorways on the rear wall are sunken backward. The space between the door lintels and ceiling is decorated with vedika pattern with large arches over the doorways and small arches in the intermediate space. This decoration continues on the side walls.

Cave No 14

Cave No 14 – This cave is adjacent to the previous cave. It has a rectangular hall, 2.03m wide and 7.77m deep, with one cell at its back and three each on its lateral walls. Beds are provided in most cells except a few. The interior of the hall is very plain bereft of any decoration.

Caves 15 & 16 at the upper level, Cave 13 at the lower level

Cave No 15 – A staircase cut on the side of Cave 14 leads to Caves 15 and 16, excavated above Caves 13 & 14. The staircase is modern, however, originally there would be a ledge path to reach the above level. It has a rectangular hall, 3.8m wide and 3m deep, with a bench on its right wall. It has two cells in its back wall. Each is provided with a bench. The front facade has decorations that are a continuation of Cave 13. It has three chaitya arches connected by a vedika railing at the lower level and a stepped cornice at the top level.

Cave No 16 – This cave has a rectangular hall, 6m wide and 7.5m deep, with benches running on its lateral walls. It has two cells in the rear. Cells are provided with benches. The front facade decoration is a continuation of Cave 15. The interior of the cave is very plain.

Water Cisterns

Water Cisterns (Excavation 17a & 17b) – These two water cisterns are next to the staircase. These are rectangular recesses with open square mouths.

Cave No 18

Cave No 18 – It is a rectangular hall, 5.6m wide and 3.7m deep, with five cells, three in the rear and one each on its lateral sides. The interior is plain bereft of any decoration. Nagarahu opines the inscription and plain interior of the cave suggest that it is one of the earliest excavations at the site.18


  1. Over a cell door19 – reads, “By Nadavasa a Naya of Bhogavati (?), the gift of a cell”
Water Cistern (Excavation No 19)

Water Cistern(Excavation No 19) – This cistern is excavated in a recess. Two square openings are provided on the floor for the underground chamber.


  1. On the back wall20 –  reads, “The meritorious gift of a cistern by Vinudata the Maharathi, son of the Kosiki (or Kausika mother)”. The inscription is dateable to the 2nd century CE.
Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online

Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online

Group of Stupas (Excavation No 20) – A group of 14 stupas is carved in two irregular rows to the south of the above cistern. Nine stupas are in the front row and five in the back rows. The stupas are of varying sizes. A few stupas are without a harmika and a few have elaborate harmika with vedika decorations. The inscriptions over the stupa indicate that these stupas were dedicated to certain important monks and teachers who resided in the complex. Thus, these are funerary stupas. The concentration of multiple stupas at a certain place in the complex suggests it was used as a funerary gallery.

Inscriptions: There are five inscriptions in total found in this stupa gallery.21

  1. On the base of the sixth stupa – reads, “of the Thera (or Stavira), the reverend Samghadina”
  2. On the base of the seventh stupa – reads, “The stupa of the Sthavira the reverend Ampikinaka (or Ahikinaka)”
  3. On the base of the eighth stupa – reads, “The stupa of the Sthavira the reverend Dhamagiri”
  4. On the dome of the ninth stupa – obliterated however appears on similar lines as the others
  5. On the capital of a stupa in the back rowTheranam bhayamta is legible but the name of the reverend is not carved
Cave No 21

Cave No 21 – This is a single-cell cave with benches on either side.

Cave No 22

Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online

Cave No 22 – This cave is the most important excavation at the site because of the richness of its sculptural decorations. It was excavated in 1879. Fergusson and Burgess consider it to be the earliest cave in the whole repertoire of Western India. The cave has a rectangular hall, 4.9m wide and 5.05m deep, with two cells in the rear wall and two on the right. The left wall has no cell but a bench and a few niches above. The hall has two doorways in the front and a grated window on one side. The six pillars of the verandah are restoration work from ASI. The shape of the restored pillars follows the original plan based on the surviving pilasters. A small passage on the left leads to an additional cell. This cell has two inner cells. These appear to be a later work as their access is not provided from the original excavation.

The ceiling of the veranda is rather unusual. It is quadrantal in shape and covered with horizontal and vertical beams carved along the same profile. The lower part of the ceiling has a frieze of stupas and standing bharavahaks (caryatids) supporting a stepped cornice. The stupas are carved with varying decorations. All the stupas have a cylindrical base carrying a semi-spherical dome topped with a harmika of a stepped inverted pyramid. The decoration of the dome varies. The cell doorways have chaitya arches over their lintels. These arches are connected through a vedika railing at their bases. Chaitya arches are also carved at the shoulder level of the doorway arches over the intermediate space.

Pilaster with pot base, topped by a stepped pyramidal pedestal with animals and riders above

The sculptures in the cave are very important as these are among the oldest relief sculptures. Figures of dvarapalas (guardians) are sculpted on either side of the cell doorway. There are three dvarapalas in total. The dvarapala in the middle is much damaged, the rest have survived in a good state. These are shown wearing varied jewelry, elaborate headdresses, and carrying various weapons. A few scholars suggest that these figures are not of dvarapalas but of a king. However, this does not fit the iconography and the positions of the figures. The dvarapalas are shown standing with bare feet which does not suit a king of royal status. Their position against the cell doorway confirms their identity as dvarapalas.

Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online
This panel is generally identified with Surya however it probably does not represent him

The next sculpture covers a little space on the front wall and the rest on the adjoining lateral wall. The front wall has a figure of a king or a prince sitting over a caprisoned horse. His right leg is firmly fitted in a stirrup. It is the earliest depiction of a stirrup in India. Below him and next to the grated window are shown two large demons and a figure of deer. The side wall has a two-wheel chariot driven by four steads. The horses are caparisoned and have plumes over their heads. Three figures stand in the chariot, one male figure flanked by two female figures. One female holds a chauri (fly-whisk) and the other a parasol above the male figure. The male figure holds the reins of the horses. Below the wheels is a large demoness with her legs in the opposite direction. The chariot is positioned crushing the demoness below. In front of the chariot is another horse-rider.

Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online

The other sculpture has a large figure of an elephant dominating the overall relief. The elephant is shown marching over a variety of scenes and figures. It is enraged and holding an uprooted tree in its raised trunk. Two riders are sitting above the elephant. The rider in the front has a goad and the one behind holds a quiver with arrows. Below the raised trunk of the elephant is a tree enclosed within rails. Many female figures are shown hanging or standing over the branches. A few figures are shown around the tree, probably trying to get females down. Below the tree is a king sitting over his throne under a parasol. Next to him are various musicians and dancers. The musicians are playing tabla, lyre, etc. Next to the music party is another tree enclosed within a vedika railing. Under the tree is a beast attacking a cow. Between the front and rear legs of the elephant is shown a lion eating a small deer (?). Below the elephant is a horse-head woman leading a bound man.

Photograph taken by Henry Cousens | James Fergusson Collection of Photographs of Indian Architecture, Massachusetts Collections Online

Fergusson and Burgess were the first to identify the relief panels of this cave. Burgess was probably also involved in its excavation in 1879 and thus had the first opportunity to examine these. They identify the central male figure in the chariot with Surya standing that he stands with his two wives in the chariot. They later changed their opinion stating that it probably represents a prince with his attendants. About the panel depicting the elephant, they say the first impulse is to assume it represents Indra over Airavata. But, on the whole, it appears it is intended only to glorify a king or prince who excavated the cave.20 Albert Grunwedel, a famous Buddhist scholar, identifies the chariot sculpture with Surya.21 Ananda Coomarswamy says he sees no reason to question the identification of the relief with Surya accompanied by his two wives, driving through the sky dispelling darkness. About the other relief of an elephant with riders, he agrees with the identification of Indra riding Airavata. In the scene below the elephant where human figures are shown head-down, he identifies with human sacrifice.22

Johnston starts his paper by stating that he proposes to discuss the subjects of the two well-known reliefs with an interpretation that has long been obvious to him but proofs eluded him till he got an opportunity to examine photographs from Dr. Kramrisch and went through details with her. His main argument against the usual identification of these reliefs with Surya and Indra was that the theme of the reliefs must be connected to a Buddhist theme rather than the Hindu gods. For the first relief showing a few people standing in a chariot, Johnston says a chariot of two wheels driven by four steads is enough to negate the identity with Surya. He opines the three deities in the chariot are of more or less the same size and that goes against the usual depiction of Surya. He identifies the relief representing the campaign of the gods against the asuras, a story narrated in the Sakrajataka and Kulavakajataka. The story mentions Sakra (Indra), fighting in his chariot against the Asuras, who had to take a course that would cut off some salmali trees in which garuda birds were nesting. Johnston notices a few birds depicted in the relief at the bottom, a bird’s head peeps out in alarm, and further up are shown a few more birds. He claims the presence of these birds attests to the story narrated in the quoted Jatakas. He identifies the other relief, depicting an elephant, as after the Samyuttanikaya. The deity seated over the elephant is Mara depicted as Kamadeva. The Samyuttanikaya mentions Mara created a terrific form of an elephant to frighten Buddha soon after the latter got his enlightenment and sat in the open air on the bank of the Neranjara river. Johnston goes against the usual interpretation that Mara took the form of an elephant. Instead, he proposes that Mara created a form separate from him. Thus, he says, Mara could be depicted seated on that elephant shown in the relief. The female and male figures below the elephant are taken as Nandabala and Gopa chief respectively with their followers. Johnston concludes that he is not sure how sound these suggestions would be and he leaves the task for future scholars to verify the claims.23

Gyani says while going through the sculpture gallery of the then Prince of Wales Museum with Dr. V S Agrawala and Dr. Moti Chandra, their attention was drawn to certain details in plaster casts from Bhaja. That gave them a clue and strengthened their belief that the panels were related to Buddhism and must be described in some Buddhist literature. They came across a description of King Mandhata’s adventures in Divyavadana and several scenes in that narrative confirm to the relief panels. One major argument Gyani gave was the mention of Kalpavrkhas growing heavenly damsels. Mandhata asked his soldiers to enjoy the fruits of that tree thus the damsels. Gyani argues that the scene of a tree depicting women on its branches represents the kalpavrksha that Mandata saw on his way to Sumeru. The panel shows some people pulling down women from the branches of the tree representing the soldiers taking apsaras from the tree as mentioned in the story. He also says that the story mentions the king took a fight with Asuras and the latter was crushed under his chariot. The story also mentions the king saw gods enjoying music and dance under the shadow of a great Parijataka tree. This is also reflected in the panel where a royal person is sitting over a wicker throne and enjoying music and dance in the vicinity of a bodhi tree enclosed within a vedika railing.24

Benjamin Rowland says we would certainly be right in identifying the subjects of these reliefs as representations of the Vedic deities Surya and Indra. He says Surya, like the Greek Apollo, drives the solar quadriga across the sky, trampling the amorphous powers of darkness that appear as monstrous shapes beneath the solar car. Gigantic Indra rides his elephant Airavata, the symbol of storm-cloud, across the world. He ponders that it would be difficult to explain the presence of the Vedic gods in a Buddhist cave. However, he overcomes this problem by stating that these gods are not present in propria persona, but as symbols of Buddha who has assimilated their powers. Surya here designates the Buddha as the sun and spiritual leader of the universe that illuminates the darkness of the world. Indra designates Buddha to wield a temporal power to maintain the stability of the world.25

Gary Tartakov agrees with the identification with Surya and Indra however, he argues that these two large reliefs were placed on either side of the central cell door to signify an increase in status enjoyed by the monks living in that cell. In his opinion, the role of these Vedic gods was made subservient suggesting the gods were serving the Buddhist monks occupying the cell.26 DeCaroli questions the modern bias in reading visual narrative assuming that all figures placed within a single architectural frame refer to a single narrative. He divides the elephant relief into separate scenes, one scene contains an elephant with its rider, another corresponds to the worship of a bodhi tree, another scene is of a music and dance performance and the last scene corresponds to the horse-head lady leading a man. He says all these different scenes are carved on the vedika rails found at Sanchi and Bharhut. He concludes that as this cave was the first attempt on rock, the architects familiar with railing decorations tried to put different decorative motifs within a single frame resembling the vedika railing of a stupa. However, DeCaroli does not apply the same approach for the other relief of a chariot driven by four steads. He says in this relief the artist decided to fill the entire space with an elaborate depiction of a single scene. He agrees with Coomaraswamy and identifies the scene depicting Surya/Mithra riding his chariot over the demons of the night.27

While it is tempting to identify these two reliefs with Surya and Indra, the major issue would be to explain the context in a Buddhist shrine. Many scholars have agreed with this point and tried explanations in the context of Buddhism. However, till now we have not seen an explanation that covers the whole sculpture in a single thread. Gyani tries to explain the sculptures with the story of Mandhata however there are many loose ends. Mandhata was a great king and it is hard to accept that he is depicted holding reins of horses in his chariot and a goad for his elephant. Also, the explanations for various subsidiary scenes like bodhi-tree and music-dance performances with the minor episodes of the Mandhata story do not warrant the importance of those episodes to be included in the sculpture.  DeCaroli takes a different approach that not all scenes in a relief sculpture must be connected to a single story. He explains the elephant relief is a collection of various themes that are found over roundels or medallions on railing blocks of a stupa. However, he does not apply the same principle to the chariot sculpture. Thus, it is hard to accept that the artists of the same guild apply one principle in one relief but the other is executed differently. We need to wait for future research in the area to get a better explanation of these reliefs.

While explanations are pending for many scenes, we have ample clarity in one specific scene where a horse-headed woman is shown leading a man. Padakusalamanava-jataka mentions Kubera allows a horse-headed yakshi (ashvamukhi) to feed on any humans who pass into her domain. One day a young Brahman enters her realm but instead of eating him she falls in love and takes him captive to her cave. Later she wore him a son who was a Bodhisattva. When the Bodhisattva grows to an appropriate age he realizes that they have to escape his mother’s influence to put an end to her reprehensible actions. So, taking his father he flees to the limits of her domain. She races after them pleading them to stop. When she finally realizes she cannot get them back she dies of grief on the spot.28

Cave No 23

Cave No 23 – This is a single cell with an open verandah in the front. It has a bench on its right side.

Cave No 24 – This is the last cave before the waterfall.

Dating – Fergusson and Burgess dated the earliest caves at the complex to 200 BCE and it was accepted for a long time without much disputes. Walter Spink was the first to raise concerns with this dating. Spink says the dating is purely based on the origins of the Andhra (or Satavahana) kings. The origins of this dynasty are traditionally assigned to the 2nd century BCE based on the contemporaneity of King Kharavela with Satakarni of the Andhra dynasty. Spink says explicit evidence in the various Puranas tells Krishna, the second Andhra king, must have reigned in the first decade of the first century CE. Therefore, the origins of the Andhra dynasty must be placed in the late first century BCE. He places Bhaja in the early decades of the first century CE.29 With the discovery of wooden beam inscriptions in 1959, M N Deshpande again reasserts that the cave could not be dated later than the 2nd century BCE.30 Debala Mitra also asserts that the dating of the excavation to the second century BCE is positively confirmed after the paleography of the inscriptions found over the wooden beams. Nagaraju says that most of the excavations at Bhaja were made between 250-100 BCE. Vidya Dehejia carries out a comprehensive study into the origins of the Satavahanas and the chronology of rock-cut shrines in the Western Ghat. She says the dynasty originated sometime in 120 BCE. The wooden beam inscriptions were placed in 90-80 BCE by her and that would be the period when the chaitya cave was excavated at Bhaja. The monastery was occupied for over 250 years. The late Mahayana period occupation is evident in the paintings on the pillars of chaitya.

The following characteristics of the Mahachaitya hall prove its antiquity among others.

  1. The pillars in the chaitya are simple octagonal shafts. These pillars taper moving up, 5 inches, a feature generally seen in wooden constructions. This tapering does not appear in later period chaityas.
  2. The barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chaitya has wooden rafters and ribs. Many of these have survived for more than two thousand years.
  3. The front screen of the chaitya was constructed in wood evident from mortice holes.
  4. Absence of sculptures except for a few decorative motifs such as stepped merlons and brackets.
  5. Rudimentary arch of chaitya motifs.

1 Viscount Valentia, George (1811). Voyages and Travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia, and Egypt in the years 1802, 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1806, vol. II. F.C. & J. Rivington. London. pp. 151-152
2 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. 438-443
3 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. 51-52
4 Stevenson, J (1857). Sahyadri Inscriptions published in The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. V, no XIX. pp. 159-160
5 Fergusson, James (1876). History of Indian and Eastern Architecture. John Murray. London. pp. 110-112
6 Fergusson, James & Burgess, James (1880, reprint 1969). The Cave Temples of India. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. Delhi. pp. 223-226
7 Burgess, Jas (1881, reprint 1964). Report on the Buddhist Cave Temple and their Inscriptions, being part of the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons operations of the Archaeological Survey of Western India, 1876-77, 1877-78, 1878-79, supplementary to the Volume on “The Cave Temples of India”. Indological Book House. Varanasi. pp. 3-7
8 Burgess & Bhagwanlal Indraji (1881). Inscriptions from the Cave-Temples of Western India. The Government Central Press. Bombay (now Mumbai). pp. 22-25
9 Burgess, Jas. (1883). Report on the Buddhist Cave Temples and their Inscriptions. Trubner & Co. London. pp. 82-83
10 Poona District Gazetteer (British Period)
11 Anon (1898). A Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon. John Murray. London. pp. 468-469 | Valisinha, Devapriya (1948). Buddhist Shrines in India. The Maha Bodhi Society of Ceylon. Colombo. pp. 236-237 | Sen, A C (ed.) (1956). Buddhist Remains in India. Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Delhi. p. 123-124 | Mitra, Debala (1971). Buddhist Monuments. Sahitya Samsad. Calcutta (now Kolkata). pp. 151-153
12 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. pp. 113-130
13 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 116
14 Burgess, Jas. (1883). Report on the Buddhist Cave Temples and their Inscriptions. Trubner & Co. London. pp. 82-83
15 Deshpande, M N (1959). Important Epigraphical Records from the Chaitya Cave, Bhaja published in Lalit Kala No 6. pp. 30-32
16 Deshpande, M N (1959). Important Epigraphical Records from the Chaitya Cave, Bhaja published in Lalit Kala No 6. pp. 30-32
17 Deshpande, M N (1959). Important Epigraphical Records from the Chaitya Cave, Bhaja published in Lalit Kala No 6. pp. 30-32
18 Nagaraju, S (1981). Buddhist Architecture of Western India. Agam Kala Prakashan. Delhi. p. 123
19 Burgess, Jas. (1883). Report on the Buddhist Cave Temples and their Inscriptions. Trubner & Co. London. pp. 82-83
20 Fergusson, James & Burgess, James (1880, reprint 1969). The Cave Temples of India. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. Delhi. p. 515
21 Burgess, Jas (translator, revised and enlarged) (1901). Buddhist Art in India by Prof. Albert Grunwedel. Bernard Quaritch. London. p. 41
22 Coomaraswamy, Ananda K (1927). History of Indian and Indonesian Art. Edward Goldstone. London. pp. 26-27
23 Johnston, E H (1939). Two Buddhist Scenes at Bhaja published in the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, vol. VII. pp. 1-7
24 Gyani, R G (1952). Identification of the so-called Surya and Indra Figures in Cave No. 20 of the Bhaja Group published in the Bulletin of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, No. 1, 1950-51. pp. 15-21
25 Rowland, Benjamin (1953). The Art and Architecture of India, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. Penguin Books. London. pp. 59-60
26 Tartakov, G M (1976). Varieties of Art History in an Indian Buddhist Example published in the Papers Presented to the Marxism and Art History Session of the College Art Association Meeting, Chicago. pp. 25-28
27 DeCaroli, Robert (2000). Reading Bhaja: A Non-Narrative Interpretation of the Vihara 19 Reliefs published in the East and West, vol. 50, Nos. 1-4. ISSN 0012-8376. pp. 259-280
28 Cowell, E B (1897). The Jataka, vol. III. The University Press. Cambridge. pp. 298-306
29 Spink, Walter (1958). On the Development of Early Buddhist Art in India published in The Art Bulletin, vol. 40, No. 2. pp. 99-100
30 Deshpande, M N (1959). Important Epigraphical Records from the Chaitya Cave, Bhaja published in Lalit Kala No 6. pp. 30-32
31 Mitra, Debala (1971). Buddhist Monuments. Sahitya Samsad. Calcutta (now Kolkata). pp. 151-153
32 Dehejia, Vidya (1972). Early Buddhist Rock Temples. Cornell University Press. New York. ISBN 080140651X. pp. 153-154

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.