Kanheri Cave Complex


    Part 2

    Cave No 4


    Cave No 4 –  This is located north of the cave no 3 sharing the rock with the latter. By ascending a good number of stairs, you reach to a small circular cell. This cell houses a solid stupa. Going by its position, this might have been excavated earlier than the Chaitya cave, and probably the oldest excavation at the site, as suggested by Kail.  An inscription (No 15 of Gokhale) on the stupa mentions that this stupa was dedicated to thera bhadanta Dharmapala and was a gift of Sivapalita, wife of the treasurer Dharma.

    Cave No 5 & 6 – These are not caves exactly but water cisterns. An inscription (No 16 of Gokhale) over these mentions that these were a gift of a minister named Sateraka. The inscription also mention the queen of Vashisthiputra Satakarni (130-160 CE), descending from the race of Karddamaka kings and the daughter of Mahakshatrapa Rudradaman.

    Darbar Cave


    Cave No 11 or the Darbar Cave (Cave no 14 of Perron/Cave no 10 of West/ Cave no 11 of Stevenson/ No 10 of Burgess) – This is the largest vihara at the site and located north-east of the main Chaitya cave. There is no question about the usage of this as a vihara (monastery) however its architecture and style is quite different from other contemporary Buddhist viharas. Du Perron tells that the people called the cave the School because of the number of figures but he thought it more like a prince’s court. About a sculpture inside the hall, he tells that on either side of the prince were two ministers, one with raised whip and holding in his left hand a bush. There were 100 figures on each of the three walls, du Perron thought they were twenty Indian princes with their retinue.

    Hall from Inside

    The verandah of the vihara is 21.52 m in breadth and 2.38 m in depth. This verandah is supported by eight octagonal columns. Two water cisterns are provided on either end of this verandah. On a sculpture inside the verandah, Du Perron tells that on right side of the entrance is a standing figure holding an apple and a branch as high as his ear, and on his side two standing women. In the verandah were fifty-seven seated figures, seven of them large. The wall was covered with figures to the door.

    Buddha with Padmapani


    Beyond this verandah is a hall which can be entered through three entrances. Two windows are also provided for air and light. Qureshi provides the measurements of the hall as 18.45 m in width and 8.52 m in depth, while Kail’s figures are 22.3 m broad and 9.8 m deep. There are two low stone benches, running parallel transversely. On all the three sides of the hall are provided chambers. There are 12 cells in total, 3 on its left wall and remaining on the back wall. The fifth cell on the back wall has a figure of seated Buddha attended by Padamapani and a Bodhisattva on either side.

    Suggestions are made that this excavation resemble to what Ajatshatru constructed to hold the First Buddhist Council at Rajgriha. However there is one difference which is reflected from narratives of Faxian and that is in the arrangement of the seating benches. As per Faxian, in the center of the back wall was placed seat on a high raised platform for the highest teacher, however here we see many cells adorning the back wall. V M Mani mentions a Sanskrit inscription here which mentions about Kumar Guru who used to teach Mahayoga. However, I am not able to trace this inscription.

    Cave No 21 – This is a simple cave however a very important one due to presence of an inscription (No 14 of Bird). This inscription is of the time of the Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni and mentions that it was excavated by a merchant and his family hailing from Kalyan. They also endowed the fields from village Magathane for the maintenance and etc.

    Cave No 31


    Cave No 31 – This cave has a well preserved stupa inside.

    Cave No 32


    Cave No 32 – This is an important cave in the complex as it introduces many new features. The cave consists of a courtyard and a hall. The architrave above the courtyard has mortise holes which suggests that there was a mechanism to provide a canopy, probably of wood, in front of the courtyard. The courtyard has a low parapet wall over which rises two octagonal pillars with square bases and plain pilasters. The exterior of the parapet wall is decorated with the rail-pattern. The verandah measures 5.7 m in breadth and 1.2 m in depth.

    An entrance door leads a visitor into a hall measuring 4.5 m square and 2.3 m. There are two lattice windows at the entrance wall, allowing air and light into the hall. Benches are provided inside the hall. Holes on the back wall of the hall suggests that these provisions were to support movable images when required.

    An inscription (No 28 of Gokhale) on the left chamber at the entrance of the courtyard records that the cave with its cisterns, benches and seats were gift of Dharma, a merchant from Kalyan. He also made few permanent endowments to support clothes and shoes for the monks residing here. On paleography, the record may be dated to the fourth century CE.

    Cave no 33 (13 of Cousens) – This cave is a group of three or four broken caves with some relic mounds. It has four cells with benches. The central chamber had four brick stupas which was excavated by West in 1853. His excavation resulted in discovery of 68 seal impressions of various sizes, being the impressions of 22 different seals. In majority of the seals, Buddha is shown seated surrounded by ornaments and an inscription below. The inscription is same in most of the pieces and read a well-known Buddhist formula. These seals or clay tablets bear characters of tenth century CE. He also found two stone urns containing five copper coins belonging to the Bahmani dynasty of 15th century CE.

    Cave No 34


    Cave No 34 – This cave is the only cave where remains of paintings are found on the ceiling. Buddha is shown in bhumi-sparsha-mudra. This bhumi-sparsha icon is only seen in paintings here but not in lithic carvings. Though the painting has not survived in full however it is sure that it had more than one figure in it. Was this representing Manushi-Buddhas?

    Painting - Buddha in Bhumi-sparsha-mudra
    Cave No 41



    Cave no 41 (No 21 of Cousens/No 23 of Kail) – This is an important cave at the site as this is uniquely styled and constructed. The cave consists of a mandapa, verandah and a hall. The projected mandapa (porch) is supported on four pillars of square shaft topped with cushion capitals and square abacus. This is followed by a verandah which can also be reached from the sides of this front porch. Cells have been provided on either side of the mandapa. The hall is 26 feet 10 inches long and 22 feet 4 inches wide. It has many Buddhist icons carved all around. There is a cell in the center of the back wall, inside which a Buddha image flanked with two attendants is carved.

    Litany of Avalokiteshvara


    Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara


    Two important icons of this cave are an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara image and the Litany of Avalokiteshvara. The eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara is carved in the chamber on the right side. Debala Mitra tells that this is the only such representation of Avalokiteshvara in stone in India. On the right wall of this chamber is found the Litany of Avalokiteshvara however this is much defaced hence the ‘Eight Fears’ are almost gone.

    Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara –Avalokiteshvara is the most famous Buddhist god. He is also known as Padmapani Boddhisattva. There are various accounts on the origin of him, the earliest probably is of Faxian who mentioned seeing monks at Mathura making offerings to Avalokiteshvara. This reference can be dated around 400 CE. Earliest textual reference of his is found in Lotus Sutra which is dated between 100 BCE and 100 CE.

    Though the iconography of Avalokiteshvara evolved in India however eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara was not very popular. The evidence of this can be seen here as this sculpture is the only one icon of such representation in India. Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara was evolved and famous and Nepal and Tibet. Shobhana Gokhale suggests that ten heads of him represent the ten powers of the Bodhisattva and four hands represent his additional qualities as mentioned in Majjhimanikaya in the Simhanadasutta.

    Opposite to this cave are the remains of a dam, two walls of which can still be seen. Going towards cave no 42, an inscribed stone slab mentions about this dam stating that this water dam was constructed for the welfare of the people.

    Cave No 67 (No 35 of Kail) – Mani mentions that this cave is popularly known as Chitrashala because of the presence of different sculptures related to the life of Buddha. You will find Dipankar Jataka and Sravasti miracles among the sculptures.

    Cave 78 (78 of Cousens) – pillared verandah, small inner hall and a small cell containing an image of Buddha. Back wall has an inscription of the time of Gotamiputra, architrave over the verandah colonnade has an inscription recording gifts, by the reverend Nainbhikshu during the reign of Kapardi (II), king of Konkan, the humble servant of Amoghavarsha, dated Saka 799 (877 CE). Above this inscription is another inscription reading that during the reign of Pulashakti, governor of Mangalapuri in the Konkan, the humble servant of Amoghavarsha, the great devotee Vishnuranak, the son of Purnahari, requests the honorable brotherhood living in Krishnagiri to read three leaves of the revered Panchvinshati and Saptasahasrika.

    Cave No 84 to 87: The Kanheri Necropolis –  These caves are considered as the burial ground due to presence of innumerable brick stupas in vicinity. West mentions a vast and open gallery under the south-western brow of the cave-hill which is the first sight a visitor gets when approaching from Tulsi lake. In this gallery are the remains of innumerable brick stupas however small in dimensions except one which is pretty large. He tells that when you enter the area you encounter 20 small brick stupas followed by a large dilapidated stupa. Further towards south-east are debris of about 40 brick stupas ranging 4 to 6 feet in diameter.

    The large stupa was excavated by West 1853. This large stone stupas was a heap of dust and stones decaying into bluish earth. The excavation revealed the lower part of stupa built in stone differing from nearby rocks. This stone stupa has been a sixteen-sided polygon for a greater height than the present ruins, and above that it must have been circular. At various heights, it has been surrounded by tiers of sculptural friezes, seven such remains have been found among the ruins. Ten lower friezes were found in situ. Eight stupas were already explored during the time West visited the caves. He mentioned that no relics have been found in these, which suggests that the relics probably were kept in cupola which in each instance was already perished.

    Mani discovered 44 inscriptions, as many numbers of harmika stone and few sculptural panels from here in 1974. As per Mani, among these inscriptions are found mention of various monks who have attained different levels of expertise during their progression in Buddhism. This suggests that Kanheri was an important seat for learning Buddhism, probably during 5th-6th century which was the golden period of Kanheri.

    Cave 13 of West – He reports that originally this cave had three chambers, however the walls of the middle chamber went off making it open to its side chambers. The middle chamber had a small brick stupa. This stupa was empty, however when it was dug further, three other circular foundations were found. Various clay seals were discovered from here. The characters on the seals are of tenth century CE mostly and the text is ‘ye dharma hetu prabhava hetun teshan Tathagato byavadat-teshan cha yo nirodha evamvadi Maha Shramana’.

    All these seals are copy of the single seal as same defect occurs in all. All these impression show Buddha seated cross-legged under a canopy surrounded by ornaments and three lines of inscription beneath him. Portions of about 70 such seals were discovered from this cave. Two stone pots were also recovered. Apart from usual ashes, are found five copper coins, 3 in one pot and 2 in another. 3 copper coins found in one pot are of Bahmani dynasty, bearing date 844 corresponding to 1440-41 CE. The other two copper coins were much defaced and inscriptions were heard to read.

    Cave No 89


    Cave No 89 (no 67 of Kail) – This small cave is carved with multitude of images. As per common convention, these images are assigned to Mahayana period whereas the cave itself was carved during the Hinayana time. The image on the right side of the verandah shows Padmapani Avalokiteshvara standing holding a lotus stalk in his left hand and his other hand holds a rosary and is in abhaya mudra. On his left is shown Buddha seated over a simhasana. He is flanked with a Bodhisattva and Padmapani Avalokiteshvara on his either side.

    Buddha seated below a Mango Tree


    An image on the back side of the entrance to the hall depicts Buddha seated in vyakhana-mudra flanked with Padmapani and Bodhisattva. Above the head of Buddha is shown a mango tree which is alive with splurge of activities, a bird is shown picking mangoes, a monkey is shown sucking mangoes etc. In one of the similar sculpture, Buddha is accompanied not only by Padmapani and Bodhisattva but with their female companions. Qureshi suggests that the female companion of Padmapani could be identified with Tara as she is holding a lotus in her right hand.

    Cave No 90 (No 66 of Burgess/No 76 of Kail) –  This cave is a small cave having a verandah and a hall. This is extensively carved all around, supposedly during the Mahayana period. Most of the sculptures are similar to the other icons found at Kanheri, i.e. Buddha seated in vyakhana-mudra flanked with attendants, standing Buddha, standing Padmapani Avalokiteshvara etc.

    Litany of Avalokiteshvara


    The most interesting sculpture is inside the hall where Litany of Avalokiteshvara is carved. Padmapani Avalokiteshvara is standing accompanied with his two consorts. Kail mentions these two females as Tara, while Mani identifies them as Tara and Bhrikuti. Quershi identifies the left consort as Blue Tara as she is holding a closed lotus in her right hand, whereas the hands of the right consort are broken hence she cannot be identified with certainty however she might be the White Tara if she would have been holding a full blown lotus, which might be the case here. This is one of the very rare Litany where Avalokiteshvara is shown with his consorts.

    Presence of female companions with Padmapani in this sculpture provided support to the scholars who professes that there was Vajrayana influence over Kanheri from the Vajrayana school of Ellora. Quershi is the latest one advocating this hypothesis. Of course influence of Ellora or any other nearby Buddhist center like Ajanta or Nasik cannot be denied as there had been correspondences between these centers in their times. However whether there was influence of Vajrayana school is not definitive. Debala Mitra states that though we see female companions here however other major female deities of Vajrayana school are absent here which however are present at Ellora.

    Deviation is seen in the depiction of Astha-bhayas (eight dangers) carved around Avalikiteshvara. Instead of eight, we see here ten dangers. On left side is shown, from top to left, danger of elephant, danger of lion, danger of snake, danger of fire and shipwreck. On his right side are shown, from top to left, topmost panel is much damaged to be identified, a Naga is threatened by some unrecognizable animal, a lady with a child is beaten by a robber/husband, man being beaten by a robber and the bottom most panel cannot be recognized as it is much defaced.

    Two Bodhisattvas are shown seated above Avalokiteshvara. Quershi identifies the Boddhisattva on the left of Avalokiteshvara as Vajrasattva as he is holding a vajra in one of his hand. The other Bodhisattva cannot be identified as the object which he holds is not very clear.  Qureshi suggests that the presence of Vajrasattva suggests influence of Vajrayana Buddhism at Kanheri. The same Buddhism influenced sculptural art of Ellora. LaPlante tells that the double lotus base first appeared at Amaravti. Though it was not very popular however later it is seen at Badami, Ajanta, Ellora and Karle, apart from Kanheri. He mentions that this double lotus design was an innovation of Pala sculptors.

    Buddha with Indra and Nagas below Lotus
    Sculpture at Back Wall



    Another interesting sculpture is of Buddha who is seated on a lotus whose stalk is held by nagas at the bottom and by Indra in the middle. Introduction of Indra and his attendants below the lotus stalk is a new feature introduced here which is not seen elsewhere at Kanheri. This cave is also important for its inscriptions which are found in Pahlavi and Chinese scripts.

    Cave No 93


    Cave No 93 – This cave is also profusely carved all around. However all the sculptures fall into the regular category which have been seen in other caves at the site.


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    1. Well described and informative. I have been visiting the Kanheri caves since childhood without too much background information, just completely fascinated by the site. On my last visit a month ago, the guard was kind enough to open the locked door to Cave 34 for me to see the fresco (which I missed previously when it had no door but was pitch dark!). I was so thrilled even though it is a simple painting compared to Ajanta. Now I look forward to seeing the crematorium site on my next visit after the monsoons are over. I will go through your posts before going again.


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