A SOLITARY CHIMNEY stands in the middle of East Harptree Woods in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, not far from Bristol and Bath. This tall, not quite vertical, chimney and the surrounding uneven landscape is all that remains of the local tin and zinc mining activities in the area. Known as Smitham Chimney, this was built in the 19th century and was the exhaust for the toxic fumes created by the furnaces smelting lead-bearing materials. The unevenness of the surrounding area, now richly populated with a variety of trees, was caused by the pits and spoil heaps created during the era of mining activity. The chimney was built in 1867 and by 1870, the East Harptree Lead Works Co Ltd were producing about 1000 tons of lead per year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smitham_Chimney,_East_Harptree).
Today, the chimney stands amongst a fine collection of trees including conifers and birches, all growing in a sea of ferns and other bushes. Much of the woodland is mossy. Maintained by Forestry England, the Mendip Society, and Somerset County Council, the woodland has good, fairly level paths, easy on the feet. The place and its industrial archaeological feature make for a pleasant and interesting short excursion.
MANY SMALL PLACES in East Anglia have disproportionately large churches. Cley-Next-The-Sea (‘Cley’) is no exception. Its parish church of St Margaret of Antioch is one of the largest in northern Norfolk. It stands atop a hillock, which used to be an island only reachable by boat. The boats that reached Cley were not only those of locals but also foreign vessels bringing valuable cargos to Cley. According to Marjorie Missen, who has written a detailed guide to the church, it was at Cley:
“… that strong links were made with Hanseatic traders and it was in some measure due to their wealth that today we are able to wonder at the size and magnificence of St Margaret’s.”
Without doubt, this church is both impressive in size and contains much of remarkable beauty. Most of the church was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its external walls are of flint with stone dressing. Amongst the things that caught my eye during our first and, as yet, only visit to the church were the beautiful, vaulted ceiling of its south porch; the stone carvings on the 15th century font: they depict aspects of the Sacrament; the wood carvings on some of the choir stalls (miserichords); and stone carvings of musicians on the tops of columns lining the nave. However, what first attracted my attention to this church was part of its exterior.
A roofless gothic structure projects from the south side of the church at the place where one would expect a transept. This structure is affixed to the main body of the church but is blocked off from it. Once upon a time, this might have been accessible from within the church when or if it it formed the south transept. I have so far been unable to find any definitive explanation for the abandonment of the south transept and its decay. Ms Missen wrote:
“The large scale work on the transepts and nave are unlikely to have begun before about 1315, or even later. Although the transepts have been in ruins for some centuries the delicacy and tracery of the south window can still be appreciated.”
Interesting as this is, it does not provide any reason why the south transept and the north have been blocked off from the church and allowed to become dilapidated. It has been suggested by Simon Knott (http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/cley/cley.htm) that the transepts, whose construction began in the early 14th century, were never completed because of The Black Death, which reached Norfolk in 1349:
“The most beautiful is that in the south transept, elegant lights that build to a cluster of vast quatrefoils. This was competed on the eve of the Black Death, and is probably at the very apex of English artistic endeavour. But I think that it was never filled with glass. I can see no evidence that the transepts were completed in time for their use before the pestilence, or that there was ever a need to use them after the recovery from it. And, then, of course, the Reformation intervened.”
This seems a quite reasonable theory. Yet, it is only a hypothesis, and so the mystery lives on. Is the south transept a ruin or an uncompleted building? That is the question.
A SCULPTED STONE stands in a small garden on the north side of All Saints Church in London’s Notting Hill. We have walked past it often during the various ‘lockdowns’ and over many years before these were deemed necessary, always remarking on its satisfying appearance but without questioning its significance. Yesterday, the 8th of March 2021, we entered the garden and examined the abstract stone artwork. It stands on a circular stone base inscribed with the words we had never noticed before:
By chance, the church was open, and we entered. There, we met one of its clerics and asked him whether the word ‘geometer’ meant anything to him. Like us, he had no idea about that or about Mitchell. My curiosity was aroused. There is plenty about John Michell on the Internet, but to a simple-minded chap like me, it is mostly rather weird, but that will not prevent me having a stab at trying to unravel why he was worth commemorating with a stone in Notting Hill.
Michell’s early life was conventional (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell): educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, where studied languages but missed examinations by oversleeping; trained as a Russian interpreter for the Royal Navy; painted and exhibited his works; and worked briefly as an estate agent and chartered surveyor. In 1966, by which time he had moved into one of the properties he managed in Notting Hill, its basement became the London Free School, an alternative community action education project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Free_School). Around this time, Michell began publishing works on unidentified flying objects (‘UFOs’) and many other unexplained phenomena. His first book, “The Flying Saucer Vision”, published in 1967, was probably:
This work introduced links between UFOs and ley lines, proposed by Alfred Watkins, (1855-1935), which some believe criss-cross the countryside and act as markers for extra-terrestrial spacecraft crewed by aliens who assisted human society early in the history of mankind. Along with two subsequent books, notably his “The View over Atlantis”, and other publications, Michell became an influential figure who believed in the:
“ “sacred geometry” of the Great Pyramid. Alfred Watkins’s ‘The Old Straight Track’ had come up with the concept of ley lines in 1925. John took it much further, believing that these alignments of traditional sites were a kind of feng shui of the landscape. They made up a sort of Druids’ transport system, he said, which harnessed a mysterious power that whisked large rocks across the countryside.” (www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/06/john-michell-obituary)
As time went on, Michell delved deeper and deeper into phenomena like these. His knowledge of the hidden forces was used to help design the pyramid stage used at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971. It was because of him that Glastonbury an epicentre of New Age ideas and events (www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html).
Unfamiliar as many of his ideas and theories are Michell was a serious thinker:
“His approach uniquely combined the thought of Plato and of Charles Fort. Blending scholarship and deep intuition, John often returned to his favourite subjects: Platonic idealism, sacred geometry, ancient metrology, leys and alignments, megaliths, astro-archaeology, strange phenomena, simulacra, crop circles, UFOs, the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and the nature of human belief.” (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell)
You have heard of Plato, but Charles Fort (1874-1932) might be less familiar. This self-taught American researcher and writer, a contrarian, specialised in discovering and considering the many examples of phenomena that defied explanation by conventional (accepted) scientific methods and theories. When Michel wrote an introduction to one of Fort’s books, “Lo!”, he remarked:
“Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an ‘acceptance’ of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today.” (quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fort).
Not being inclined to philosophy, it would be unwise for me to attempt to explain how Michell’s ideas display the influences of both Plato and Fort.
Michell felt it necessary to question orthodoxy. His book on the identity of the true author(s) of Shakespeare’s plays, “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” examined this question thoroughly but received mixed reviews. Several of his other publications questioned the commonly accepted archaeologists’ interpretations of their findings, suggesting that their refusal to take ideas about ley lines seriously was a grave error. In the 1980s, two academic archaeologists investigated his ideas and found that he had erroneously included natural rocks and monuments that were created far later than during the prehistoric era as markers for his supposed ley lines. When the replacement of feet and inches by the Metric metre was introduced, Michell objected strongly to the abandonment of a measurement that he believed dated back to earliest times and established an Anti-Metrication Board to oppose the change.
Michell had one son, Jason Goodwin, born in 1964. His mother was the writer Jocasta Innes (1934-2013), who was married twice to Richard B Goodwin. Jason, a Byzantine scholar, is a well-known, prize-winning author, whose books my wife has enjoyed greatly.
Michell became a cult figure in Notting Hill, associated with the ‘local vibe’ and The Rolling Stones. He took members of the group to Stonehenge to scan the heavens for saucers (https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html). He smoked marijuana regularly, publicly encouraged the use of mind-altering drugs, and, surprisingly, his favourite newspaper was the right-wing oriented “The Telegraph”. At Notting Hill, he lived at number 11 Powis Gardens, within easy reach of All Saints Church, where the stone monument to his memory can be found. It was sculpted by John de Pauley, who explained (www.constructingtheuniverse.com/JM%20Memorial%20Sculpture.html):
“’The idea for the sculpture comes from Neolithic stone spheres. Their purpose remains a mystery. The geometrical construction is of a Platonic solid, 12 projecting tumescence making an icosahedron.”
Knowing this and a little about Michell, it seems an entirely suitable memorial to a bold and original thinker.
Finally, that word ‘geometer’: it is simply the name given to a mathematician, who studies geometry. One of Michell’s may paintings has the title “The Geometer’s Breakfast”.
THE EYES OF MOST VISITORS to Kensington Gore are attracted to the spectacular Royal Albert Hall and, opposite it, the monument to Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Immediately to the west of the Royal Albert Hall, there stands the comparatively less impressive twentieth century building housing the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), designed by H T Cadbury Brown and opened in 1962. Next to this geometric structure of concrete and glass and on its south side, there is an edifice whose appearance is a dramatic contrast to it. The walls of the RCA’s southern neighbour are covered with figurative illustrations, created in the ‘sgraffito’ technique. Bands of ‘putti’ carrying musical instruments, scrolls of paper, or singing, appear to be scurrying across the walls of the building. Maybe this is not surprising because once this place housed The Royal College of Organists (‘RCO’).
Founded in 1864 by the organist Richard Limpus (1824-1875) to promote advanced organ playing, it received its Royal Charter in 1893. The building next to the present RCA and facing the Royal Albert Hall was designed by Lieutenant Henry Hardy Cole (1843-1916) of the Royal Engineers, and the ‘sgraffiti’ decorating it was created by Francis Wallaston Moody (1824-1886).
Lieutenant Cole was a son of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), a civil servant who had an extremely important role in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. His building, erected 1874-75, was originally constructed to house The National Training School for Music. It was paid for by Sir Henry Cole’s friend, music lover, and a fellow member of the Society of the Arts, the developer Charles James Freake (1818-1884), who lived in Cromwell Road (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/sir-c-j-freake).
“Lieutenant Cole had returned in 1871 from India, where he had been Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey, North-West Provinces, and his previous architectural work seems to have been confined mainly to publications on ancient Indian architecture and archaeology, and the preparation of casts for the Indian section of the South Kensington Museum, which he catalogued.”
“He was not left to design the school on his own. It was evolved in consultation with his father and was subjected to criticism by members of the Science and Art Department. A committee of management was appointed in July 1873 …”
Moody was a protégé of Sir Henry and a teacher at the National Art Training School, a forerunner of the RCA.
Between 1883 and 1896, the building was used by the newly founded Royal College of Music, which moved into its new premises south of the Royal Albert Hall in about 1896. The large variety of musical instruments that have been depicted on the building’s walls reflect the place’s first occupants. Between 1896 and 1903, it stood empty. Then it was leased to the RCO for 100 years at a ‘peppercorn’ rent. When it was learnt that after expiry of the lease the rent would be increased considerably, the RCO moved into new accommodation in 1991. Currently, at least in 2018, it is owned by an entrepreneur, Robert Tchenguiz.
The Lieutenant, who designed the RCO building, became the Curator of Ancient Monuments in India. His “First Report Of The Curator Of Ancient Monuments In India” was published in 1882 in Simla. This contains some of his views on dealing with archaeological items and sites. For example, he wrote:
“Experience has shown that the keenest investigators have not always had the greatest respect for the maintenance of monuments. Archaeological research has for its object the elucidation of history, and to an enthusiast the temptation to carry off a proof of an unravelled mystery is undoubtedly great. If there were no such things as photographs, casts, and other means of reproducing archaeological evidence, the removal of original stone records might perhaps be justified …”,
and, regarding the now controversial British possession of some famous sculptures in the British Museum:
“Sometimes, indeed, the removal of ancient remains is necessary for safe custody; and in the case of a foreign country, we are not responsible for the preservation in situ of important buildings. We are not answerable for keeping Grecian marbles in Greece; neither were we concerned for the rights of Egypt when Cleopatra’s Needle left Alexandria for the Thames embankment.”
However, regarding India, the Lieutenant wrote:
“In the case, however, of India—a country which is a British possession—the arguments are different. We are, I submit, responsible for Indian monuments, and that they are preserved in situ, when possible. Moreover, as Mr. Eergusson remarks, Indian sculpture is so essentially a part of the architecture with which it is bound, that it is impossible to appreciate it properly without being able to realise correctly the position for which it was originally designed …”
In order to satisfy the needs of museums in Europe, the lieutenant suggested that perfect replicas of artefacts can be made as is well demonstrated by the superb life-like plaster casts that can be seen in the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which were opened in 1873 and established by Sir Henry Cole and the art collector John Charles Robinson (1824-1913). In general, Sir Henry’s son was against moving historical remains from British possessions. To make his point, he wrote:
“The removal, for instance, of Stonehenge to London would, I imagine, provoke considerable excitement in England, and be condemned by a majority in the scientific and artistic world.”
I am not sure that Lieutenant Cole’s views were shared by the American sculptor and collector of antiques George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), who bought and whole cloisters and other architectural items in France and then had them shipped to New York City. There, they were reassembled and displayed in the superb Cloisters Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan.
Looking at the outside of the former RCO building, I could not detect anything that reflected its architect’s experiences in India except, if I stretch my imagination, for the upper storey windows that faintly recall the projecting windows that can be found on ‘havelis’, for example, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. But maybe I am letting my imagination run a little wild.
MANY PEOPLE WILL HAVE EATEN HUMMUS, the chickpea-based dip, but far fewer will be familiar with Hampi, which is the location of an extensive archaeological site in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The village of Hampi contains the fantastic ruins of what was once one of the world’s greatest cities, rivalling Ancient Rome and second in size to Beijing, the world’s largest city in the 16th century. The metropolis, known as ‘Vijayanagara’, now in ruins, was the fabulously prosperous capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, which thrived between about 1336 AD and 1565 AD, when it was defeated by a group of Moslem sultanates. After this, the city began to decay, leaving the spectacular ruins that can be explored by visitors today.
The ruins of Vijayanagara lie mainly on one side of the River Tungabadra. They are distributed over a large rocky area rich in huge boulders – almost a lunar landscape. We first visited Hampi in about 1997, when there were relatively few tourists clambering amongst the ruins of temples, palaces, stepwells, and miscellaneous other buildings. Since then, we have visited the place another four times. On each successive visit, we have noticed an increase in fellow visitors, both Indians and foreigners. With the increased visitor footfall, there has been ever growing deterioration and damage to the ruins. This is especially noticeable at the Vitthala Temple. It was intact in 1997, but when we last visited a few years ago, it was in a miserable state, with plenty of damaged carvings and being propped up by ugly pillars of grey concrete blocks. Sad as this is, this is not what I want to dwell on in this piece.
India has become a popular destination for Israelis, particularly the younger ones. India is probably a complete contrast to Israel, which I have never visited. In brief, to Israelis India must seem far more ‘laid back’ than their highly organised country. Many Israeli visitors to India visit Hampi to ‘chill out’ and relax.
During one of our stays in Hampi, we took a walk along one bank of the River Tungabadra. We came across a couple of riverside eateries advertising that they served Israeli food. As it was near lunchtime and our daughter and I love hummus, we entered one of these establishments, whose menu included the chickpea paste that we enjoy so much. Also, I was curious to try hummus in India. It was then not a food item I was expecting to see on sale a few years ago. Now, it is becoming available in select food stores such as branches of the upmarket chain Nature’s Basket.
We sat down on a rickety looking terrace overlooking the river and, with mouths watering, and ordered a portion of hummus with pitta bread. It took quite a while to arrive as the hummus was made fresh whilst we waited. When it arrived, the pitta looked remarkably similar to an Indian chapati, rather than an Arabic or Turkish pitta. As for the hummus, this was disappointing to say the least. Its colour was acceptable, but its texture resembled lumpy rice pudding rather than even the coarsest hummus. As for the taste, there was little to report: it was unseasoned and tasteless. I dread to think what a direct Israeli guest would have made of, or said about, the hummus we were served at Hampi. I had not the heart to send it back to the charming locals who had produced it, but neither was I hungry enough to finish it.
AT THE START OF THE ‘LOCKDOWN’ in March 2020, there was some panic purchasing and it became difficult to buy items such as toilet paper, paracetamol tablets, yeast, and several other products used regularly. Fortunately, this situation has been resolved. Having experienced this situation briefly reminded me of two trips I made to Belgrade, the former Yugoslavia during the 1980s.
Often, I used to stay with my friend ‘R’, who had a flat in the heart of Dorćol, an old part of the city’s centre. One day, R announced that he had secured two places on a prestigious tour to visit the extensive Roman archaeological site at Gamzigrad in eastern Serbia. The tour group was to travel in two buses. One of them was for the ‘intellectuals’ and the other for the ‘workers’. We were to travel with the latter. The long drive from Belgrade to Gamzigrad was highly enjoyable. Everyone was drinking alcohol, chatting loudly, and often breaking into song. I wondered how we would cope with what promised to be a serious guided tour of the ruins of what had once been one of Diocletian’s huge palaces.
We were shown around by the eminent Professor Dragoslav Srejović (1931-1996), an archaeologist significantly involved in the discovery of the ancient Lepenski Vir site (9000-7000 BC) on a bank of the River Danube. I was impressed that everyone on the tour, especially my ‘tanked up’ fellow bus travellers, listened to the Prof quietly, attentively, and respectfully. By the time we had seen around the ruins, it was well after 1 pm. We were taken to a field with a few trees where there were long tables covered with tasty snacks and bottles of wine. We enjoyed these before boarding our coaches. I thought that we were about to head back to Belgrade, but we did not.
We were driven to a restaurant in nearby Zaječar, a town close to Bulgaria. What I had thought had been our lunch at Gamzigrad was merely a light hors’ d’oeuvre. We were served a hearty three-course meal. The desert was baklava. This was not served in the form of dainty little pieces like ‘petit fours’ but generously large slices. Turkish coffee ended the meal. The coffee was served in cups bearing the logo of the restaurant. Several of the group took them home as souvenirs.
After lunch, we had about an hour to look around Zaječar. R and I stepped into a food shop. My friend became very excited when he saw packs of butter on sale. This commodity was almost unavailable in Belgrade at the time. We carried our butter back to the coach, where R told some of the other passengers about his discovery. Moments later, everybody on our bus stampeded towards the shop and emptied it of butter.
On another visit to Belgrade, in April 1983, my friends were most upset. There was a severe shortage of coffee (in any form) in the city. This was a serious problem for people in the capital of Yugoslavia. I was staying in Belgrade on my way Bulgaria, which I was visiting for the first time. I told my friend, R, with whom I was staying in Belgrade, that if I found coffee in Bulgaria, I would bring some back for him and his friends.
There was no shortage of coffee in Bulgaria. I bought two kilogrammes of the stuff and after my short tour of the country, I headed back to Yugoslavia by train. At the Bulgarian side of the border, the train stopped. My travelling companion, S, and I were almost the only passengers in our carriage. After a wait of more than fifteen minutes, a Bulgarian customs official entered our compartment. He asked (in passable English) if we had anything to declare. We said that we had nothing. Then, he asked if we were carrying any coffee. I told him that I had two kilogramme packets, and he frowned before saying:
I asked him what to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders and said again:
I offered him the bags of coffee. He nodded his head up and down, which is the Bulgarian expression for ‘no’, and not to be confused with the English head nodding that means ‘yes’.
“Shall I throw it out of the window?” I asked.
“Not,” he replied before leaving our compartment.
Then, nothing happened for more than one hour. The train did not move, the countryside was silent, the train was noiseless, and nobody moved inside the train. After this long period of inactivity, I peered out of our compartment and looked up and down the carriage’s corridor. At one end, ‘our’ official and a couple of his colleagues, were smoking cigarettes and nursing tiny cups of coffee.
Suddenly, there was a jolt and our train began moving into the no-mans-land between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Clearly, my illegal export of coffee had been forgotten or forgiven. My friends in Belgrade were extremely happy with my gift of coffee beans from Sofia.
On subsequent visits to Belgrade, I never again encountered shortages of anything as basic as butter and coffee. I hope that Britain never finds itself in the ‘shortage’ situation, which is anticipated by some who believe that this might become a problem if the country leaves Europe without a trade deal.
BY FEBRUARY, daytime temperatures in Pondicherry exceed 30 degrees Celsius. This combined with high humidity levels drive the wild street dogs to sleep a lot in whatever shade they can find. Likewise, sensible people avoid direct exposure to the strong tropical sun.
When you walk along the paths shaded by trees in the centrally located Bharathi Park, you can feel the temperature drop. This park, a peaceful haven, was an unforeseen result of warfare.
In 1709, the French built a fortress, Fort Louis, in the heart of Pondicherry. It was a typical fortress of the type designed by the French engineer Vauban (1633-1707). Pentagonal in plan, it had bastions at each of its five corners. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1761 and not replaced.
The space left after the destruction of the fort remained a wasteland used by the French for military training and celebration of some French national festivals. In 1854, an elegant neoclassical pavilion was erected in the middle of this wasteland. It commemorates a legendary 16th century woman, who discovered a source of water that became very important for the inhabitants of Pondicherry.
In 1946, a tree was planted on the land where Fort Louis once stood. Eventually, the present Bharathi Park was laid out. In its middle, stands the pavilion mentioned already.
One entrance to the park is opposite the entrance to the heavily guarded Raj Nivas (Governor’s Residence), housed in the former French Governor’s House built in 1766.
At the north east corner of the park, there is a statue of a man wearing a dhoti, a long jacket, and a turban. This depicts Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921), also known as ‘Bharatiyar’. He was a great Tamil poet and independence fighter and opponent of the caste system. He fled to Pondicherry in 1908 to escape from being arrested (for his ‘seditious’ writing in newspapers) by the British and remained there until 1918. In 1906, he edited a newspaper with MPT Acharya, about whom I have written in my book about Indian revolutionaries in London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. In Pondicherry, Bharatiya met other Indian freedom fighters seeking sanctuary there, including Sri Aurobindo and VVS Aiyar (also in my book), an associate of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
In 1918, Bharatiya moved back into British India, where he was promptly arrested. He died in 1921, impoverished.
The Puducherry Government Museum, housed in an 18th century French mansion, is a few metres from the park and well worth a visit. It contains exhibits dating from prehistory until the era of the French colonization. In need of a little bit more care and attention, there is a fascinating range of objects to be seen.
One display that interested me greatly was about the excavations made by a French archaeologist and the British Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Arikamedu, just south of Pondicherry. They were following up discoveries made in that location by French scholars before WW2. It emerged that Arikamedu was the site of a port at which Ancient Romans and Greeks traded with the local Indians.
The museum contains a few artefacts dug up including some Roman and Greek coins. A few years ago, I saw many of these in a museum at Calicut.
The ports where the Mediterranean people traded in India are contained in “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, a navigational manual that was originally composed in the 1st century AD. The port near Arikamedu is most likely to have been ‘Podouke’ as listed in the “Periplus”.
So, it is evident that the area around Pondicherry was visited by Europeans long before the British, French, and Danes estsblished colonies there.
We left the museum, which also has a nice collection of Hindu sculptures, and the lovely park to enjoy some excellent French inspired cooking at the Villa Shanti. At the table next to ours, there was a very serious looking group of French tourists, who were listening earnestly to their Indian guide, who spoke to them in French with an accent that probably caused them to wince internally. Incidentally, apart from people from all over India, most of the rest of the visitors to Pondicherry are French. I wonder how they feel seeing the souvenirs of their former empire, now an episode fading into the swirling mists of time.
WE HAVE VISITED BUDDHIST cave temples carved out of the ‘living’ rock in the following places: Junagadh, Somnath, and Siyot (near Lakhpat in Kutch). A young Dutch tourist, whom we met at Dholavira, showed us his photos of some other spectacular Buddhist rock caves at Kanheri in the heart of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is close to Borivali (about 32 kilometres north of Bombay Churchgate Station).
The 109 caves contain inscriptions dating from the 1st to 11th centuries AD. These help to age their construction. They are carved out of a basalt outcrop about 7 kilometres away from the Park’s main entrance.
We travelled to Borivali on a fast, limited stop train from Churchgate Station. It is lucky we bought first class tickets because the second class sections become very crowded at intermediate stations such as Bombay Central, Dadar, Bandra, and Andheri. We were glad that we had paid the extra fare because the train we took back Bombay was very crowded, but slightly less so in the first class.
A short autorickshaw drive brings one from Borivali station to the entrance of the national park. There, we were badgered by a young man who gave us incorrect and untruthful information about travelling the seven kilometres up the hillside to the caves. He suggested it would be best to hire a car for 1500 Rupees. Otherwise, we would have to wait for two hours before a public bus departed. He was fibbing. In fact, there is a very regular bus, which we boarded, that covers the distance for 10 Rupees per head.
The Kanheri Caves are a paradise for lovers of antiquities and the antics of wild monkeys. There are 109 manmade caves carved out of the rock, but only three of them are visually interesting. Cave number 3 is the most impressive. A ‘vestibule’ flanked by two massive sculptures (standing Buddhas), many times the height of an average human being, contains many other beautifully carved figurative sculptures. The vestibule lead into a huge manmade cave that in many ways resembles a vast romanesque basilica. The walls of this voluminous chamber have pillars carved from the rock as well as other sculptures depicting animals and deities. The pillars line the sides of a central space that resembles the nave of a church. The wall at the far end of this room is curved like the apse of a church. A large cylindrical stone object, of religious significance, sits in the ‘apse’. There is a curved passageway separating this cylindrical stone from the curved wall of the ‘apse’. Compared with other Buddhist cave temples I have seen, this particular cave beats them all in terms of size and beauty.
I clambered up the hillside to see some of the other temples. I saw about ten of them, but none contained any carvings that I could see. Many of them looked manmade and most of them provided shady places for visitors to sit, chat, and take selfies.
I do not know whether it is of any significance but I noticed that many of the caves are carved into the rocks that form a valley for a stream that still contains water. Maybe, the cave carvers chose to make their caves here because of the water supply provided by the stream.
On our way out of the cave area, we stopped to buy some books. This proved to be a lengthy business because it involved much paperwork that involved three officials.
The train journey back to Churchgate was uneventful once we were on board. Waiting for the train was unnecessarily exciting as the platforms at which trains were expected to arrive kept being changed.
Having visited the Kanheri Caves, I can recommend them highly to everyone visiting or living in Bombay (except those who cannot manage stairs).