Hollowed out of the rock

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).

A walled city and two caves

THE FAR WEST OF KUTCH (once an independent kingdom, now part of Gujarat) is very close to India’s border with Pakistan. We made an interesting day trip from Bhuj to this relatively wild and less inhabited part of Kutch.

The countryside west of Nakhatrana becomes hilly and dry with many rocky outcrops. It contains many large sites where lignite is excavated and a huge industrial plant that Gujarat Electricity use to convert it into electricity. The area is also liberally dotted with electricity generating wind turbines and pylons.

We left the main road and wound through undulating dry landscape to reach the Siyot Caves. These rock temples were carved into the cliffs to create Hindu temples sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They were later used by Buddhists and are amongst the 80 Buddhist cave temples in the Indus Valley noted by the 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Today, they are the abode of bats and there walls and pillars are covered with graffiti scratched into the red stone.

Our driver drove us through a sandy landscape with scrubby plants along dirt track with many potholes. We reached a small temple enclosure, where we stopped in order to visit another cave temple. This one, the Guneri Gufa Shiv Temple, was carved out of the living rock by a holy man, whose “spirit left his body about five years ago”, according to the present priest, a Sadhu from Hardwar. The temple, which is faintly reminiscent of the Amdavad ni Gufa (in Ahmedabad), contains a large Shiva lingam. After we had looked around, the picturesquely attired Sadhu prepared tea for us, which we drank from small metal bowls.

Lakhpat was our next stop. Surrounded by intact 18th century city walls, seven kilometres in length, this once thriving port used to be on an inlet of the Arabian Sea. Following an earthquake in 1819, the mouth of the River Indus changed its course and Lakhpat was no longer close to the sea. Rapidly, Lakhpat lost its importance and became depopulated. Today, the impressive city walls enclose a huge empty space with a few houses, a mosque, a few Hindu shrines, and a working Sikh Gurdwara. Staircases allow visitors to reach the ramparts. The view from the top of the walls is of an endless flat sandy area extending to the horizon. Before 1819, what is now the flat Rann of Kutch would have been a seascape with trading vessels.

One of the gates into Lakhpat, the Katha Nako, is still intact with one of its huge metal studded doors hanging on its hinges. The outer wall of the archway leading into the city has a sculpture of a guardian in European garb, such as can be seen at the Aina Mahal in Bhuj. The city wall and this sculpture are evidence of the influence of Ram Singh Malam, who lived for a decade in Holland in the mid 18th century.

Lakhpat is close to the Indian border with Pakistan. The road from the former port city to Narayan Sarovar runs parallel to the frontier. All along the road, there are signs to tracks leading to various Indian border patrol posts.

A causeway leads from the mainland to an island to the west of it. On one side of this is an inlet of the Arabian Sea and on the other there is a freshwater lake, the Narayan Sarovar. According to Hindu mythology this is one of the 5 Sacred Lakes and therefore an important pilgrimage sites.

We stopped near the Koteshwar Temple, which overlooks a pier that reaches out into the sea. We walked along the pier passing a small temple and an enclosure containing sculptures of various Hindu deities. Just over two thirds of the way along the pier there is a barrier beyond which members of the public are not allowed. At this barrier there is a Border Force sign and a smaller one on which is written: “Fishermen frisking point”. Beyond the barrier I saw small buildings in which soldiers were sitting. Several pairs of soldiers’ green trousers were hanging out to dry on a washing line between two small huts. A fleet of small fishing vessels were moored near the part of the pier beyond the barrier. As the tide was out, they rested on the shiny mudflats that glistened in the afternoon sun.

I saw several long legged birds, not flamingos, searching for food out on the damp mudflats. Near to the pier there were lots of amphibians, rather like fat newts, wriggling and scuttling about in the film of water covering the mud.

A short way from Koteshwar is the temple compound at Narayan Sarovar. Surrounded by high castle walls, this walled enclosure contains two large mandirs. A small gate leads to a tiny jetty projecting out over the freshwater lake on which we spotted a moorhen swimming. Some steps led from the outside of the temple compound’s enclosing wall into the lake to allow people to bathe. We left Narayan Sarovar, pleased that we had made the long journey to reach this beautiful, peaceful spot.

We made a brief stop at the popular pilgrimage place Mata no Madh, home of the Ashapura Temple that was first established in the 14th century AD, but completely rebuilt after the 1819 earthquake.

Back in Bhuj, we ate dinner at Noorani, a restaurant that serves good non-veg food. Many of the servers are young men. Out of the blue one of them asked my Indian wife, who speaks fluent Gujarati, whether she was Japanese. We were taken aback; she has no features that make her look Japanese. I had noticed that a couple of Japanese women had occupied a table in another section of the restaurant and wondered whether seeing us, a European with a woman who was clearly not a local, made the boy think that we were as ‘exotic’ as the two Japanese ladies.