Karla Caves

Tourism and Riding have always been combined in our long distance cycle rallies. Combining it for a short ride was something that my friend Giri suggested the other day. So we started off at 0530 hrs. Not sure whether the decision to go via old Mumbai Pune road was a good one, because the traffic is heavy at all points of time. Added to that is the metro work at start from Dapodi onwards. The green part of the journey started from Dehu road. By the time sunrise had also happened. Mornings are always good for average speeds, and by 0900 hrs we reached Karla Gate on our right. Incidentally, at Karla Gate, the road to the left takes you to Bhaja caves. That’s where we head next time. Karla, among the local populace, is known more for its Ekvira temple than for the caves. The local deity, Ekvira, has a temple right outside the caves. And most devotees don’t even bother taking a peek into the magnificent monument next door.

One of the problems in being a group of 3, is that one person always rides solo. Giri was busy with listening to his favourite BBC news on his headphones for the first two hours. I find the use of headphones quite distracting. And we have always had these healthy debates about what makes the ride more enjoyable, good roads or great music. With Giri lost in his BBC world, I decided to go ahead. Somewhere around Somatane Phata, a couple of cyclists overtook me. One was on a road bike who was impossible to catch up with. The other was on a Montra, and he seemed to be only marginally faster than Yours Truly. He did some small talk for a minute and then shot ahead. I decided to ‘floor the pedal’ and catch up with him. After a couple of kilometres of wind cheating behind our friend, realised that this speed is manageable. So pulled over and had a longish chat with our new friend.

Bhargava Krishna is a metallurgy engineer from College of Engineering, Hyderabad and and has done his M.Tech in material science from IIT Kanpur. He is researching fuel cells at Thermax. The fuel cell uses methanol as an input. There is a membrane through which only hydrogen can pass. Through a catalyst, hydrogen is extracted from methanol. Then this hydrogen is protonized (Have no clue what that is, but does sound funky). This protonized hydrogen then passes through this special membrane. On the other side it meets with oxygen in the air, residing next to an electrode, and you get electricity generated in this reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The output is simply water. 

My question to Bhargava was: You could have generated electricity directly from methanol by running an IC engine with it, so how does this new process help? One, it’s quite silent. Two, the CO2 generated is much less in this process – as compared to IC engines. I asked for emission related numbers, but he didn’t have them with him. Have invited him to a Bulls Eye talk that we will be holding in January 20. Hopefully will learn more from him then. I have been a big fan of Thermax for many years, having even officially joined Thermax Babcock and Wilcox for one day way back in 1990.I tried to wrangle out an invitation to visit Thermax R & D.  But the fuel cell project is being sponsored by the Indian Navy. And hence governed by the Official Secrets Act. By the way, Thermax has built a 50 kW prototype fuel cell. The idea is to replace an onboard genset with the fuel cell cluster.

Bhargava had to reach his home in Sambhaji Nagar by 1100 hours. Was his sister’s marriage anniversary. We had a quick breakfast together at Hotel Sarthak at Karla gate. It’s on the left hand side as your coming in from Pune. Had the usual Vada pav and poha. Interestingly, Sarthak was carrying his own dabba. Had a multigrain bread peanut sandwich. And a yummy smoothie that he had made. It had banana, corn flakes, oats, walnuts, dates. Must try it at home some time. 

By the time Bhargava left, Giri and Pinky landed up. They had had their breakfast at Talegaon. We cycled down the three kilometres along Ekvira Road. And we arrived at a very interesting road up to the caves. Pinky decided that walking is better. In a useless display of macho-ism, we decided to cycle on. The climb was extreme; the traffic extremely bad. Even on cycles, we got stuck in traffic jams. Manage to reach the parking lot, the same time that Pinky took to walk up. And then we started climbing the stairs to the caves. 

99% of the local economy seems to be existing on that stairway. There are shops selling Satara pedhas, pooja coconuts, boiled groundnuts, flaxseed! There were even faux Christmas caps with Ekvira emblazoned on them! Why should a spiritual journey be devoid of materialism? Btw, unlike the usual tourist places, found most of the prices were quite reasonable. 

.The Archaeological Survey of India has maintained the place quite well. They have a fair number of security guards, who ensure that there is no vandalism happening. The entry fee is Rs 25 per head. The bigger line was for the Ekvira temple, incidentally the family duty of our friend, Ravi Bendre. The temple deity mandates that you visit her whenever you ask for some goody – and you get it. So by law of averages, if newly wed mothers have wished for sons, half of them are back in the queue a year later! Like a lot of old temples, this one also has a history of animal sacrifice. We tend to think of our religion being better than others because of the absence of animal sacrifice. In the past, there was no such distinction. Nowadays, the government in its wisdom has outlawed animal sacrifices in the temple. Allowing it to happen in our kitchens instead. The current practice is that you buy a desi chicken and throw it on the roof of the temple. The deity makes note of the arrival – and thankfully, from there on the chicken is recycled. Going on to the next devotee who repeats the same act a few hours later. Rumour is that once in a while a hungry poojary makes a meal out of this chicken. Looking at the plump priests, I guess this must be a more than usual practice.

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The religion which Karla should really be famous for, is Buddhism. The popularity of Buddhism can be traced back to the first century when Ashoka reigned. After the infamous battle of Kalinga, he decided that he had done enough of massacring, and embraced religion. And went on to devote his riches to propagate religion, not just in India, but the entire south east Asia. As part of his evangelism, he erected more than 84,000 pillars / stupas across the country. Tis said that each of the stupas contain a little of his ashes. 

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There is a tradition in Buddhism of begging for alms by the monks. And the stupa is possibly just an inverted begging bowl. This nugget of information was given to us by Shri Gaikwad, the security guard posted at the main Karla caves. Giri does not visit any archaeological site, without taking help of a local guide. In the absence of authorised guides, Gaikwad became our self-appointed guide. It also helped that Gaikwad saab is himself a Buddhist.

Continuing with the story, these monks would beg for probably 9 months a year, and wood retreat from this Nomadic knife into some heels for 3 months of the monsoon. Buddhism, as a dominant religion, had a very short life in India. Within 50 years of Ashoka’s death, Hinduism made a comeback. There was some persecution of the monks as a result. And this is another reason why they found hillsides to be safer. Some of these hills had natural caves in them, which made for a good place to stay for our monk friends. And although they were very spiritual, they had this very interesting materialistic habit of home decoration. So they literally started digging around, and carving out stuff.

India has a history of international trade. Goods would be transported to and from the port of Nalasopara, which is today’s Borivali, from the hinterland of Maharashtra. Karla was on this trade route.Traders and monks formed an interesting symbiotic relationship. In an Oyo less world, traders were looking at places were they could halt nights through their journey. And they found the monks to be hospitable. In return for the monks’ hospitality, traders started putting in some money towards the home decoration projects that the monks seem to have started off. Whenever religion marries commerce, you start seeing the labels of business attached to religious monuments. Karla is no different. At the entrance of the caves is a very magnificent Ashok Sthamba, with the four lions standing guard in all four directions.

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There are also 6 elephants that stand guard at the entrance. Elephants, incidentally, were the rajmudra of Ashoka.

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The main cave is actually a meditation hall. There is a stupa at the end of the cave. And a small platform on top of the stupa. Gaekwad saab believes that the platform was used by the head monk to preach his sermons. Another thing that strikes you is the number of statues of couples staring at you. Our friend, Gaikwad saab, informed us that these were actually the statues of the donors who had financed the construction, or rather deconstruction, of the caves. There are a total of 41 pillars in the main cave. 30 of them have statues of benefactors.

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Possibly, their names are also written in the Pali / Brahmi script. Here is a sample.

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Must get it validated from my friend Atul Bhosekar, who is an expert in the Pali script and Buddhist caves. He has written a very interesting book on the Pandurlena caves of Nashik, which refers to as the Trirashmi caves, which is the name in Pali literature.

One very interesting feature of these caves is the use of wood. Cave architecture has always been inspired by wood architecture. But most of the wood that had been used in the composite construction of the caves has rotted away over the millennia. You can see the remains of the composite work in the hinge holes that have very carved in the floor and ceilings at some of the cave entrances. In Karla, the wood has survived. It probably is teak wood, and it was purportedly kept immersed in seawater for six months, before it got fitted. And incidentally there are no nails that have been used in attaching these wooden ribs to the ceiling. The  architects have relied on slots in the walls and fitting joints to place the ribs. The functionality of the wood in the cave is to reduce the echoes. We tried hollering, and didn’t get hollered back by our own voices, so I guess it works. Mr Bose would have been impressed.

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We also got some more inside information. On one of the pillars, on the darker side, there is actually a painting of the Buddha. Our guide believes that a lot of the small holes on the floor were actually receptacles for the palette paint. The painting is quite worn out, we could barely see it in the light of our phone LED.

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There is a confluence of Jainism and Buddhism that you see in the caves. I was informed that the way to distinguish between the two gentlemen, Gautama and Mahaveer, is in their sitting posture. Gautama likes the all is well KFC pose, and Mahaveer prefers the padmasana.

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One interesting side effect of the investment of the traders, is that they also managed to import stonemasons from other countries. One of our Egyptian stone-mason friends has actually installed a Sphinx on top of one of the inner pillars. There is also an Ashoka chakra all top of another pillar and the goddess Amrapali adorns another pillar.

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Right next to the main caves are the viharas, the monk hostel rooms. The view from the common area is spectacular, but the viharas themselves are very small closed spaces, which were used only to sleep at night. There is a cut stone staircase which takes you from the ground floor to the top floor. In the ground floor of the vihara complex you are able to see some semi finished construction. Work on an inverted dome had just started off. And you can see the pillar work commencing. You also realise that construction in the cave used to be top down. This helped as there was no scaffolding that was required. These mega projects really tested the patience, with work being carried on by generations. We were told that it took 400 years for Karla caves to get (de)constructed.

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We finished my noon. Had some very refreshing tak on the way down. Did some sundry  purchases to help boost the local economy. At around 1215 hours, I was the solo cyclist on my way back to Pune, via my father in law’s house. Giri and Pinky had decided to take a local train. Unfortunately for them, the local train at 1400 hrs got cancelled. They had to wait an extra hour at Malavli station. The next local train was totally jam packed. They managed to stuff themselves and their cycles into the luggage compartment and made their way back to Pune, reaching around the same time as I did.