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Son Bhandar Caves - two mysterious rock-cut chambers

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 25.0041 N 85.4163 E (approximately)
No:36        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Jain shrines, Rock cut architecture, Sites of legends
Values:Art, Architecture, History, Archaeology, Unexplained
Address:Asia, India, Bihar, Nalanda district, south from Rajgir, southern foot of Vaibhar Hill
Age:the 3rd - 4th century AD?
Alternate names:Swarn Bhandar, Sonbhandar Caves

The ancient capital city of Rajgir is small, scenic town nowadays. This town has seen many events important to history of India – also Buddha has been living here and giving sermons to the great king of Magadha – Bimbisara. Among the numerous exciting monuments of the past one of the most interesting and mysterious ones is Son Bhandar Caves – two rock-cut caves located close together at the southern foot of Vaibhar Hill.

Nowadays these caves are a popular tourist destination with a nicely tended front part.

Hollowed cliff

Both caves seem to be hollowed in the cliff in the 3rd – 4th century AD – at least inscription inside the western cave, between the door and window tells that it was done by the Great Saint of Jains – Muni Vairadevi for Jain ascetics in this time. Both caves were made approximately at the same time.

Just like the Barabar Caves, Son Bhandar Cave chambers are polished – these are some of the few cave temples in India with this unusual feature. Also the planning of the caves resembles earlier Mauryan rock-cut sanctuaries and this lets to put in doubt that age of caves – there is a possibility that they are significantly older.

There are many more brief inscriptions inside and outside the caves from the late 5th – early 6th century, most likely left by different piligrims.

There was either installed or planned to be installed a figure of Garudasana Visnu – it was found at the front of cave and is in museum in Nalanda today. This image seems to be not finished and never installed – possibly hinting at events from the 7th century when caves were taken over for Vaisnava worship.

Ancient enigma of the western cave

It is the western cave which gave the name to monument: Son Bhandar means "store of gold" and legend about this treasure is linked to western cave.

The cave – believed to be a guard cave – contains single rectangular chamber, 10.4 x 5.2 m large. The vaulted ceiling stands stands on vertical walls, vault rises up to 1.5 m high. This resembles the style of older Mauryan rock-cut sanctuaries. In ancient times most likely there was a roofed verandah in the front of caves.

Walls, doorjambs and front wall contains numerous epigraphs. Small image of standing Vishnu is etched on the left side of doorway – this possibly testifies that caves were taken over for Hindu worship.

Local legend tells that the this cave still hides a passage to the treasury of gold – entrance in this passage is well hidden in the cave chamber behind an ancient stone wedge. Some also believe that the passage goes through Vaibhargiri mountain and reaches Saptaparni Caves on the other side of range.

Some believe that this treasure belongs to Jarasandha, others – that to Bimbisara. In a case of Bimbisara legend goes that when Ajatashatru confined his father Bimbisara (remnants of this prison are nearby), his mother secretly hid some wealth and later donated it to Tirthankar.

In the wall of cave there is seen a trace of carving, resembling a doorway and next to it – an undeciphered inscription in Sankhlipi writing or shell script. It is believed that this inscription is a password – who will read it, will open the door and enter the passage. This ornate script has been found in India as well as in Java and Borneo and never been deciphered.

There is also a black mark above or in the upper part of the mysterious doorway – is of left by cannonball when Brits tried (without success) to break the wall and enter the passage.

Eastern cave

Eastern cave is partly ruined – front part of cave chamber has fallen. Upper floor above the cliff made in brick is added later, during Gupta period and possibly caused the collapse of front wall of the cave. Most likely also this cave had verandah in front. Southern wall of this cave contains important early Jain artwork – exquisitely sculpted small reliefs of six Jain Tirthankaras – Padmaprabh, Parsvanath, Mahavira and others. This relief seems to be added later, some time after the completion of caves, it shows little congruity with the plan of rock-chamber.


See Son Bhandar Caves on the map of India!


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