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Bhaja Caves - rock cut Buddhist temples

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 18.7293 N 73.4811 E
No: 41        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Buddhist shrines, Rock cut architecture, Petroglyphs and rock art
Values:Art, Architecture, History, Archaeology
Address:Asia, India, Maharashtra, 8.4 km east from Lonavala
Alternate names:Bhaje Caves
Age:the 2nd century BC
Bhaja Caves, entrance
Entrance in chaityagriha / Soham Banerjee, Flickr

Significant monument of art, architecture and history is a group of exquisite rock cut chambers at the valley of Indrayani River – Bhaja Caves. These 22 rock-cut caves have been created approximately 2,200 years ago, sometimes around 200 BC.

Temples of ancient traders

There were created several groups of stylistically similar, important early Buddhist rock-cut temples along the ancient trade route from Arabian Sea to Deccan region – Karla Caves, Bedse Caves and also the Bhaja Caves.

Bhaja caves are cut in steep cliff face 120 m above the surrounding plain, all looking to the west.

Bhaja Caves, plan of chaitya griha and nearby vihara
Bhaja Caves, plan of chaitya griha and nearby vihara / J.Burgess, 1880

Bhaja Caves are famed due to their ornate facades. It is believed that this ancient architecture is influenced by even older cave temples – Barabar Caves. Many elements hint that stone cutters copied the elements of ancient wooden architecture.

Stone carvings in Bhaja caves are not very deep, style is similar to the one of the moulded terracottas. Sculptures in Bhaja have elaborate headdress, garlands, jewellery. It is possible that initially these sculptures were covered with plaster and painted in bright colors.

As it is characteristic for early Buddhism, the religious art of caves is characteristed with symbolic representation of Buddha. Sculptures from later times, created after 4 century AD though present Buddha in his physical forms as well – thus the largest shrine contains paintings of Buddha.

Bhaja Caves, stupa in the main shrine
Stupa in chaityagriha / Soham Banerjee, Flickr

The chaityagriha

The most impressive is Cave No 12 – a shrine, chaitya. The entrance in this temple belongs to the most photographed monuments in region – the sight of this enormous, ornate horseshoe arch has no look-alikes. This is also the earliest known large chaitya – chaityagriha (chaityagrha) – in Indian rock-cut caves, although its architecture shows that there existed comparable wooden buildings.

Entrance in this cave temple is completely open now – but in earlier times there was a wooden facade below the arch. Facade imitates fine woodwork and is adorned with human figures leaning over balconies creating impression of abundance of life.

Stupas in Bhaja Caves
Group of stupas / Soham Banerjee, Flickr

Hall behind the facade is roughly 17 m x 8 m large (diverse sources show slightly different values), up to 8.8 m high. 27 octagonal pillars divide it in aisles and allow circumabulatory passage around the stupa. These pillars lean inwards thus imitating wooden structures.

On the top there were added wooden ribs further imitating a freestanding wooden building – these 2,200 years old wooden details are the oldest wooden structural elements here. Wooden beams contain incsriptions left by the benefactors of temple.

Chaitya contains stupa at its far end with a diameter 3.45 m, with a hole in the top for wooden umbrella.

Viw from Bhaja Caves
View from Bhaja Caves / Soham Banerjee, Flickr

Other caves

Most of caves in Bhaja are viharas – ancient Buddhist monasteries. Seven caves contain inscriptions informing about their benefactors, such as inscription left by Maharathi Kosikiputi Vihnudata in the 2nd century AD.

Interesting and somewhat mysterious monument is an irregular excavation some 50 metres from the great chaitya. It contains a group of rock-cut stupas. 5 of these stupas are located inside a rock-cut chamber and 9 – outside. It is identified as a cemetery. Some stupas are inscribed with the names of sthaviras – early orthodox Buddhists.

Bhaja Caves, relief in Cave No. 18
Relief at the entrance of cave No. 18 / Henry Cousens, the 1880s

One of the last caves to the south, vihara (Cave No. 18.) contains rectangular hall with a front pillared verandah. This vihara contains two cells – one at the back and one – at the right side. Pillars have square base and top and octagonal middle part.

Verandah of cave No.18. contains some of the most interesting sculptural groups in Bhaja, such as:

  • a royal person with two woman attendants, driving a chariot by four horses, trampling some demonish figure. Some consider that royal figure is Sun god Surya vanquishing the demon of darkness – then it is the oldest depiction of this deity.
  • a deity – identified as Indra – driving an elephant with attendants carrying a banner and spear. Also this could be the oldest known depiction of Indra.

Additional beauty to this area is added by a small waterfall with a pool below it. It is located south from the caves and has water during the monsoon period.


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