Dr. Usha Bhatia, who has done extensive research in the history of art and Hindu monastic establishments in the Shivalik Hills and the Himalayas, throws interesting light on our heritage sites!
“Cave monasteries were originally built as habitats for monks and sanyasis,” says Dr. Usha Bhatia, who worked at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, “These men and women who had given up the life of the householder, needed solitude, peace and a conducive environment to meditate or learn the texts of their religion under masters. Therefore, they chose to make their dwellings far from human settlements. In the Ashokan period, Buddhism became the state religion of the Maurya Empire in the 3rd century BC. Earlier to this, wooden dwellings were built for monks but they were not strong. During this period, the monks moved to the Western Ghats or Sahyadris because the rocks of these hills were found to be most suitable for carving out cave monasteries for the monks. Even today, this area of Maharashtra, with more than 2000 caves of all kinds, is the world’s richest cave monument area of the world.
“The earliest caves carved by Buddhist monks belonged to the Hinayana Buddhist path. In this style of architecture, which prevailed from 200 BC to 200 AD, only symbols of the Buddha were used. No personal icon was used. After this era, Mahayana Buddhism flourished in India and the cave temples made in this period showed the Buddha in many poses. The idol of Buddha became a major feature of all temples of this period. The caves at Karla – which boast the single largest cave hall with well-formed pillars and an ornate entrance in the world – are one of the best examples of Hinayana cave architecture. While there are figures of human beings, celestial beings and animals on the entrance arch and the walls and designs with animals on the rounded columns, which allow the devotees to circumambulate the stupa, the Buddha is represented only by the stupa. Bhaja caves, which lie on the opposite side of Karla, are in the same category. As the number of monks increased, the caves also increased. Some were only living quarters, with no embellishments and most were dug by the monks themselves.
“Ajanta and Ellora are also one of the most wonderful group of caves. While cave numbers 9 and 10 have horseshoe shaped gates and windows for light, they also have paintings and sculptures which are world treasures today. Caves number 12 and 13 are viharas and chaityas. Caves 15 to 20 are the most beautiful. Caves 21 to 26 come in the third phase of building these shrines. The caves in Kanheri near Mumbai belong to the 10th century AD. Some of them have only a stupa which Hindus have traditionally thought to be a Shivling. Therefore there are lakhs of people here on Mahashivaratri day. But they are truly worshipping a stupa. Kanheri caves are also important for the development of the ornate pillars in Buddhist caves. The Mahakali caves near Mumbai are Buddhist in origin. There are also the Lonar caves near Kalyan and Bhiwandi. The Mandapeshwar and Jogeshwari caves – 108 in number – are Hindu. Cave number 67 among these is important. There are Udaygiri caves in the Nasik-Aurangabad area. There are five caves in Bagh near Satna in Madhya Pradesh.
“But the finest caves in India are to be found in Ellora and Elephanta. In Ellora, cave numbers 1 to 10 are Buddhist, 11 to 17 are Hindu and 18 to 30 are Jain. The Kailas temple in Ellora is counted among the modern wonders of the world because it is literally scooped out of a single rock mountain. Ellora shows the three religions co-existed peacefully for centuries in India. There is absolutely nothing to prove that Hindus ever destroyed Buddhist shrines or any other. In fact, most Hindus accept the Buddha as the ninth divine incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
“Until 527 AD, there were no constructed temples in India. Only cave shrines housed all the deities. In that year, the first temple of stone blocks was constructed at site number 17 in Sanchi. After that all the temples of Badami, Aihole and other famous sites came up. Mortar was used in temple construction only after the 8th century.
Around the 6th century AD, Hinduism regained its position as the religion of the majority in India. This was because Buddhism had grown restrictive and disallowed worship of a variety of divine powers. Hinduism allowed much more freedom to the individual to determine his or her own yardstick of spiritualism and manner of rituals or worship. After the resurgence of Hinduism, great temples were built in all parts of the South, in Khajuraho, in Gujarat and Orissa. Some of these temples are architectural wonders because they are constructed only of stone. Their intricate sculptures and architectural design and details are a major subject of research and study today in many countries.”
Prof. Bhatia has obtained her MA in history of art from the Chandigarh University. She completed her PhD under the guidance of Dr. B N Goswami on the subject ‘Hindu Monastic Establishments in the Punjab Hills’. She worked as assistant editor of the Lalit Kala Akademi publications and later became the editor. She worked with Karl Khandalawala on various publications including Thousand Years of Indian Painting. She also worked on the publication Painted Visions from the Goenka collection. Presently, she works with Dr. Saryu Doshi, Hon. Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art.
The author was Editor of Femina for 25 years. Vimla Patil is among India's senior most Journalists-Media persons. She excels in writing lifestyle pieces, women's concerns, travelogues, celebrity interviews, art-culture pieces about India. Visit her site www.vimlapatil.com
•Kailasa Temple Ellora
Caves Elephanta Trimurti
Caves Ajanta Bodhisatva painting
Caves Ellora Kailas Temple
Caves Karla near Lonavala Maharashtra