In a shambles

Print edition : July 31, 2009

The sanctum of the Jogeshwari caves in Mumbai. The Brahminical caves belonging to A.D. 520-550 are still in use.-

PUBLIC perception of Mumbais history is largely limited to the colonial period and its Koli (fishing community) heritage. But the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, an area which includes the island city and its suburbs, has a history that dates back to the 1st century B.C.

Encroachments at the Jogeshwari caves.-

Mumbai is perhaps the only city in the world to have ancient cave structures within its municipal limits. The city has grown seamlessly around these caves but has failed to integrate them in a manner that ensures their survival. The cave temples of Jogeshwari and Mandapeshwar are in a state of great neglect. Of the two existing cave monasteries, Kanheri is relatively well maintained, while Mahakali is in a shabby state.

The greatest threat to these monuments comes from encroachments and illegal constructions and the ensuing problems of sewage and garbage. In April 2005, in response to a public interest petition filed by Janhit Manch, a civic organisation, the Bombay High Court appointed a six-member Committee on Caves. By August that year, the committee, comprising the Director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a heritage expert, an urban historian, government officials and a lawyer, presented its report, which recommended works to be undertaken to rescue the structures.

Seepage and water stagnation are destroying the Jogeshwari caves.-

The committee was most concerned about the condition of the Jogeshwari caves, the Brahminical caves belonging to A.D. 520-550. They are among the largest such rock-cut caves in the country and are cut out of a low dome of crumbling volcanic breccia. They were once richly ornamented. Their prime importance lies in the fact that they are the first rock-cut cave temples built by Hindus in the country. The noted historian Dr. Walter Spink termed them Indias first great Hindu cave temple. But because of their damp location the caves have been crumbling over the years.

The Thana District Gazetteer of 1882 writes: The walls of the portico, and the walls of its two end recesses, were once covered with figures, but the crumbling rock and the low damp site of the cave have rotted away almost all traces of carving. At the ends of the portico were two richly ornamented chambers (about 18{minute} x 12{minute} x 10{minute} high) separated from the body of the porch by two pillars and two pilasters now in a totally dilapidated condition. These pillars have wasted away to the quaintest skeletons with rough corkscrew like-ridges of harder stone, like the wreaths round the prentice pillar at Roslin Chapel. The large figure in the right chamber seems to have been Siva in the form of a seated Buddha-like ascetic, and below there is a trace of a side figure now practically defaced, perhaps the giver of the sculpture. The figure in the left chamber seems to have been Siva dancing the wild tandava of which nothing now remains. In the middle of the back wall of the portico is a highly ornamented door with the remains of large warders on either side, and in other parts, with traces of delicate carving of which only a few glimpses are visible.

CAVE NO.1 AT Kanheri. This is part of a Buddhist cave monastery complex.-

Despite this glorious past, Jogeshwari today is the filthiest of Mumbais caves. Seepage, garbage, human waste and vandalism have all but destroyed this structure. Cut into a low hillock, the caves are located at a lower level from their surroundings. Hemmed in by chawls that are built even on their roof, the caves have been subjected to decades of sewage and wastewater seepage. Open drains adjoin the caves and pools of stagnant water are all over. Inside the caves there is a deep gloom, but a small antechamber with alcoves on either side is discernible. This opens into a large square cave edged with 20 carved pillars. Further inside there are small cells, which were possibly the residences of priests or monks. Now, they are used as toilets.

Rock-cut sculptures at Cave No. 3 showing the couples who made donations to the monastery.-

In April 2006, the committee started verifying the legal status of the surrounding chawls by asking the residents to produce ownership documents. It was found that most of the chawls existed before 1992 and many were over 40 years old. However, the municipal records showed that none of these chawls had permission to be built. The court ordered the formation of another committee comprising the Principal Secretary for Urban Development and officials from the Collectors office, the municipality and the ASI and asked it to come up with minimum immediate interventions to preserve Jogeshwari. As a national monument, Jogeshwari should have 100 metres of protected limits around it. This being an impossibility, given urban pressures, the committee recommended 25 m. Structures lying within the 25 m protected limits can be legally cleared but it is believed that there is a high-level stay on the proceedings, and the chawls continue to crowd around the Jogeshwari caves.

ROCK-CUT IMAGES of the Buddha at Cave No. 3 of Kanheri.-

The neglect of the Mahakali, or Kondivite, caves belonging to the 1st century B.C. is not as severe as that of Jogeshwari. At one time, these caves were a den of illicit liquor distilleries and sex workers but increased vigilance halted such activities. The only problem now is the shanties that periodically come up near the caves. This is likely to be resolved soon with a new conservation budget for the caves sanctioned on June 14. The State government has set aside Rs.50 lakh for building a compound wall, landscaping and providing visitor facilities.

While it is correct to identify the caves as Kondivite since that is the name of a nearby village, Mahakali is a bit of a misnomer since that is the name of a temple located nearby. But Mahakali remains the popular way of referring to these Buddhist caves. There are 19 caves, including a chaitya hall, viharas and cells, at this site. Built for meditation, they are devoid of ornamentation. The largest cave at Mahakali bears seven depictions of the Buddha and figures from Buddhist mythology. They are all mutilated. The stupa in a small cell-like chamber is now mistakenly worshipped as a lingam. That is another reason for the cave being referred to as Mahakali. The same error is made at Kanheri, the other Buddhist site, where worshippers arrive in their thousands during the festival of Sivratri to worship what they believe is a lingam but which is actually a stupa, located in the semi-finished Cave No. 1. As part of the ceremonies, coconuts are thrown at the lingam.Kanheri has the best-kept of the caves and this is probably by virtue of their location in the heart of the Borivali National Park. The old Thana Gazetteer describes the environs thus: A bare black scarp that runs along the west face of the Kanheri spur is greatly worn by the storms of the southwest monsoon. There remains a black brow, as if roughly cut in a series of arches, overhanging a hollow gallery (Wests 38-41) of light brown rock, the burying ground of the old Kanheri monks. Above the overhanging crest, the rounded slope of the hill-top swells, without bushes or grass to a flat plateau of black rock crowned by patches of brushwood, prickly pear, and stunted trees. The rest of the Kanheri spur, like its south-west face, is one long dome-topped block of black trap, a paradise for cave cutters. Passing under the west cliff, up a deeply wooded ravine, a flight of steps leads, across a broad brushwood-covered terrace, to the slightly overhanging scarp in whose west face is cut the Great or Cathedral Cave (No. 3).

Kanheri was a work in progress. It was begun in the 1st century B.C. but structures were added until as late as the ninth century. The name Kanheri derives from the original Krishnagiri, meaning black hill. Built into the volcanic breccia rock, the complex comprises prayer halls, sub-shrines, preaching booths, lecture rooms and meditation cells.

Forming virtually a mini city, the more than 100 caves extend for miles over the rolling hills. Each cave was supplied with water rock-cut channels would catch rainwater and guide its flow into a rock-cut cistern at the entrance to the caves. The main chaitya hall once had a beamed roof but these have rotted away. The loss of the beams is made up by the view of the roof, which is designed to resemble an elephants back.

Bas-relief panel of Siva as Nataraja surrounded by celestial beings, at the Mandapeshwar cave temple.-

So sprawling was Kanheri that the Thana Gazette describes it as a labyrinth in the hill whose end had never been traced. The Portuguese were told that this extended as far as Cambay and they sent an expedition to explore the labyrinth. The party travelled through the caves for seven days without any interruption.... Finally, with food and water running low and with no sense of distance or direction they returned using the guide ropes they had laid along the way.

In its inimitable style the Thana Gazette says: Kanheri is the only rock-cut monastery in western India that has the feeling of having been, and of being ready again to be, a pleasant and popular dwelling place. The rows of cells, water cisterns, dining halls, lecture halls and temples joined by worn flights of rock-cut steps, and the crowded burial gallery show what a huge brotherhood must once have lived at Kanheri. In many of better caves the front courtyard with its smooth rock floor, broad benches and gracefully rising side walls, the shaded water cistern, the neat flight of steps leading to the cave door, the deep flat cave, the cool veranda, the well-lit hall with its windows of stone lattice, the slim graceful sculptures, and the broad easy benches hewn at many of the best view points, have a pleasing air of comfort, refinement, and love of nature; while the long stretches of clean black rock, the steps and the courtyards free from earth, weeds, or brushwood, look as if lately swept and made ready for a fresh settlement of religious recluses.

REMAINS OF THE Portuguese monastery Church (below) on top of the Mandapeshwar cave temple.-

A little known fact about Kanheri is that a Franciscan friar named Fr. Antonio de Porto (who set up the Portuguese monastery at the Mandapeshwar caves) had converted some of the monks to Christianity. During that period, the great chaitya or cathedral cave (Cave No. 3) had been altered into a chapel dedicated to St. Michael though no signs of this makeover remain.

The Mandapeshwar caves were hewn out of a hillock about 1,600 years ago. At one time, the Dahisar river ran in front of it, but over time the course of the river changed and the caves now face a main road. Shanties once crowded around the cave entrance and the caves themselves were used as gambling dens. A local non-governmental organisation (NGO) cleared the surroundings. The neighbouring community now uses the space in a reasonably sensitive way. Steps lead up to a pillared forecourt, which looks into three chambers. A central unornamented sanctum is in popular use. The original nandi (sacred bull) in this Siva temple, which got damaged, has been replaced with a new one. There are a few relief panels a notable one depicts Siva as Nataraja and another presents the marriage of Siva and Parvati, but they have been damaged owing to seepage.

According to the Committee on Caves report, The caves of Mont Pezier, or Monpacer, resemble a many-layered palimpsest with plans of one generation superimposed by another. The original Brahminical caves dedicated to Siva are from the 8th century A.D.

The Mandapeshwar caves perhaps have the most tumultuous history of all the Mumbai caves, or so it would seem from the scars the walls still bear. A Hindu temple, it was targeted by the Portuguese, who asserted their religious beliefs over it by literally building a monastery and a church dedicated to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception on top of the cave temple. Fr. Porto founded the monastery and church in 1544.

Vandalism and neglect have taken their toll on the Mahakali caves.-

A visitor in 1804 noted: The good priests had covered [the carved Hindu figurines in the cave] with a smooth coat of plaster and had converted the whole into a chapel.

In the 18th century the church was desecrated after the Battle of Bassein in which the Marathas defeated the Portuguese. They uncovered and worshipped the rock-cut sculptures again, but towards the end of the 18th century the British defeated the Marathas and the caves once again functioned as a place of Christian worship. After the end of colonial rule the church fell into disrepair and the caves gradually reverted to the worship of Siva. The church, including its roof, has been destroyed, but older local residents recall playing among the aisles and the nave of the church when they were children.

Members of the Committee on Caves inspecting the Mahakali caves.-

A three-foot-high symbol of the cross, hewn out of a stone panel that once depicted mythical Hindu figures, stands at the entrance. It is the only remaining proof of Mandapeshwars historical past.

The cave temples do not have the same resilience as the faith they represent. A helping hand is desperately needed if these wonderful monuments are to survive.

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