I love to hate Mumbai, and I have expressed that a million times before – in account of each of my travels the horror of returning to Mumbai lurks behind. If it were not for a few other aspects of life which I hold dear, I would have chosen to flee it within 5 months of being here.
Yet sometime the city surprises me – in little things like replacement of a line of slums with sublime (and rather cacophonic) graffiti on a track boundary, or a delightful turn of roads around Bandra, or even a beautiful cafe in some street you could never embark upon accidentally. This time, it was a large spread of forest and amidst them some stern impressions of the region’s buddhist history, and presence of Avalokiteśvara, the form of Buddha I had so often met in Bhutan.
9 KM from my place there is a national park – I have heard it referred only in connection to some silly leopard rumors. It would seem Mumbaikars love to encounter leopards and relate these third person encounters as a very own personal experience over and over again. It is unbelievable how many people you know have met one at 12 in the night and stared into its mystifying eyes.
Well anyway, one Saturday I decided to explore the park – only because we had half a day and we wanted to walk. And what a surprise it turned out to be. Not only is the park sprawling and breath-takingly green, it even houses within it a set of caves from as far back as 1 BC. The Kanheri caves, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, are the mark of Hinayana Buddhism in Western India. Amidst 110 caves (as per the ASI information board at the entrance), you can see stupas, viharas, buddha statues and many other marks of the religion which has fascinated people around the world.
In Cave 3, there is a prayer hall – a beautiful hall lined with massive pillars. If you were to chant in this hall, the sound would bounce off these pillars in a way so mesmerizing that you would actually feel transported to another world. Outside this prayer hall are two large Buddha carvings on either side of the entrance. and it is also here that I saw some beautiful inscriptions in Pali script. Apparently, Kanheri has many inscriptions, some of significant stature.
There are some streams flowing through the caves, which offer it as a beautiful picnic point, especially during the monsoons. Even so, on the day of our visit it was not overly crowded. We went around visiting caves from caves, and while many of them were similar to each other, there were quite a few differences. In most of them was a severe looking stone bed, and in many there were carvings – some exotic, some very plain. Most of these carvings are now blunted, unlike the more famous caves of Ajanta etc.
An interesting feature of the caves is the water collection system, which seems a bit sophisticated for the the times. There are rainwater collection tanks, fed by cisterns and even some canals.
So here it is, amidst the bustling traffic, you suddenly take a turn and find a beautiful forest.You go 6 km inside it, and you enter another world.
How strange is this world, where past and present could coexist, even if not in harmony, but in a pleasant tussle.
We saw very little of the national forest that day, as the caves took a lot of our time and interest. On some other day, walks on those curving roads would be nice.