Tracing the Evolution of Kanheri Buddhist Cave Complex, Salsette, Maharashtra

DOI : 10.17577/IJERTCONV10IS03007

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Tracing the Evolution of Kanheri Buddhist Cave Complex, Salsette, Maharashtra

Ar. Poorva Patil

Assistant Professor at Post-Graduate Department of M.Arch. (Architectural Conservation)

at Sinhagad College of Architecture,

Pune. & Founder & Principal Architect, Stambhaa Conservation Studio Pune, India

Prof. Dr. Vaishali Latkar

Professor & Head of the Post-graduate Department of M.Arch. (Architectural Conservation) at Sinhagad College of Architecture, Pune.

Pune, India

Abstract The Rock-Cut Architecture of India has always been emphasized by researchers and the public because of the impressive architecture, art, and iconography of those extraordinary Rock- Cut shelters. The natural setting of the caves has been used to represent Buddhist Philosophy and its representation through art and architecture. The geographical distribution of the cave sites shows that the coast, as well as inland centers, have numerous cave centers that are located on the routes of communication, near seaports, and near the natural passes.

Cave typologies are preferred archetypes of the monastic life of monks since ancient times. Looking back into the history of Rock-Cut architecture, we find traces of many Rock-Cut monuments across the Western coastal plains. With more than 100 caves carved in basalt formation, Kanheri caves make one of the largest Buddhist monastery in the Western Ghats of India. The development of Kanheri Cave complex is noticed from the 1st century BCE to the 11th century CE, an era that witnessed the rise and decline of Buddhism. The natural landscape of Krishnagiri hill ranges consists of distinctive and varied physical features that shaped the formation of Buddhist Architecture.

The paper examines how caves serve as a sacred place for specialized activities of the monastic order in Buddhism. The research work is focused on unexplored attributes like typologies, water management systems, the iconography of cave architecture with the help of field studies, experts interviews, mapping of all types of resources in the identified study region. The study revealed that Kanheri caves are representative of all phases of Buddhist Architecture and more than 2000 years old relict Buddhist Monastery parallel to Nalanda Mahavira. Though it is considered an archaeological site still the religious aspect is continuing at the international level.

Keywords Rock-Cut Architecture, Buddhist Art & Culture, Kanheri Caves


    Rock-cut Buddhist Architecture is a legacy of human creation with the help of nature. Cave typologies are preferred archetypes of the monastic life of monks since ancient times. Looking back into the history of Rock-Cut architecture, we find traces of many Rock-Cut monuments across the Western coastal plains. The Konkan and western Deccan region of India has a magnificent long series of Rock-cut Architecture which occupies an important position in the field of Architectural history.

    Bombay and the surrounding region are the most fascinating areas in Rock-Cut Architecture. There are around 1200 well-known caves in India, of which an astonishing around 80% are in Western India! These caves have numerous inscriptions, various ornate designs, iconography, several

    architectural details, planning and patterning, and wonderful aesthetics.

    Caves have been excavated in the Deccan in Many places from Konkan to Vidarbha and Khandesh to South Maharashtra. Interestingly, it is in Mumbai that the highest density of excavated caves is found. This is probably a result of the congenial geographical environment and ideal geological formations for cave excavation complemented by the social conditions, relative prosperity, and presence of trade routes. The islands of Mumbai are the result of volcanic activity. Historically, the region has always enjoyed good political patronage as well as economic prosperity due to extensive trading via the many ports around north Mumbai like Sopara, Chaul, and Kalyan.

    The Natural Landscape features of this region is very strong to shape up the Rock-Cut Architecture. These physical features exist in a variety of ways, hillocks, mountains, stones, rocks, terrains, valleys, water as a source in many ways, trees, and vegetation. The natural landscape consists of distinctive and varied physical features, topography, and many of these have been converted to Rock-Cut Architecture. The combination of natural and cultural landscape represents a significant role in this region.


    1. Context

      Kanheri group of caves are a great example of Buddhist culture, it is representative of all phases of Buddhist Architecture and human creation, and still, this heritage site is surviving because of the natural setting of the site. It has hills in the neighbourhood whose highest point is 1500 feet above sea level. This is one of the largest Buddhist settlements found in Western India. Although it originally was a religious and educational institution in later period it became as a great commercial centre also. Being in the vicinity of the trade route between Kalyan and Sopara, it also became a stopping place for caravans and travelers. Hence it received great patronage.

      The development of Rock-Cut Architecture displays a vigorous and continuous activity for a long period from about 1st century BCE to mid-10th century CE almost covering around twelve centuries. The Kanheri region is known for its architectural styles and variety of built typologies, ranging from dwellings, prayer halls, water management systems, burial grounds, monastery, and temples which are belonging to Buddhism. Although it originally was a religious and educational institution it, later, became a great commercial center also.

      Fig 1 elevated view of the Islands of Bombay and Salsette by J.S. Barth 1803

      Source –

    2. Location and Physical Setting

      Kanheri (19°13 N; 72°55 E), is located north of Mumbai, was a major Buddhist centre. Kanheri is located in the island of Salsette and 6 miles from Thana. The caves are excavated in volcanic breccia, the hills rising at places to 1550 above mean sea level.

      Fig 2 Location of Kanheri Caves

      Source –

      The Kanheri caves are situated in The Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The highest point at the Kanheri caves is 204 M above Sea level. So, it gives us the idea that the site is on the hillock and surrounded by other hill ranges of western ghats (range of stepped- hill). At Kanheri there are three hillocks at the South, North, and East-side and the entire hill is made. Basalt is the predominant rock found in this range.

    3. Historical Background

    Kanheri is one of the major cave complexes in India comprising more than 100 caves. At Kanheri the whole complex is extended on three hillocks, which are separated by a water stream. The concentration of caves at Kanheri is mainly on the southern and northern hillock. Kanheri was a forest monastery in the beginning and natural caves in this forest were used as shelter during the monsoons by the monks, wandering in the region to spread Buddhist teaching. This was also a place of meditation and isolation for them, and the

    natural caves were modified and brought under usage by early dwellers in 1st century BCE.

    Chronologically, Kanheri is divided into three phases based on the contemporary political rules in that mentioned in the epigraphical data from the site s:

    Phase 1: From 1st Century BCE to 4th Century CE Satvahana Period

    Phase 2: 5th Century CE to 6th Century CE Traikutaka Period Phase 3: 7th Century CE onwards till Mid of 10th Century CE Rashtrakuta Shailhara Period.

    Histori cal Period


    Time Period

    Major Activities Subhead

    Phase 1 (Satava hana Period)

    From 2nd Century

    C.E. to 4th Century C.E.

    In this Phase, Sopara must have played an important role.

    With the decline of Sopara as a commercial center Kanheri and Kondivate emerged up as religious centers.

    In this phase monastery tried to turn economic potential of adjacent commercial centers towards the settlements.

    In the Phase 1 monastery was quite extrovert and dominating.

    Phase 2 (Traiku taka Period)

    5th to 6th Century C.E.

    In Phase 2, site became an educational center, which was also remain as a monastic settlement in the character.

    Apart from this we can see very few donative inscriptions are received from the Phase 2 with the comparison of Phase 1.

    In Phase 2 the monastery has lost the supreme position and the hold over the region.

    Phase 3 (Rashtr akutaka

    Shailha ra Period)

    7th Century C.E.

    onwards till the end (around mid of 10th C.E.)

    In the Phase III, all the economic support has collapse in this region. With the rise of Shaiva and Brahmanical centers in periphery of the site in the Phase 2.

    It has developed subordinate religious centers till the date.

    In Phase 3, monastery became introvert and tried to sustain with the help of its settlements and major eastern Indian centers of Buddhism.


    The process of the excavation is concaving into a convex surface of the hill. Around 2nd Century BCE this huge process has started and given us a huge manifestation in the form of 1001 caves with various typologies. The idea of manifestation is on the line of Buddhist Philosophy, being one with nature, leaving and meditate in natural forms. And creating natural rhythm through cavities in the mountain surfaces.

    1. Architectural Study Forms

      In most of the Kanheri excavation the forms carved are square, rectangular or as in the case of the Chaitya Griha rectangular with semi-circular shape. The most basic shape is the square. This form originated because to simplest and most comfortable mode of construction. Also, the origin of other forms like the rectangle plans are also derived from the square. Perhaps that is why in Kanheri we find the square and rectangular excavation.

      The square represents the integrity of life. The four angle represents earth, air, water, and fire. Probably after

      construction this form got religious sanctity and it was hence widely adopted.

      Fig 3 – Forms are found in Kanheri

      Source – Author

    2. Typology of Architectural member and decorative motifs:

      Kanheri is showcasing the layers of Buddhist Architecture from the early period to the decline of Buddhism around mid of 10th Century CE.

      The Kanheri caves, alike other Buddhist shrines, symbolizes the austerity of the ancient and early medieval Indian architectural style. All the 101 caves, carved into a hill, depicts the Buddha into various forms.

      Fig 4 – Massive Buddha statue at Cave No 3, Kanheri caves, Mumbai Source – Author

      Fig 5 View of Chaitya Griha at Cave no. 3 Source – Author

      1. Stambhas (Pillars):

        At Kanheri, the pillars stand near the entrance in front of the Chaitya Cave. In Kanheri both these stambhas are in an excellent state of preservation and are very much similar to the

        ones at Karle Caves. The closely approximately to what may be called the pilasters as they have not been separated from adjoining walls of the cave. In addition to the figures of four lines, the other Kanheri pillars have the figure of four Yakshas with raised hands on all the sides.

        Fig 6 Column Details at Kanheri Source Author

      2. Ceiling of the Caves:

        The roof types seen at Kanheri are of two types

        • Vaulted roof – over the nave the vaulted roof can be seen at the Chaitya Griha cave no 3 over the nave and flat roof on the aisles.

        • Flat roof – The rest of the cave have simple flat roof.

      3. Screen Walls and Verandas:

        Fig 7 Front façade view at Cave no. 67 Source Author

        The replacement of a wooden screen in front of a Chaitya Griha by a Stone one is a marked advancement in the rock cut architecture. After this stage the planning of veranda in chaitya Griha was introduced and the rough screen wall in front of the veranda example at Cave no 3. Also, in the later phase this veranda features added in other caves also.

      4. Lenas

        The earliest lenas has no veranda then came a stage when a veranda and an open courtyard was introduced with a low screen wall running between pillars and pilaster.

      5. Window Frames:

        There are two types of windows

        • The grated

          The former has square holes between mullions and cross bars, some of them excavated with crude workmanship as in cave no 21, but the grated windows in cave no 50 are even cruder. Hence the square depressions have been scooped into about 2 Cm. depth and in the center of these depression circular holes have been formed.

          Fig 8 Stone Window details at Cave no 13 Source Author

        • Open windows

        In the next stage of planning, we have seen open windows cut at head level as in Kanheri cave no 11 and cave no 80. In cave no 70 the open windows give copious lighting to the cave unlike the previous caves.

      6. Stone Benches:

        • Benches in Cell

          The stone benches are meant for the monks to stop and cut along the back or side walls to human scale. There are simple benches. In the Mahayanic excavation, the benches are provided with a molded head rest.

        • Benches in Halls

          They are usually very low benches cut along the inner walls of the halls as seen in Kanheri like cave no 21, 67, 50, 97, 53, 101, 71, and 81.

        • Benches in Verandas

        Narrows benches are cut along the side walls sometimes simpler or in recess, as seen in Kanheri cave no 21, 53, and 97.

        Otherwise, low benches running between the side pilasters and the central pillars they have a low thin stopping back which acts as the screen for the veranda. This is a distinctive variety and can be called as backed benches as seen in Kanheri cave no 53, 67, 81, 97.

        Fig 9 View of Stone Bench at Cave no 101 Source Author

      7. Development of Chadrashilas

    The Chandrashila or half-moon is seen at the beginning of all flight of the steps of the caves in Kanheri. The Chandra is the moon and Shila is a stone and the sun has been worshipped from immemorial. So, it is auspicious to step on Chandrashila before entering any cave.

    Fig 10 Details of Chandrashilas at Kanheri Source Author

  4. WATER MANAGEMENT SYSTEM AT KANHERI Kanheri had developed its own designed water management system. There is a water stream that flows from the east to west between northern and southern hills. The stream collects water from all the three hills at the eastern end. Ancient engineers converted this catchment area of the stream into a small reservoir now are in a very poor state of preservation. Most of the cisterns and tanks at the site are well connected to each other with a network of small channels. Ancient hydraulic engineers had tried to utilize every drop of rainwater falling on the hills.

    A. Remains of Old Reservoir

    The reservoirs stone walls were conducted on a small stream flowing etween the northern and southern hills. In this manner, the catchment area of the stream has been converted into a reservoir.

    The reservoir at Kanheri is unique because of its nature and archaeological value. This structure offers the earliest surviving archaeological evidence of dam construction in Maharashtra; Its remains are the oldest known structural archaeological remains of a dam in Western India.

    Fig 11 – Section of old Reservoir walls Source – Author


    Architectural Typology

    No. of Caves

    Chaitya Griha




    Vihara with Podhi and Stupa


    Vihara With Podhi


    Podhi (Water Cistern)




    Burrial Ground


    Incomplete Caves


    Total No. of Caves


    Architectural Typology

    No. of Caves

    Chaitya Griha




    Vihara with Podhi and Stupa


    Vihara With Podhi


    Podhi (Water Cistern)




    Burrial Ground


    Incomplete Caves


    Total No. of Caves


    At Kanheri Caves there are 101 caves excavated in three Phase of evolution of the site.

    1. Typology 1 Chaitya Griha

      Cave 3 This cave was shaped in the late 2nd – 6th century CE. This was the latest chaitya of Hinayana phase. It is adorned with two huge, up to 7 M high figures of standing Buddhas on each side of the entrance porch. It is considered that exactly with these statues of Buddha in the 6th century there started a tradition to create colossal statues of Buddha – this tradition spread over Asia and continues up to this day. Main hall of this cave is 28 M long and 13 M wide, it is adorned with 34 columns with 5 m high stupa at the far end. Columns are adorned with elephants kneeling and worshipping the Stupa. Chaitya is adorned also with maithunas – love pairs characteristic for the art of Kushan and Gupta period. Kanheri Chaitya Griha is second largest chaitya Griha in western India after Karle Caves.

      Fig 12 – Kannari: Exterior of Great Chaitya Cave by James Fergusson, 1845

      Source – exterior-of-great-chaitya-cave

    2. Typology 2 Vihara

      The cave has extremely simple chambers which are called the Vihara. These were meant for living, studying, and meditating. The Vihara had stone plinth for a bed. In Kanheri caves there are total 39 Vihara.

    3. Typology 3 Vihara with Stupa and Podhi

      The third typology we can see at Kanheri is Vihara with Stupa. There are two caves with this typology. In this, the Stupa is housed within the Vihara. In Kanheri, at Cave no 31 and cave no 2 this typology is found.

      Fig 13 – Vihara with Stupa and Podhi at cave no 31 Source Author

    4. Typology 4 Vihara with Podhi

      Kanheri is known for its well-designed water management system, there many Vihara attached with Podhi (Water Cistern). At Kanheri there are 45 Caves with this typology.

      At today also this water systems are in working condition. Most of the Podhis are filled with the rainwater. In ancient time this water has been used for many purposes.

    5. Typology 5 Podhi

      The fifth typology are found at monasteries are water cisterns. Most of these were likely used for drinking and watering garden areas. However, some were specified as bathing tubs.

      Cistern is located in the courtyard right next to the entrance of a cave.

    6. Typology 6 Stupa

      At Kanheri there are only two caves are found with this typology. In this typology, the stupa is housed with the circular shape. Cave no 4 stupa is the memorial stupa of Aacharya. The Buddhist establishment at Kanheri has interesting evidence in the form of small structural stupas built on the floor of some of the caves. Such stupas were noticed in Caves 36, 4, etc. These stupas often contained large number of clay tablets inscribed in 10th century CE. characters of the Buddhist creed.

    7. Typology 7 Burrial Ground

      Cave no 87, this area is generally known as the burial ground (Nirvanavithi) because of the presence of numerous brick (memorial) Stupas. It is believed that venerable teachers at Kanheri were buried here. Around 64 memorial stupas and around 25 inscriptions today bear mute witness to the teachers tradition at Kanheri. Today ASI have reconstruct this Brick Stupa.

      Fig 14 – Burial Ground, Cave no. 87 Source Author

    8. Typology 8 Incomplete Caves

    In Kanheri some of the caves are in incomplete status. There are three caves are incomplete. In that the Cave no 1 is incomplete cave if that cave had been complete at that time the cave would be the largest Chaitya Griha in Western India and the measurement of the cave is matching with the Vishvakarma cave at Ajinta.


The natural factor of physiography presents a well-defined territory that is capitalized in its cultural inhabitation, though the hillocks near Kanheri is not the best quality basalt rock for delicate carving, but it was better than any other available rock accessible in the hill around it. The geological composition provides durable building material as well as supports natural water, deep forest area also provides a suitable habitat and associative resources. Because of the

strong natural factors of the site, landscape has been prime parameter of the choice of large settlements and religious center that have occupied the site around 1300 year.

Kanheri was originally a religious and educational institution it later became a great commercial center also. This was the only Buddhist site which was habituated around 1300 years. The major impact of Buddhist architecture we can see in the Kanheri. There are 101 rock- cut caves excavated from 2nd century BCE. The architecture of main Chaitya Griha, stone carved stupas, Vihara, designed water management system that contains important Physical evidence today, of a significant interaction of man and nature.

Fig 15 Ekdashmukh Avalokiteshwara at Cave no 41 Source Author

The historical significance of the site is the Buddhist iconography. There are many Bodhisattva panels in the caves. Between that the famous one is "Shravasti Miracle" panel at cave no 67, 89 and 90. The "Ekadashamukha Avalokiteshvara" (eleven headed Avalokiteshvara) is unique,

and this iconography is only found at Kanheri caves. Also, the sculptures of Buddhist goddess Tara are found at Kanheri. The excavated remains of Kanheri rock – cut caves represent the flourishing and maturing of ancient Buddhist pedagogy that became a major influence on early medieval Buddhist art and architecture. It built ensemble is the physical manifestation of this process where numerous systems of planning, architecture and artistic traditions developed into subsequent architectural and artistic typology through 1300 years of its existence. Kanheri distinguished itself as the earliest planed monastery of the western India. Kanheri was habituated around 1300 years which is giving the major contribution in the Buddhism also this was the oldest and last Buddhist rock- cut cave site in western India.


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