The Caves of Bhaja and Karla

September 23, 2015 - Pune, India


Saturday, May 28, 2011


This morning we are heaed out to do some sightseeing around the Pune area. We are going to drive out west of Pune to see the ancient caves of Karla. Since we want to beat the heat we are planning on meeting our friends Sarah and Varsha at 7 am so there isn’t going to be any sleeping in today. Besides, I needed to get up early today so that I could wish my Daddy Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday, Dad!


The plan was to meet for breakfast at 6:30 am and then meet our friends at the car at 7. We arrive at the café for breakfast to find out that, even though they open at 6:30, they are not quite ready for guests yet. We finish eating with a minute to spare and head out to the car. I have packed my backpack with about a dozen bottles of water (the hotel keeps us well stocked) and 4 apples (again, thanks to the hotel) and we are pleasantly surprised that Sarah brought her husband and Varsha brought her daughter. Turns out, we are just dropping Sarah’s husband off at wok. No fun for him today. As we head out of Pune, I have had my first glimpse of the poverty in this city and the presence of slums. I am assured that Delhi is worse, as is Mumbai. That being said, it is totally no way any human being should live. In addition, city-wide (and this is also true for Mumbai) there is trash everywhere. There appears to be no attempt to put trash in a central place, like a trash can. The streets are lined with trash, and I suppose when it gets in the way it gets piled on the side of the street and that is why you see mounds of trash. There doesn’t appear to be any neighborhood or area that is immune from this. Someone needs to start a movement here to start recycling.


Roadside Ganesh


As we leave Pune proper and head toward the caves, the landscape becomes more rural and you see dull, short brown mountains that are our destination. These mountains remind me a lot of those you see south of San Francisco which are very dry and barren. You can also see a number of flat topped mountains, of which some were used as forts by the Moghuls to protect their lands.


We are headed to Karla Caves, but since the driver has never been there before, and because we weren’t really paying attention, we ended up at the Bhaja Caves which are very close. We decide that since we are here we may as well climb up to the caves. It was a great idea to go early, since it is about 8:30 am and we are the only people at this cave. We hike up a series of stairs that have either been placed or carved into the side of the hill and arrive at a gate where there is 5 rupee toll for Indians and a 100 rupee toll for foreigners – hmmm? Well worth it though. Bhaja Caves are carved into the side of the mountain. Here is what Wikipedia had to say:


Bhaja Caves dating back to 200 BC are a set of 22 rock-cut caves. Located at a distance of 12 km from Lonavala, this group of caves is one of the most popular Buddhist caves of the country.The history of Bhaja Caves dates back to the 2nd century when they were built under the reign of Mauryan rulers. The caves are the most fascinating examples of the Theravadin phase of Buddhism. The caves are dedicated to Lord Buddha who is represented in the form of various symbols throughout the cave. A unique feature of the Bhaja Caves is the pillars that can be seen sloping downwards. Also seen throughout the caves are numerous carved figurines & images like lotus, Bodhi tree, elephant, etc, representing the different events in the life of Lord Buddha. However, the most significant & impressive is the cave 12, Chaityagriha which is the biggest of all. This praying hall has a stilted vault & a horseshoe-arched entrance. The last cave is yet another must see cave that features a dancing couple besides other relevant images. Other notable attraction of the caves is the group of 14 beautiful stupas that adorn the interior & exterior of the caves. The exterior of the caves is as interesting as the interior. Located right at the entrance of the caves is a beautiful temple dedicated to Goddess Ekvira with a towering pillar to its right.


Bhaje Caves entrance


After we toured Bhaja Caves, we still had plenty of time to head over to the Karla Caves which were about 10 minutes away. Approaching the parking area for these caves, you are in a small village that seems to cater to those pilgrims who are going up to the caves to workship at the temple that is at the top. We stop there, use the pay toilet (my favorite, the porcelain hole in the ground with a bucket to fill with water to flush), and begin walking to the top. Along each side of the path, there are vendors selling flower garlands, flowers, other offerings, medicinal herbs, chikki (a kind of candy) and cucumber-like fruits sold as refreshment. There are pilgrims and families and a few non-Indians (the three of us) all headed up with donkeys that are being used to carry bricks and gravel up the hill for various building projects going on. There are girls in sarees who are leading these donkeys, or doing other labor around this trail. It is always amazing to me that the sarees these women wear are always very clean, despite the apparent conditions that they live.


Here is what Wikipedia had to say about Karla Caves:


Karla Caves are approximately 40 km away from the city of Pune. These caves date back to the 2nd century BC and represent the golden period of Buddhism in India. The major attractions of the Karla Caves consist of the Chaitya Hall, beautifully chiseled sculptures and pillars adorned with incredible architecture. The magnificent structural design of the Chaitya Hall makes it a must see. Even the rooftop, made up of teakwood, has been exquisitely carved. One of the pillars of the Karla caves has four lions at the top. This design has been adopted as the national emblem of India. There are a number of rock-cut sculptures inside the caves, displaying animals as well as various forms of human life. There is also a stone stupa, placed under an umbrella and carved with figures of men, women and elephants. The 37 pillars chiseled with the figures of prosperous men and women on elephants, bowing before Lord Buddha, add to the attraction of Karla caves.The Karla cave complex comprises of a number of chaityas i.e., prayer halls, which have been carved with great precision. Then, there are also a number of viharas, dwelling places for the monks, which have been similarly ornamented. All these chaityas and viharas date back to the time of the Hinayana Buddhists and have arched entrances and vaulted interiors. There are no images of Lord Buddha in the caves, only symbolical descriptions. The portico of Karla caves is carved in such a way so as to give it an appearance of finished wood and has a large horseshoe arch as the central motif.


Inside of Karla Caves


We finish our tour and head back down to our driver. The heat has really increased, and I am so glad we went up early as we are hot, dirty and sweaty. We are all kind of dazed back in the car, so it is a pretty quiet ride, until we are just a few blocks from the hotel and I see something that doesn’t quite register yet. An elephant. An elephant just standing on the side of the street. We are assured that this is not a common occurrence and it has probably been brought in for a wedding ceremony.


We check back into the hotel and agree to regroup at 6:30 in the lounge to decide on dinner. Becky and Todd go back and order room service and then shower and nap. I decide not to nap, so I get lunch, shower and then wander around the hotel for a while. I really wanted a nap, but I fought it off. When we regroup for dinner, we decide to go to a place recommended by several people here in Pune, called Barbeque Nation. I had visions of this being like the great BBG place (BBQ Garden) that we went to in Ho Chi Minh City last year. It wasn’t the same, but it was interesting. This was fixed-price meal in which you had a grill in the middle of your table on which were place skewers of chicken, shrimp, and fish that had been grilled. The idea was to use the basting sauces on the table to baste onto the meat over the grill. There was a lemon marinade, a black pepper marinade and a chili marinade. All were good. After you turned your table top flag down, then the waiters stopped bringing skewers and you were welcome to hit the buffet – seriously? The buffet had all kinds of Indian foods, all of which were delicious. There was also a dessert bar that had Indian and western sweets. So you can kind of think of this place as a sort of Ryans or Golden Corral. The highlight was the floor show that the wait staff and managers then put on – which made me think of Joes Crab Shack. Some dance music started playing and all the waiters and managers gathered in the buffet area and they danced to some preplanned routine. It was funny to watch patrons join in, young and old. It was a lot of fun.


As we head back to the hotel, Becky says something like “camel” at which I responded “huh?”. Turns out, there was a camel “parked” on the side of the road. We can only assume it was for another wedding. Back to the hotel Night comes, morning follows.




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