Karla Caves - Buddhist caves turned into a dancing arena

I knew something was seriously wrong was I walked up the steps towards Karla Caves. The entire path was full of restaurants, shops selling flowers for worship, but most shocking part was when a group of young guys walked down the steps with a 2 feet tall portable speaker blaring Marathi songs tuned to popular Bollywood numbers. I was mortified but no one else seemed to care - they were busy haggling for a good bargain for the 'pooja samagri' or just taking rest after every few minutes of the steep climb.

karla buddhist caves women men dancing
Dancing to the tunes of Jhingat from movie Sairat

What I saw outside the caves was actually even worse. Here's a quick video:



I knew I was visiting an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protected site of a cluster of Buddhist Caves - some of the oldest in the country dated between 6-4th Century BC to 4th Century AD. The Chaita griha at these caves is the grandest and the largest in India - the hall measures 37.87 m deep from door to back; 13.87 m wide and 14.02 high. The object of worship at the caves is a large stupa at the end of the hallway. There is also a famed lion pillar at the entrance of the Chaita griha, something very similar to Ashoka Pillar.

karla buddhist caves Chaita griha
The famed Chaita griha

Now, I am not new to either visiting Buddhist caves in India or other ASI protected monuments, and with that my expectations were drawn from those experiences. Maybe this is the reason why the place shocked me as much as I did.

I could hear the sounds of drums even when I took the entry ticket (very affordable at Rs 15), but I kept telling myself that this must be another place somewhere else - an archaeological site can't have filmmy music playing. As it turned out, the sound was coming right from the entrance of the famed Chaita griha - from the temple of goddess Ekvira. A group of young guys who clearly loved the music from the highly popular movie Sairat were playing the music on drums and other equipment, while another group of young guys and girls thought it was imperative to dance to the tune as well. All of this tunelessly mixed with the loud sounds of prayers coming from inside the temple and again, apart from me, no one seemed to mind.

karla buddhist caves ekvira temple
The temple in the front, and the caves in the background

karla buddhist caves ekvira temple
That's the large and beautiful entrance to the caves

The original structure at the site, the beautiful Chaita griha that ASI so lovingly talks about on it's website was pushed to the background, like a backdrop to the not important Devi temple. I learnt only there that this was an pilgrimage for the locals, while the presence of the caves here was a mere coincidence.

Jostling my way in through the gate which separated the Buddhist place of worship from the temple outside, I made my way into India's largest such structure. I was awed by it's grandness, but the extremely loud sound of the drums killed any chances of feeling at peace at the site where Buddhists meditated more than two thousand years back. It was impossible for me to stay inside anymore and disappointed with everything I made my way outside. The music was now climaxing and the dancing was getting even more intense. Things couldn't get any louder and I eventually made my way out, angry and upset at the same time.

karla buddhist caves women men dancing
Musical Sunday at Karla Caves

But there was just one question in my mind - What was a Devi temple doing at an ancient and ASI protected Buddhist site? 

I got the answer (sort of) on this website on Maharashtra Tourism (source):

"A shrine of Goddess Ekvira came up in front of the chaityagriha after the caves were deserted. Today this is considered very important and thousands of people visit to pay their reverence to the deity."

That's all - that the temple came up recently and was actually built using parts of the caves. But over the last few years it has become an important pilgrimage for Hindus in the towns and villages around. While there are a total of 16 caves at the site, only two are currently accessible while the rest are closed; clearly the priority is to maintain and run the goddess temple here, while the Buddhist caves take a backseat.

Thought thankfully I didn't witness it, the temple is also known for bird sacrifices. This a bit ironical considering it's done right in front of Buddhist temple which promoted ahimsa and was also against such superstitions. But then who cares?

By the way, does any one care at all about this site? Or will the Hindu devsthana simply continue to grow (when I visited 20 years back, there was barely anything there) and one day these caves (which survived more than 2000 years) simply disappear? Does even ASI care?


Why should heritage be preserved?

As I shared this post on social media, another important question came up - why should we preserve heritage at all? What's the point?

Let's start with what UNESCO says on this important subject:

"Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration."

What's important about heritage is that it not only belongs to the country and the people where it's located, but to the entire world. When these stunning caves were built there was no United States of America, or UK or any other country as we know it today. Buddhism itself started in North India, but moved across Asia, leaving it's footprints in countries as far away as Iran (and possibly even beyond), Japan and many other countries in South East Asia. 

Sites like Karla Caves belong not just to us in Maharashtra, but to the world. It's a dot in the universe which connects so many dots across present day nations and continents. We are it's custodians and must play a part in it's conservation.


Discussion on Facebook

There is a vibrant discussion on Facebook on this and I would like to invite you to join in with your voice as well.




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Anyway, if you plan to visit the Karla Caves, here's some more information:

Entrance fee: 

Citizens of India and visitors of SAARC & BIMSTEC Countries: Rs. 15/-
Others: Indian Rs. 200/-
Children (up to 15 years): Free

Entry to the temple is free for everyone, just let the guard at the gate know.

Comments

  1. Amazing...everyone shud visit...bt pics r just extraordinary...

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  2. Sad. But not the least surprised. Glad you decided to highlight this. There is never much discussion on why Buddhism vanished from this country.

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  3. Does not look good. I have seen this happening at many places. Religion stuff takes over architectural marvels.

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  4. Love the photograph of "Chaita griha". Beautifully framed!

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  5. Very sad. Something so ancient and serene shouldn't be desecrated like this.
    I guess one saving grace is that only 2 of the 16 caves are accessible - so the others are being kept intact. Maybe?

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  6. Totally agree. Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations

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  7. I've been twice and it's just a lost cause. I vowed never to return, perhaps also because of a disgusting sight of two men running, knife in hand, behind a rooster meant for sacrifice

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