>Travel Pictures


Karla Caves

September 2007

Leaving Lonavala, Karla caves are just a short run down the road, through a lush valley filled with rice paddies. The caves themselves are reached, after parking, by following a stepped path up the hillside. 

Dotted with small stands selling everything from herbs and flower garlands to plastic toys, the route is also where we came face to face with the kids' first  look at abject begging, with quite a number of older people as well as some who were disabled. As it was still fairly early in the day (around 10:30), there wasn't a huge crush of people, so that made things more pleasant.

As we huffed and puffed our way to the top, we heard drums and singing coming from 'just around the corner.' When we got up there, we met up with an enthusiastic band of revelers who were just leaving after paying their respects at a shrine just outside the caves. This was our first glimpse and what had been making all the noise we hear at nights from our house!

When we got to the entrance itself, we were stunned. An enormous opening fronted the center of the cave, guarded by a pillar topped with three lions. Small niches surrounded the door and window, all intricately carved. We found out later that this is a very typical entrance to a chaitya griha - a religious shrine that had a large hall used for worship - and that this was the biggest early Buddhist one in all India.

Inside the wire fence in front of the door, 6 carved elephants flanked the way in. Those on the left hand side had lost their trunks, while 2 on the right still had theirs. Both sides are covered with carvings, rising nearly 50 feet high along the sides of the walls. As these caves had been carved by Buddhist monks around 200 BCE, there are images of the Buddha all around.

While we were never really sure what role they were playing, mom and dad were happy to recreate their poses to let Alea take a picture!

The wall to the entrance is also covered with many images of voluptuous dancers - women with wide hips and big boobs are paired with males with fancy headgear. 

Inside the chalitya itself, the hall is flanked by columns with carved figures around kneeling elephants atop them. At the end is a stupa or rock representation of the Buddha, the focus of veneration for those who come to this site. Arching over the hall is a roof of semicircular teak beams (supposedly the original pieces).

Outside the main hall were other caves that were used as rooms, kitchens, meeting places, and meditation centers by the monks. We had quite a series of adventures climbing up and around and though the rooms, often in the pitch black. Most of the room walls were completely bare, but we did come across the odd carving of the Buddha stuck away in a corner here and there.

The main draw for Hindu pilgrims to the site is a shrine set up just outside the cave itself. There an idol of a goddess sits, attended by a single priest. Worshippers - mostly mothers and young women - bring a set series of offerings, including flowers, clothing material, and spices. After performing a series of devotions, they give these objects and a picture or other object that they want blessed to the priest, who 'anoints' it with red dye from the dot in the statue's forehead. 

We didn't ask for anything to be blessed, but we were given a handful of huge-grained sugar and half a coconut as a token of respect for our having visited.

Since there is a pretty prescribed ritual and offering for this goddess, it is no wonder that the materials were all being sold on the route up. It was kind of fun, as we walked back down, to understand why there were so many stands selling the same types of domestic items all up and down the steps!

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