If you have ever yearned to understand the peace which the Buddha himself found, sitting beneath the Bodhi tree over 2500 years ago, then the caves at Pandavleni, at the top of a rocky hill, are perhaps one of the closest remaining inspirations to such tranquility of mind. Used as a place to teach the Buddha’s dharma, and built around 100 B.C., as dated with carbon dating technology, they are as old as the Karla Caves, both being built during the Satavahana dynasty. These caves have the energy of peace carved into their very structure.
The History of Temple Caves
Temple caves like Pandavleni were built along trade routes, but also in natural areas so that they would be close to people but away from the trappings of the material world. Since they often housed wayward travelers, their inner sanctuaries were an artful way at staving off cold in winter and heat in summer, since the rock walls mitigated excessive temperatures. Pandavleni caves are not as large and intricate as Karla caves, but are still breathtaking in their own right, especially when one considers the skill that was required to build them.
Most of these temples were built from the top down, often requiring the excavation of rocky hillsides and vegetation. Timber wedges were made wet and then used to vertically support rock and as the wood expanded, parts of a cliff face would fracture, causing large chunks of rock to come away from the mountain face. These pieces of rock were then carefully excavated. Walls were leveled off and floors made even. Once the main sections of rock were removed, skilled artisans and monks chiseled away the finest sculptures of Buddhas and other deities.
Acoustics Fit for a Buddhist Monk
I was lucky enough to visit the Pandavleni caves on a day trip with several girlfriends staying at a nearby ashram, and though I was eager to have a day away from endless yoga asana, I was not prepared for the serenity that these caves instilled. After taking a winding stair case up a forested hillside, and stopping once to get roasted peanuts from a smiling village woman set up to sell her wares on the lower steps of the climb, I stood astounded at such ancient architectural beauty carved into the side of a mountain rock.
The front façade is replete with perfectly constructed pillars and doorways, perfect rounded columns, and expertly articulated arches. There are banisters and window friezes, and of course the sculptures of the Buddha are wonderful.
The inner caverns are also expertly carved, and the acoustics were simply otherworldly. We felt inspired to sing the Gayatri Mantra while standing within such auspicious earth, and it reverberated like a million–year old love song to ourselves and the few other disciples sitting inside, offering incense to a carved Buddha’s feet, though the reverberations were simply off 2000 year old carved rock.
The Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, left his royal palace at age 29 and left aristocratic life to understand why material wealth had left those outside his palace walls sick and dying. He escaped to the remote forests of North-East India, and even tried self-mortification and asceticism before divining the middle-way or middle path. In the groves of trees near the Neranjara river, and at the ripe age of 35, Siddhartha Gotama achieved an enlightened state of mind which has been taught to millions of followers, often meeting in caves like those at Pandav Leni.
Engravings and Icons
Located on a tableland at the top of the Anjinagiri mountain ranges, these caves have been meticulously carved by Buddhist monks. Reachable today by a nearby bus stand, they are full of engravings and icons of Bhagwan Buddha and other bodhisattvas. Specifically, the caves house the idols of Buddha, Jain Teerthankara Vrishabhdeo, Veer Manibhadraji and Ambikadevi.
There is copious inner space within the caves, and breathtaking beauty at its threshold, after a mild climb to the top of mountain, now railed and with stairs that aid in the journey. You can imagine dozens of disciplines gathered to hear the Buddhas teachings within the caves, and even see where they meditated and prayed, the rock benches within sometimes impressed with the weight of countless seekers.
The doorways illicit awe and hint at what peace lies within. The water wells, expertly designed into the very walls, point to the possibility that monks lived here, and did not just teach or meditate.
There are 24 caves in total in the area, but the caves at the top of Pandav Leni, about 6 miles south of Nasik, are particularly grand, if not massive. The most important caves, numbers 18 and 20, respectively are the remnants of ancient monasteries. Excavated from Trirashmi hill, and sometimes called simply, the Buddha Caves, these are not to be missed. They allow any spiritual seeker, whether Buddhist in persuasion, or not, to understand the austerity and peace a simple structure can support within one’s own experience of the world. Such beauty and architectural mastery are the perfect backdrop for the Buddha’s teachings.
How to Get There
You can get there by rail, or bus, with connecting points from all major cities in the vicinity, including Maharashtra, Nagpur, Mumbai and Pune. They rest just outside the city of Nasik.