Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kanheri Caves (SGNP)

Dated: May 19, 2012.

Kanheri Caves (SGNP)
Since we had an extended weekend coming up, I and a couple of my office colleagues decided to plan a trip out. None of my colleagues were keen on an overnight trip so I suggested we head for Kanheri Caves post our night shift for a day trip. Although I have visited national park before as a kid I have never been to Kanheri caves. This would be my first trip to Kanheri caves and I was looking forward to my weekend.
Our night shift ended at 09:30 AM IST and we changed over from office wear to an attire more suitable for the trek we had planned. We have office transport that leaves for Borivali station at 10:00 AM IST daily. So we planned to board it and get off at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and continue the journey on foot from there on.
The best way to travel to SGNP is to get off at Borivali Railway station (East side) and either walk it up to SGNP located on WE highway or board a BEST bus from station to SGNP.
Our transport left late and we reached SGNP at about 11:00 AM IST. We spent about half an hour grabbing a quick breakfast and packing some snacks for the way. We had carried some extra glucose water since we expected it to be a hot and sunny May afternoon.
The Entrance fee was Rs. 30/- per adult. We noticed that people were allowed to take their private vehicles inside at a nominal fee. Public transport was however not allowed in. We picked up our tickets and entered the SGNP gates.
There is a bus service operated by the forest department which charges you Rs. 30/- for a one way trip to Kanheri caves. Although we expected the temperatures to soar in the afternoon we weren’t keen on travelling by Bus or the Toy train of SGNP.
We wanted to travel at our own pace and make halts at places we found interesting. We noticed the forest department had put up a rent a cycle stall at the entrance.  At Rs. 40/- per cycle it was a good deal we immediately picked up the last three cycles left on the stall. We had to get the breaks tuned before we could proceed. A word of caution these bikes have been through rough use so it is advisable to have them checked before you get moving.
It was 11:45 when we started off on the cycles and we hoped to get to Kanheri caves within an hour. The cycles made the journey less tiring and less time consuming too. Also unlike the Bus or train they still allowed us the freedom to halt whenever and wherever we wanted to.
Our first halt was at a junction where the road branched off into two. The lane on our left was a Tiger safari route and the one on our right was our route to Kanheri caves. We posed for a few pictures and resumed our trip to Kanheri caves.
Our second halt was over a bridge on a dried up stream. A snake had been run over by some vehicle while crossing the road. We often get to see such sights on roads that pass through forest areas. For me such sights symbolise Mother Nature trampled under the wheels of modernisation.
After a few pictures and sips of glucose we were back on route to Kanheri caves.
It was after 45 minutes of cycling and three halts since we started from SGNP gates that we first sighted Kanheri caves. The way up was steep so decided to walk up, dragging our cycles along with us. A large hoarding announced an additional fee of Rs. 30/- for Kanheri Caves, but we saw no ticketing windows or entry post. So we parked our cycles and just moved in without any tickets.
As expected the caves were spread over a huge area and it wasn’t possible for us cover all of them in one day. These caves date back from 01 century BCE to 10 century CE. We explored a most of the caves located on the northern side and were amazed by the work effort that must have gone into creating these rock cut caves and mounds. Over a hundred viharas prove that this was a well organised colony of Buddhist monks. While the viharas were meant for study and meditation there are larger halls called chaityas which were meant for congregational worship. Each of these chaitya’s are lined with beautifully carved Buddhist sculptures and pillars. Some also contain rock cut stupas meant for congregational worship.
Cave 01 though appears massive on the outside is an unfinished chaitya and does not hold much on the inside.
Cave 11 is a huge hall with a front veranda. The hall has two cells with Buddha shrines carved next to each cell entrance. A huge rock cut stupa is placed next to the hall.
The most extravagant of these was cave 03 which is a chaitya consisting of a huge rectangular hall, a porch and a spacious court in front. Rows of 17 pillars on each side divide the hall into a central nave and flanking aisles.
A large stupa almost 7 meters in height adorns the far side of this hall. The facade of the hall has one large entrance with two smaller doors, one on each side. A large window above the doors provides passage for light. The side walls of the veranda are adorned with large sculptures of standing Buddha.
In addition to the caves there are several underground water tanks, almost one for every three or four caves. We noticed a security guard drawing water from one of these tanks and asked him if the water was edible. With a positive response he showed us his water bottle that he had come to refill. The underground water tanks had a small square opening to draw out water and yet when you peep in you would notice that each tank is cut in an exact square or rectangle. Even the base of these tanks was aligned to the ceiling. Even more surprising was the fact that almost all the water tanks we came across had a natural spring inside it. Although most tanks aren’t maintained anymore and have turned dirty, the guard informed us that there are three tanks which are still cleaned regularly and the water is edible. We drank some sweet water and moved on.
We continued our climb upwards visiting several caves on the way. As we reached higher we realised that beyond the caves and the water tanks this location offered a beautiful panoramic view of northern Mumbai. After a short break and some pictures we started our climb downwards.
Some village women were hawking cucumber and lemon juice at the base of the caves. We allowed ourselves a second break before we could start cycling back to the SGNP gates. Rakesh couldn’t help comparing today with our childhood days when we would go cycling and enjoys gola’s, nimbu pani and stuff like that on our pocket money.
We returned to the rent a cycle stall only to be informed that at Rs.40/- per cycle had a two hour time limit to it. After a successful argument that we were not informed of this condition the forest officer let us go without any extra charges. There are no rate-cards printed or banners put up to display the cycle charges or conditions involved. Most people assume these forest guards are police officers due to similar uniforms and pay up without any complains. Before leaving we did suggest to them that they display rate charts to avoid such instances in future.
Despite having worked a night shift we had spent the day well, visiting a place that is such a treasure in a city like Mumbai and yet some many of us take this place for granted. Some people never visiting it in their entire life time. Over 2000 years ago this place was a thriving university and today it is almost forgotten. So near and yet so lost...

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