Despite feeling incredibly jet-lagged having just arrived in India a few hours earlier, we didn’t want to let any time we had go to waste, and so we set out to do some exploring in Mumbai. Our first stop – the Kanheri Caves located right outside of Borivali.
To visit the caves, you’ll first need to enter Sanjay Gandhi National Park. If you’re a tourist, you’ll be required to pay entrance fees into both the national park and the Kanheri Caves. If you’re local, you’ll be allowed into the park for free and enjoy a discounted rate into the caves.
The Kanheri Caves are ancient caves dating back to the first century BC that were hand-chiseled by Buddhist monks into the side of a mountain. Most of the 109 caves making up the cave complex are small, basic rooms called viharas, which were used for sleeping, studying, and meditating.
The larger common areas, called chaityas, however, are far more interesting to explore. These rooms were used for congregating for worship and school, and it is in these areas that you’ll find the best-surviving evidence of the monks’ intricate wall carvings, inscriptions, and sculptures.
The most memorable of the caves, the Great Chaitya, contains the stupa, a dome-shaped shrine which likely once contained religious relics. Featuring a high ceiling and tall stone pillars on either side leading to the stupa, the Great Chaitya was used as the prayer hall by the monks because of its outstanding acoustics.
While we were exploring the room, an Indian officer entered with us and began to chant a Buddhist prayer. It was so beautiful it gave me goosebumps and was, by far, my favorite part of our experience at the Kanheri Caves.
While exploring the caves, I actually recognized one of the sculptures. It depicted the same figure as that on a wood carving I’d just bought for my living room. I’d had no idea who the figure was when I bought it, but I now believe it is Avalokitesvara, the lord who looks down. She is the bodhisattva containing the compassion of all the Buddhas. The peaceful expression on her face was the entire reason I chose that carving for our home, but now it has even more meaning having seen her represented in a place where she used to be worshipped.
When visiting the Kanheri Caves, I recommend bringing a lot of water and arriving as early in the day as you can. There is quite a bit of walking involved to see the caves and there isn’t much shade to speak of, which means it gets hot. The hiking itself isn’t very difficult. Nearly all of the caves are accessed by steps, and those that do not have steps don’t have too steep an incline to climb.
Sidenote: If you feel like climbing to the top after visiting the caves, you’ll be able to see the monks’ water canal system, plus get a stunning view of the surrounding landscape!
As an added bonus, if you don’t look like you’re from around these parts, you just might get to feel like a bit of a celebrity while you’re here, too. At least that was our experience anyway when a local family saw us leaving the caves and wanted to shake our hands. They then asked us to take a picture with them. I was so confused and delighted at the same time. What could they possibly want with a picture of a bunch of strangers? Although from the looks of it, we are the only ones excited about the photo op. Ha!
This was just the beginning – by the end of the trip we were used to being asked for photos while we were out and about. (I even started carrying a pen in case anyone wanted my autograph. Just kidding.) I didn’t mind one bit. How often do you get to feel like a movie star every time you leave the house?
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