Kondane Caves, Rajmachi, Maharasthra

high-definition creative commons photographs from the remote Kondane caves, showing some of the earliest rock-cut caves in western India, quite broken down now, but still with some fine relief carving, together with some further information.

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The Kondane Caves

The Kondane caves are around a dozen kiliometres north-west of Lonavala, but they cannot be approached the way the crow flies, and it entails a long and roundabout journey from Lonavala, taking some one and a half or two hours to reach them, and then a long climb in through the forest for more than two kilometres on foot.

The caves are very remote, situated on the hot and dry plains, and are believed to be one of the earliest cave groups in western India, probably 2nd or 3rd c. BCE; the caves could not be seen while approaching until we were within around 100 metres of them, and they were obviously intended for full seclusion and meditation.

There are only three main caves here: an ancient Chaitya hall, which is very much in the style of the early period, it now has new, recently built pillars, which are very much out of style; there is a large vihāra hall with around nine cells positioned around it. The pillars are broken down, it looks like deliberately, and the place has quite a lot of rubble around; there is a 3rd vihāra, which is seemingly built in a natural hollow. It is quite broken down now.

There seems to be no real protection of the monument, with only one attendant, who turned up after we arrived, and very few visitors owing to the remoteness of the caves. There seem to be intentions to repair/rebuild part of the caves, as there is cut stone around, but no sign of recent activity, and one feels the place is languishing from lack of attention.

We visited in the dry season, so the waterfalls and rivers which otherwise flow near the caves, were dried up. There was a very good view out from the vihāra caves on the valley below, and the whole scene reminded me strongly of some of the Theragātha verses where the monks rejoice in the remote countryside, such as Vanavaccha's verse (Th 1.13):

The pleasing dark clouds,
the clear streams flowing,
covered with ladybirds,
these rocks delight me.

The Surrounding Countryside

Description from The Cave Temples of India
James Fergusson and James Burgess (1880)

About four miles from the Karjat station, on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, and at the base of the old hill fort of Rājmachi, is the Koṇḍāne group of caves, first brought to notice about 30 years ago by the late Vi?ṇu Sāstri, and soon after visited by Mr. Law, then collector of Thāṇā.

They are in the face of a steep scarp, and quite hidden from view by the thick forest in front of them. Water trickles down over the face of the rock above them during a considerable part even of the dry season, and has greatly injured them. So much so indeed that it is now difficult to determine whether they, or the caves at Bhājā are the earliest. They must be nearly, if not quite contemporary, and as they must have taken some time to excavate, their dates may overlap to some extent.

The Vihāra at Koṇḍāne certainly looks more modern, while the Chaitya, which is very similar in plan and dimensions to that at Bhājā, is so much ruined that it is impossible now to decide which may have been first completed.

They face nonh-west, and the first to the south-west is a Chaitya cave of very considerable dimensions, being 66.5 feet from the line of the front pillars to the extremity of the apse, 26 feet inches wide, and 2.8 feet 5 inches high to the crown of the arch. The nave in front of the dagoba is 49 feet in length by 14 feet 8 inches, and the dagoba 91 feet in diameter, with a capital of more than usual height, the neck – representing the relic casket – being, as at Bhājā of double the ordinary height, and representing two coffers, one above the other, carved on the sides with the Buddhist rail pattern.

The fillets that covered this are decayed, as is also the whole of the lower part of the dagoba. The bases with the lower parts of all the thirty columns that surrounded the nave, as well as that of one of the two irregular columns that once ornamented the front, have also decayed, and positions only of most of them can now be asertained. Between the two latter pillars a wooden screen or front originally filled the opening to a height of about 10 or 12 feet, in which were the doorways leading to the interior and it was fixed to them, as seems to have been the case with all the earlier caves.

The Chaitya Cave at Bhājā and that at Koṇḍāne had similar fronts constructed in wood. The caves at Bedsa and Karle are apparently among the earliest, where these screens were carved in the rock instead of being erected in the more perishable material. There are still, however, remains of seven pillars on the left side of the cave, and six on the south, which rake inwards, as do also those at Bhājā and Bedsa – a proof of the early date of the work; those behind the dagoba and six near the front on the right side have disappeared entirely.

On the upper portion of one column on the left is a symbol or device somewhat resembling a dagoba, with a rude canopy over it. The arched roof has had wooden rafters as at Karle and elsewhere, but they are gone, and the only remains of the woodwork is a portion of the latticed screen in the front arch. The facade bears a strong family likeness to that at Bhājā.

On the left side is a fragment of sculpture in alto rilievo – part of the head of a single figure about twice life-size. The features are destroyed, but the details of the headdress show the most careful attention to finish of detail. Over the left shoulder is an inscription in one line in Mauryan characters of perhaps the second century B.C., or it may be earlier, which reads – Kaṇhasa antevāsinā Balakena kata?, which translates as "Made by Balaka, the pupil of Kaṇha (Kriṣṇa)."

Over this head, at the level of the spring of the great arch in the facade, is a broad projecting belt of sculpture: the lower portion of it is carved with the rail pattern; the central portion is divided into seven compartments, filled alternately, three with a lattice Pattern and five with human figures one male in the first, a male and female in each of the third and fifth, and a male with a bow and two females in the seventh.

Over these is a band with the representations of the ends of tie-beams or bars projecting through it, and then four fillets, each projecting over the one below, and the upper half of the last serrated. The corresponding belt of carving to the right side of the facade is much damaged by the falling away of the rock at the end next the arch.

A little to north-east is No II, a Vihāra, of which the front of the verandah is totally destroyed except the left end. This verandah was 5 feet 8 inches wide and 18 feet long, with the unique number of five octagon pillars and two antae. In the end of this verandah is a raised recess, and under a Chaitya arch is a small dagoba in half relief, – apparently the only object of worship when these caves were excavated.

Inside, the hall is 23 feet wide by 29 deep, and 8 feet 3 inches high, with 15 pillars arranged about 3 feet apart and 3.5 feet from the side and back walls, but none across the front. The upper portions of these pillars are square, but about 11 feet from the top they are octagonal: the bases of all are gone, but they also were probably square.

The roof is panelled in imitation of as structural hall with beams 19 inches deep by 8 thick, 3.5 feet apart, running across through the heads of the pillars, and the spaces between divided by smaller false rafters, 5 inches broad by 2 deep.

There are three wide doors into the hall, though most of the front wall is broken away, and on each side six cells – 18 in all, each with the monk's bed in it, and the first on each side with two. Over the doors of 14 of these cells are carved Chaitya or horse-shoe arches, connected by a string course projecting 6 or 7 inches and carved with the rail pattern.

No. III is a plain vihāra with nine cells, much ruined, especially in front, but it had probably three doors.

No. IV is a row of nine cells at the back of what now looks like a natural hollow under the cliff. Beyond them is a tank, now filled with mud, then two cells under a deep ledge of over-hanging rock, and, lastly, a small cistern.


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Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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