The Junnar region in Maharashtra has the largest number of rock-cut caves in India, numbering over 200 independent excavations and spread over the four hills. All the caves here belong to the Hinayana phase and are datable from mid 3rd century B.C. to late 3rd century A.D.
The presence of so many rock cut excavations with a large number of associated inscriptions (enabling paleographical study) makes Junnar a prominent site for the study of rock cut architecture in India.
Junnar group of caves are classified into various sub-groups depending upon the location of these excavations. They are:
- Tulja Lena – located on Tuljabai hill, 5 km west of Junnar.
- Manmodi – located on Manmodi hill to the southwest of the town. Here there are a further three distinct groups :
- Sivaneri – located southwest of the town
- Lenyadri (also known as Ganesh Lena) – located north of the town.
My initial plan was to see all three cave groups on Manmodi Hill, but unfortunately time and the nature of the terrain prevented me from doing so (this time!).
The problem for myself and my driver was one of access. Most of the locals we asked directions from warned us of bees nests and leopards in the region, and suggested it was unwise to make an attempt to see any of the caves.
Frustratingly, from the road I could make out some of the caves, which I now subsequently know to be the Bimasankar group. I tried to get there on foot along a well established track through forest, only to be told by locals I met that this was not the way up, and to instead use a similar track closer to Junnar that was flanked by pillars at the roadside.
This track took up through the forest again on foot, but it soon reduced to a tiny path with lots of side paths coming off of it. There were no signposts of course, and nobody to ask, so all I could do was ascend whichever path took me upwards. These rock-cut caves always reside just below the crest of a hill, and so gaining altitude seemed the only viable strategy to adopt.
And I was lucky, after about 10 minutes of climbing (which felt much longer), the dense forest gave way to a small plateaux in front of what I now know to be the Amba-Ambika Caves. At the time however, I had no idea which of the cave complexes I had managed to find !
The Amba-Ambika group of caves consists of one Chaitya, 17 Vihaars, 11 water tanks and in total 15 inscriptions. The Chaitya is unfinished, the aisles are not present and the top of the stupa is very roughly carved out.
Work was never completed here as a major fault line was discovered in the soft rock, so all the efforts were abandoned in this cave. One can only imagine the disappointment to put this much man power into creating something out of solid rock, only for the efforts to be forced to cease. During the monsoon season water leaks into the unfinished Chaitya through this very fault.
On the eastern side of the main Chaitya there is a small cave with Stupa. The stupa is a little unusual in shape as the dome is more than semisphere, with two water tanks in front of this Stupa cave.
There are a number of inscriptions at Amba-Ambika, translated texts include :
“A house of two cells, a meritorious gift by the brothers Budhamita and Budharakhita, Lankudiyas, sons of Asasama, inhabitants of Bharukachacha”
“A gift of the householder Sivadasa, son of the householder Sayiti, and his wife with all his relatives”
I managed to locate four separate sets of inscriptions, although I don’t know which relates to the above translations.
The highlight for me was a cave on the second level, east of the main Chaitya. Getting into this case is not easy, care should be taken as there’s not much rock left for your feet to get purchase on to.
The original Buddhist caves were sculptured by Jains in about 9th century A.D. Along with sculptures of Tirthankara there is a sculpture of Ambika, which is how this group of caves got its name. Ambika and Tirthankara are worshipped by Jain the community. Ambika is also worshipped by Hindu community.
This was quite an atmospheric space, making the whole adventure in finding the caves so much more rewarding. Clearly this cave is still a place of worship today, and I found the brightly coloured walls fascinating, and strangely calming despite the bright colours.
The rapidly fading light was my call to start retreating back to the car. I’m so glad to have found Amba-Ambika caves, but there’s unfinished business here, as I have still to explore Bhimasankar and Bhutalinga. Maybe next year… 🙂
Update 2017 : Click here for instructions on how to successfully see all three cave complexes on Manmodi Hill in a single visit !
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