India

Jogeshwari Caves – Mumbai

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Jogeshwari Caves in the Andheri district of Mumbai are amongst the earliest rock-cut cave temples built by Hindus in India. Dated to 520 – 550 A.D, they were once richly ornamented, but sadly due to their damp location the caves have been slowly crumbling for centuries.

Locating the caves is not easy at all. Google maps has the pin in the right district, but it is certainly not in the right place, and don’t expect any signage or hints of the caves at ground level. Your best bet is to get broadly in the right area, and ask the locals, although even by doing that it took me three attempts before anybody was able to point me in the right direction !

Jogeshwari Caves are extremely well hidden, cut into a low hillock they are at a much lower level than their surroundings. The urban growth of Mumbai has completely engulfed the caves, they are utterly hemmed in by buildings, including the roof.

Access into the caves is via a narrow passage cut into the bedrock, seemingly descending into a dark underworld, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Conditions are not great here, open drains adjoin the caves and there are pools of stagnant water everywhere.

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Jogeshwari Caves consists of an impressive cavernous large hall, with 20 carved pillars and a square shrine in the center containing a Shiva linga. It’s plan very much resembles Cave 1 (the main cave) at Elephanta and Cave 29 at Ellora, although the excavations here are considered to be slightly earlier than Elephanta.

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It’s a very surreal experience, just a few meters away above and around the cave is the hustle and bustle of urban life going about its daily routine, and yet hidden away from all of that is this massive excavation offering a feeling of space and peacefulness. Caves normally give a sense of claustrophobia compared to their surroundings, and yet here it’s the complete opposite.

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Still a place of active worship by locals, some scholars believe that the caves were excavated under the patronage of the Maurya of Konkan, Kalachuri. As well as being one of the earliest Hindu caves in India, Jogeshwari is also the largest in terms of length.

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There are a few shrines within the cave, including a 1,500 year old Ganesh, painted fluorescent orange and adorned with garlands. Two massive human guardian figures stand on either side of a doorway beyond, along with fragments of ornamentation.

The Thana District Gazetteer of 1882 writes of the caves:

“The walls of the portico, and the walls of its two end recesses, were once covered with figures, but the crumbling rock and the low damp site of the cave have rotted away almost all traces of carving. At the ends of the portico were two richly ornamented chambers separated from the body of the porch by two pillars and two pilasters now in a totally dilapidated condition. These pillars have wasted away to the quaintest skeletons with rough corkscrew like-ridges of harder stone, like the wreaths round the prentice pillar at Rosslyn Chapel. The large figure in the right chamber seems to have been Siva in the form of a seated Buddha-like ascetic, and below there is a trace of a side figure now practically defaced, perhaps the giver of the sculpture. The figure in the left chamber seems to have been Siva dancing the wild tandava of which nothing now remains. In the middle of the back wall of the portico is a highly ornamented door with the remains of large warders on either side, and in other parts, with traces of delicate carving of which only a few glimpses are visible.”

There are over 1,200 rock-cut temples in Maharashtra alone, ranging in size from small shrines to massive temple complexes. The tradition began with Buddhist shrines in the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C.. These monuments reached their apex under the Buddhist Vakataka Dynasty in the 5th century A.D. with the caves at Ajanta, a group of 30 fantastically carved and painted shrines in a gorge, 250 miles east of Mumbai. But it was not until the sixth century that Hindus in the region began to adopt the practice.

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After the death of the Buddhist Vakataka king Harisena, who was a patron of Ajanta, many of the craftsman of Ajanta are believed to have left the area in search of applying their skills elsewhere. It is thought that some may have traveled west to the Hindu Kalachuri kingdom and began the first great Hindu cave temples, first at
Jogeshwari and then subsequently at Elephanta.

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Protected national monuments in India typically have an exclusion zone of 100m, preventing any encroachment towards the structures. Currently the encroachment in some areas of Jogeshwari is as little as 2m. Obviously given the urban pressures it would be hard to enforce the 100m rule, at Jogeshwari this would result in the resettlement of over 750 slum dwellers of Pratap Nagar.

So in April 2006 a compromise of 25m was agreed, and any structure within the 25m protected limit can be legally cleared. Twelve years have since passed and it’s hard to see if that has been enforced much at all.

Despite the precarious setting and crumbling carvings, it’s well worth making the effort to visit Jogeshwari Caves. Historically they are incredibly significant, bridging the gap from the great Buddhist caves of western Maharashtra to the slightly later magnificence of Elephanta Caves. Jogeshwari Caves is very much the Grandfather of all Hindu rock-cut architecture in India, I just hope efforts continue to both study the caves and give them the protection they so badly need.


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