The Mahakali Caves, also known as the Kondivite or Kondivita Caves, are a series of rock-cut shrines 5km south-east of Jogeshwari Caves in Mumbai.
With excavations dating from between the 1st century B.C. and 6th century A.D, the complex consists of 19 caves cut into the summit of a hill; 15 caves on the south-east side, and 4 caves on the north-west side. Long before the urban sprawl of Mumbai swallowed up this area it was known as Marol village, and several fresh water tanks used to exist which have long since disappeared.
There’s been a number of variations in the naming of this site. J.M. Campbell (1882) refers to them as Kondivite or Kondivti Caves on account of the caves being close to Kondivti village, Fergusson (1880) names them as Kondiwte Caves, whereas S.R. Wauchop (1933) elects to call them Mahakel Caves. Ironically for a Buddhist monument, the present day name of Mahakali Caves is derived from a nearby Hindu temple.
Some efforts have been made here to protect the monument from encroachment and misuse. The site now has a perimeter fence, hopefully preventing them from being used as illicit liquor distilleries, or frequented by sex workers. This and encroachment by shanty dwellings was quite prevalent until quite recently.
Upon entering the complex the first set of monuments you will reach are the string of 15 caves on the south-east side.
Caves 1, 2 and 3
These three caves are connected with each other, the middle one is the largest with an open courtyard and pillared portico.
At the far end of the rectangular hall is a seat for an icon, and behind that a stupa has been carved on the back wall.
Cave 4 (Vihara Cave)
A flight of five steps takes you up to a verandah and then into the Vihara cave hall. Chambers on either side lead to a further three cells.
It’s quite a large space, but devoid of any intricate carvings. However, immediately outside the entrance is a roughly hewn cobra with seven hoods.
There’s some speculation as to whether this carving is associated with a Sarpala (or Snake pond) that exists at the foot of the hill.
Cave 5, 6, 7 and 8
Simple cells, nothing particularly notable about these caves, aside from a peek into cave 9 from cave 8.
Cave 9 (Chaitya Cave)
This is the main cave of the complex and most likely the oldest excavation at Mahakali. Some locals call it Anasicha Kamara (granary) due to the shape of the semi-circular shrine at the end of the hall.
The hall itself faces east with no supported pillars at the entrance, so it is completely open. J.M. Campbell recorded that there are only two other circular shrine like structures that are similar to the one at Mahakali; Sudama Cave and Lomas Rishi Cave, both located in Bihar. Some scholars believe that this could be the earliest Chaitya in Western India.
The stupa is enclosed by a circular wall with some wonderful perforated lattice windows, allowing just a little light on to the circumambulatory path.
J.M.Campbell makes reference to a Pali inscription near one of the lattice windows, although I completely failed to spot it. The inscription, dated to the 3rd century A.D. states :
‘Gift of a vihara, with his brother, by Pittimba, a Brahman of Gautama gotra, an inhabitant of Pachi Kama‘
The walls of the hall were originally bare, but were later carved with images of Buddha.
Cave 10 and 11
Simple cells, nothing particularly notable about these caves.
Very little remains of this cave now, much of it has collapsed. The rail pattern above the stone screen is however partially intact.
An enclosed courtyard is reached via a flight of five steps, with amalaka patterned capitals on the pillars supporting the verandah. Beyond this is a large square hall measuring almost 9m, and supported by octagonal pillars, again with amalaka capitals.
There are eight cells surrounding the hall, with little decoration except for the lintel of the central shrine on the back wall.
A verandah supported by two pillars leading to a rectangular hall with two side cells.
Very similar to cave 14 and probably contemporary, obstructed by a large block of basalt rock.
Cave 15 is the last cave on the south-eastern side. From here you have two choices; either continue on over rough ground (with garbage and goodness knows what) to reach the north-western side, or alternatively retrace your steps back and take one of the rock-cut steps over the brow of the hill and down to the other side.
An undecorated cave with verandah, hall and shrine and cells on either side.
Has two doors and two windows, without pillars or decoration. This was possibly used as a dining hall as there are benches around the hall.
A verandah supported by two pillars with stone benches on either side. A doorway into the hall leads to a single cell/sanctum on the back wall with some decoration. This cave was at one point used as a Shiva temple and had a carved linga in the cell, which has since been removed.
Quite a large excavation, with a verandah supported by two pillars, one of which has disappeared. The western wall has some stone benches, with cells on the left and right of the verandah. The hall has a platform and a deep niche, presumably to house icons. This cave has been partially damaged by more recent incumbents – makers of illegal liquor.
Together with Jogeshwari and Mandapeshwar, Mahakali Caves forms the trilogy of less visited rock-cut caves in and around Mumbai. It is by far the best maintained and preserved of the three, so if you don’t have time to see all of them I would highly recommend Malakali is the one to head for.
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