Bhamchandra Caves are a set of rock-cut excavations located near Bhamboli, 40 km north of Pune in Maharashtra. The caves are clearly marked on Google Maps, and the map below shows where to the park and the path to take to reach the caves. Please be sure to take some water with you, the climb is quite steep and will take around 30 minutes if you are moderately fit.
The setting for Bhamchandra Caves must have once felt extremely remote and isolated, but sadly that is no longer the case. In just the last 10 years there has been a massive amount of construction on the land surrounding these caves, mostly to support the automotive industry. You can see from the above map the extent to which this is happening, and that development appears to be continuing with more construction occuring when I visited in January 2019.
Hopefully this will not put people off visiting these caves. This was the last of four cave complexes I visit in a single day from Pune, the others being Ghoradeshwar (Shelarwadi), Ferangai (Nanoli), and Bhandara (Induri). Each of these cave complexes has something different to offer, and Bhamchandra was no different in that respect.
There are six caves in total at Bhamchandra, three are natural caves and a further three that probably started as natural caves and have been extended considerably. In addition to the caves, there are at least five cisterns evenly distributed across the site. The first of those cisterns you will come across (unphotographed) is known locally as Sita’s bath (Sitechi Nhani).
This is the first cave you will come to on your right, and is the only cave that was investigated and reported on in the Gazetteer Of The Bombay Presidency Vol.XVIII Part III in 1885.
The front of the cave is bricked up with a single entrance, possibly the original cave frontage has collapsed at some point.
Inside the cave is a hall with four columns, the alignment of these pillars and indeed the whole architecture of this cave did strike me as a little crude. There are many rough and warn carvings here of Ganesh and other deities, and quite a lot of colour applied especially to the columns that made seeing this cave a slightly different experience to the one I was expecting.
The main sanctum now houses a Shiva linga, but there are hints here that this cave does not have Hindu origins. Look up at the roof of the sanctum and there you will see what appears to be the remains of a stupa umbrella. On the floor too, the round footprint of a stupa appears to have been modified to now house the Shiva linga. This is a fairly common observation to make in these rock-cut excavations, and earlier that day I had seen the exact same thing at the main cave at Ghoradeshwar (Shelarwadi).
On the back wall of the sanctum is a curious sculpture, one that was identified as Buddha in 1885 and may well have once been associated with the stupa in this space.
A few meters on from cave 1 is cave 2. With a front wall of modern brick, this cave has been enlarged relatively recently to serve as a large hall for the monks that live here.
Clearly these caves are not visited that often by outsiders, and my western appearance just added to the curiosity of the monks. They were extremely friendly however, and despite the lack of a common language they encouraged me to step inside and see the interior of cave 2.
Cave 3 did get a mention in the Gazetteer Of The Bombay Presidency Vol.XVIII Part III in 1885, but at the time it was not accessible. To find it, continue on the path until you reach a set of sculptures on a platform around a tree. From here turn right and climb up the edge of the scarp, thankfully there are hand railings to help with your ascent.
This cave is relatively small, but contains a wonderful mural/carving of Sant Tukaram in a meditation pose, as well as a shrine of Vitthal Rakhimai.
Sant Tukaram (also known as Bhakta Tukaram, Tukaram Maharaj, Tukoba and Tukobaraya), was a 17th century Hindu poet and sant of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra. He is best known for his devotional poetry, called Abhanga, and for encouraging community-oriented worship with spiritual songs known as kirtans.
Tukaram was born somewhere between 1598 and 1608 in the village of Dehu near Pune. He was orphaned in his teenage years and both his first wife and son starved to death in the famine of 1630-1632. These life experiences had a profound effect on Tukaram, who became contemplative and started meditating on the hills of the Sahyadri range. He later referred to this as “had discussions with my own self”.
Tukaram is said to have often frequented three of the cave complexes I visited that day, here at Bhamchandra, but also at Ghoradeshwar (Shelarwadi) and Bhandara (Induri). He subsequently remarried and spent his later years in devotional group worship and composing Abhanga poetry.
Some scholars believe that Tukaram met Shivaji and that the Bhakti movements of poets influenced Sivaji’s rise to power. Tukaram died around 1650.
I really enjoyed visiting Bhamchandra Caves, of the four cave complexes I visited that day it was probably the highlight. These caves are a little different to the others I have explored in the region, and it was good to meet the community of monks there who welcomed me into their homes and were more than happy to let me record my experiences photographically.
I could not lie anymore,
so I started to call my dog “God”.
First he looked confused,
then he started smiling, then he even danced.
I kept at it, now he doesn’t even bite,
I am wondering if this might work on people.
— Sant Tukaram, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
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