As an archaeologist one of the things that continues to fascinate me about India is the sheer volume of new discoveries that are made almost on a daily basis. Occasionally these discoveries shed new light on the distant past, or can challenge a widely accepted opinion that has held steadfast for decades or even centuries. A recent discovery at the eastern cave group at Lohagadwadi in Maharashtra is a great example, and serves to demonstrate what huge potential there is for further new discoveries to be made.
The existence of rock-cut excavations around the vicinity of Lohagad Fort were first recorded by James Burgess in 1885 in Lists of the Antiquarian Remains in the Bombay Presidency, although here he merely refers to the presence of numerous cisterns. With the passing of time a little more clarity was added surrounding the cave remains at Lohagad, with two distinct clusters being reported on the eastern and northern sides of the hill, as well as a set that can be found on top of the fort plateau. With the presence of so many spectacular caves near to Lohagad, such as Karla, Bhaja, Bedse, Kondana and Ghoradeshwar– it is hardly surprising that these humble caves with no ornamentation or known inscriptions received little attention in antiquity, and indeed that seems to have remained the case up until very recent times.
During my visit to Lohagad on early 2020 I decided to try and locate the eastern group of caves, the intention being to include them as a side note in my blog post regarding fort. To my surprise, shortly after my visit I received news of a new discovery made at these caves, one that I was completely unaware of at the time but sufficiently interesting that I think it warrants a blog post of its own. More on this remarkable discovery later in this article…
Access to the eastern cave group is far from obvious. As you climb the main path up to the summit of the fort, just prior to the first gateway (Ganesh Gate) there is a near vertical cliff face to your right, and here the path turns sharp left. Leaving the main path by turning right, there is an uneven indistinct path that traverses the side of the hill at the base of this cliff face. After less than 50m you will come to a set of excavations on your left.
The site comprises of seven caves and numerous smaller excavations that acted as simple cells and water cisterns. These are dispersed horizontally across three levels up the cliff face of which only the lowest level of caves at the foot of the cliff are accessible today.
This is the largest of the caves that comprises the eastern group, and frustratingly it is also the only one that is viable to explore. It is a small lena-type cave with halls and adjoining cells, due to the collapse of the cliff face the very front portion of this excavation no longer exists. One of the cells has two narrow benches along the side walls flanking a doorway. On some of the walls appear to be socket holes, one presumes to facilitate wooden stuctures within the cave interior. The largest central hall has been partitioned off with a stone and brick wall, quite possibly reuse of this cave in later times when the fort up above had become established in medieval times.
Judging by the amount of rubbish strewed across the cave floor, this excavation is visited quite frequently by those who sadly seem have little respect or regard for heritage sites.
The rest of the caves in the eastern group reside horizontally across along a middle and upper level, and can only be observed by stepping back and looking up the cliff face. Inspecting these upper bands of caves can be a little difficult due to the dense vegetation at ground level.
The southern-most cave of this group, and is a very minor excavation on the middle level. It’s not entirely clear of this cave was abandoned or has since been partially lost due to erosion of the cliff face. Measuring just 2m x 1.5m, it has a small niche set on the back wall.
Once accessed by a series of steps carved into the cliff face which has partially eroded away, cave 3 is right next to cave 2 on the middle level. This appears to have an upper and lower cell, with the upper cell floor having a carved rectangular opening measuring 0.80m x 0.40m, providing access to the lower cell.
Interestingly, this opening has been carved with a frame to facilitate the placement of a wooden ‘false floor’ (or upper lid for the cell below). It’s difficult to interpret the exact function here, or indeed whether all these features are contemporary or the result of subsequent modifications over time. Perhaps the lower cell was at one stage used as storage for those occupying the upper cell, and the doorway through which the lower cell is accessed is a later modification. Note the clear gouging of the cliff face above the partially eroded steps (bottom left of above image).
Situated on the upper most level at the southern extent of the group, this cave consists of a front and inner hall with adjoning cells and a water cistern. The front hall has carved benches on the side walls and back wall flanking a doorway to the inner hall. More eroded steps here suggest that this cave was well connected with the other excavations on the group.
The smallest cave in the eastern group, it is either unfinished or has been subjected to collapse.
Located 23m north of Cave 5 in the middle section, this relatively simple excavation served as a large water cistern measuring 9m x 4.50m with two carved pillars at the back. This is the only cave in the group to have any pillars.
This is the northern most cave in the group, situated in the middle section about 8m from the ground level. The excavation measures 9m x 4m and appears to have been originally a water cistern. There is evidence of sockets carved into the walls and ceiling to possibly facilitate an internal wooden structure, and the entrance to the cave appears to have collapsed at some point and has been partially walled up with masonry. It’s highly likely both these features are from a later period, possibly when the cave was converted for some other use during medieval times.
The significance of Cave 7 however can be seen at the entrance, as here there is a clear insciption carved into a specially prepared surface. Amazingly, the existence of this inscription only came to light in September 2019, thanks to a group of trekking and exploration enthusiasts including Vivek Kale, Saiprakash Belasare, Ninad Bartakke, Amey Joshi, Abhinav Kurkute and Ajay Dhamdhere.
The inscription is in Brahmi script in a Prakit language influenced by Sanskrit. The palaeography (style and form of the carved letters) draws a close parallel with an inscription that can be found at Naneghat. Perhaps more significant however is the content of the inscription, which can be closely associated with an inscription discovered by R.L.Bhide in 1969 at Pale Caves, just 15km north of Lohagad which dates to the 1st or 2nd century B.C.E.
The inscription reads :
Namo arahaṁtānaṁ bhayaṁTranscribed by Ravishankar Srinivasan
ta Idarakhitena pōḍhi
[pe?][the] [kā?] patho doāsanā
[ni] veyikā ca kārāpitā
This records the names of Bhadaṁta Idarakhita and Gosāla, who appear to have made donations for various excavations at this site, specifically for two benches (doāsanā [ni]), water cisterns (poḍhi), railings (veyikā) and paths (patho).
Caves 1 and 4 both have benches, although the ones in Cave 1 are L-shaped so could be interpreted as either two or four distinct benches, so perhaps this inscription refers to the benches that reside in cave 4.
The parallels with the similar inscription at Pale Caves are striking both in terms of palaeography and content, but here at Lohagadwadi the inscription is more descriptive. Both contain the identical inaugural ‘obeisance’ expression of Namo arahaṁtānaṁ, dedicated to the Jain faith, and the same chief donor Bhadaṁta Idarakhita. The Pale Cave inscription also refers to other donors without any specific names, it’s quite possible Gosāla who is named at Lohagadwadi was one of the additional donors at Pale.
Scholars are not in complete agreement as to whether these are in fact Jain or Buddhist inscriptions, although the general consensus is swaying towards them being of Jain origin. If that is the case, both the inscriptions at Pale and at Lohagadwadi would be the earliest donations (and inscriptions) dedicated to the Jain faith so far discovered in Maharashtra.
The whole landscape surrounding Lohagadwadi and Pale Caves is peppered with simple rock-cut excavations for which their origins and religious affiliation remain completely unknown. Almost certainly most of these will have been attributed to Buddhist activity, but this newly found inscription which correlates so closely with the inscription at Pale perhaps suggests that there was more Jain influence than previously thought. Clearly more research is needed, in particular at the nearby northern cave group at Lohagadwadi. Pale Caves is also now on my list of places to visit when I next travel to India, hopefully in early 2022.
This newly discovered inscription is a mere ~50m away from the main path up to Lohagad fort, which receives tens of thousands of visitors each year. It’s staggering to think that an inscription of such significance and antiquity remained unnoticed for over two thousand years, and it is equally tantalising to imagine what new remarkable discoveries have yet to be made.
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