You are here

IX. The Ganesh Caves

Fifty-six miles to the north of Poona lies the old town of Junner, which owing to its proximity to the historic Nana Ghat was in the earliest times an important centre of trade. As early as 100 years before the birth of Christ, the Nana Pass was one of the chief highways of trade between Aparantaka or the Northern Konkan and the Deccan; and although the steep and slippery nature of the ascent must have prevented cart-traffic, the number of pack-bullocks and ponies that were annually driven upwards towards the cooler atmosphere and richer soil of Junner must have been considerable. Once the Nana Ghat had been crossed the traveller found himself in a land marked out by Nature herself for sojourn and settlement: for there lay before his eyes a fruitful plain, well-shaded, well-watered and girt with mighty hills of rock, which needed but the skill of man to be transformed into a chain of those "Viharas" or places of rest and recreation, which the Buddhists of pre-Christian and early Christian ages sought to establish. Thus it happens that in each of the mountain ranges which rise around Junner are found caves and shrines hewn out of the solid rock by the followers of Buddhism, some with inscriptions in obsolete characters and all of them in a wonderful state of preservation, considering the ages that have passed since their foundation.

Among those most easy of access are the Ganesh Lena, as they are called, hollowed out of the vast rounded scarp, which rising a hundred feet above the plain projects from the Hatkeshvar and Suleman ranges about a mile northward of the town. A fairly smooth but dusty road leads the traveller down to the Kukdi river dried by the fair weather into stagnant pools, in which the women wash their clothes and the buffaloes lounge heavily, and thence through garden-land and clumps of mango-trees to the under-slopes of the mountain. There the road proper merges into a rocky pathway, which in turn yields place some little distance further on to a series of well-laid masonry steps, of comparatively recent date, which, as they curve upwards, recall to one's mind the well-known Hundred Steps at Windsor Castle. The steps are divided into about ten flights, and are said to have been built at different times by devotees of God Ganesh in gratitude for his having granted their prayers. What prompted the first worshipper to prove his gratitude in this form none can say: he might have so easily satisfied his conscience with a presentation to the God or by the erection of a small shrine in the plains. But happily for all men he adopted the more philanthropic course of smoothing the road to the presence of the kindly Deity. Others, the recipients of like favours and fired by his example, added each in their turn to the work, until the once rude track was transformed into a massive stone-approach fit for the feet of princes.

The caves are twenty-six in number and consist mainly of dwellings and cells, with three water-cisterns two of which bear inscriptions, and a chapel. The cells are all hewn into somewhat similar pattern and shape, containing on one and sometimes two sides long stone benches, which served doubtless as the resting-place of their Buddhist occupants. The "Chaitya Vihara" or chapel cave alone is worth a visit. Pillars and pilasters with eight-sided shafts and waterpot-bases, which scholars attribute to the period B. C. 90 to A. D. 300, stand sentinel over verandahs stretching away into darkness on either side of the main aisle. Their capitals are surmounted with crouching animals, twin elephants, a sphinx and lion, twin tigers, all beautifully carved through in places broken; while above them the main walls of the cave rise steep into a pointed vault, the centre of which is some twenty-four feet from the ground-floor. The relic-shrine or "Daghoba" at the far end of the chapel stands upon a high plinth, and is crowned by a rounded dome, similar to the "Daghoba" at Vyaravali which overlooks the dead city of Pratappur in Salsette. One of the members of our party struck the plinth with a dhotar to awaken the echoes which eddy loudly round the vault and rouse the wild birds that have built their nests in the holes and cornices. The birds as well as the bats which lurk in the darker recesses of the chapel are said to be responsible for the very pungent and unpleasant odour which greets one on entering and forces one to cut short one's visit. And what of him who built the shrine? Deep in the back wall of the verandah is graven, in characters long since obsolete, an inscription interpreted some time ago by scholars, which tells how Sulasadata, the illustrious son of Heranika of Kalyana, presented the chapel to the monastery, to the glory of God and his own lasting merit. The rock-hewn words are headed and ended with the "Swastika" or symbol of good fortune, which appears in so many messages from Buddhist ages.

On the left of the chapel at a slightly higher level stands the largest of this group of caves, a large hall with a verandah and twenty cells around it. Later ages have converted the whole cave into a temple of Ganpati, whence the caves obtain their name of Ganesh Lena; and the once plain walls, whose very austerity reflected perhaps the life of the monks dwelling within them, have been rudely plastered, white-washed and covered with inferior representations of incidents in the lives of Devi, Krishna, Shiv and Ganpati. In the centre of the back wall, between two ancient stone seats, glowers a rude "eidolon," aflame with red lead and ghi, so thickly smeared indeed that the original features and form of the god have well-nigh disappeared. Yet this is Ganesh, the kindly Ganesh, who turns not a deaf ear to the prayers of his servants and in whose honour the stone steps were hewn and laid. Two pujaris of the Yajurvedi Brahman stock and three or four women, who are attached to the shrine, crave alms for the God. They and their forbears, they tell you, have been the officiating priests for years; wherefore, desirous of testing their knowledge, you enquire who built these mighty dwelling-places. "Hindus of a thousand years ago," say they, "who desired to acquire merit." But ask the untutored villager who has guided you up the hill; and straightway comes the answer:--"Sahib, these were not built by man, but by the Gods ere man came hither!"

Outside the cave is a pleasant verandah and balus trade, whence you look down over the bare lower slopes to the garden-studded course of the river. Beyond lies a long low trail of vapour, which marks the position of Junner, and behind that again climb heaven-ward the Manmoda hills. On the right, with its ruined mosque and conning-tower grey in the morning light, the massive pile of Shivner frowns over the valley, like some dismasted battleship, hurled upwards into sudden petrifaction by the hands of Titans. It is an impressive scene--the pre-Christian monastery behind you; the relics of Musulman and Maratha sovereignty in front; and below, bathed in a sea of morning-mist which Surya is hastening to disperse, Junner, the town of ancient memories, in her latest avatar of a British Taluka Headquarter station. Let us hope that the monuments which we raise will last as long as those of Buddhist monk or Mahomedan Killedar.