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XVIII. The Pandu-Lena Caves: A Nasik Pilgrimage

Nasik! What a story the name evokes! Nasik the Lotus-city, Nasik the home of Gods; who has borrowed her name from the nine hills which lay within the compass of her sacred walls. For we like not, nor do we believe, that alternative derivation of the name from "Nasika," a nose, in allusion to the fate which here overtook the demon Shurpanakhi. It is altogether too savage an appellation for a city whose purity was established in the "Krita Yuga," and whose fame is coeval with that of the great protagonists of Hindu myth and epic. The great city of religion in the West stood upon seven hills, the holy city of the East stood upon nine; and the famous rivers which flow past them whisper in each case of a heritage of undying renown. Fancy hand in hand perhaps with a substratum of historical truth has discovered traces of Rama's chequered life, of Sita's devotion in many spots within the limits of Nasik. The Forest of Austerity (Tapovan), Panchvati and Ramsej or Ram's seat, that strangely-shaped hill fortress to the north of Nasik, are but three of the holy places which appeal so forcibly to the hearts of the people as the visible legacies of divine life on earth.

But to us the temples and the sacred pools seem nothing by comparison with the mighty monuments of Buddhism, which local wiseacres have erroneously named the Pandu-Lena or caves of the Pandavas. We drive out in the fresh morning air along the trunk road, which extends southwards of the holy city like a grey ribbon streaked by two parallel lines of lighter colour where the wheels of the bullock-carts have ground the hard metal into dust; and hard by the fifth milestone we come face to face with three stark hills, standing solitary out of the plain. A congeries of Mhars' huts fringing the roadside marks the most convenient spot for alighting, whence we strike across the belt of level land which divides the highway from the foot of the easternmost of the triad of hills. "Trirashmi" or Triple Sunbeam is the name by which the hill is known in seven of the cave-inscriptions, and is held by the learned Pundit who wrote the Gazetter account to refer to its pyramidal or triple fire-tongue shape. But is it not conceivable that the hand which carved the earliest of those priceless inscriptions desired to designate the triad of contiguous hills as "the tripla ray," and not the eastern hill alone in which the caves have been hewn? Who can tell? When we recall the almost unbroken chain of caves,--the Shivner, the Ganesh, the Manmoda and the Tulja,--which surround Junner, we suspect that the original intention of those primeval devotees was to carve dwellings and chapels in all three hills, which thus would have surely formed a triple beam of light in honour of the great Master, whom an English missionary has characterized as "one of the grandest examples of self- denial and love to humanity which the world has ever produced." A narrow and devious path, worn by the feet of worshipers, leads upward to the broad terrace which fronts the caves. Here you are sheltered from the wind, and peace inviolate broods upon these dwellings of a vanished people; but turn your steps round the western corner and the boisterous breeze will quickly chase you back behind the sheltering bulwarks of the hill.

Of the twenty-four caves all except the eighteenth or chapel-cave were originally layanas or monastic dwellings and contained no images when first their makers gazed upon their work and found it good. But long after their earliest inmates had conquered Desire and had gained Nirvana for their souls the followers of the Mahayana school from Northern India took the dwellings for their own use and carved out of the austere walls of their precursors' cells those images and idols which are now the chief feature of the caves. Buddha seated upon the lion-throne and the figures of his Bodhisattvas with their fly-whisks are symbols of a later and more idolatrous form of Buddhism and are several centuries later than the days (b. c. 110) when the great monk (Sramana) fashioned the nineteenth cave in the reign of Krishna the Satakarni. Nor has Vandalism in the guise of the Mahayana school been alone at work here. The tenth cave once contained a relic-shrine or dagoba similar to the relic-shrines at Karli, Shivner and Ganesh Lena; but in its place now stands a hideous figure of Bhairav aflame with red-lead, and nought remains to testify to the former presence of the shrine save the Buddhist T capital, the umbrellas and the flags which surmounted it. The eleventh cave bears traces of Jain sacrilege in the blue figure of the Tirthankar or hierach who sits cross-legged in the back wall and in the figure of Ambika on the right. But the most conspicuous example of the alteration of ancient monuments to suit the needs of late comers is the twentieth cave, where the colossal Buddha, who muses with his attendants in the dense darkness of the inner shrine, has been smeared with black pigment and adorned with gold tinsel and is proudly introduced to you by the local pujari as Dharmaraja, the eldest of the five Pandavas, the surrounding Bodhisattvas being metamorphosed into Nakula, Sahadeva, Bhima, Arjuna, Krishna and Draupadi, the joint wife of the five! Alas for "the Perfect One" in whose honour, as the inscription tells us, "the wife of the great war-lord Bhavagopa" commenced building the cave in B.C. 50. He has long been forgotten and the hand which he uplifts in token of the Four Verities, discovered after great agony and temptation beneath the Tree of Wisdom, is now pointed out as the wrathful hand of the demi-god of the Mahabharata. Once and once only in these later days has the Buddha evinced his displeasure at the modernization of his ancient shrine. About the year 1880 came hither a Bairagi, naked and wild, who walled off a corner of the cave and raised a clay altar to his puny god. Sacrilege intolerable! And the Buddha through the hand of an avaricious Koli smote him unto death and hurled his naked corpse down hill. The titanic figure is still worshipped by the Hindus: flowers and lighted lamps are daily offered up to him by the ignorant Hindu priest; but he sits immutable, inarticulate, content in the knowledge that to them that have understanding his real message of humanitarianism speaks through the clouds of falsehood which now enwrap his Presence.

Much might be written of the strange medley of creeds which are symbolised in these caves. The Nagdevas with their serpent-canopies, which are relics of a primordial Sun and Serpent worship totally foreign to pure Buddhism, appear side by side with the Swastika or Life-symbol of the greater creed, with the lotus and other symbols of a phallic cult, and as in the small cistern near cave 14 with the female face representing the low-class Hindu belief in the divinity of the smallpox. Jain images of a later school of Buddhism, dating from the 5th or 6th century after Christ, have helped to rob these homes of Buddhist mendicants of their original simplicity and severity, and have rendered it almost impossible for any save the wise men of the East to read their chequered history aright. In almost the last cave we entered, where two standing figures on the right and left mount guard over the well-known image of the Master, our footsteps roused a large female rat and her young, which crawled up the silent seated figure and took refuge on the very crown of its head. Sanctuary! So we turned aside to scrutinise the strange symbolical figures of the twenty-fourth cave and the stories of the chaste and unchaste wives which are hewn in the ornamental gateway of the third.

From the terrace in front of the caves a fine panorama greets the eye. Below commences the wide plain which creeps northwards to the rugged hills comprising the weird couch-shaped summit of Ramsej and the solitary cone of the Chambhar Hill, embosoming the great Jain caves of the 12th century. Beyond the Chambhar cone climb heavenwards the castellated pinnacles of the Chandor range, mist-shrouded in this monsoon season. In the nearer distance the primeval Brahman settlement of Govardhan sleeps amid her mango-groves, and opposite to it the modern Christian village of Sharanpur marks the threshold of that tract of fair woodland and fairer garden which is Nasik's pride. Here and there a red roof catches the sun's rays and shews a splash of orange amid the green; but save for this the picture has but two tints, the warm green of the plain country in the foreground and the grey of the mighty mountain-range which stands sentinel behind it. Your feet rest upon soil hallowed by the memories of two thousand years, upon ground which bears the sign-manual of early and late Buddhist, of Jain and lastly of Maratha, who used the hill as a muster-ground of warriors and bored holes in the graven images for the tethering of his cattle and steeds. By some divine decree "the imperial banditti" kept their impious hands from the famous inscriptions which are the real glory of these caves and form the connecting-link between ourselves and that great king whose face was "as the sun-kissed lotus, whose army drank the waters of three oceans," Shri Gautamiputra the Satakarni.

And so ends our morning's exploration. One last visit to the silent keepers of these messages from dead monarchs--and we pass down to the high road, whence we look back once more upon Trirashmi, the casket of jewels without price, and her twin sisters gleaming in the morning light like the triple prongs of some giant Trident set there by Nature in honour of the great apostle of Humanity.