Some Rock-cut Caves in Konkan

Alongwith the maritime trade, in-land trade along the Konkan coast grew considerably in the ancient period (c. 200 CE onwards). The paths connecting the port sites in Konkan climbed up through the passes in Sahyadri hills onward to the mainland or the Deccan plateau. Merchants, travelers and ascetics frequented these routes. It was through these movements that the intermittent shelters for resting or lodging along these routes gradually took shape. Several local kings commissioned “Yatrinivas” (Yatri = traveller, niwas = residence/lodge).

The rock-cut caves were executed by removing or excavating the mass of rocks and fashioning the cavities as cells or rooms. The caves along the Konkan coast served as shelters in bad weather, storehouses for surplus trade goods, and as monsoon retreats for monks of Buddhist, Jain, Ajivika and other orders.

Following a similar process, the religious centres such as temples or mosques were also constructed to shelter the travellers on stormy nights in Konkan. A precursor to this “Varshavasa” (Varsha = monsoon/rain, vasa = place to stay) were the rock-cut caves in the rocky outcrop of the Sahyadris. These rock-cut caves were executed by removing or excavating the mass of rocks and fashioning the cavities as cells or rooms. The caves along the Konkan coast served as shelters in bad weather, storehouses for surplus trade goods, and as monsoon retreats for monks of Buddhist, Jain, Ajivika and other orders.

The rock-cut caves along the Konkan coast continue to preserve some part of the history of Konkan. The cave complex of Kanheri near Mumbai is probably the most studied complex among the Konkani rock-cut caves. The complex retains some evidence of fresco art on the stone walls of the cells. Inscriptions from Kanheri indicate a prolonged occupation at the site.

Kuda Mandad caves

To the south of Kanheri lie the caves of Kuda-Mandad. This ancient port-site is probably Mandgora from the Greek accounts. Remember Janjira? Once an affluent port site, Janjira quickly rose to greater renown during the medieval times. This cave complex lies in close proximity to that site. And it is not a stretch to think of strong mercantile ties that may have persisted through centuries at the various sites along the Konkan coast.

The caves at Kuda-Mandad bear inscriptions in Brahmi, that resembles with the earliest known specimens of inscriptions from the Buddhist rock-cut temples at Nasik, Junnar, Bhaje and other places. The records of Shaka kings at the site are indicative of the thriving mercantile activity in the area. The 15 caves discovered at the site are varied in terms of their architecture and design. The design and floor plans indicate different functions of the space. A cell with a rock-cut stupa, for instance, would have served as a prayer room, while the astylar cells with excavated bed-like platforms may have been the residential or lodging rooms. The Kuda caves seem to have received generous patronage, judging from the exquisite carvings.

Gandharpale caves

Further south to Kuda-Mandad caves lies the cave complex of Gandharpale. Curious in its name, the site was most likely linked with Gandharva (mythical beings in Buddhist and Hindu literature) as the guardians of the place. The word “pale” could be a corrupted form of “pal” or “palak” (care-taker). A Buddhist text “Tilakmanjari” furnishes a list of guardian deities for the rock-cut caves in Western India. I am not sure if Gandharpale site finds a place in Tilakmanjari, but the association with Gandharva can be extrapolated as emerging from the very tradition of assigning guardians at a site.

The cave complex at Gandharpale is two-tiered, and the upper tier of caves overlook the Sahyadri escarpment. Buddha sculptures in the caves at Gandharpale highlight the Buddhist affiliation of the site. The cave complex is not as embellished with sculptures as Kuda caves. However, the cave complex preserves a history of housing many occupants on their way to and fro in Konkan.

Panderi caves

This rough complex of three discovered caves highlights the activity of rock-cut caves in the area. The connection with trade and movement needs to be reassessed, but the proximity to the trade routes confirms the earlier thesis of mercantile connection. This cave complex is a cluster of rock cut cells with some water tanks. The form suggests a typical function of “Varsha vasa” for the monks and the merchants.

Panhale-Kaji caves

On travelling further south, the Panhale-kaji cave complex nestled in forest cover between Dapoli and Khed towns, marks our next stop. Panhale-Kaji throws some interesting matrix our way, when one walks into the complex with the hope of exploring another Buddhist cave-site. Panhale-Kaji nestles at its core overlapping cultic affiliation in the form of dressed walls of the caves. Tara sculpture leans towards Buddhist affiliation, and the panels with ascetic figures point at an association with the Nath cult.

Mallison’s paper (cited below) makes a case for the overlapping of Buddhist (mainly Vajrayana and Tantra) aspects with the Nath (or Shaivite) philosophy and iconography at the site of Panhali-Kaji. The depiction of Tara also appears to be a shared motif between the Buddhist and Shaivite groups in Konkan. What fascinated me about their study was the literary underpinning of the cultural motifs that fail to meet a cursory glance.

The caves are situated on a bend of the river tributary, affording a secluded position for the caves. The unique location of the caves off the coast, would have catered well to the mercantile connection I mentioned previously. It comes as no surprise that the site would have emerged as a cultural melting pot since the early days. The medieval (c. 15th century CE onwards) texts on religion and culture and the travellers’ accounts indicate an affluent centre in the area.

Vangule and Katgaon-Javade

First reported by Anjay Dhanavade, this cave complex was recently studied by a team from the Deccan College, Pune. This cave complex, comprising of around 10 caves charts the Brahmanical or Hindu affiliation in rock-cut caves in Konkan. The complex development and spread of Brahmanism, and Vishnu worship in particular has obscure developmental history in Konkan. The images of a Naga (stylistically different than the ones in Buddhist caves discussed here) and Kevala Narsimha (seated figure) stand out in this cave complex. Could it be that the local political history in the pre-modern periods may have set the sectarian trends across these cave complexes in Konkan?

Monolithic shrines discovered at Vangule contribute to the theorization on the development of Brahmanical tents in cultic worship in Konkan. The monolithic structures and Shivalinga indicate a thriving Brahmanical tradition.

Some thoughts

The coming of the Portuguese and the British had a lasting impact, not just on the trade in Konkan, but also on the sectarian tapestry embedded in the landscape. Some indicators of the developmental stages and attempts at syncretism are palpable in the rock-cut architecture. The durability of the medium (as against wood or other perishable material) affords better preservation. The religious leaning of various merchants and local rulers has been instrumental in the commissioning of these rock-cut caves. A mosaic of religious sentimentalities and moments of rupture can be accessed through a further study of these rock cut specimens. Rocking, isn’t it?! 😉

Dhanavade, Anjay et al. “Discovery of Rock-cut caves at Panderi, District Ratnagiri, Maharashtra”. In Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology 7 and 8 (2011-2012).

Joge, Gopal et al. “Early Brahmanical Rock Cut Caves at Katalgaon-Javade, District Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, India”. In Journal of the Sri Lanka Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 62 (2): 2018

Joge, Gopal et al. “The Monolithic Shrines at Vangule, District Ratnagiri, Maharashtra”. In Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology, 13-14: 2017-2018

Mallinson, James. “Kalavancana in the Konkan: How a Vajrayana Hathayoga Tradition Cheated Buddhism’s Death in India”. In Religions, 10 (273): 2019

19 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”


Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy around the world

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