Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bedsa Caves in the Monsoon

Monsoon time is the time when all seems really well. This is about the last few years when Pune and its environs especially would seem so naturally electric green in the rains. The hills around Pune are dying to the sounds of the JCB machines makig paths up the hills for cars and hii-top houses that now signifies the new synthetic-plastic quality of life. The "all is well" feeling has become the bored sentinel's "aall izz vell" refrain highlighted (almost) so poignantly in that song from 3-Idiots.

Driving on the highway during the monsoon is progressively loosing its charm as compared to those days when the highways had single lanes, when there was no power-steering; cars like the Ambassador were built to last these conditions and to be driven and repaired by people who knew about cars. There was no fuel efficiency but that was more than amply made up by the small number of people who had the enthusiasm and the tenacity to drive along the country side. ... I am not taking about many generations ago ... just two decades ago.

Driving through the rain on the main highways has its own terror and also its peculiar charm (Fig 1 left, click on figures to expand) of the chambals in the ravines on the road ... as long as you are not stuck in the many highway hold-ups. You leave the highway and the old charm returns some times. So quite driven by a whim we left the NH4 highway to head towards Pavna dam. The parched country side of this region becomes an electric green during the rainy season (Fig 1 middle) and a yonder village beckons (Fig 1 right).

The yonder village is Bedsa famous for the Bedsa Caves. When I had last visited the place (with Lalitha and the very charming Profeesor Clare Grey from NYSU) it was the beginning of summer and the landscape was very dusty and very dry (see for instance). I think we had climbed up a track without proper steps. This time the landscape was a lovely green with clouds hanging low (Fig 2 left) and waterfalls on the hill (Fig 2 middle) which we were to climb was very inviting. I was more than ten years younger the last time I visited Bedsa. I was hesistant to climb when I learnt that the cave was quite high up (near the top of the water fall). There were neat stepa placed to climb up and I decided to walk up and two little boys who volunteered to be our guide told us that there are only 450 steps (my calf muscles tighten at the thought of climbing 30-50 steps).

There were streams crossing the flight of steps at several points. Mud had covered the steps and made them slippery. I walked up slowly and gingerly. My camera bag had been taken up by Lalitha. I could not savor the landscape on my way up because I usually see through my camera. I was the last to reach the top, all sweaty and my toothless cheer showed (Fig 1 right).

A few months back a strapping young man from predominantly villaged districts around Pune told me that one cannot go out for a walk in the hills. They have become the property of private developers; the green grazing grounds on the hllls for the village cattle during the rains have become barbed-wire-fenced cement structures of confinement buildings meant more for realty investment and virtual living than for real life that is alive to the sounds of nature and goats and cattle. The Bedsa hills still has some of that charm.

The view from the top was not as spectacular as I thought it would be. It was still green enough (Fig 3). The Pune-Mumbai expressway was visible (Fig 3 left top left). I iamagined that in the foreground of Fig 3 left (click to exapand) there are rectabular and circular patterns under the green cover suggestive of some ruins. There is also a telecom tower which is the pride of the children of Bedsa village as the communicate with the world through the internet. Bedsa village itself is at the centre of Fig 3 middle. There is some level space in front of the cave (now walled up). The wind and the drizzle urged us to enter the cave.

The entrance to the Bedsa caves is known peculiar since it is narrow and seemingly unfinished. Because of the continuously rainy weather (climate?) the entrance (Fig 4 left, click to expand as always) is very slippery and one walks gingerly onto the verandah (Fig 4 middle) which is the entrance to the caitya typical of buddhist or Jain shrines and includes a stupa at the end. The stupa at Bedsa is characterized by having a small chatra which is somewhat atypical of the Buddhist rock-temples. See gayatri saraf's for a truly lively set of pictures.

The fullest descriptions of the Bedsa caves that I have found on the net are from Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Poona (3 pts.) Vol XVIII, Part 3. Govt. Central Press, 1885 - Bombay India (see which I will refer to simply as GBPP. It is easily accessed on the net at although there is seemingly no acknowledgment of the original source.

A part of the description of the pillars (left of Fig 4)from GBPP is given below:-
The left pillar has, on the east face, two seated elephants with a woman on the north and a man on the south, The woman is seated on the elephant and is pulled back by the man who draws her by the wrist. The left arm is bent, the hand resting on the elephant's head. The man's left hand drags the woman's right hand and his right hand is broken. The man has no hair on his face. The elephants are very finely carved. They have no tusks which were either of wood or ivory which has dropped away leaving holes. The left or south pilaster has a horse on the east and; a bull on the west. On the bull, which is finely carved, is a seated woman with her left hand on the bull's neck and her right hand on the man's shoulder. The man looks east; his left hand is on his left thigh and his right hand on the horse's neck.

The last hundred years is causing a rapid decay perhaps due to the formation of moss and massive neglect. One can hardly be as enthusiastic as the author about the description.

The verandah has features that are gorgeous. They are, of course, typical of the rock-cut leaves and with the large number of peepal-leaf-shaped structure and imitations of wooden fences one could imagine that one is in a rock-cut peepal tree-house. The two demi-pillars at either end blends in well. It is to be remembered, as we will discuss later, that this could be the first attempt to amalgamate pillars of the Sanchi/Persipolis type with the cave-temple style of perhaps that of the earlier caves, say, the Barabar caves near Gaya, Bihar (see picture below).

The peepal leaf structure mays not necessarily be a necessary part of Buddhist origin. An entry on Indian architecture from Encyclopaedia Brittanica cites a Toda village hut (see picture below, right) from South India as an example and writes the following:- "Early Indian architecture was almost entirely of wooden construction, and the forms thus established were later closely imitated in brick and stone. The various forms of domed and barrel-vaulted roofs, gabled windows and roof ends, pillars and cornices are developed from wooden prototypes; the Toda hut, for example, even at the present day presents a striking likeness to a barrel-vaulted gable-ended temple."

On the right side of the verandah (facing the cave) there is an inscription (see Fig 5 left in red box) on top of a door which, according to GBPP, reads as
' The gift of Pushyanaka, son of A'nanda Sethi, from Na'sik.'
It seems that the Buddhist priests accompanied merchants on their trade route and were not averse to getting handsome donations from various merchants to fund the carvings on their caves. There is no gurantee that the carvings were contemporaneous with the donations.

The description of these symbols from GBPP is as follows:-
On five of the right pillars are carved Buddhist symbols. The sixth pillar from the entrance has, about ten feet from the ground, a central and two side lotus symbols. The seventh pillar has a central wheel of the law and side flowers. The eighth pillar has a central svmbol with, above it, a Buddhist trident and below two lotuses. The ninth pillar has two taurus signs above and two lotus signs below. The tenth pillar has a sun-like circle for the wheel and trident and a lotus.

Insidethe cave itself, the chamber is sufficiently lit to spend hours with your self without feeling claustrophobic.

Outside the main caitya of the Beda caves one looks up and finds another structure (Fig 7 left) with young boys scampering around the structure. I could not find any ready reference to it on the net. I was personally too scared to climb up the slippery slopes, an I could not easily find an easier route up.
The mountain stream fell down the slope (Fig 7 middle) and mountain banana plants were to be seen. All the way up to the Bedsa caves there were remnants of banana flowers which were seemingly cut and dismembered with a knife, even if there were no sign of fruits on them. I suppose the banana flowers it self were a delicacy for the kitchen. Dommage! as they would say in French. The re is rather well-grown Indian temple-tree (Dalana phul in Bengali; Fig 7 right) in front of the caves which provides no shade but a nice backdrop for a picture on a rainy day?

One of the first things that you see as ypu step on the landing in front of the caves are two broken mini caves. One of them (Fig 8 middle) has a plaque-like structure which could have been a stupa which was later shaped ino a slab (for reasons not clear --- may be to write an inscription). The one next to it (Fig 8 left) shaped more like a relic shrine or daghoba with a typical buddhist rail pattern around it. These are suposed to be the tombs of monks with a relic of the monk kept in a box on the top. In a description of such minis stupas or dagobas of those in the nearby Bhaja caves the asame GBPP would write ... " the daghboas under the rock have the relic box only on the dome while the three behind them have also, heavy capitals, ... " Some of the images from Bhaja caves found on the net (see photos below of Henry Cousens taken in 1880s) show these dagobas where the relics are kept in a box above the dome and some of these boxes are covered by a stepped capital as in the left of Fig 4.

Further down is another cave (Fig 8 right) described in GBPP as:-
Close by the unfinished cell is cave II. a vihara or dwelling cave but unique in design with an arched roof and round at the back like a chapel. Outside, one on each side of the entrance, are two benched cells. The entrance is 17' 3" wide with a thin pilaster 3' 5 broad on each side. Within the entrance the cave is 18' 2" wide and 32' 5" deep to the back of the apse and has eleven cells all with benches or beds. The cell doors have arches joined by a string course of rail pattern and, in a line with the finiale of the arches, is another similar course. The doors have plain architraves and outside each architrave a pilaster. In the walls between the doors are carved false-grated windows.
See for more details.

We walked our way down the slippery steps. I slipped with a bad thud and escaped unhurt. I walked down barefoot and a barefooted boy offered to carry my shoes while the barefooted cattle waited on the slopes. It turned out that the day was nagpanchami the fifth day of the month of shravana when young ladies dress in their finery and the newly married couples visit their parents. We asked for and were sold freshly cooked lunch next to the stable in a willing house.

It was time to leave. The small tower meant for the tulsi plant stood unattended, the twin towers of commerce and mass communication beckoned from the distant hills and bella looked forward to going back home. She had climbed up and down 450 steps all of her height!