Rajesh and I choke along the highway in his rickshaw, breathing in the air pollution as we zip past the slums bordering the highway. I probably should have taken a taxi, but driving in a rickshaw is so much more fun with the noise, the air, the essence of Mumbai right in my face. I lean out the open door and try to photograph what I see while clinging onto my camera, my backpack and my life in the precarious frame of his vehicle.
The traffic heading south is at full stop — everyone trying to get to work — while we head north, away from the jam. I expect the drive toward Sanjay Gandhi National Park to be easy and green, with signs that we’re heading toward nature. But nothing in Mumbai is easy or green. The ragged edge of life extends as far as I can see. We make a crowded right turn off the highway to the park entrance.
Through the gates, I finally find the peace and quiet of nature which is interrupted by a driver who wants to charge me 2,500 rupees to drive me 10 minutes farther up the road to the Kanheri Caves. He assumes I don’t know there’s an hourly public bus for far less money, but with the sun rising fast I decide I’d rather go now than wait for it. I negotiate to 1,000 rupees and we’re on our way. Ten minutes up the dirt road we arrive at the ticket booth where I climb the stairs to the caves.
The Kanheri Caves are among the oldest in India, used for Buddhist life and meditation from the first century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. Carved from the basalt of the surrounding hills, the caves are surprisingly angular in design with simple stone benches cut along the interior walls of many of them. Several caves have columns at the entrance and beautifully carved figures posed in various mudras.
The Kanheri site holds 109 caves, each numbered with a stencil outside the entrance. Cave 3 is a prayer hall, with remnants of a stupa in front of it and a smaller cave to the left of it.
Walking up to the entrance of Cave 3, I’m struck by the size of the columns and figures at the doorway. I feel tiny — reminiscent of the feeling I had when I walked into St. Paul’s cathedral in Rome. To the left and right, larger-than-life Buddhist figures watch over the entrance.
For the moment, I have the prayer hall to myself. I feel a sense of awe and a sense of loss at the same time. It’s clear this was once a very significant space and it hums with the subtle energy of a dying life force, but a few bits of trash on the ground and noisy tourists approaching the entrance interrupt the reverence this prayer hall deserves.
I wait in the hall until I’m alone again in silence. I wish I knew more about what happened here, how long it took to carve the prayer hall, how the design originated, who carved the columns, what the purpose was of the notches on the ceiling. It’s a maddening paradox that today we so easily record such endless, useless details — what we ate for lunch, which handbag we bought over the weekend — but here, old and vital details are lost. Historic places like this hold incredible stories we’ll never, ever know.
Outside the prayer hall, I climb the steps up the hill toward the other caves. Mumbai’s skyline pokes above the treetops behind a veil of pollution.
I reach the next caves which are carved on the right and left banks of a natural ravine between two hills. An archaeological team is repairing a walkway next to a series of irrigation chambers leading downhill to larger cisterns. I try to ask questions about what exactly these holes in the ground might have been used for but we share no common language.
One of the men on the team recognizes my curiosity and manages to communicate to me that there’s a painting inside the cave where he’s working. He waves me toward the interior and points to the ceiling.
It’s very dark but I can just make out the lines and shading of the art. I sit on the ground, put my elbows on my knees and point my camera up. I adjust my camera settings. Since I don’t have a tripod, I exhale and hold as still as possible as I try to capture a clear image without using a flash. After a few tries, I get a decent shot and discover that the painting is done in tints of red, probably with madder root. And it’s just pretty amazing to be sitting here looking at someone’s skill and creativity from hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of years ago.
I thank the man as I leave the cave and turn my attention across the ravine. Deep and square, more caves lead to more mysterious chambers inside. I take in as much as I can for the speck of time I’m at Kanheri, in awe that these ancient caves have been sitting here quietly through world empires, dictators and revolutions… old and new.