A trip to Nashik is incomplete unless you venture out to explore the magnanimous 1st-century Pandavleni caves. These Nashik caves may admittedly be one of the most tiring sightseeing spots of Nashik, however, each of the 200 stone steps is worth climbing for the mountain top historical treasure it holds. When I first arrived at the bottom of the mountain, I figured that this neighbourhood houses three prominent landmarks. First, the Dadasaheb Phalke Memorial, second the Trirashmi Buddha Vihar and lastly the ancient Pandavleni Caves. On this trip, I decided to explore both the Trirashmi Buddha Vihar and the Pandavleni Caves associated with Buddhist Royalty.
The Buddha Vihar/Stupa was a short silent visit. Climbing up to the top of Pandavleni Caves, on the other hand, was fatiguing. As I walked towards the steps that lead to the caves, I noticed that several small shops are nestled between the Stupa and the bottom of the mountain. Knowing that the long climb would leave me parched, I bought a bottle of water and a cold drink from one of the shops. Right then, I also noticed a few street vendors selling fresh cucumber, but I saved that for later. If you happen to visit the caves during summer then I suggest you wear a cap while climbing up. It will be foolhardy to attempt the climb without sun protection.
Despite the sun being directly overhead, the light was casting beautiful tree leaf reflections on the steps. Trudging on the gravel, I was climbing the sacred steps with occasional photography breaks. During these breaks, I also noticed the handful of sweltering locals and tourists who kept climbing with an unprecedented determination. I, on the contrary, had to take several short breaks to read the en-route cave descriptions. Maharashtra Tourism Board has installed several outdoor boards to magnify the significance of the 24 caves.
Finally after, climbing 200 enchanted stone steps, I arrived at the historic 1st-century Buddhist Caves of Pandavleni. For a small entrance fee of INR 15, I was allowed to pass through a steep iron gate, guaranteeing an official entry into the cave campus. Here I was, looking fixedly at the trail of caves with my eyes wide open. These caves were originally built in the first century, however, later renovated in the third century.
In fact, history suggests that new sculptures were added to the caves, until the sixth century. Regardless, the series of antiquated meditational space evokes healing, peaceful and calming vibe. Even though I could not visit all 24 caves, I did traverse through a few important ones. Each of these rock-cut caves represents the transformation of Buddhist devotional practices. Hereby, the architecture is said to symbolise Hinayana, Buddhism’s prime tradition in Asia.
The caves are classified into Viharas or monasteries and Chaityas, the Buddhist shrines. In particular, Cave 18 is the shrine, whereas, most other caves are the monasteries. Each cave is styled with intricate column work and elaborate stone-cut ladders. The columns indicate the development of Buddhism over a period of time. However, originally the caves were built by the Buddhist Royals and traders of 1st-century who wanted to show their support towards the monks. Within these rock-cut monasteries, you will find many sculptures and meditation chambers. Few caves are older than the others, yet, display the best sculptural detail of early times. From images of Buddha to ideologies of Bodhisattva, Pandavleni caves represent a rich iconography of Indo-Greek architecture and water management system.
For quite some time, people wondered if the name Pandavleni had anything to do with Pandavas from the epic Mahabharat. The answer is NO. Instead, the name takes its inspiration after the word Trirashmi, meaning sunrays or the light emerging from behind the Caves. Altogether, the entire network of caves is a novel sphere that will draw you into its impetuous vortex.
After spending a few hours at the cave, I returned to the bottom of the mountain to enjoy some farm-fresh cucumbers. Believe you me, there’s no better way to conclude the cave trip then to relish the juicy cucumbers from the nearby farm. While I munched on the cucumbers, I also engaged in a conversation with the lady who was selling them. She spoke less of the caves but more about the agricultural planning of the area. I am happy I learned something new and returned more informed.