The Bhaja Caves experience had been amazing. We carried the same expectations with us to Karla Caves, and were let down, to say the least. But, it had nothing to do with the caves themselves, which were, in fact, bigger, better and more elaborate.
When we had reached Bhaje, the air had been crisp, and the hills deserted – and clean. Surprisingly, very clean! It had been just nature – and us. Karla was a different story. At the end of the drive up the steep hill, we were met with commercialism, along with all its byproducts.
We paid for parking and began a tedious climb up the stone stairs, made more difficult by the sheer number of people we passed, the decibels that were flung at us from loudspeakers at every turn, and the number of times we got stopped by beggars and vendors selling flowers and sweets for offering at the temple near the caves.
We made it to the top after a grueling 15 – 20 minutes, bought tickets and stepped into the sacred space.
The Karla Caves stretch out magnificently, impressively. The only eyesore (for me, at least) was a temple built in front of the caves. That, and two huge posters of the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, fighting (and succeeding) for visual attention. A fleeting thought had occurred that we’d come to see the Buddha, not the buddha(read in Hindi please). But what can I say? For 5/- Rs per ticket, they’d probably tell me, “Itna paisa mein itna hi milega.”
The Caves themselves are a fine specimen of rock-cut Buddhist cave architecture, developed over 2nd century BC – 2nd century AD, and again from 5th – 10th century AD. They are also strategically placed on the trade route of ancient times. Although the early caves depict the Buddha in symbols, the later, more liberal Mahayanas depicted the Buddha in physical form.