Karla Caves

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Karla Cave
Karla caves Chaitya.jpg
The Great Chaitya in the Karla Caves, Maharashtra
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LocationKarli, India

The Karla Caves, Karli Caves, Karle Caves or Karla Cells, are a complex of ancient Buddhist Indian rock-cut caves at Karli near Lonavala, Maharashtra. It is just 10.9 Kilometers away from Lonavala. Other caves in the area are Bhaja Caves, Patan Buddhist Cave, Bedse Caves and Nasik Caves. The shrines were developed over the period – from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE. The oldest of the cave shrines is believed to date back to 160 BCE, having arisen near a major ancient trade route, running eastward from the Arabian Sea into the Deccan.

The group at Karla is one of the older and smaller of the many rock-cut Buddhist sites in Maharashtra, but is one of the best-known because of the famous "Grand Chaitya" (Cave 8), which is "the largest and most completely preserved" chaitya hall of the period, as well as containing unusual quantities of fine sculpture, much of it on a large scale.[1]

Many traders and Satavahana rulers made grants for construction of these caves. Karli's location in Maharashtra places it in a region that marks the division between North India and South India.[2] Buddhists, having become identified with commerce and manufacturing through their early association with traders, tended to locate their monastic establishments in natural geographic formations close to major trade routes so as to provide lodging houses for travelling traders.[3] Today, the cave complex is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India.[4]


The caves were historically associated with the Mahāsāṃghika sect of Buddhism which had great popularity in this region of India, as well as wealthy patronage.[5][6] The caves house a Buddhist monastery dating back to the 2nd century BC. The monastery was once home to two 15-meter grand pillars outside the chaitya. Now only one of these remains, and the remaining space is occupied by a temple dedicated to the goddess Ekveera, who is worshipped most notably by the Aagri and Koli community of Mumbai.


Path to the Karla Caves.

The Karla cave complex is built into a rocky hillside around 60 kilometres (37 mi) from Pune, with large windows cut into the rock to light the cave interiors.[7] The caves are among a large numbers of similar caves excavated in the Sahyadri Hills in the early 1st millennium CE. There are altogether 16 caves in the group, with 3 of them being Mahayana caves. Most of the caves are lenas, with the major exception being the Great Chaitya, Cave No. 8.[8]

Great Chaitya cave

The main cave, called the Great Chaitya cave, or Cave No.8, features a large, intricately carved chaitya, or prayer hall, dating back to 120 CE. This is the largest rock-cut chaitya in India, measuring 45 metres (148 ft) long and up to 14 metres (46 ft) high. The hall features sculptures of both males and females, as well as animals such as lions and elephants.


Verandah inscription mentioning the completion by Bhutapala

This Great Chaitya cave, the largest in South Asia, was constructed between 50-70 CE,[9] and 120 CE, during the reign of the Western Satraps ruler Nahapana, who recorded the dedication of the cave in an inscription.[10][11][12] Numerous donors, mainly local merchants, several of them Yavanas, and Buddhist monks and nuns provided donations for the construction of the chaitya cave, as recorded by their dedicatory inscriptions.[13] An inscription among the sculpted decorations at the left end of the veranda mentions the completion of the cave by a local merchant or banker (a "setthi") named Bhutapala, from Vaijayanti.[14][15] The completion of the cave mentioned by Bhutapala may refer to the ornate sculptures of the veranda, during the final phase of decoration.[16] About a generation after Nahapana, the Satavahana ruler Vasishthiputra Pulumavi (130-159 CE) also left a dedicatory inscription.[17]


The Great Chaitya, partially obscured from view, in the 19th century.

The Great Chaitya cave of Karla follows, but improves upon, several other Chaitya caves which had been built in Western India under royal sponsorship.[18] It is thought that the chronology of these early Chaitya Caves is as follows: first Cave 9 at Kondivite Caves, then Cave 12 at the Bhaja Caves and Cave 10 of Ajanta Caves, around the 1st century BCE.[8] Then, in chronological order: Cave 3 at Pitalkhora, Cave 1 at Kondana Caves, Cave 9 at Ajanta, which, with its more ornate designs, may have been built about a century later,[18] Cave 18 at Nasik Caves, and Cave 7 at Bedse Caves, to finally culminate with the "final perfection" of the Great Chaitya at Karla Caves.[8]


The chaitya follows the usual pattern for the period, but is unusually large. It is exceptional for preserving original elements in wood: the prominent lateral ribs and other roof timbers, and the umbrella over the stupa. The chaitya hall only survives in rock-cut examples, but these replicate in stone the form of examples in wood and thatch. In most rock-cut chaityas, the roof timbers are replicated in stone, to considerable visual effect, but in others actual timber was used, for purely aesthetic rather than structural reasons. In most of these cases the timber has long decayed away, as for example in the chaitya at Cave 3, Kanheri Caves. Here, although some were replaced under Lord Curzon in the 19th century, most are original.[19]

R. C. Majumdar quoting James Fergusson explains:

"It resembles an early Christian church in its arrangement; consisting of a nave and side-aisles terminating in an apse or semi-dome, round which the aisle is carried... Fifteen pillars on each side separate the nave from the aisle; each pillar has a tall base, an octagonal shaft, and richly ornamented capital, on the inner front of which kneel two elephants, each bearing two figures, generally a man and a woman, but sometimes two females, all very much better executed than such ornaments usually are; behind are horses and tigers, each bearing a single figure."[20]

Great Chaitya Cave at Karla[10]
General views
Karla Caves,Pune,Maharashtra - panoramio (6).jpg
Great Chaitya Cave at the extreme right
It is certainly the largest as well as the most complete chaitya cave known in India, and was excavated at a time when the style was in its greatest purity. In it all the architectural defects of the previous examples are removed: the pillars of the nave are quite perpendicular. The screen is ornamented with sculpture -its first appearance apparently in such a position- and the style had reached a perfection that was never afterwards surpassed.[21]

The general dimensions of the interior are 124 ft. 3 in. from the entrance to the back wall, by 45 ft. 6 in. in width. The side-aisles, however, are quite narrow, the central one being 25 ft. 7 in., so that the others are only 10 ft. wide, including the thickness of the pillars. In height, however, Karla is only 45 ft. from the floor to the apex.[21]
In advance of the Chaitya stands the lion-pillar, in this instance a plain shaft with sixteen flutes, or rather faces, surmounted by a capital not unlike that at Kesariya, but at Karle supporting four lions instead of one. They seem almost certainly to have supported a chakra or Buddhist wheel. A similar pillar probably stood on the opposite side, but it had either fallen or been removed to make way for the little Hindu temple that now occupies its place.[21]

"Bas-relief on the left, under the gateway at Karli".jpg
Left veranda panel and portion of the entrance
The outer porch, or veranda, is considerably wider than the body of the building, being 52 ft. wide by 15 ft. deep, and is closed in front by a screen composed of two stout octagonal pillars, without either base or capital, supporting what is now a plain mass of rock, but which was once ornamented by a wooden gallery forming the principal ornament of the facade. Above this a dwarf colonnade or attic of four columns between pilasters admitted light to the great window, and this again was surmounted by a wooden cornice or ornament of some sort.[21]
Karli Chaitya entrance.jpg
Panorama of the entrance
The entrance, consists of three doorways under a gallery, one leading to the center, and one to each of the side-aisles; and over the gallery the whole end of the hall is open, as in all chaitya halls, forming one great window, through which all the light is admitted. This great window is formed in the shape of a horseshoe, and exactly resembles those used as ornaments on the facade of this cave, as well as on those of Bhaja, Bedsa, and at Nasik, and which are met with everywhere at this age. Within the arch is a framework or centering of wood standing free. It is, like the ribs of the interior, coeval with the building.[21]

The sculpture on the screen wall between the doors is mostly of much later date than the cave itself. All the figures of Buddha there represented are of late date and belong to the Mahayana school: these decorative panels next to the main entrance have been dated to the 6th century CE.[22] The larger pairs of figures, however, are earlier and may be original. The later inscriptions are of the time of the Satavahana king Pulumavi.[21]

Karla chaitya stupa.JPG
Hall of the Great Chaitya Cave at Karla (120 CE)

The interior is solemn and grand. An undivided volume of light coming through a single opening overhead at a very favorable angle, and falling directly on the dagoba or principal object in the building, leaving the rest in comparative obscurity. The effect is considerably heightened by the closely set thick columns that divide the aisles from the nave, as they suffice to prevent the boundary walls from ever being seen, and, as there are no openings in the walls, the view between the pillars is practically unlimited.[21]

Immediately under the semidome of the apse, and nearly where the altar stands in Christian churches, is placed the Dagoba, in this instance a plain dome, on a two-storeyed circular drum, the upper margins of each section being carved with rail ornaments. Just under the lower of these are holes or mortices for woodwork, which may have been adorned with hangings, which some of the sculptured representations would lead us to suppose was the usual mode of ornamenting these altars. It is surmounted by a capital or Tee, and on this still stand the remains of an umbrella in wood, somewhat decayed and distorted by age. This canopy was circular and minutely carved on the under surface.[21]

Fifteen pillars on each side separate the nave from the aisles; each pillar has a tall base, an octagonal shaft, and richly ornamented capital, on the inner front of which kneel two elephants, each bearing two figures, generally a man and a woman, but sometimes two females, all very much better executed than such ornaments usually are; behind are horses and tigers, each bearing a single figure. The seven pillars behind the altar are plain octagonal piers, without either base or capital, and the four under the entrance gallery differ considerably from those at the sides. The sculptures on the capitals supply the place usually occupied by frieze and cornice in Greek architecture; and in other examples plain painted surfaces occupy the same space.[21]
Above this springs the roof, semicircular in general section, but somewhat stilted at the sides, so as to make its height greater than the semi-diameter. It is ornamented even at this day by a series of wooden ribs, probably coeval with the excavation, which prove that the roof is not a copy of a masonry arch, but of some sort of timber construction.[21]

Main inscriptions


An important dedicatory inscription relates to Nahapana on the lintel to the right of the entrance of the Great Chaitya (Valukura is thought to be an ancient name for Karla Caves):

Nahapana inscription
Great Chaitya inscription 13 of Nahapana, at the right of the main entrance.

Success!! By Usabhadata, the son of Dinaka and the son-in-law of the king, the Khaharata, the Kshatrapa Nahapana, who gave three hundred thousand cows, who made gifts of gold and a tirtha on the river Banasa, who gave to the Devas and Bramhanas sixteen villages, who at the pure tirtha Prabhasa gave eight wives to the Brahmanas, and who also fed annually a hundred thousand Brahmanas- there has been given the village of Karajika for the support of the ascetics living in the caves at Valuraka without any distinction of sect or origin, for all who would keep the varsha.

— Inscription 13 of Nahapana, Karla Caves, 120 CE.[25]
Yavana (Greek) donors
Left pillar No.9 of the Great Chatya. This pillar was donated by a Yavana circa 120 CE, like five other pillars. The inscription of this pillar reads: "Dhenukakata Yavanasa/ Yasavadhanana[m]/ thabo dana[m]" i.e. "(This) pillar (is) the gift of the Yavana Yasavadhana from Denukakata".[26] Below: detail of the word "Ya-va-na-sa" in old Brahmi script: Brahmi y 2nd century CE.jpgBrahmi v 2nd century CE.gifBrahmi n.svgBrahmi s.svg.

There are also inscriptions by private donors, who contributed parts of the Great Chaitya, including self-described Yavana (Asiatic Greek or Indo-Greek)[27] donors, who donated six of the pillars, although their names are Buddhist names.[28] They account for nearly half of the known dedicatory inscriptions on the pillars of the Chaitya.[29]

  • 3rd pillar of the left row:
"(This) pillar (is) the gift of the Yavana Sihadhaya from Dhenukataka"[30][31]
  • 4th pillar of the left row:
"Of Dhamma, a Yavana from Dhenukakata"[32]
  • 9th pillar of the left row:
"(This) pillar (is) the gift of the Yavana Yasavadhana from Denukakata"[26]
  • 5th pillar of the right row:
"This pillar is the gift of the Yavana Vitasamghata from Umehanakata"[23]
  • 13th pillar of the right row:
"(This) pillar (is) the gift of the Yavana Dhamadhaya from Denukakata"[33]
  • 15th pillar of the right row:
"(This) pillar (is) the gift of the Yavana Chulayakha from Dhenukakata". Next to the inscription is a Buddhist Swastika.[34]

The city of Dhenukakata is thought to be Danahu near the city of Karli.[28] It is said by another donor in another inscription that it has a "vaniya-gama" (A community of merchants).[35]

The Yavanas are also known for their donation of a complete cave at the Nasik Caves (cave No.17), and for their donations with inscriptions at the Junnar caves.

Sri Pulumayi
Vasishthiputra Pulumavi inscription
Karla inscription of Vasishthiputra Pulumavi, left of the main entrance

On the lintel to the left of the main entrance to the Great Chaitya, facing the inscription of Nahapana and posterior to it by a generation, there is also an inscription by Satavahana ruler Sri Pulumayi, that is, Vasishthiputra Pulumavi (130-159 CE):[36]

In the seventh year of the king Sri Pulamavi, son of Vasithi, in the fifth fortnight of summer, on the first day, on the above, by the Maharathi Somadeva son of Vasithi, the son of the Maharathi Mitradeva son of Kosiki, of the Okhalakiyas, there was given to the community of Valuraka, of the Valuraka caves, a village with its taxes ordinary and extraordinary, with its income fixed or proportional.

— Inscription 14 of Sri Pulumavi.[17][36]

Architectural parallels

Karla Caves Chaitya pillars (left) compared to Nasik Caves Vihara No10 pillars (right), built by Ushavadata, son-in-law of Nahapana, circa 120 CE.

The pillars of the Chaitya at Karla are most similar to the pillars of Vihara No.10, at Nasik Caves, also built by Ushavadata, the son-in-law of Nahapana ("Ushavadata, son of Dinika, son-in- law of king Nahapana, the Kshaharata Kshatrapa, (...) has caused this cave to be made and these cisterns.").[37][38] The proportions and general layout are similar, as are the various architectural elements, including the shape of the bells, the framed toruses, the bases, the capitals and they supporting animals and human figures. These points to a contemporaneity of the Karla Chaitya and the Nahapana vihara at Nasik, circa 70-120 CE.[37]

On the contrary, the pillars of Nasik vihara No.3 built by the mother of Gautamiputra Satakarni circa 150 CE, depart from the elegant shapes and simplicity of the pillars at Karla and Vihara No.10. They are more similar to those of the Chaitya at Kanheri, built by Yajna Sri Satakarni circa 170 CE.[37]

Other Chaityas and Viharas

View of the hermitages.
Another portion of the caves.

Within the complex are a great many other carved chaityas, as well as viharas, or dwelling places for the caves' monks. A notable feature of these caves is their arched entrances and vaulted interiors. Names of donors are inscribed on pillars in Brahmi script in these caves. The outside facade has intricate details carved into it in an imitation of finished wood. The central motif is a large horseshoe arch. There is an Ashokan pillar at the front, with a closed stone facade and torana in between.[2]

One of the Vihara cells bears an inscription of the Satavahana ruler Vasishthiputra Pulumavi (130-159 CE).[39]

Success!! On the second day of the third fortnight of winter in the twenty fourth year of King Sri Pulumavi, son of Vasithi, this pious gift of the lay worshiper Harapharana, son of Setapharana, a Sovasaka, living in Abulama, a nine-celled hall, has been given to the universal Sangha, as special property of the Mahasamghikas, in honor of his parents and securing the welfare and happiness of all beings. In the twenty first year it had been completed and ...... to me by Budharakhita and his mother ...., a lay worshipper. The ......a pious gift of Budharakhita's mother.

— Inscription of Vasishthiputra Pulumavi, Karla Caves Vihara.[40]

Later imitations

Several Chaitya Caves were built in imitation of the Great Chaitya at Karla. This is especially the case of the Great Chaitya at Kanheri, in the northern suburb in Mumbai, probably built during the reign of Yajna Sri Satakarni (circa 150 CE).[41] According to Fergusson, it is certain that the plan of the Chaitya Cave at Kanheri is a literal copy of that at Karle, but the architectural details show exactly the same difference in style as is found between Cave 17 (period of Nahapana circa 115 CE) and Cave 3 (period of Sri Pulumavi, circa 170 CE) at the Nasik Caves.[41]

Some caves at Ajanta, such as Cave 19, built in the 5th century CE, were also modeled after the Karla Great Chaitya.[42]

Cave painting

In Great Chaitya cave their is a painting on the top backside of 10th piller right side of Entrance. One has to use mobile light to see the painting.

Only cave painting found at Karle Cave

See also


  1. Michell, 374
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Later Andhra Period India". Retrieved 24 January 2007.
  3. Keay, John (2000). India: A History. New York, USA: Grove Press. pp. 123–127. ISBN 0-8021-3797-0.
  4. "Karla Caves". NIC. Retrieved 19 May 2012.
  5. Dutt, Nalinaksha. Buddhist Sects in India. 1998. p. 62
  6. Gadkari, Jayant. Society and Religion: From Rgveda to Puranas. 1996. p. 198
  7. "Cave Architecture". Retrieved 15 February 2007.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Le, Huu Phuoc (2010). Buddhist Architecture. Grafikol. p. 108. ISBN 9780984404308.
  9. Miller, Barbara Stoler. The Powers of Art: Patronage in Indian Culture. Oxford University Press. pp. 41–42.
  10. 10.0 10.1 World Heritage Monuments and Related Edifices in India, Volume 1 ʻAlī Jāvīd, Tabassum Javeed, Algora Publishing, 2008 p.42
  11. Southern India: A Guide to Monuments Sites & Museums, by George Michell, Roli Books Private Limited, 1 mai 2013 p.72
  12. "This hall is assigned to the brief period of Kshatrapas rule in the western Deccan during the 1st century." in Guide to Monuments of India 1: Buddhist, Jain, Hindu - by George Michell, Philip H. Davies, Viking - 1989 Page 374
  13. Miller, Barbara Stoler. The Powers of Art: Patronage in Indian Culture. Oxford University Press. pp. 40–42.
  14. Senart, A. EPIGRAPHIA INDICA VOL 7 (in português). MANAGER OF PUBLICATIONS, DELHI. pp. 48–49.
  15. Barrett, Douglas E. (1958). A Guide to the Karla Caves. Bhulabhai Memorial Institute. p. 8.
  16. "the claim of Bhutapala, the merchant (sethi) from Vejayanti, that he completed this stone mansion, the finest in all of India (jambudipamhi utamam selaghara parinithapitam), is intriguing. He makes this claim in an inscription at the left end of the veranda. It is possible that he refers to the many-storeyed mansion in relief on the walls of the veranda when he speaks of the finest selaghara in all of Jambudvipa; on the other hand, the word ghara has clearly been used by the carpenter Sami to indicate the chaitya as a whole. If Bhutapala's claim relates to the chaitya itself, it is probable that he arrived on the scene at the critical period when the chaitya was in its finishing stages, and helped to complete it with numerous small donations" Miller, Barbara Stoler. The Powers of Art: Patronage in Indian Culture. Oxford University Press. pp. 41–42.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Royal patronage of Buddhism in ancient India, by Kanai Lal Hazra - 1984 - Page 176
  18. 18.0 18.1 Spink, Walter M. (2005). Ajanta: Painting, sculpture, architecture. BRILL. p. 1. ISBN 900414983X.
  19. Michell, 374; Harle, 48 and note 21 at 493
  20. Ancient India, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1977 p.225
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 21.6 21.7 21.8 21.9 Text adapted from public domain History of Indian and Eastern architecture by Fergusson, James, 1910 p.142ff
  22. Verardi, Giovanni; Paparatti, Elio (2005). "From Early to Late Tapa Sardār: A Tentative Chronology". East and West. 55 (1/4): 437. ISSN 0012-8376.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.326 Inscription No1
  24. Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.326 Inscription No2
  25. Epigraphia Indica Vol.7, Hultzsch, E. p.58
  26. 26.0 26.1 Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.328 Inscription No10
  27. Buddhist Architecture, by Huu Phuoc Le, Grafikol, 2010 p.108
  28. 28.0 28.1 Some Early Dynasties of South India, by Sudhakar Chattopadhyaya p.83
  29. Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.326-328 and Epigraphia Indica Vol.7 [Epigraphia Indica Vol.7 p.53-54
  30. Epigraphia Indica Vol.7 p.53-54 Inscription No.7
  31. Problems of Ancient Indian History: New Perspectives and Perceptions, Shankar Goyal - 2001, p.104
  32. Epigraphia Indica Vol.7 p.55-56 Inscription No.10 and Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.327 Inscription No.7 differ on the content of this inscription. Here, Epigraphia Indica Vol.7 was chosen, as Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 only mentions an inscription similar to that of pillar No.3, a possible mixup.
  33. Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.326 Inscription No 4
  34. Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.327 Inscription No6
  35. Epigraphia Indica Vol.18 p.326 Inscription No3
  36. 36.0 36.1 Senart, E. EPIGRAPHIA INDICA VOL 7 (in português). MANAGER OF PUBLICATIONS, DELHI. pp. 61–62.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 Fergusson, James; Burgess, James. The cave temples of India. London : Allen. pp. 268–269.
  38. Part of inscription No.10 of Ushavadata, Cave No.10, Nasik in Epigraphia Indica p.78-79
  39. p.40
  40. Buddhism And Buddhist Literature In Early Indian Epigraphy - Kanai Lal Hazra - 2002, Page 126
  41. 41.0 41.1 41.2 Fergusson, James; Burgess, James (1880). The cave temples of India. London : Allen. pp. 348–360.
  42. 42.0 42.1 Sharma, Ramesh Chandra (1994). Bharhut Sculptures. Abhinav Publications. p. 51. ISBN 9788170173083.

External links

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