Kanheri (19°13’ N; 72°55’ E), the Kanhasela, Krishnagiri, Kanhagiri of ancient inscriptions, is located north of Mumbai, was a major Buddhist centre. Kanheri is located in the island of Salsette and 6 miles from Thana. The caves are excavated in volcanic breccia, the hills rising at places to 1550’ above mean sea level. Kanheri is credited with the largest number of cave excavations in a single hill. To the west is the Borivili railway station and across the creek is the Arabian Sea.
Kanheri thrived due to its proximity to ancient sea port towns like Sopara (Surparaka, the Supara of Greek; Subara of Arab writers; the ancient capital of northern Konkan), Kalyan a thriving port; Chemula, the Samylla of Greek geographers, Chemula of Silaharas, on the island of Trombay; the other ancient localities nearby were Vasya, perhaps Vasai or Bassein; Sri Staanara or Thana; and Ghodabandar. It is generally believed that Buddhism first arrived in Aparantha (Western India) at Sopara which is very close to Kanheri. The caves were excavated as early as mid 3rd century B.C. and were in occupation right up to 11th century A.D. They were mentioned by early visitors like the Portuguese in the 16th century A.D. and other travellers and voyagers of Europe.
Of the numerous donor inscriptions found here mention of ancient cities like Suparaka (Sopara); Nasika (Nasik); Chemuli (Chemula); Kalyana (Kalyan); Dhenukakata (Dhanyakataka, modern Amaravati in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh) are found. The donors were from all class of the society, from the members of the royal families to the commoners. The prominent among the royal families mentioned in the inscriptions are Gautamiputra Satakarni (c. 106-130 A.D.); Vasisthiputra Sri Pulumavi (c. 130-158 A.D.); Sri Yajna Satakarni (c. 172-201 A.D.); Madhariputra Sakasena (c. end of 3rd century A.D.); the rulers of Satavahana dynasty whose ancient capital was Pratishthana (modern Paithan, district Aurangabad); Amoghavarsha of the Rashtrakuta dynasty dated in 853 A.D., etc.
The excavations at Kanheri are of the following types: (i) chaityagrhas, the place of worship of the Buddhist community, (ii) viharas or monasteries, they consist of single and multiple celled where the Buddhist monks resided, (iii) podhis or water cisterns, which were excavated ingeniously to trap the rain water and store them for use during summer periods and (iv) rock-cut benches and seats.
At Kanheri, the beginning of excavation of rock-cut caves coincides with the introduction of Buddhism in Aparantha. The caves are generally small consisting of a single cell with a front pillared verandah approached by a flight of steps. The caves invariably contain a cistern for storing water. The initial excavations were very small and plain, devoid of any decorative motifs. The pillars were plain squares or octagons and did not have the pot base which was introduced later. The most prominent among the excavations at Kanheri is the Cave 3, which is a chaityagriha which was excavated during the period of Yajna Satakarni (c. 172-201 A.D.) This chaityagrha is one of the largest in India second only to the one at Karle, district Pune. The chaityagrha closely resembles the one at Karle. On plan it consists of a large rectangular hall with an apsidal back, a verandah and a spacious court in front, the dimensions of the hall being 26.36 X 13.66 X 12.9 m (l x b x h). A row of 34 pillars divide the hall into a central nave and flanking aisles. The roof of the nave is barrel vaulted while of the aisles are flat. There are evidences of provision of wooden rafters to the vaulted ceiling of nave which are gone now. The pillars of the hall are not uniform and of different styles and shapes and devoid of symmetry. A stupa is provided at the apse of the hall which measures 4.9 m in diameter and 6.7 m in height. The façade of the hall is pierced by three doors with two groups of two couples, each group carved in the oblong recesses between the doors. A huge chaitya window bereft of any ornamentation was provided for the passage of light. The side walls are sculpted extensively with two massive images of standing Buddha in varada mudra and other Bodhisattva images. These sculptures are of later additions and are datable to around 5th – 6th centuries A.D.
Near the chaityagrha once existed two structural stupas. One of thestupas, in stone, yielded two copper urns, containing ashes, a small gold box containing a piece of cloth, a silver box, a ruby, a pearl, pieces of gold and two copper plates one of them dated in A.D. 324. Another stupa was of brick which yielded an inscribed stone with characters datable to 5th – 6th centuries A.D.
Cave 1 is an unfinished chaityagrha, originally planned to have a double-storeyed verandah and a porch, apart from the pillared hall. The cave is dated to 5th – 6th centuries A.D. as the pillars with compressed cushion or amalaka top appears generally during this period.
Cave 11 which is also known as ‘Darbar Hall’ consists of a huge hall with a front verandah. The hall has shrine on its back wall and cells on two sides. The floor of the hall two low stone benches resembling Cave 5 of Ellora. Buddha in dharmacakrapravardana mudra adorns the shrine. The cave has four inscriptions of different periods, one dated in Saka 775 (A.D. 853) of the reign of Rashtrakuta King Amoghavarsha and his feudatory the Silahara prince, Kapardin. The inscription records the donation of various gifts and funds provided for the purchase of books and repairs to the damages.
The sculptural art here can be seen in Caves like 2, 3, 41, 67, 89, 90, etc. The image of Buddha is generally shown either standing or in seated posture. The latter in some cases are flanked by Bodhisattvas and in rare cases with their consorts. Avalokitesvara is the other prominent figure apart from Buddha who finds importance here. Avalokitesvara (who refused Buddhahood till the liberation of all beings) could be seen prominently in Caves 2, 41 & 90 delivering his devotees from the eight great perils namely shipwreck, conflagration, wild elephant, lion, serpent, robber, captivity and demon. Another interesting sculpture of Avalokitesvara is found in Cave 41 which is a four armed eleven faced one, the only of its kind in India. The cult of this form was popular in China, Chinese Turkistan, Combodia and Japan in 7th – 8th centuries A.D. The Jataka stories are also found depicted as that of Dipankara Jataka in Cave 67 to cite an example.
The Buddhist establishment at Kanheri has an interesting evidence in the form of small structural stupas built on the floor of some of the caves. Such stupas were noticed in Caves 33, 38, etc. These stupas often contained large number of clay tablets inscribed in 10th century A.D. characters of the Buddhist creed. Another notable feature is the presence of a cemetery located on an isolated and secluded terrace. Here both stone built and brick structural stupas are found erected on the charred remains of distinguished monks.