Karla is one of the most famous centres of early rock-cut architecture and has received much attention of scholars and commoners alike. The group of rock excavations is not that elaborate when compared to its counterparts at Ajanta and Ellora. However, the grand Chaitya griha of Karla is the grandest and the largest of all the chaita-grihas of India. The group at Karla consists of 16 rock cut excavations of which cave 8 is the chaityagriha which was caused during Satavahanas.
Karla is situated in Maval Taluka of Pune on the Pune-Mumbai highway, about 60 km northwest of Pune. The location of Karla is also important for its rich embellishments, it is on the ancient highway connecting seaports of Kalyan and Sopara to the cities located inland. The other nearest centre of great Buddhist activity is Bhaja, which is 8 km south of Karla. The caves are excavated nearly 100 metres on a high spur of the chain of hills on the north flank of the Indrayani valley. The chaitya griha is the most prominent and hence it dominates the remaining excavations. A wide and flat open area in front of the chaityagriha could have provided an ideal place for large gatherings of the followers of Buddhism. The wide land narrows down on the south and runs almost as a ledge path, turns east and continues up to the edge of the cliff. A few isolated excavations could also been seen near this ledge path.
The monasteries at Karla could be datable between circa 60-40 B.C. and 4th century A.D. Except from three excavations of Mahayana phase the remaining belong to the Hinayana phase. It seems that the entire monastic complex at Karla was conceived as a single design. The caves were caused from the donations and support of a group of assorted individuals. This includes a prince of Maharathi family; merchants and merchant guilds; monks and nuns and lay devotees including men and women. Persons practically from every strata of the society contributed towards the establishment of this complex thus indicating its importance in the Buddhist world. The various inscriptions found here clearly speaks of 27 individuals from various places like Vejamti (Banavasi, north Kanara district, nearly 600 km south of Karla); Sopara (nearly 100 km northwest of Karla) and unidentified towns of Umehanakata and Dhenukakata. Most of the donors from Dhenukakata were Yavanas.
The inscriptions of Usavadata and Vasisthiputra Pulumavi mention donation of land to the Veluraka Samgha. The inscription of Pulumavi is dated in his 24th year of his reign (A.D. 154). The inscriptions thus give the ancient name of Karla as ‘Veluraka’.
The chaityagriha at Karla is the biggest of its type in the whole of India. The hall measures 37.87 m deep from door to back; 13.87 m wide and 14.02 high. A slight variation in dimensions is noticed when one goes from the front to rear, which might have been done intentionally to increase the depth of the hall. This chaitya consists of an apsidal hall with a front verandah. The apsidal hall is divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of pillars which meet at the rear behind the stupa in a semicircle thus forming the apse. The pillars are executed with great ingenuity and vigour which reflect the sculptural art of the period. The pillar consists of a stepped pyramidal base surmounted by a pot, octagonal shaft over it, the capital of inverted flower vase member, a neck of closed amalaka and an inverted stepped pyramid over which lies a dosseret decorated with animal sculptures with riders. The pillars behind the stupa which are seven in number are plain octagons without any decoration. Along the line of first pillar of the nave and parallel to the front wall, a transverse line of four pillars is also noticed. The roof of the aisles is flat, while the pillars of the nave support a simple architrave over which rises a barrel vaulted roof which ends in a semi-dome over the stupa in the rear. This roof is fitted with actual wooden curved ribs and longitudinal rafters.
The object of worship is the stupa at the rear end of the chaityagriha. The stupa consists of a cylindrical drum rising in two stages. A hemispherical dome rises over the drum which supports a cubical harmika and a seven stepped inverted square pyramid over it. Over the pyramid is placed a wooden chhatri with a shaft through a hole pierced into it.
The chaityagriha is entered through a screen wall erected in front of the verandah, which in turn has three entrances, the central one opening into the nave and the other two, into the flanking aisles. The side walls of the verandah and inner face of the screen wall are extensively decorated with sculptures. The front wall of the verandah is also profusely decorated which is executed in two parts. The lower portion consists of a row of railing pattern and above which is six mithuna figures rising up to the level of the lintels. The portion above the doorways is decorated with a series of miniature chaitya windows imitating the huge chaita window. These miniature windows are connected through a vedika and a roll cornice. This pattern extends throughout the entire width of the façade of the hall. The huge chaitya window mentioned above provides good light source to lit the stupa and the pillars of the grand chaityagriha .
The chaityagriha at Karla is also unique as it is one among the two chaityagrihas in western Deccan which has huge lion pillars in front, the other being Kanheri. This pillar is of the Asokan type with a huge sixteen sided shaft rising over a platform. The shaft is surmounted by an inverted bell member followed by flat surface and inverted stepped pyramidal plates. Four addorsed lions command the top of this pillar. This pillar is located to the right of the chaityagriha. Similar pillar should have existed on its left, for which evidence is seen in the form of a short stump.
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