Popularly known as Pandu-lena or Pandava’s Caves, the group of 24 cave excavation is located (on the north face of a hill called Trirasmi in ancient times) 8 km southwest of Nasik town (ancient city of Nasika or Nasikya which figures in many of the donor inscriptions of west Indian caves). The caves are hewn at a height of nearly 60 – 70 m from the surrounding plains. The hill was known as Trirasmi, probably due to the location of three independent hill groups which marks the end of Trimbak-Anjaneri range of Sahyadris. Nasik also finds mention in ancient Indian literature of the pre-Christian era. Being located on the ancient rade route connecting the ports of western India and north and south Indian cities, Nasika was a major city during ancient period. The excavation carried out here shows continuous habitation from around 5th century B.C. The presence of Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW-generally starts around 6th century B.C. and proliferates during Mauryan period) indicates its contacts with the north Indian cities.
As in the case of other cave excavations of this region the establishment at Nasikya also thrived from the rich and generous donations and patronage of people from all classes. A large number of inscriptions found here attests to this fact. This group of caves is also credited with the patronage received from a large number of kings of the Satavahanas, a ruling dynasty generally placed between 3rd century B.C. to 3rd to 4th centuries A.D. whose capital was Pratishtana (modern Paithan, district Aurangabad). The inscriptions mentions kings like Krishna (c. 205 – 187 B.C.); Gautami Putra Satakarni (c. 106 – 130 A.D.); Vasisthiputra Pulumavi (c. 130 – 158 A.D.); Sri Yajna Satakarni (c. 171 – 201 A.D.) of the Satavahana dynasty and Nahapana (c. 119 – 125 A.D.) and his son-in-law Usabadatta of the Kshaharatas, a Saka family contemporary to Satavahanas and also maintained matrimonial relations with them. Two of the earliest monasteries here were caused by the Satavahanas and Kshaharatas. The commoners also donated for the caves including monks, a writer, the latter was a Saka from Dasapura (modern Mandasor, Madhya Pradesh). Other members of royal families who donated include Gautami Balasri (mother of Gautamiputra Satakarni), Usavadata, son-in-law of Nahapana and Abhira Madharaputra Isvarasena.
The earliest excavations hare are datable to second century B.C. and the place was in occupation up to 6th – 7th centuries A.D., the flurry of activities being during 2nd century A.D. as attested by the number of inscriptions. The succeeding periods saw very little excavation and alterations of the earlier ones.
The excavation here includes chaityagrhas, viharas and water cisterns. Cave 18, a chaityagrha is the most prominent and important one at Nasik. The initial excavation of this Cave started in 1st century B.C. as attested by an inscription although it was completed in the present form during 1st century A.D. or a little later. The early character of this cave is attested by the imitation of wooden work on the façade. The cave should have been executed in three phases, the first during which the upper part of the façade with all decoration; the second when the chaitya hall was consecrated and the last and third when the front portion of rock mass was given shape and staircases provided. The façade is richly carved with chaitya windows, railings, the beams with end of rafters, pillars with octagonal shafts, bell shaped members below the stepped abaci and addorsed animal capitals. The inner hall is apsidal with dimensions 12 m in length and 6.5 m in width and divided into a central nave and side aisles by a row of 17 pillars. A stupa measuring 3.6 m in height is placed at the back of the nave. The chaityagrha is plain except for the decorative ghata bases on stepped pedestals of the pillars. Some of the pillars are plain octagons. The medhi (drum) of the stupa is exceptionally high, over which a semi-circular stupa (anda) with a railing rests, which is topped by a harmika and an inverted stepped pyramidal.
Three inscriptions are found in this cave, the first one is over the entrance door, under the head of the arch which records ‘the gift of (the residents of) Dhambikagama of Nasika’. The second is found on the moulding above the figure of a Yaksha to the left of the doorway which records that ‘the rail p attern and Yaksha were caused by one Nadasiriya. The third one is on the octagonal faces of two pillars of the hall which records that ‘the chaitagrha on mount Trirasmi was consecrated by one Mahahakusiri Bhatapalika, daughter of a royal minister’.
On either side of this Chaityagrha (Cave 18) are located two monasteries (Cave 17 & 20) which are approached from the flight of steps from Cave 18. Cave 20, a monastery, was first started by an ascetic but the final completion was done during the 7th regnal year of Satavahana king Yajna Satakarni by the wife of a mahasenapati. The cave also witnessed later period additions in the form of cells, a shrine, enlargement of hall during 6th – 7th centuries A.D. Buddha attended by Padmapani and Vajrapani is housed in the shrine.
Cave 17 also belongs to the same period and was a gift by a Yavana from Dattamitri. This cave also received additions and alterations during later period when a relief of Buddha was added.
Among the monasteries, Cave 19 is one of the earliest excavated during the reign of Satavahana king Krishna by a monk from Nasika. The monasteries, Cave 3 & 10 are the most important and largest among all the caves here.
Cave 10 is the gift of Saka Ushabhadata and his wife Dakshamitra, daughter of King Nahapana of the Kshaharata family. Many inscriptions of this family can be seen on the walls of the verandah and left wall of the court. The donations include provisions for monk’s cloth, frugal deity of 20 monks during varsha and perpetual endowment to provide medicine for the sick monks, the last by a female lay devotee of the Saka lineage during the reign of Abhira king Isvarasena. The cave consists of a pillared verandah, with a cell on either side, and 16 cells with rock-beds on three sides of a spacious hall. The pillars of the verandah are highly decorated and considered to be the best specimen of this age. They consist of octagonal shafts resting on ghata base on stepped pedestal, crowned by an inverted ghata followed by compressed amalaka in oblong frames, inverted stepped abaci. The capitals consist of two pairs of addorsed animals – bull, lion, sphinx, ram and composite figures.
Cave 3, again a vihara, slightly later in date but more ornamented than Cave 10. Cave 3 was the gift of Gautami Balasri, the mother of Gautamiputra Satakarni, the most powerful among the Satavahanas. The inscription found here record that the work was started during the reign of Gautamiputra Satakarni and was completed in the 19th year of his son, Vasishtiputra Pulumavi. The donation also includes a village to pay for the cost of embellishing the cave with paintings. On plan it consists of a pillared verandah, hall with cells and benches in front on three sides and on the centre of the back wall is a relief of a stupa. The pillars of the verandah are very much similar to that of Cave 10 in terms of design and execution. The exception is the addition of a low parapet wall here with railing pattern and yaksha figures. The pillars support a highly decorated and ornamented parapet imitating a balcony with all the details of wooden rafters and tie-beams. The main hall is entered by a door the frame of which is decorated in the form of a torana, while the shaft is in shakas with figures of ganas, amorous figures and nayikas. Two dvarapalas guard the entrance.
Cave 23 contains the most number of reliefs of Buddha and Bodhisattvas, female deities, etc. A panel depicting mahaparinirvana could also be seen here.