The almost forgotten cave complex of Pitalkhora resonates the silence deep within us.
Shefali Vaidya is a writer, photographer, newspaper columnist and mum to triplets, who loves to travel.
It was late evening. The setting rays of the sun bathed the cave complex of Pitalkhora in a warm, golden light. The boy monk trudged up the steps roughly carved into the rock, carrying a big earthen-ware jar. It was his turn today to fill the water. His ochre robes fluttered in the savage wind. The boy shivered slightly. He reached the bowl shaped pool carved out of a natural depression in the rock. The pool lay perfectly still. The boy squatted at the very edge and paused for a moment. The pool mirrored his ochre robes. ‘Your mind must be still. Like a deep pool of water at rest’, the head Bhikkhu had said the other night in his lecture, the boy remembered.
The boy smiled and threw a small pebble in the pool. Concentric whorls of water appeared, ever expanding, shattering the perfect calm of the water. ‘Your thoughts are like pebbles, just one is enough to disturb the calmness of the mind’, the Bhikkhu had said gravely.
The boy was only twelve. Only the week before, his father had brought him to this Vihara in Pitalkhora, nestled in the mountains of Satamala. ‘You will stay here and learn about the Dhamma’, his father had said, as he tousled the boy’s hair affectionately, one last time before he left for his long walk down to his village deep in the valley.
In the evening, the boy was initiated into the Sangha. His hair was shaved off. He was handed two sets of ochre robes and one vessel to eat from. He was then asked to chant the three cardinal oaths, that he would surrender to the Buddha, that he would surrender to the Dhamma and that he would surrender to the Sangha. The boy was then shown to his living quarters, a rough hewn cell carved out of solid rock. It was a tiny, windowless room. The cell had three benches carved along the inner three walls. The monks were supposed to sleep on the benches, without the comfort of even a thin grass mattress. All the boy had to cover himself was a thin, threadbare sheet woven out of coarse cotton.
The boy could not sleep for a long time that night. His newly tonsured head felt prickly and weird. He missed his mother and he was cold. The wet monsoon winds that lashed the Vihara of Pitalkhora showed no mercy on his thin, gangly body. His room-mate, a senior monk had felt the boy toss and turn. The monk had sat up and started chanting the Sutras. The low, constant hum of the chant had slowly lulled the boy into a deep sleep!
A week later, the boy monk was slowly getting used to the routine of the monastic complex. But evenings still made him feel lonely. He missed his mother. She used to squat near the mud stove in their tiny house down in the valley, stirring the pot of the rice. Her face glowed in the flickering light of the chullah. The boy monk closed his eyes. Tears trickled down his cheeks.
He was still sitting at the pool, with his head bowed, when he heard the streaky, rhythmic sound of the Head monk’s walking stick. The monk had come to check on the boy. The boy quickly raised his head and tried to wipe his tear strained face to his ‘cheevar’, his robes. The old monk shuffled closer, this arthritic knees creaking with every step. He looked at the boy, with understanding and pity in his eyes. ‘Missing your home’? The old man asked.
The boy nodded, unable to speak.
The old man sat down next to the boy and said, ’think of Tathagat. He had every comfort one could ask for. He was a prince, much loved by his family and by his people. And yet, he chose to leave everything in search of the truth.’
‘In this life, we are all alone, and to be alone, is to be truly happy. Shakya Muni showed us how to wander alone boy. Listen to this sutta.’
The head monk began chanting the KhaggaVissanSutta in his gravelly, quavering voice.
Like a bamboo sprout,
wander alone like a rhinoceros.
As a deer in the wild,
unfettered, forages wherever it wants:
the wise person, valuing freedom,
wanders alone like a rhinoceros.
In the midst of companions, you are prey to requests.
Valuing the freedom wander alone like
One whose mind
is enmeshed in sympathy
for friends & companions,
neglects the true goal.
Seeing this danger in intimacy,
like a rhinoceros.
The monk’s voice trailed away into the wind. The sun had set now. All 14 caves that comprised the Vihara of Pitalkhora had lapsed into darkness. The only light that shone in the darkness was of the oil lamp that burned in the Chaitya prayer hall, at the base of the Stupa. In the flickering, pale yellow light, the infinite compassion on the face of the standing Buddhas painted on the surrounding pillars stood out.
The boy monk felt a sense of overwhelming peace rise over him like a giant wave. His loneliness had now been reduced to just an insignificant, dull, momentary twinge. The boy smiled as he walked back to the Vihara, carefully leading the old monk down the steps in the darkness.
I imagined the boy monk and his battle against loneliness as I found myself looking into the deep pool of water en route to the Buddhist cave complex of Pitalkhora. Today, the caves lie silent, far away from human habitation. No lamp lights up the Chaitya now, no voices chant the Sutras. But close your eyes and you are transported back in time. It is easy to lose track of time in Pitalkhora! The place is so calm and silent that it is easy to imagine how it must have been centuries ago.
Pitalkhora caves are a complex of 14 Buddhist Caves located almost 70 km from the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra. The caves of Pitalkhora are one of the earliest examples of rock-cut Buddhist monuments found in India. The caves were probably first built under the rule of the Satavahana dynasty.
Such cave complexes were built to facilitate the Buddhist monks’ ‘Vassavaas’, the mandatory four months stay for Buddhist monks during the rough monsoon season lashing the Western Ghats. During these four months, the monks were supposed to spend their time chanting, meditating and reading more about the Dhamma. These caves were usually paid for by rich traders. The word ‘PitalKhora’, literally means the ‘Valley Of Brass’. It is believed that Pitalkhora was mentioned in Ptolemy’s chronicles as “Petrigala”. Rock-cut inscriptions found at the site date from 250 BCE to the third century CE. The caves were Hinayana caves, but the Chaityagriha has paintings that were added later under Mahayana influence.
Today, Pitalkhora stands in splendid isolation, even though it is located less than 50 km from the world heritage site of Ellora caves. The caves are located in a deep, thickly wooded valley. You have to descend almost a thousand steps to reach the cave complex. A stream of crystal clear water greets the visitors midway through the descent. The stream is channelled into three rock-cut pools, once used by the monks for their daily needs. Visitors can reach the site by crossing this stream over an iron bridge constructed by the Archeological Survey of India.
The caves are built over two levels. There is a row of larger than life elephants carved on the facade of the lower level. Elephants are the symbol of strength and stability, and hold a special importance for the followers of the Buddha, because of the legend of Mayadevi’s dream. Buddha’s mother, Mayadevi had dreamt that a white elephant had entered her body before she realised she was pregnant. Carved next to the row of the elephants is the entrance way to the higher level. Flanking the entrance were two life-size Dwarapalas, or door-keepers. Currently, only one Dwarapala exists. His attire, and his head dress in particular is extremely well carved. There is a row of steps leading to this level that has figures of Yakshas carved on the sides. These Yakshas are squat and short and have curiously elongated, elf-life ears. In between the Yakshas is carved a flying horse! The Greek legend of Pegasus has somehow found its way to Pitalkhora, a clear sign of cross-cultural exchanges prevalent at the time.
The Pitalkhora cave complex is known for its ingenious arrangement of water management. Water flowing down from the mountain was channelized through long, fully concealed tunnels carved into the rock and an outlet was provided near the entrance of the caves through a drinking fountain shaped like a many headed snake.
The main Chaityagriha or the payer hall has an apsidal plan. There is a broken Stupa in the Chaitya. The pillars flanking the Chaityagriha have traces of beautiful wall paintings done using vegetable colours. The paintings are faint now. The plaster is peeling off and the figures look weathered with age, but the serenity in the eyes of the Buddha still holds the visitors spellbound. The Chaityagriha is flanked by Viharas or the living quarters of the monks on either side. The viharas are spartan cells carved into the rock, with little space inside except for sleeping. Pitalkhora is a site seldom visited by tourists. The only people who make the arduous trek to Pitalkhora are the modern day versions of my boy monk! The silence in Pitalkhora is profound.
Pitalkhora caves are located almost 80 km from Aurangabad via the township of Kannad and can be reached by hiring a private vehicle.