Weekly Feature  -Sep 17 1999 Previous Week (Ganesh Chaturti feature)

Templenet Archives
Encyclopedia of Indian Temples
Indian Temple Architecture
Travel and Tourism (Maps)
Festivals and Fairs
Legends & Beliefs
Glossary of Terms

Templenet - The Ultimate Source of Information on Indian Temples

Links of the Week

Kanheri Caves
Footsteps of Budha Tour
Late Budhist sites

Info on Mumbai
Mumbai Tourist Guide
Borivile National Park

Siddhi Vinayak Temple -Mumbai
Significance of Ganesh Chaturthi
Ganesh Chaturthi Celebrations Maharashtra - Origins

Feedback & Information

©1996 K. Kannikeswaran
All Rights Reserved.



Tradition Meets Technology


A trip to Kanheri

by Elisabeth and Tony Batchelor

What incident or experience could we possibly choose that will give you at least a small taste of our recent trip to India ? Months of preparations had gone into this trip, particularly as this time we made the travel arrangements ourselves. Many books were read, languages studied and vaccinations taken with a smile. We thought we were prepared. And yet of course India surprised us again.

In choosing to write about a day excursion to the Buddhist caves at Kanheri which are only 42 km from Mumbai, we have selected a small episode which shows that this is not only a country with a huge accumulation of wonderful artistic sites most of which are almost unknown in the West, but also a place where something as mundane as a suburban train ride might provide a crucial key to the infinite puzzle that is India.

During our month in India Mumbai was our base and we returned there three times. It is of course a prosperous cosmopolitan city with many signs of the Western influence that is beginning to transform Indian urban society especially since the opening of its largely socialist economy in the last few years. But thankfully Mumbai has somehow retained its essential Indian flavor. We got to know the coconut seller, the strictly vegetarian Samrat restaurant around the corner, the local street shrine set into a tree beside the road. Our hotel started to feel like home in ‘our neighborhood’.

Our home was also right across from Churchgate station, a major suburban train station which according to Royston Ellis in ‘India by rail’, has no less than 91 trains arriving or leaving during the three-hour peak rush-hour periods. Each electric train discharges about 3,500 commuters. This means that twice a day 318,500 people are all walking purposefully in one direction or the other. We confirmed these numbers every morning and evening when we looked down to the street from our hotel room. Since most sidewalks in Mumbai, and in other Indian cities too, have been taken over by street sellers and street dwellers, most people walk along the roadway itself, leaving just a narrow path in the middle for cars and buses. In India everything and everyone seems to be constantly immersed in huge waves of bodies.

We had been looking forward to the caves at Kanheri since our last trip to India. The site has 109 Buddhist caves cut by hand from the living rock of a 1500 feet high ravine in the 2nd to the 9th century A.D. Just 42 km from Mumbai, suburban trains can get to Kanheri very quickly, and they go from ‘our’ station, Churchgate.

So we decided to investigate Churchgate to plan our excursion to the caves. Have you ever had the feeling of walking into an ant hill in the wrong direction? This is what it was like walking against 318,500 people in the early morning. They all knew exactly what they were doing
and where they were going. We did not. And since they were almost exclusively local commuters, they were also almost all Indians and this made us feel even more conspicuous and helpless. But eventually we did manage to find a train listed to Borivli, the train station closest to the caves. And we also found the ticket windows, with the first class window having the shorter line. Armed with this basic knowledge we decided to attempt the journey on our last sojourn in Mumbai a week later.

We were both secretly hoping that we would be too busy with other things and that not enough time would be left for this adventure. But contrary to all those travelers tales about the impossibility of ever being able to complete one’s plans in India, we did have all the time we needed for Kanheri. Indeed, this half day visit turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, and not because of the beautiful caves which were even more magnificent than we had expected, but because of what happened at Churchgate.

On the morning of our last day in India we made our way to the first class ticket window at the station and waited in line. Suddenly from behind us there was a smiling Indian face asking us about our travel plans. He told us that as it was not rush hour, it was a waste of money paying for first class tickets because the trains would be empty. Though we know that in India the word empty does not have the same meaning it does in the West, we thanked him and lined up at the second class window, purchased our tickets and got information about the right platform for the Borivli trains. We headed for the platform and there was our friend once more. He advised us to go to track three; that is where the fast train is. We thanked him again profusely and went to three. But just as we turned toward a carriage, there he was again. This time he told us not to get into this particular carriage, as it was for women only. We knew about this typically Indian solution to the problem of overcrowded trains, so we again took his advise and boarded another carriage.

As we rattled through the suburbs of Mumbai, we were distracted by the constant theater of everyday life along the tracks, men washing themselves, women combing each other’s hair, a teacher addressing a whole class of smartly dressed school girls sitting within three yards of the thundering train. But our conversation kept returning to our friend at Churchgate. What could explain his persistent unsolicited helpfulness? Perhaps it should not have surprised us. After all we had been the recipients of numerous small acts of hospitality and generosity wherever we went in India. We could only assume that his reward was nothing more than feeling the satisfaction of having helped some Westerners. Certainly most Indians we met had a great pride in their country and wanted us to enjoy it too. But still, our friend’s thoughtfulness and genuine concern did seem remarkable in a country where day to day survival often seems to be an all embracing task.

After forty minutes we arrived in a very clean, orderly and unrushed Borivli. We took an auto rickshaw for the final 10 km to the caves, paid our entry fee of 50 paise (1.6 cents) and began our climb. The brochure by V.M. Wani describes the park rather amusingly: ‘The way leading to the caves goes through the most beautiful natural surroundings of National Park. The zigzag concrete road is very fascinating and one enjoys walking on it. The atmosphere and the scenic beauty is simply enchanting and one is tempted to make it a point to live in the vicinity of
caves forgetting all the hubbubs of the Mumbai city.’ The map in the guide book looked equally bizarre. It was simply a series of dots and numbers that resembled a child's connect-the-dots puzzle. However, like so many other systems in India that seem totally illogical or unintelligible on the surface, those amazing little numbers
helped us find all the caves we wanted to see in that honeycombed ravine. That was just as well, because there was no one to ask for directions. The whole place seemed to be practically deserted except for a few young lovers seeking out their privacy and solitude, and a village woman doing her laundry in one of the cave’s still functioning cisterns.

We had achieved our goal magnificently. Here we were at Kanheri on a brilliantly clear and sunny day. And here dedicated to one of the world’s great religions were a thousand plus year old monuments: colossal Buddhas more than 20 feet tall, an 11-headed Bodisattva (Buddhist saint) and even a nagaraja, an ancient pre-Buddhist serpent king guarding the most famous Buddhist chaitya hall at Kanheri.

And it is at this sacred spot that our little story finishes; for it was here that we met two Buddhist women. We came upon them as they were turning away from one of the sculpted Buddhas in the porch. A conversation developed as it so easily does in India, especially in such a deserted place. Soon it turned to religion, again as it so often does in India, and we plucked up the courage to ask them what benefit they expected to gain from making offerings and worshiping the image of the Buddha. "Oh" one of them said, "we do not expect anything, no
favors, no particular help. Everything we do in life makes us who we are. By making offerings and by generosity and hospitality we make ourselves clear-sighted." We thought again of our friend at Churchgate.

[Indian Temple Architecture][Travel and Tourism] [Festivals and Fairs][Legends] [Glossary of Terms]
The Templenet Homepage