This style of architecture turned out to be especially suited to the Western Ghats (within the state of Maharashtra the Western Ghats are known as the Sahayadri ranges) the hills being composed of alternating horizontal strata of harder and softer volcanic trap rock making excavation easy.
Yet another marked geophysical feature of the Western Ghats is the landscape- characterized by flat topped summits, terraced flanks and precipitous slopes, all caused by the flow of basaltic lava and further carved by the action of the sun and rain, of centuries of millennia. In any of these hills a sheer scarp of black basalt over 500 feet high ran almost all around and thus were quite strongly fortified by nature.
Whereas the rock hewn caves tell in themselves and through the several monuments and inscriptions contained in them, a story of fairly active and developed life of the ancient Indian, the forts explain why, India, south of the Tapi river (the beginning of the Western Ghats) was never subjugated by the alien powers in the sense in which the northern part of India was.
These rugged hills are studded with proud fortresses and cave temples – telling silent tales of the valor, heroism, courage and tenacity. Built along trade routes linking the tiny harbors on the western coast, through well marked passes within the sheer Sahayadri scarp that lead to the hinterland, the Buddhist monasteries were important stages on the journey, resting places for the trading caravaneers, as well as supply-cum–banking houses for them.
Obviously in order to protect the religious centers i.e. the cave monasteries as well as the commercial nerves i.e. the ghats, forts came into being and in all probability the process of cave excavation, pass construction and fortification were parallel and all complementary activity. These monuments stand witness to incredible journeys and legends of long ago, having played host to many a caravan bearing silks and spices accompanied by a motley groups of Greek & Phoenician merchants, Chinese monks, and a host of other international travelers some who have been immortalized in friezes on the walls of the cave temples.
The Karla, Bhaja and Bhedsa cave temples are perfect examples of the early phase of Buddhist architecture known as the Hinayana phase wherein the Buddha was represented symbolically. The excavations took the shape of
1) The chaitya or prayer hall and
2) The vihara or monastery.
This phase stands out as the artisans imitated in rock the structural forms as practised in the earlier used less permanent materials like wood with which they were familiar. The characteristic features of these early temples were two establishments, each self-contained and consisting of a prayer hall (chaitya) and a monastery (vihara) which contained accommodation for the monks. The square central hall was approached through a verandah or portico, and doorways led into cells for members of the brotherhood.
A few km from Kamshet is the site of the largest Chaitya caves in India built in 80 BC. Amongst the best preserved, Buddhist temples in India, they represent the zenith in terms of design purity of this style of temple architecture. They belong to the Hinayana period of Buddhist architecture.
The chaitya hall is 124 feet in length and 45 feet in width. Its entrance is extremely imposing, a kind of massive vestibule to the arcade screen in its rear. The two giant pillars have a group of lions supporting a large wheel and are about 50 feet high.
The decorative railings and supporting elephants (half life size and originally with ivory tusks) at each end indicate an advanced stage of ornamental work. The interior of the hall consists of a colonnade, vaulting and sun-window.
The colonnade has 37 pillars, each with some fine sculpture at the top. One group consists of two kneeling elephants each with a male and a female rider wearing ornate headdresses and jewelry. Another group has horses, originally decked with rich trappings, just as the elephants had ivory and silver tusks.
The sun window, a wonderful arrangement for the diffusion of light, deflected the rays of the sun in such a manner that soft light fell on the stupa and the screen , half tones on the pillars and gloom in the aisles. The atmosphere thus created is remarkable for its solemnity and fervor.
These caves are the largest collection of chaitya caves in India dating back to 2nd cent BC and 7th ad. At the entrance of the caves is the temple of Ekveera Devi worshipped by a large section of Hindus.
The 18 Bhaja caves are supposed to have been built for Buddhist nuns. Excavated in the 2nd century BC. The pillars are sloping but the stilted vault is a fine piece of work. The last cave to the south has some fine sculpture, including a prince seated on an elephant, a prince in a chariot and three armed figures. The dancing couple is a justly famous piece of sculpture. These caves are as old as Karla caves. Cave no 12 is a chaitya hall the finest of the cave complex. Cave no 1 is the dwelling house for the master architect, 10 are viharas and remaining 7 caves contain inscriptions about the donors.
The caves at Bhedsa 4 miles from Kamshet station belong to a slightly later period than those at Bhaja. The chaitya resembles the rear hall at Karla but is smaller. It has four pillars, each 25 feet high, with carvings of horses, bulls and elephants mounted by male and female riders. 26 octagonal pillars support its ribbed roof, 10 feet high. There are two important caves with many inscriptions. Few tourists visit the caves since they are located at a remote spot away from the line of communications.
These two famous companion forts make a good trek and can be covered along with the Bhaja caves. Located a few kilometers away from Kamshet these forts are a popular trekking route especially in the monsoon season. Lohagad is a must see. Being well preserved it retains most of its medieval distinctive defense features and much of the spirit of its past grandeur is intact.
One of the better preserved forts of the region it retains most of its medieval distinctive defense features and some of the spirit and gloss of its past grandeur. Might have been built during the reign of the Satavahana Empire (30 BC to 200AD ) or possibly even before that.
The fort has 4 successive entrances or Darwajas, the Ganesh Darwaja, the Narayan Darwaja, the Hanuman Darwaja and the Maha Darwaja. All the doors are still quite strong and are located on the serpentine ascent of the fort. The hanuman darwaja is the oldest of the quartet. The remaining three doors were built by Nana Phadnavis, The space between the second and the third door contains some cellars used as granaries. On entering the Maha Darwaja there is a structure that houses some tombs. Further along the fortification is a spacious rock cut cave called the Lomesh Rishi Cave. Many water tanks dot the area one with a natural spring in it containing fresh clean water. A Mahadev temple adjacent to which is a tank with steps descending to the water. A narrow spur of the fort stretches westwards in sweeping curves both sides are girded with fortification and the westernmost tip is guarded with a bastion. The spur seems worthy of its name ‘ Vinchu-Kata’ (the scorpion’s sting) From here one can descend to the ‘Gai – Khind’ a col and head towards Visapur.
Crumbling bastions, caves containing cisterns still filled with chilled water, an isolated ornamental arch, a huge image of Maruti chiseled out of rock, scattered canyons dilapidated houses, numerous water cisterns, several temples of Maruti who seems to be the presiding deity of the is fort. A two-hour walk covers the circumference of this fort guarded by fortifications and bastions at frequent intervals.
The Visapur fort must have been built after the construction of Lohagad. The annals of the fort are devoid of any historical event. As each fort is within the range of canon fire from the other, fall of one fort will always seal the fate of the other. The British took advantage of this situation and after taking hold of Visapur in 1818; Lohagad fell smoothly into their hands.