A Buddhist trail in the Sahyadri range

by Tara Kashyap, Deccan Herald, Nov 18, 2007

Pithalkora has been reduced to a relic of the ancient world.

Aurangabad, India -- Deep down the gorges in the Satmala hills of Sahyadri range are the Pithalkora caves of ancient times. Situated 78 km north of Aurangabad, the 13 Buddhist cave complex has received sufficient attention from the Department of Archaeology, Maharashtra.

To restore it to its pristine glory, no effort is being spared. For the easy access of tourists in pursuit of the Buddhist trail, steps with railings are being provided and other amenities are in the process of being developed.

Today, driving at higher altitude in the hilly terrain, one may marvel at the ingenuity of the ancient monks who scaled up and down the heights to create places of dwelling and worship at such remote corners. It should be remembered that though however challenging it was, they moved along with the rivers and the brooks and covered great distances before they reached their point of destination. In modern times, Aurangabad has replaced Pithalkora as a connecting point. Pithalkora has been reduced to a relic of the ancient world.

Dating back to 2nd century B.C, the caves offered an ideal place of peace and tranquillity for the practice of Buddhism. Being an important place connecting the trade route between Ajanta and Ellora, the Buddhist settlement here played a significant role and prospered. Hence Pithalkora had acquired recognition as early as pre-Christian era as a place to reckon with.

Eclectic place

Composed of a rock shelter, a Vihara- a monastery and Chaitya- a place of worship, Pithalkora must have been a prosperous migrant community of Satavahanas times. They reigned in the Deccan region from pre-Christian era and beyond. Though they practiced Brahminical cults, the Satavahanas were well known for their tolerance. Their eclectic attitude is clearly reflected in the architecture, the sculpture, and paintings that decorate the wall surfaces in the caves.

The rock shelters possibly acted as original base from where the migrant monks operated. They appear to have first excavated the monastic dwelling, which is provided with stone bed and niches providing space for depositing objects such as begging bowls, prayer wheels, and others. Following the usual architectural plan adjacent to it was excavated Chaitya - a place of worship. Deep and long with vaulted roof and with stone beams spanning across is the Chaitya cave supported by pillars. The Chaitya motifs decorate the exterior of the caves.

Freeze frame

The most interesting features of these caves are the sculptural friezes consisting of human, animal, and mythical symbols. Though much of the sculptural remains have been removed to Department of Archaeology and Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum (Prince of Wales Museum) Mumbai there is enough to speak of the rich contributions of Pithalkora to the Buddhist art of India.

The Dwarapalas guarding the Chaitya entrances, the animal frieze, the mythical winged animal symbols of west Asian origin and above all the murals depicting the Buddha and the devotees are the most outstanding art form of the Pithalkora cave complex. These and more offer enough material to the students and research scholars to put Pithalkora in the proper perspective.

Archaeology department of Maharashtra augurs well. Good times ahead for Pithalkora is not off... its inclusion in the Buddhist Trail in the Sahyadri ranges could be reality- a dream come true.