A group of sixteen Buddhist rock-cut caves located in Maharashtra, the Karle caves were developed and occupied from c. 50 BCE to the fifth century CE. The complex is best known for the grand chaitya structure carved in one of its caves.
The site’s inscriptions reveal that the caves, associated with the Mahayana Mahasanghika monastic order, were patronised by many groups and individuals. The construction of the chaitya hall is attributed to the period of Western Kshatrapa rule in the western Deccan, specifically during the reign of Nahapana in the decades before 120 CE. It was then patronised by the Satavahana ruler Pulumavi in the mid-second century CE. It also received 27 individual gifts from a diverse cross-section of people including traders, monks, nuns, pilgrims, and guilds from towns both near and distant.
The Karle chaitya is carved into a mountain-side, with its apsidal chamber extending 124 feet into it, and a barrel-vaulted roof 46 feet high. The apsidal cave consists of a broad central nave with two narrow aisles demarcated on either side by a row of fifteen octagonal pillars. These pillars rise out of pot-shaped bases and have capitals depicting individuals or couples riding on elephants and horses. They bear inscriptions recording details of donations and gifts. The stupa is at the deep centre of the apsidal protrusion, with seven octagonal shafts behind it and to the sides. The yasti-chattra (parasol) atop it is made of wood, and still intact. Its underside is carved with concentric circular motifs and a multi-petalled lotus. The site originally made considerable use of wood in its architecture, as suggested by the remnants of wooden ribs on the barrel-vaulted roof.
The front of the cave has a richly carved facade screen. Two free-standing stambhas stand at the entrance; these originally had dhammachakras atop the lions on their lotus capitals. The opening veranda contains six sets of life-sized maithuna couples on its front walls, and two on its facing walls. A large horse-shoe shaped arch dominates the upper section of the front wall, while the rest of the front and side walls depict relief-carvings of smaller chaitya arches and vedika ornaments stacked atop each other such that they resemble multi-storeyed buildings. Large carved elephants are depicted supporting this arrangement.
There have been several modifications to the edifice over the period of its occupation. The chaitya was originally aniconic, but figures of the Buddha and his attendants were added in the veranda and the front wall. A sculpture of the Buddha with the bodhisattvas Padmapani and Manjushri was also inserted at the entrance. New sculptures were also similarly installed at the older cave sites of Nasik and Kanheri, suggesting that these were all tied to changes in theology and patterns of patronage in the early centuries CE.
The vihara caves at Karle were the dwellings of monks and nuns, and vary considerably in their size and plan. They range from single cells and groups of cells to colonnaded verandas and halls. These cells mostly contain slightly raised platforms that served as beds.
The Karle caves continue to be major tourist attractions at the time of writing.
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