Largest Rock Cut Buddhist Prayer Hall

The Karla Caves or Karle Caves or Karla Cells are a complex of ancient Indian Buddhist rock-cut cave shrines located in Karli near Lonavala,Maharashtra. The shrines were developed over the period – from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. The oldest of the cave shrines is believed to date back to 160 BC.

This is 95km from Mumbai, close to Lonavala and off the Mumbai–Pune highway. The ceiling of the cavernous prayer hall (cave 8) is capped at about 46 feet and is about 124 feet from door to back wall. Carved pillars support the arched roof, with a stupa at the far end being the centre of all rituals. Dating back to between 60BC and 4AD, a total of 16 caves were cut from solid rock, up on a hillside. Marvel at the sculptures as you walk around the prayer hall and monastic residential spaces built in keeping with the principles of Hinayana sect. According to inscriptions translated by experts at the Archeological Survey of India, the complex largely was built on an ancient highway that linked prominent seaports of that time to major inland cities. That the site was important to people back then can be gauged by the fact that it was built using donations from devotees who lived 600km away. Today, standing up there, gazing down on the flat plain below, you can but contemplate what life could have been like for monks who retreated up here.

The Karla cave complex is built into a rocky hillside around 60 kilometres (37 mi) from Pune, with large windows cut into the rock to light the cave interiors. The caves are believed to be some of thousands of similar caves excavated in the Sahyadri Hills in the early 1st millennium AD.

The main cave features a large, intricately carved Chaitya, or prayer hall, dating back to the 1st century BC. This is among the largest rock-cut chaityas in India, measuring 45 metres (148 ft) long and up to 14 metres (46 ft) high. The hall features sculptures of both males and females, as well as animals such as lions and elephants.

A notable feature of these caves is their arched entrances and vaulted interiors. The outside facade has intricate details carved into it in an imitation of finished wood. The central motif is a large horseshoe arch. There is an Ashokan pillar at the front, with a closed stone facade and torana in between.

The caves house a Buddhist monastery dating back to the 2nd century BC. The monastery was once home to two 15-meter grand pillars.

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