Weekends in Pune are quickly filled up with visiting street shops and good places to eat, fun bike rides, and going for long walks. Oddly enough, its really easy to forget that there are tons of beautiful, and in this case historic sights both within and not far from the city.
About a 1.5 hour drive from the Hadapsar area to outside Pune and off the old Pune-Mumbai highway are the Karla caves. These caves are hand-cut, literally chiseled by hand from the basalt rock face. This was done (in the case of the oldest section) from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The caves we visited were 2,000 years old. Reminder, 2000 years is a long time, a really long time. Perspective: Its 1600 years earlier then the arrival of pilgrims to modern day US, It's 1345 years older than Notre Dame. Its 80 times longer then the seasons of The Simpsons.
Besides the pre-historic caves I've visited in France, I think this is the oldest site we have been to. The details of the work are impressive, and the magnitude of manually removed stone to create the open spaces is breathtaking.
But a bit on us getting up there first.
A kind fellow by the name of Ashok jumped to us the minute we parked our car with our driver. He introduced himself, said he wouldn't charge anything (riiiight) and just wanted to show up the impressive wonders of the caves. Our driver came with us on the trip, which turned out to be both fun for him, and very helpful for us. Turns out just as we began the walk, there was a fun exchange between the two in Marathi. To sum it up, our driver left very unconvinced of the level of "free" that this tour would cost.
As you walk up the numerous steps to the caves, there are a myriad of small shops along the way selling all manner of sweets, ice cold chaas served by the ladle, corn on the cob with a lemon and spice rub (20 INR), and offerings for the temple. The smells change chaotically as your trek your way up, at times you stop for older folk passing through (I applaud their determination!) or the occasional little one who has run out of steam and let open the stream of tears. At one point, we turned a corner and there was a massive stuffed tiger. Our driver was pretty surprised by it and let out a small yelp followed by a "oh my god". It was a solid laugh for us all. The view at points of the walk is incredible, the valley is rich in rice fields and small cottages and farms. Despite the delay of monsoon (1 month) it was still quite green and luscious.
Once you do make it to the top, you'll pay 20X the price that Indians do (100 INR). At this point, we are used to it. All the historic sights we've been to charge more for foreign visitors.
The caves are actually Indian Buddhist, though there is also a Hindu temple just outside the main cave that is a center of worship for the Fishermen (Koli people) of Mumbai. The location was just near a significant trade route intersection, and promoted a good location to create a temple within the natural formation for the Buddhist community at the time. Our tour guide explained that members of the Buddhist community still come from time to time, visitors from China, Japan, and much of South-East asia,
When you step into the main cave, there are some impressive sights. First, the size of it all. The room is massive. It is at least 150 to 200 feet deep, with 30 columns continuous from floor to ceiling chiseled from the mountain itself. Our tour guide showed us a little secret, namely that out of the 30 columns all adorned at the top with horses only one is adorned with a laughing Buddha. All along the walls can be seen residue from paintings, worn with time. If you look closely at the photos below, one of them has a depiction of Buddha. Along the columns, you can find chiseled inscriptions in various languages in addition to an Ashoka Chakra (wheel, seen on the Indian Flag). At the end of the cave is the Stupa or religious mound. Contained inside are the ashes of monks. An very interesting detail to note are the small holes in the floor. They were put in to allow the monks to mix paints directly, and to paint the walls.
Adjacent to the main cave are smaller caves. The caves on the "2nd floor" are currently un-accessable. I was quite disappointed, the Lehigh explorer in me wanted to get up there. But within the smaller caves you can find even smaller rooms, designed for Buddhist monks to meditate on their own. The cave creates a natural echo and amplification resulting in a powerful meditation hum, as many annoying visitors were able to emulate terribly.
Overall, visiting the site was fantastic. Getting out of the house on the weekend (despite being sick) was a great experience and I'm really happy Stephanie urged me on. It's amazing to find deeply historic sights such as these caves right outside our door, and the government does a very good job of keeping them intact and safe. It was a real pleasure to make a trip outside the city to see some ancient religious sites, and I can only imagine as we reach further and further outside the city what kind of treasures we will find!
Oh, and to note: we settled on 200 INR. Our guide helped us find and learn a lot of cool details we would have otherwise missed. Since we hadn't read up on the site it was actually money well spent!