Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture

By Sukumar Dutt | Go to book overview

6
The Bāgh Caves

THE Leᇤ7as, described so far, are situated on the western side of peninsular India. Many of them go back in their beginnings to the early Sātavāhana times--to the second or first century BC--and their lifetime as monk-settlements covers many after-centuries. Some of them possibly functioned even to the end of the eighth when Buddhism, save at certain localities in the east of northern India, was in the last stage of decline.

The tradition of guhā-monasteries was strangely persistent south of the Vindhyas. Even in the late decline of Buddhism, a splendid set of caves was constructed on the southern face of the Vindhyan hills in a part of the Madhya Pradesh now called Gwalior. These are known as 'Bāgh Caves' from a nearby village of that name. About thirty feet below them, a small stream known locally as Bāghinī meanders down from its source somewhere up in the hills and, flowing through a channel called Kukshi, discharges itself into the Narmadā river. Among the guhā-monasteries of India, these caves are the most northerly. In their time, they must have been of striking spectacular magnificence. The approach to them from the plains is somewhat difficult--through several folds of the Vindhyan range.

These caves have not yielded a single epigraph to give a clue to their history. It is not known who started them or who their patrons or benefactors were or when they were deserted. But they are set in a region where Buddhism evidently had a great hold at the time of their construction. The region was anciently named Malwā (Mālava), in the extreme west of the Madhya Pradesh. At several sites in Malwā have been discovered stray remains of monasteries of the guhā-type,1 but the Bāgh Caves represent a whole great range of them planned on a large scale. Archaeologists have cleared these caves of debris and brought nine to view, and in the entire complex there are probably several more still out of sight. Archaeological excavation is still on.

The Bāgh Caves have suffered some natural vicissitudes which caves of western India were happily exempt from. They were carved out of sandstone rocks, but these rocks happened to be topped by a deep band of clay-stone. The weight and pressure of this top-layer

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1
For these sites, see the 'Sketch-map of Malwā' in Marshall The Bāgh Caves (pub. by India Society, London, 1927).

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