India / Places We Go

Bombay’s Hidden Mahakali Caves

by Bernie Debusmann

At first glance, the Indian city of Mumbai – or Bombay, as my wife constantly reminds me – is an odd place for an archaeological site. It is, after all, very crowded – more than 18 million people crammed into just over 600 square kilometres of space.

It’s also a city that’s looking towards its future – glittering skyscrapers seem to be coming up all the time and the city’s Bollywood and business elite and nouveau riche seem to have a laser-like focus on today’s good times and tomorrow’s fortunes.

But, like Mexico City, Bombay is full of hidden gems. Case in point: the city’s Mahakali Caves.

Located in the city’s extremely busy eastern suburb of Andheri, the set of 19 caves – built between the 1st century BCE and 6th century CE – are in an unlikely place. Around the site is a busy residential and commercial neighbourhood, with workers and small store owners busily plying their trade just metres away.

The caves themselves, although not easily accessible, are a remarkable find. Not all are immediately visible but there are actually 19 rock-cut monuments at the site, most of which were designed for use by Buddhist monks. There are also depictions of Buddha and various mythological figures, but they’ve mostly been defaced.

Sadly, like many countries, India hasn’t taken particularly good care of this treasure. For years, the site suffered from neglect and urban encroachment. The first time I saw them, in 2015, for example, there were people drying clothes at the entrance to the caves, which were covered in trash.

Luckily, activists have managed – against the odds – to save the site, which is now at least fenced and walled off to keep unwelcome intruders out.

Still, the very off-the-beaten path site is a far cry from its more famous recognised cousin, the Elephanta Caves dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva on an island about 10 km off the coast. The UNESCO World Heritage Site near Bombay is now impeccably maintained by Indian archaeological authorities and visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Here’s to hoping that one day, the rest of India’s treasures get the same treatment.

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