From Kanheri to the World



Deep in the heart of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Mumbai, are a set of over 100 ancient Buddhist caves, known as the Kanheri caves. Many history buffs who visit these caves, the oldest of which date back to mid-3rd Century BC, make a beeline for cave no. 41. At the entrance of this cave is over 4-foot sculpture, of the eleven-headed Avalokitesvara which is significant. Given that it is the oldest known one of its kind, historians believe that it is from here, at Kanheri that the powerful strain of Buddhism spread across Asia. Avalokitesvara is one of the most worshipped spiritual beings in Buddhism and the Dalai Lama is seen as an incarnation of this Bodhisattva.

Though the Avalokitesvara of cave no 41, Kanheri, today tells the tale of neglect, it is important as it tells the story of how Buddhism spread far across Asia and how the west coast of India played an important role in it.

A folia of Korean manuscript of Lotus Sutra dated 1340 CE
A folia of Korean manuscript of Lotus Sutra dated 1340 CE|Wikimedia Commons 

Over the Centuries, after Buddha’s death, numerous spiritual beings and deities were incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. Among them was Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva of compassion who is said to work tirelessly to help those who are suffering. While it must be noted that Bodhisattvas are not gods, they are immensely popular. Described as compassionate beings that help humans on the path to liberation, the Buddhist laity prays to the Bodhisattvas for boons and favours.

The earliest known reference to Avalokitesvara is in chapter 25 of Saddharma Pundarika Sutra popularly known as Lotus Sutra, an influential Mahayana Buddhist text composed between 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The text describes a total of 33 different manifestations of Avalokitesvara, including female forms. The Mahayana and Theravada are different schools of Buddhism which emerged over centuries. The Theravada school is considered the old school or the ‘Way of the Elders’ in Buddhist tradition. Popular in countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar, it mostly does not accept a number of Mahayana dieties such as Bodhisattvas. Avalokitesvara was one of the only few Mahayana deities which was accepted in Theravada tradition.

Painting of Avalokitesvara from Ajanta
Painting of Avalokitesvara from Ajanta|Wikimedia Commons 

Among the Avalokitesvaras themselves, what makes the one at Kanheri so unique is that it is an eleven-headed or Ekadasmukha form of Avalokitesvara. According to Buddhist legend, Avalokitesvara was so overcome by the suffering of millions, that he transformed into an eleven-headed form with multiple hands, to help as many beings as possible. While Avalokitesvara images are found at Bagh caves near Dhar, MP, at Ajanta and Aurangabad caves, the one at Kanheri is the only eleven-headed one found in India.

Indologist and Professor at Deccan College of Archaeology the late Dr Shobhana Gokhale,  in her paper ‘Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara from Kanheri’, gives a more philosophical explanation for this multi-headed manifestation. According to her, they can be interpreted to represent the ten powers of the Bodhisattva, which are faith, the power of computation, the power of self-culture, illumination, proper behavior, the power of concentration, the power of merit, the power of forbearance, the power of knowledge and the power of abandoning.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai
Kanheri Caves, Mumbai|Wikimedia Commons

Situated within the Borivali area of Mumbai, the Kanheri cave complex was an active Buddhist center for over a 1000 years. It was one of the most important Vihara’s (monk habitations) and educational institutions on the Western Coast.  Strategically placed on the trade route to Sopara and Kalyan, the Kanheri caves formed a large monastery for Buddhist monks from between the 1st Century BCE to 10th Century CE. Here, different schools of Buddhism co-existed for centuries and were patronized by merchants and sailors. The fact that Avalokitesvara was considered to be the saviour of people in shipwrecks would have made him very appealing to people who navigated the stormy and dangerous seas.

Most Buddhist art historians agree that the Avalokitesvara at Kanheri is the oldest surviving representation of its kind in the world, dating back to the late 5th century to early 6th century.  The second oldest one is in China at Longmen Caves in Henan province of China dating to 680 CE. By 8th century CE, the popularity of the Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara had spread across China, Japan, Korea, Nepal and Bhutan.

Sclupture of eleven-headed and thousand armed Avalokitesvara, China
Sclupture of eleven-headed and thousand armed Avalokitesvara, China|Wikimedia Commons 

Dr Suraj Pandit, an expert on Kanheri caves believes that it is from here that worship of Avalokiteshvara spread to China, through monks-travellers like Hieung Tsang.  Speaking to LHI, Dr Pandit stated

Kanheri is the only known site in India where the (Eleven headed Avalokiteshvara) image is present which dates back to 6th Century CE which he (Hieung Tsang) would have seen and carried it with himself to China.”

Interestingly, the worship of eleven headed Avalokitesvara became popular in China just within 3 years of Hieung Tsang’s return from India.

This has been corroborated by other scholars of Chinese art, such as Sherman Lee from the Cleveland Museum who states that the iconography of the eleven-headed Avalokitesvara was taken from India to China by scholars like Hiung Tsang in form of verses or Dharani (mantras)  known as Avalokitesvara-Ekadasmukha-Dharani and translated into Chinese around 653-655 CE. Sadly, while the Dharani text became very popular across China and Japan, the original Indian Sanskrit version is now lost.

Painting of first Dalai Lama
Painting of first Dalai Lama|Wikimedia Commons 

In the 11th century, the cult of Avalokitesvara spread to Tibet where it gained great popularity. So much so that the spiritual head of the Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is considered a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara!

Go to the Kanheri caves today and you will find devotees from as far as Japan coming to pay their respects to the Avalokitesvara at Kanheri. Infact, Japanese pilgrim monks have been visiting Kanheri from 12th century onwards, as can be seen from the two Japanese inscriptions found in the caves.

Sadly this unique sculpture that led to a whole new sect and the spread of the Buddhist faith across the Asian continent, lies in a state of neglect. There isn't even a plaque to mention its name, let alone its significance. Open to the elements and constant human contact, the sculpture has also been extensively damaged.

It is sad that such an important piece of art, history and faith is in such a dire state!

Cover Picture: Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara to left of sitting Buddha


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