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Arvalem: Goa’s Mysterious Caves

Arvalem: Goa’s Mysterious Caves

For many of us, the history of Goa is synonymous with Portuguese rule. But did you know that for many centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese, Goa was ruled by various Hindu dynasties? These early rulers have left their mark across the state.

About an hour’s drive from Panaji, the capital of Goa, is the small village of Arvalem in Bicholim town in North Goa. It is popular among tourists for its magnificent waterfalls. But a short walk from the waterfalls is a set of caves that goes back 1,500 years. Overlooking a quiet stream and resting in an idyllic setting, the Arvalem Caves are among the earliest Hindu architectural marvels in the state.

Locals refer to these caves as the ‘Pandava Caves’. According to legend, the five Pandavas along with their wife Draupadi took temporary refuge in these caves during their 12-year-long exile in the forest.

While many rock-cut caves in Western India are carved out of basalt rock, Arvalem is a rare example of a man made cave complex cut out of laterite rock. The cave complex includes six chambers, five of them used as temples and the sixth probably used as a kitchen or for storage, which is indicated by the platform that runs along one side of the chamber.Arvalem Caves

Arvalem Caves | Wikimedia Commons

The Arvalem Caves are dated to the 5th or 6th century CE, a period when Goa was ruled by the Kadamba Dynasty (345-525 CE). The Kadambas ruled Northern Karnataka and the Konkan from their capital Banavasi, which is in present-day Uttara Kannada district. They succeeded the Satavahana dynasty in the Deccan and were contemporaries of the Western Ganga Dynasty (350 – 1000 CE). The Kadambas were primarily worshippers of Lord Shiva. 

The first chamber of the Arvalem caves has on its floor a pitha or altar. In the hole of this pitha is inserted a Shiva Linga made of fine grey basalt stone. This suggests these were probably Shaivite caves. Sculptures similar to a Linga are also present in four of the five remaining caves, inside their pithas. However, it is difficult to confirm them as ‘Shiva’ Lingas. 

For example, the Linga in the third chamber has a one-line inscription in the Brahmi script that reads ‘Sambaluru-vasi Ravih’. Translated, this means ‘Ravi, the resident of Samba town.’ Ravi is another name of the Sun, indicating that the third chamber was dedicated to the Sun God.

According to archaeologist M S Nagaraja Rao, “Ravi, one of the many synonyms of the Sun God, is mentioned several times in the Samba Purana, as a resident of a town founded by Samba. Samba was the son of Lord Krishna and was afflicted by leprosy. It was the Sun God who healed him. As a gesture of gratitude, Samba is supposed to have built a shrine to the Sun God in the town named Sambapura.” 

Interestingly, an archaeological survey in 1964 revealed an old temple structure with a small image of the Sun God in a town named Kudnem, just 6 km south-west of Arvalem. Kudnem along with Arvalem could have been known as ‘Sambapura’ in ancient times.Lingas in the caves

Lingas in the caves | Wikimedia Commons

If one Linga is dedicated to Shiva and another to Surya, art historians believe that a third Linga of the five possible Lingas may have been dedicated to Skanda or Kartikeya. This would complete the holy Shiva-Kartikeya-Surya nexus, making it a one-of-a-kind cave-temple in India.

On the outer side of the chambers is a pillared verandah. Interestingly, none of the pillars, altars, walls, doors or window frames of the Arvalem Caves bears any decoration. They are plain and appear rustic. This may be because laterite rock does not lend itself to fine carvings.

There isn’t a lot of information available on the caves; just a lot of speculation.

It has also been observed that the Arvalem Caves may have been Buddhist in nature and were used as viharas or monasteries by monks travelling on this route.

They were converted into Shaivite caves later. However, this theory hasn’t gained much traction among historians.

Even though the Arvalem Caves may not be the most prominent among the Brahmanical caves of Western India, they tell us that Shaivism had entered the heart of what we now call Goa by the 6th century CE. 

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