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Lenyadri: From Buddhist Caves To An Ashtavinayak Temple

Lenyadri: From Buddhist Caves To An Ashtavinayak Temple

Not far from Pune, in the archaeologically important Junnar taluka in Maharashtra, is the Lenyadri cave complex. Here, cut into the rocky hills are 30 caves dating to the 3rd BCE. Twenty nine of them are Buddhist chapels and monks’ quarters, but one is a Ganesha temple of the Hindu faith.

Not only is this a spectacular blend of the Buddhist and Hindu faiths unique, but the Ganesha temple is also one of the Ashtavinayak temples, the eight most sacred Ganesha temples in Maharashtra. 

Lenyadri Caves

The Lenyadri cave complex is among 200-odd caves in Junnar, a region that was strategically located in ancient times. Situated near the banks of the Kukdi River, it is very close to Naneghat, one of the most important passes in the Western Ghats, the hills that run parallel to the west coast of India. 

Naneghat was on a busy trade route and it connected the sea ports of Sopara and Kalyan with mainland cities like Paithan, Ter and Nashik in the Deccan. The traffic that passed through Naneghat was colossal and it made Junnar an important trade and political centre.

Patronage of the Satavahanas

The extent of the Satavahana Empire

Junnar rose to prominence during the reign of the Satavahanas, one of the most powerful dynasties of the Deccan (2nd BCE to 3rd CE). This was also a time when Buddhism was thriving in India. The Satavahana rulers extended their patronage to Buddhism and it was during their reign that the 200-odd caves were carved in Junnar. 

The Lenyadri Cave complex (also called Ganesha Hill) is one among four rock-cut cave complexes in Junnar, the other prominent ones being Ganesha Hill (Lenyadri), Shivneri Hill, Tulja Hill and Manmodi Hill. These cave complexes, built between the 1st BCE and 2nd CE, were not only shelters for Buddhist monks, they also provided shelter to merchants and traders and protected them from rough weather, highway robbers and wild animals. They also served as a place to rest. In return, many merchants offered generous donations for the building and upkeep of caves like these.

The Lenyadri Caves represent the early Hinayana phase of Buddhism and are largely devoid of sculptures. Of the 30 caves here, two are chaityagrihas (chapels) and the remaining 28 are viharas (monks’ quarters or monasteries). They were excavated in the 1st -2nd CE.

Chaitya Hall at Lenyadri

Caves 6 and 14, the chaitya caves at Lenyadri, are among the earliest and best examples of Hinayana chaityagrihas in Western India. The ceilings of both the chaityas are adorned with stone beams and each pillar is topped with striking depictions of animals.

Lenyadri Cave no. 7

Of the 28 viharas, Cave 7 is probably the most interesting. It is known as ‘Ganesh Lena’, a Ganapati temple of the Hindu faith. The cave is designed as a vihara, with a large hall and around 20 cells of different sizes. The date of this temple is debatable. 

Ganesha Temple & Its Legend

The name ‘Lenyadri’ literally means ‘mountain cave’ in Marathi and is mentioned in the Ganesh Purana and Sthala Purana in association with the Hindu God Ganesha. Lenyadri is said to have been the birthplace of Ganesha. Legend has it that Goddess Parvati meditated for 12 years, seeking a boon from Ganesha. Pleased with her devotion, Ganesha gave her a boon that he would be born as her son, after which Parvati created a clay image of Ganesha and brought it to life by worshipping it. The idol of this temple is known as Girijatmaj, meaning ‘born to Girija’ (Parvati). 

Exterior of Lenyadri Cave no. 7 | Wikimedia Commons

The Girijatmaj temple at Lenyadri is part of the Ashtavinayak temples, the eight most sacred temples of Ganesha in Maharashtra. Like all the other Ashtavinayak temples, the idol of Ganesha here too is believed to be a svayambhu (‘self-manifesting’. In other words, it is a natural formation). 

It is believed that the image here is not a separate idol but a three-dimensional image on the wall of the cave that represents only the back of Lord Ganesha. The assumption is that Ganesha’s face is visible on the other side of the hill. The image is on the rear wall of the two central cells, which have been combined.

There are many ancient inscriptions at Lenyadri, bearing records of the people who made donations to these caves. Both the chaityagrihas have inscriptions, which date to the 2nd CE. A donation to Cave 6 was made by a person named ‘Sulasadata’ from Kalyana, while Cave 14 was a gift from a certain ‘Ananda’. 

Lenyadri Cave Inscription | Wikimedia Commons

Not just the merchants but people from diverse backgrounds made donations to the caves. Two of the inscriptions in Cave 17 record gifts of cisterns – one made by a goldsmith named ‘Saghaka’ and the other by two women named ‘Lachhinika’ and Nadabalika. Interestingly, these inscriptions also mention the names of their family members.

The Lenyadri Cave complex falls under the Archaeological Survey of India and is a very popular tourist and pilgrimage site.

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