Not far from some of the Konkan’s choicest tourist hot spots in coastal Maharashtra is a series of Buddhist rock-cut caves that are quiet proof of a once-bustling Indo-Roman port or ‘emporium'. These caves have been carved into the low basalt hills overlooking the Mandad arm of the Rajpuri Creek, around 129 km south of Mumbai and pretty close to the famous Murud-Janjira Fort in Raigad district.
Referred to as 'Mandagora' by Roman traders, and ‘Mandava’ by the local ruling dynasty, the Mahabhojas, the port of Mandagora finds mention in the Geographia of Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE and was also mentioned in the Greek trade manual, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (mid 1st century CE).
But no one knew exactly where this port was until recently. Pulling off some tricky detective work, archaeologists put together cave inscriptions, numismatic evidence and artefactual data, and confirmed that the modern-day village of Mandad was the capital of Mandava, which in turn was where Mandagora was located.
Before we discuss the caves in question – the Kuda cave complex near Mandad – a word about rock-cut caves and their significance. There are more than a thousand rock-cut caves that we know of across Western Maharashtra, Bahrot near Dahanu in the Noth to Goa in the South. Unfortunately, people view rock-cut caves in isolation. They believe that just because there isn’t evidence of ancient cities around them, they are not important. They couldn’t be more wrong.
All Buddhist rock-cut monasteries, along the belt from Ajanta in Aurangabad to Bhaja near Lonavala are on trade routes, so that their patrons, the traders, could make donations for their upkeep. It is also important to remember that the monks who lived in these rock-cut monasteries did not grow any food and were dependent on local rulers and donors for their sustenance. We need to see them in this light.
Also note that wherever a trade route exists, we need to find out what lay at each end and what goods moved along the route. Itinerant traders do not build great temple complexes in politically unstable areas. Thus, there must have been a strong local polity controlling the region and prospering economically due to this trade.
From the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE, between the rise and fall of the Mauryas and the rise of the Satavahanas of the Deccan, a number of small kingdoms/dynasties lay scattered across Western and Southern Maharashtra – the Maharathis, Mahabhojas, Kanabhojas, Mahasenapatis, Kumaras, Kuras, etc.
This is the story of a dynasty known as the Mahabhojas of Mandava, who ruled a small kingdom in what is now Raigad district of Maharashtra, from their capital city of Mandava, identified as the modern village of Mandad. Theirs is an almost unknown history, which would have been completely lost had it not been for their patronage of Buddhism and the rock-cut cave complex of Kuda.
The Kuda Caves in Mandava are a series of ‘lesser’ (i.e. they do not have the high, barrel vaults of Bhaja, Karla, Bedsa and Ajanta; neither do they have a large amount of sculpture) Buddhist rock-cut caves carved out of a hill that overlooks the villages of Kuda and Mandad on the Rajpuri Creek (also known as the Murud-Janjira creek) on the coast of Raigad district.
This group of 15 caves is carved into the basaltic hills overlooking the creek. There are two distinct storeys or layers of caves, one atop the other, with a hairpin path connecting them. Cave No 6 at Kuda is the most elaborate. It is a chaitya with a flat roof and has two elephants flanking the entrance veranda. There is a main hall with a bench running around it and flanking the deep-set sanctum, which holds the stupa and a pair of donor figures.
The walls and pillars of this cave, and a few of the others, have numerous intrusive sculptures in medium relief that belong to a much later phase. Similarly, there are clearly two phases of Brahmi inscriptions. The earlier ones, dateable palaeographically to the 1st century CE, are deeply cut, large letters and do not intrude into the walls or pillars at random. They are all in Pali. The next set belongs to the 4th century CE and is in Sanskrit.
Our story starts in 1854, when the Rev J Stevenson, an Indian history enthusiast, published nine long inscriptions found in these Buddhist rock-cut caves near the village of Kuda. This was the world's first brush with these little-known gems of Buddhist art and architecture. The initial interpretations were terribly erroneous and were corrected by H Jacobi, a well-known epigraphist, in 1878, and finally seriously collated and translated by James Burgess and Bhagwanlal Indraji, the most well-known epigraphists of the 19th century (Burgess went on to become the second director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India) in 1881. Burgess and Indraji reported 31 inscriptions from the complex.
The most important thing about the caves at Kuda is perhaps the data set created by the first set of inscriptions, which are in Brahmi and which record donations by (and in the name of) a local dynasty called the Mahabhojas as well as lay people of varied professions including iron mongers, gardeners, writers, physicians, transporters, flower vendors and nuns.
The Mahabhojas are also known from two other inscriptions. The first, very weathered and almost impossible to read, are at the Kanheri Caves in Mumbai; and the second at the Bedsa Caves near Talegaon in Maharashtra. At Bedsa, the wife of a ruler of yet another local dynasty, the Maharathis, signs off as a daughter of the Mahabhojas.
– The Mahabhojas were a very local dynasty that flourished in the mid-Konkan region between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE.
They were at some stage most definitely vassals of the Satavahanas. The Maharathis were their contemporaries and also a slightly earlier dynasty, which held sway over the region of the Pune district adjacent to the ghats. They controlled the trade routes to the sea and have left numerous inscriptions at Bhaja, Karla and Bedsa. They too were subsequently vassals of the Satavahanas. The relationship between the two dynasties seems to have been quite cordial as we see intermarriage between them.
What is even more interesting about the inscriptions from Kuda is that most of the early ones are very well (deeply) cut, in very large, clean letters, which makes reading them and using them to teach Brahmi a true joy. Palaeographically, they belong to the 1st century CE.
Another very interesting feature is that a number of these inscriptions have a logograph of some sort at the beginning. The regnal inscriptions talk about kings of the Mahabhoja dynasty ruling from the city of Mandava, modern-day Mandad, at the foot of the same hill into which the Kuda Caves are carved. The first inscription mentions the queen Mahabhoji Sadageri Vijaya (the wife of king Mahabhoja Sadageri).
The donation has been made by the scribe of her son, Mahabhoja Mandava Khandapalita. Interestingly, the scribe, Sivabhuti, mentions the names of his own parents, Sulasadata and Utaradata, too. Even more interestingly, Sivabhuti’s younger brother Sivama also makes a donation. He donates the main Chaitya Cave (Cave No 6) and his wife Vijaya and his four sons donate the carvings while his four daughters donate the pillars.
This mentioning of wives, mothers and daughters is a very interesting twist as is the fact that many of the other donor inscriptions are by women themselves. This feministic wave in the Early Historical Konkan has perhaps never been duplicated since. Obviously, women in the Konkan had a higher status in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE than elsewhere.
Cave No 7 has two inscriptions, the first one by a physician named Somadeva (who mentions the names of his parents, sons and daughters), and the second by Mandava Kumara (the Mandava Prince), Chief of the Mandavas.
The inscriptions by Sivabhuti, Sivama and Somadeva all have the same logograph at the beginning, something called the ‘reverse standard/flag’ by palaeographers.
The most intriguing inscription, though, is from Cave 11 and is sadly broken. Only the words ‘Mahabhoja ba (likaya)’ in Line 1 and ‘Mandaviya I…’ in the second line are seen. But this is enough to indicate that it is a donation by a Mandava princess. The logograph at the beginning of the inscription is that of a Hippocampus, a Mediterranean mythical beast, a ‘half horse and half fish’. This points very, very strongly to a Mediterranean connection with the Mahabhojas.
Cave No 17 has an inscription that mentions a new Mahabhoja ruler, Mahabhoja Sadakara Sudassana, and is a gift from his daughter Vijayanika.
Inscription 20 from Cave No 14 is by an iron monger, Mahikasa from Karhad, which has 63 contemporary Buddhist caves of its own.
Cave No 15 has a donation of yet another chaitya by Ramadata during the reign of Mahabhoja Mandava Velidata Kochikiputasa. The word ‘Kochikiputasa’ translates as ‘son of Kochiki/Kausiki’ and is a matronymic, a style used by the Satavahanas who ruled the Deccan during this period. Interestingly, Ramadata appears to be a Jaina but is still making a donation to a Buddhist monastery. This is not unique as this period often saw such inter-faith donations.
Other inscriptions mention gifts of caves and cisterns by traders, merchants, carters, gardeners and nuns, and in some cases their wives as well. This clearly tells us about the economic wellbeing of the people and of the country.
The inscriptional evidence from Kuda is further strengthened by recently discovered coins of the Mahabhojas in Junnar (near Nashik), Chaul (north of Kuda) and Karad (to the south). Most of the coins are those of Sadageri Vijaya and bear his regnal symbol (a turtle and a snake); on the obverse is an Ujjain symbol, which consists of a ‘plus’ sign with circles at the ends of each arm. This was a very common regnal symbol of the Satavahana dynasty and was probably a form of expressing vassalage.
The first known coin, in a private collection, was described by Shailendra Bhandare, Numismatist and Keeper at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. On the obverse is the name of the king along with a turtle and a snake, regnal symbols of the Mahabhoja Dynasty on the reverse is the Ujjain symbol used often by the Satavahanas. A second coin from the same collection has Mahakshatrapa Nahapana’s arrow and thunderbolt alongside the ‘reverse standard’ seen at Kuda on its reverse. Numismatist Amol Bankar had in 2008 published a mini corpus of all known Mahabhoja coins and had described a coin from Bhandare’s collection, which has Sivama. He reads it as ‘Mahabhojasa Sadakarasa Kochikiputa Sudassana’. Both Sadageri and Kochikiputasa are known to us from the inscriptions at the Kuda Caves. The reverse standard is also seen on the coin.
Interestingly, Shobhana Gokhale, doyenne of Indian numismatics, had already recorded a coin with the turtle but with Nahapana’s regnal symbols, the arrow and thunderbolt. Nahapana was the ruler of the Kshatrapas to the north and they were in a very serious conflict with the Satavahanas under Gautamiputra Satakarni. In the absence of any inscription, she had thought it to be a coin of Nahapana. Shailendra Bhandare has also published a coin of the Mahabhoja ruler Sivama from the same collection and thus we now have the names of two distinct rulers, both of whom find mention in the inscriptions at Kuda.
Abhijit Dandekar, an archaeologist with the Deccan College, Pune, and the excavator of Chaul, and Padmakar Prabhune, a well-known numismatist from Pune, have also described a coin of Mahabhoja Sivama from surface explorations at Chaul. It has the name Mahabhoja Vasithiputa Sivama and turtle and snake on the obverse and Nahapana’s arrow and thunderbolt with the logograph of the reverse standard seen at the Kuda Caves. From Karhad to the south of Kuda Shailen Bhandare has described a new coin of the Mahabhojas. It has the Mahabhoja Vasithiputa Sivama on the obverse with a turtle and snake(s) and a Hippocampus on the reverse. Bhandare went on to display and discuss this coin at a recent lecture in Mumbai. This is the same ruler as that on the coin reported by Dandekar and Prabhune.
This collective evidence from the large number of cave excavations, the inscriptions on them as well as the coins prompted an archaeological team from The India Study Centre (INSTUCEN), Mumbai, to conduct explorations at Mandad in the hope of finding an Indo-Roman port site of the 1st-2nd century CE.
Explorations by the team in 2018 led to the discovery of Early Historical ceramics attributable to the Satavahana period and alongside them a sherd of an imitation Roman ceramic type, as well as the handle fragment of a Mediterranean amphora. The Hippocampus on the inscription, the Hippocampus once again on the Mahabhoja coin and now the Mediterranean amphora fragment all point to Mandad being a port site during the Indo-Roman period. The caves and the economic viability of the Mahabhojas too strongly suggest that it was a good trading entrepot.
Mandad has been postulated by many scholars as being the site of the Indo-Roman port of Mandagora mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st century CE text listing the ports of the Arabian Sea littoral. The ceramics found by INSTUCEN have clinched this deal and the authors (Kurush F Dalal, Ernst Emanuel Mayer, Raamesh Gowri Raghavan, Rhea Mitra-Dalal, Siddarth Kale and Rajesh Poojari) of a recent paper published in the Journal of Indian Ocean Studies feel that the Mandagora of the Periplus is Mandava-Kuda of the Mahabhojas.
Thus, a series of what are considered ‘lesser caves’ has proved invaluable as the main source of the history of the Mahabhoja dynasty of Mandad in Maharashtra.
What happened to the Mahabhojas is a chapter still to be written but the INSTUCEN team think they will have answers after detailed excavations at Mandad.
– LHI TRAVEL GUIDE
The Kuda caves are 140km to the south of Mumbai. Mumbai is the nearest (International) airport. You can take the train to Roha or Indapur and a Bus or shared Rickshaw to Kuda/Mandad. You can also go by road via Alibaug and Murud using the coastal road or via Panvel to Indapur using NH66 and then via Tala to Kuda/Mandad.
Cover photo courtesy: Rhea Dalal