The ancient Buddhist caves at Bhaja near Malavli have fascinated me ever since I first visited the place during a school excursion in 1977. Not only did the trip take me on a journey back 2,000 years, it also sparked my interest in Indian history and eventually prompted me to do my masters in the subject. In the course of my research, I discovered that some of the Buddhist rock-cut caves around the Western Ghats date back to the 2nd century BC. Most of these caves are situated along ancient trade routes that ran from the coastal plains of the Konkan through the ghats, into the Deccan Plateau. While the more famous caves are big tourist attractions, there are many less known but equally interesting sites all over the Sahyadris. One such chain of caves is in the Lonavala region and trekking to these wonders is always a pleasure.
From the elaborate caves lower in the hills, follow the trail up mountains. There, you’ll find meditation and prayer halls giving way to forts and fortifications not seen elsewhere. In fact, many of the caves and water tanks in the numerous hill forts were actually built by Buddhists monks and were later occupied and worked upon to suit the needs of a garrison. Some of the caves have the remains of frescoes and sculptures. Once, there were frescoes in the ceiling of the main chaitya of Bedsa Caves, but a village headman had the ceiling whitewashed.
At Karla Caves, in front of the main chaitya, you’ll find a Koli Temple where regular sacrifices of chickens and goats are made even as men and women dance in a religious trance. This trek can be done in parts. Each place can be covered one at a time over different weekends, or completed over two, three or even five days. I have spread it over four days to give it a leisurely pace, with enough time to take in the atmosphere of these places.
DISTANCE 12-14 KM TIME 3-31/2 HOURS
LEVEL 3 OPTIONS: TOUGH, MODERATE AND EASY
The Bedsa Caves are not elaborately sculptured or ornately decorated but their design and style, which have distinct Roman or Greek influences, are very interesting. Outside the main chaitya are two huge pillars with an elaborately carved capital of a bell. On top of this are animal and rider figures. Inside the chaitya is the stupa with pillars on either side (for circumambulation) and a sun window that catches the early morning rays. There are two rooms on either side of the main chaitya and some inscriptions above the doorways. The entrance to the chaitya is hewn out of rock leaving only a narrow passage. There is a large vihara to the right of the chaitya (when facing it) and six or seven water tanks (all potable). Further on the right are some unfinished caves, and on the left, several smaller stupas.
There are three options to get to Bedsa Caves starting from Kamshet Station, but getting there is a bit tricky, so if you are unsure, go to Bedsa Village and then climb up to the caves from there.
THE EASY OPTION
From the station, walk 2 km to the ST Bus Station. A right turn here will bring you to the highway (NH4). Follow this road across NH4 towards Kale Colony for 10-12 km. Regular buses and jeeps ply from Kamshet to Kale Colony, so you can opt for these if you’d rather not walk on a tar road. You can also take a jeep (Rs 100-150 for the full jeep or Rs 10-15 per seat). There isn’t much traffic on this road and the beauty of the hills makes the drive very enjoyable. I’ve often heard and seen peacock and jungle fowl in the early hours of the morning. After passing a jeep track leading to the microwave tower, the road goes up a small ghat through a pass and then zigzags down the hill in a south-westerly direction.
As you emerge out into the open, the Bedsa Caves are visible on your right, or to the north-west, and are easily recognisable by the pillars and towering sun window, which make it look like an ancient Roman monument. Walk on the road for 10-12 km (2-21/2 hrs) till you see a sign for Bedsa Village. Here a road goes right or north and leads to Bedsa Village (this stretch is a motorable dirt road).From the village, a path leads off west, past rice fields and meadows, to the base of the hill. From here, a trail leads up to the caves (2 km from Bedsa Village). The easiest option is to drive this route right into Bedsa Village.
THE MODERATE OPTION
Walk from Kamshet on the road (due south) leading to Pawna Dam and Kale Colony for 5-6 km and then follow a jeep track (due west) leading up a long spur (on your right) for 2-3 km to the microwave tower. From the base of the microwave hill (just before a hairpin bend with railings, when you can see the flat ridge below you, due north) a path leads off to the right or north-west and goes down the hill for 300-400m. From here, the trail goes south-west or left along the base of the hill (take the lower trail) and will eventually lead you to a pass (due west), with a Wageshwar temple. The red and white BSNL Tower and an electric pylon are visible throughout.
From the temple, Bedsa Village is due south while the hill above the caves is south-west. Walk south-west past the temple and the tower, along the ridge for 1 km. At the end of the ridge is a solitary fig tree. Bedsa Caves are 2 km away, due south. The trail follows the contours of the hill before you descend eastwards. The descent from here to the caves is a little tricky and very steep in places. It is not advisable to attempt this descent in the monsoon, when the path is covered with a coat of fresh green moss which is extremely slippery. Bedsa Caves are half-way down the hill and while it’s a distance of only 2 km, it can take 11/2 hrs or more. Bedsa Village will be visible to the right, or south-east, of the caves.
THE TOUGH OPTION
It’s the trail of choice for those who want to get away from roads and vehicles. You will have a constant cool breeze, excellent views and a trail almost all to yourself, but for the wildlife. From Kamshet, walk back along the railway line or the road that runs parallel to it (towards Lonavla), or due west, for 1 km and then turn left or due south at the level crossing. A path leads up the hill for 300-400m and eventually comes out onto the Mumbai-Pune Highway (NH4). Cross the highway and follow a path due south that climbs up a spur and then flattens out. In front of you (to the south) is a hill with a microwave tower (part of the railway communication network). Follow the crest of the ridge to the base of this hill for about 3 km, or just over 1 hr or 11/2 hrs. This joins the trail, mentioned above, in the moderate route. Follow it to the caves. No camping is permitted in the caves. One can camp just outside the caves or down at the base of the hill.
BEDSA CAVES-BEDSA HILL-VISAPUR FORT
DISTANCE 10-12 KM TIME 4-5 HOURS
When facing the main chaitya of the Bedsa Caves, you’ll find steps cut into the rock-face leading up the hill on your left (north-west). This is a very steep trail to the top of the hill (avoidable in the monsoons). Walk for 11/2 hrs up the path. It peters out in places, reappears, and is criss-crossed by other paths and finally reaches the base of a small hill. From here, turn left or south-west and follow the path for 1 km until you come to a small pass. Bedsa Hill is the one on your left (west) while facing the pass. From the pass, both routes (left and right) will bring you to Malewadi Village, also known as Visapur Village (a 6-7 km walk). Alternatively, climb up the left side or west of the pass along a little-used but obvious path. This is a little steep initially but it brings you to the top of the hill (1 km) to an excellent walk along the flat top.
This is a great walk at any time. There is a constant cool breeze as well as views of the surrounding area — Tikona Fort and Pawna Lake with Visapur and Tung forts on either side. On the right lie Karla Ridge, Valvan Lake and Lonavla. After walking past Bedsa Hill, you’ll reach the end of the plateau (1-11/2 hrs/ 4-5 km). The route down is on the right where you join the main trail at Malewadi Village. A broad trail from the village leads through the forest to the base of Visapur Fort. From here take the right trail (north) for 100m. This then turns west or right and will first bring you to a well 11/2 km away. A little past the well, a path leads left or south-west up to a flat clearing (which makes a great campsite), continues along the base of the fort and seems to disappear into thick karvi bushes. It finally emerges at the base of a dry stream (11/2 km). This is the path up to the fort.
A 20-min walk due south-west and you’re in Visapur Fort. There are plenty of good campsites for the picking within the fort but make sure you are close to one of the many water tanks. Do not pollute them or leave garbage behind. If you’d rather camp indoors, there are two large caves just before you enter the fort. Personally, I prefer the open as the caves echo (even if you whisper), are musty and claustrophobic with no views and no water.
The Visapur Fort is spread across 3 sq km and you can spend the whole day wandering around its ramparts. It shares a plateau with Lohagad Fort, though it was built much later by the first Peshwa, Balaji Vishwanath. From two small hillocks at the top, at a height of 1,084m, you get excellent views of the fort, which has lots of water tanks, two large ponds, walls, ruins of houses, a couple of old cannons and the remains of a temple. The fort also has a large millstone where limestone and mortar were ground for fort wall construction. The views from the fort top are spectacular. On one side you can see Pawna Dam, Tikona Fort, Tung Fort (across the waters of Pawna Dam) and Lohagad Fort. According to local legend, a chieftain once promised a woman tightrope walker a reward to walk from Lohagad to Visapur forts. But when he found she had almost reached across to the other side, he cut the rope.
VISAPUR FORT-LOHAGAD FORT
DISTANCE 5 KM TIME 11/2-2 HOURS
Walk across (south) the two hillocks that mark the centre of the Visapur Fort. On emerging from the pass, go right or south-west (two caves here are a good landmark) and take a trail down (south-west) that will lead to Lohagad Fort about 4-5 km away. Precipitous fort walls rise sharply on either side as you walk down a steep path full of boulders. The trail passes a stone water tank (good drinking water here) just before turning south-west and entering thick jungle and then emerges into the open onto a dirt road/ jeep track that leads to a col between Lohagad and Visapur forts. Lohagad Wadi is 11/2 km (south-west) away. From the village, a path goes right (west) and leads into Lohagad Fort (1 km). While one could find accommodation in Lohagad Wadi, this will be very rustic and basic.
Within the fort, there is one large cave (now occupied by a baba) where one could camp. If you like your solitude and space, my advice would be to camp besides the talab (pond) in the middle of the fort. There are some trees and a flat open space that makes an excellent campsite. Gazing up at the night sky from here is quite an amazing experience, as is the view of the lights of Lonavla.
Return option to Lonavla
An interesting option is to walk around Lohagad Fort (left or south from Lohagad Wadi) and follow a dirt road (due west) along the crest of the hill that brings you to a khind (pass). From here go right or north-west, follow the tarred road to Lonavla (about 4 hrs).
LOHAGAD FORT-BHAJA CAVES-KARLA CAVES-LONAVLA
DISTANCE 12-14 KM TIME 4 HOURS
As there is only one route in and out of the fort, make your way back to Lohagad Wadi where some refreshments and a meal may be available. Then head to the saddle between the two forts, from where a broad, well-used trail leads down (north-west) to the left into a jungle and then down a gentle spur (3 km long). From here, Bhaja Caves are visible in the north-east or on your right. At the bottom of the spur, the trail joins a jeep track which brings you to Bhaja Village (11/2-2 km). Take a detour east (right) just before Bhaja Village and go up to the breathtaking Bhaja Caves (or walk up a flight of steps).
The outstanding feature of these 2nd century caves is its chaitya (prayer hall), complete with original wooden arches and a stone stupa. There are 18 caves in all (most were living quarters and viharas), some interesting sculptures, inscriptions and a set of about 12 stupas. A big waterfall at the far end during the monsoon is an added attraction to the history lesson.
Return via Bhaja Village (1 km) and then along a metalled road due north to Malavli Station (3 km), where you cross the railway tracks. If this is your end-point, you can catch a local train to Lonavla, 15 km away. Or continue the trek on to Karla Caves, 7 km away. These are worth a visit to complete the Buddhist cave experience. From Malavli, it’s 3 km to NH4 along a tarred road. Cross the highway and walk another 3 km on a tar road due north to the base of Karla Caves and then walk up the flight of steps (1 km) to the caves. There are several State Transport (ST) buses out of Karla to Lonavla or you could get an auto (Rs 60-80) or a seat (Rs 10-15) in a sixseater auto to Lonavla.
By Andre Morris
About the author: Andre Morris taught history at Mumbai’s Wilson College before walking the wild side. He lives in Mumbai but spends half his life in the outdoors – hiking, rock climbing, rafting, canoeing and birdwatching. He also runs Outbound Adventure, an outdoor education and adventure outfit.