Gir Somnath— In the serene expanse of Gir-Gadhada taluka, within Gujarat's Gir Somnath district, lies a treasure trove of history and spirituality— the Buddhist caves of Shana Hill. These sacred caves were once the dwelling places of around 10,000 monks, where the profound chant of "Buddham Sharanam Gachhami" resonated, and the noble teachings of Buddhism thrived.
However, as time marched on, a startling transformation took place within these hallowed chambers. The Una tehsil of Gir Somnath district, Gujarat, where these caves stand, now tells a different story. The caves, though designated as protected sites by the Archaeology Department, have succumbed to neglect and decay. Instead of sanctity, they have become the breeding grounds of vices.
History enthusiasts and Buddhist followers who make their way to these caves are met with a disheartening sight. Liquor bottles, walls stained with paan (betel leaf) spits, and even discarded condoms now mar the once-holy premises.
On September 6, volunteers of the Swayam Sainik Dal (SSD) embarked on a Buddha Dhamm Yatra to these caves. The shocking sight of dirt, desolation, and despair deeply saddened the volunteers.
Historical Significance: The Sana caves, located 35 km from the sea coast, are a hidden gem in the heart of Gujarat. They boast a staggering sixty plus caves, each bearing witness to a glorious past. The origins of these caves date back to the 2nd century BC, a time when Buddhism flourished in India. These caves, believed to have been used for meditation, study, and communal gatherings, offer a unique blend of rock architecture, viharas, stupas, chaityas, Vipassana centers, and exquisite art. Some even contain replicas of famous structures found in Nepal, Sarnath, and Ajanta-Ellora. These caves, with their architectural grandeur, served as sanctuaries for thousands of Buddhist monks. They dedicated their lives to the practice of Buddhism, meditation, and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment within these hallowed walls.
"Our members embarked on a Dhamma Yatra on September 6 to pay homage to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, carrying flags adorned with the principles of Panchsheel and the SSD. We went to the Buddhist caves nestled on Sana Hill near Sanavankiya village. Approximately 500 participants, including children, braved the scorching heat to celebrate the rich heritage of Buddhism and discuss the preservation of these caves. But we were shocked to see the sight. We cleaned up the space to organise the sabha" Sanjay Shauryavanshi told The Mooknayak.
Quoting from the book 'Buddhist Caves of Saurashtra-Kutch' authored by Nilesh Kathar, Shauryavanshi says, "it is revealed that these caves are not just a couple or a handful; there are a staggering 62 of them in this region. These caves are strategically situated on two hills, facing each other, approximately 35 kilometers away from the sea coast. They are also 25 kilometers from the town of Una and merely 3 kilometers from the quaint Vankia village. What adds to the picturesque setting is the gentle flow of the Rupen River meandering through these hills, further complemented by the presence of a massive dam on its bank."
According to the author's account, the lush greenery of the Gir forest that envelopes the surroundings is a visual delight. The verdant landscape stretches as far as the eye can see, providing a serene backdrop to the cave complex. These caves are meticulously arranged in ascending order, progressing from the foothills. Among these, five caves stand out due to their substantial size, and over time, people have assigned them names rooted in convenience and folklore. The names bestowed upon these caves include Abhalmandap, Bhimchori, Pandav Cave, Mataji's Samadhi Cave, among others. Near the staircase leading up to the hill upon which Mataji's temple is perched, the Archaeology Department had erected a protective board for the Buddhist caves. However, it is disheartening to note that the word 'Buddhist,' inscribed in Gujarati, has been intentionally erased from the board, which is displayed in both Gujarati and English languages.
"Despite their historical significance, these caves have fallen into disrepair and have been subjected to vandalism and encroachment. The Archaeological Department's efforts to protect them have been insufficient, with notice boards defaced or removed. Some individuals, motivated by a narrow casteist mentality, have even built temples dedicated to Hindu deities within these Buddhist caves. This disregard for cultural heritage threatens the very existence of these ancient treasures." says Sanjay.
Abhalmandap: This cave, with dimensions of 21m x 22m x 16ft, once featured six pillars, but only two remain today. It likely served as a space for discussions on Buddha's Dhamma and communal gatherings. The cave opens onto a picturesque landscape of lush greenery, offering a sense of serenity and connection with nature.
Bhimchori: This cavern, colloquially linked to the wedding of Bhima, features four grand pillars, reminiscent of a wedding hall. However, historical evidence for this association is lacking. Nearby, a meditation area is preserved, with boards for monks to meditate upon, reciting "Buddha Sharanam Gachhami" and "Dhammam Sharanam Gachhami."
The Stupas and Mataji's Samadhi: On the hill's ascent, several stupa-like structures can be found, with one believed to house the remains of bhikkhus who attained parinirvana. Mataji's Samadhi, a sprawling cave 200 feet above the foothills, encompasses a dining area, kitchen, temple, and a large courtyard. An image of Tathagata Buddha adorns the wall, bearing testament to the spiritual significance of the site.
Historical records reveal the importance of these caves. Chinese traveller Hiuen-Tsang, who spent years in India studying Buddhism, visited Sana Buddhist University. He noted that monks here studied Buddhist philosophy, history, art, and culture. Additionally, renowned poet Jhaverchand Meghani documented his visit to this site nearly a century ago in his book "Ruins of Saurashtra."
The Archaeology Department's apathy is evident in its lack of maintenance efforts. As per a report published in The Times of India, the caves were last cleaned in 2009, as revealed in a response to a Right to Information (RTI) application. The department acknowledged a meager expenditure of Rs 61,000 for the clean-up but admitted to not assigning dedicated staff to oversee these caves. Even though senior officials had visited in 2021 and 2022, no significant action was taken to preserve this cultural heritage.
"The neglect of these caves poses a grave threat to the rich cultural heritage of Gujarat. These architectural marvels, once bustling centers of Buddhist culture, now stand in silent despair. The cry of "Buddham Sharanam Gachchami" echoes from their walls, calling for urgent preservation efforts. It is imperative that the authorities recognize the historical significance of the Sana caves and take immediate steps to protect this invaluable heritage from fading into oblivion." urges Asheesh Bhai Vanvi, another SSD volunteer.
In a conversation with Mulubhai Bera, the Minister for Tourism and Culture, he shared insights into the restoration efforts of Buddhist centers with historical significance under the Buddhist Circuit scheme. He emphasized the state government's commitment to allocating a substantial budget for restoration and maintenance this year, targeting a total of 13 identified sites for rejuvenation. " I don't know the specific encroachment and non maintenance issue about the particular site but it is for sure that the state government is working towards restoration and preservation of all such sites in Gujarat and soon they would regain their glory". The Minister also said that he would direct the concerning departments to take needed measures. With a personal commitment to overseeing the process, he reassured that encroachments would not be allowed to persist.
An ambitious restoration project is on the horizon as part of the development of Buddhist circuits, encompassing thirteen carefully chosen sites that are set to be transformed with world-class amenities. These sites will be intricately connected to other significant Buddhist destinations across the globe, making it a monumental endeavour.
The chosen sites for this transformation include the Uparkot of Junagadh, the mystical Cave of Baba Pyarelal, the regal Palace of Khapra Kodiya, the iconic Pillar of Ashoka, the revered Sana Cave of Gir Somnath, the ancient Buddhist Cave of Prabhas Patan, the historic Kadia Dungar of Bharuch, the enigmatic Siyot Cave of Kutch, the tranquil Talaja Buddhist Cave in Bhavnagar, the awe-inspiring Khambhalida Cave of Rajkot, the profound Buddhist Cave of Vadnagar in Mehsana district, the captivating Buddhist Cave on Taranga Hill in Mehsana district, and the timeless Deva's Mori, nestled along the banks of the river Meshwo.
These transformative efforts aims to bring about a multitude of enhancements. The Buddhist sites selected for development will feature improved access roads, efficient street lighting, informative tourist kiosks, specialized security cabins, a comprehensive network of CCTV cameras to ensure safety, comfortable seating arrangements for visitors, readily available drinking water facilities, convenient refreshment options, ample car parking spaces, elevated watchtowers for panoramic views, and well-planned resting areas to ensure a serene and immersive experience for all.