MAHARASHTRA’S FORGOTTEN TREASURE-PITALKHORA

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A group of 18 caves located just about 80 kilometres from Aurangabad once served as a Buddhist monastery and now are a valuable link to the Satavahana period.

The story of Pitalkhora begins somewhere around 65 to 67 million years ago when even the Himalayas were yet to be born. A series of volcanic eruptions defined the fate of these caves which got formed naturally on a hill called Chandora, a small part of the Satmala range. This is the northern edge of the Marathwada highland meeting a comparatively lower geographical region today known as Khandesh. This beautiful valley, imitating melted brass in the twilight, was used by the ancient Indians as a major pass on the trade route linking Ujjain-Mahismati (Maheshwar)-Bahal with Elapur (Ellora), Pratishthana (Paithana) and Tagara (Ter). This seems to be one of the most popular passes on the Dakshinapatha. The historicity of the place is supposed to go back to the Mauryan period. Few scholars believe that the name Pitanika or Petenika referred to in Ashoka’s Edicts is thought to be of a tribe from the region Pitana or Petana which has been identified with the Pitalkhora-Patane region.

There are 18 caves in all and are numbered by the Archaeological Survey of India from 1 to 13, including chaityas (prayer halls) and viharas (residential cells). A group of three viharas have been numbered as Cave 1, another vihara next to Cave 6 is numbered as cave 6A and cave 9 is again a cluster of three viharas. Apart from these caves, the site is also known for the major antiquities reported in the clearance conducted in the vicinity of the caves. These caves are divided into two groups. Except four caves numbering 10 to 13, all the other caves from a cluster.

Both the groups are located facing each other on each side of the water stream. The smaller group comprises only chaityas, while the larger group is a complex of chaityas and viharas. Chronologically, the spread of the caves can be placed from 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE. There are painting fragments of 5th-6th century CE in Cave 3. All the caves here follow the architectural tradition of western Indian Buddhist rock-cut cave pattern. No antiquity of other than Buddhist affinity is reported from the site.

Pitalkhora was a very prosperous Buddhist monastery in the early period which continued even up to 6th century CE.

Reflecting the Past

The most important cave at the site is Cave 3, which is the main chaitya. This is apsidal in plan with a vaulted roof. There are a total of five crystal reliquaries in the shape of a Stupa found in its structural portion. Today, one can see only the base of the Stupa. The architectural style reminds us of Ajanta’s Cave 10. The original complete pillars, though less in number, demonstrate beautiful painting fragments of the Ajanta style. Many images of standing and seated Buddhas are clearly visible even today. Apart from this, four other chaityas can be seen at Pitalkhor viz. Caves 10 to 13. Caves 12 and 13 are in the lower contour and follow the early chaitya tradition, while the other two at a slightly upper level seems to cave housing small monolithic stupas. This can be referred to as ‘the hall of memorial stupas’ similar to the one at Bhaja and Kanheri.

Viharas 4,5,6,7 and 9 again follow the early vihara tradition. There is a hall in the centre with small residential cells along three walls. This reminds us of the viharas at Kondane, Nasik and the early vihara at Ajanta. There are small benches and sometimes niches in the cells. Cave 4 is an elaborately carved vihara with pillars, pilasters, lattice windows and other decorations on the wall. One of the most beautiful miniature chaitya windows with ornamentation of animal motifs and lattice net is seen in this cave.

Pitalkhora executes the best specimens of sculptural art in stone of the early Satavahana period. Some of these antiquities can also be seen in the National Museum, Delhi. The most important of them is that of a Yaksha. It is today displayed at the same museum in the entrance hall. This has been identified as Yaksha Sankarin by M N Deshpande on the basis of a Buddhist text called Mahamayuri, where the Pitalkhora is mentioned as Pitangalya. There is an inscription on his hand which says that ‘this is a creation by Khandasa, the goldsmith’. Apart from this, four more Yaksha and Yakshi figures have been reported in the process of the debris clearance in front of caves 3 and 4. Sculptural panels of Kinnara Gandharva, musicians, mahouts, a royal couple, Gajalakshmi and a narrative of the ‘Great Departure of Prince Siddhartha’ are reported. No less than nine panels of Mithunas are seen here. All these scattered panels can be dated to the Satavahana period.

The Masterpiece

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Still, the best of the lot is yet to be mentioned. The panel associated with the name Pitalkhora is placed at the entrance of cave 4. The elaborate entrance of this cave is a small passage with a flight of steps leading to the open space above in front of cave 4. This is located on a high plinth with panels carved by the artists. There are two dwarapals at the entrance, one on each side of the door. Their costume reminds us of the Shaka influence. Above the door, a panel of Gaja Lakshmi was placed, which has been reported from the debris. In the adjacent wall, a five hooded cobra was carved with holes in his hoods. The arrangement was made in such a manner that the water flowing through a channel behind is used to get sprinkled through the cobra’s hoods. The plinth of the vihara in the wall adjacent to the entrance has a series of nine elephants ending with an almost life-size horse in profile with a male figure-a chauri bearer. The last panel has been identified as that of the ‘Great Departure of Prince Siddhartha’.

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Among the four inscriptions found at the site, two are fragmentary and one of the complete inscriptions, as referred above, is as written on the outer palm of the Yaksha Sankarin. The other complete inscription is of a donor Kanha, son of Samasa, from Dhenukakata. A fragmentary inscription records the donation of a pillar in Cave 4 by a nun. Both the inscriptions are reported from Cave 4. The fourth fragmentary inscription is reported from cave 5. It records the donation by a guild of bankers. All these inscriptions throw light on the socio-cultural background of the caves.

The most interesting set of antiquities reported from the site are made of crystal. Six of them are reliquaries and the seventh is a ring. The five reliquaries are in the shape of Stupas and the remaining one is in the shape of a bead. They all have been reported either from the main chaitya or from the debris in front of Cave 4. Pitalkhora was a prosperous Buddhist monastery in the early period which continued even up to 6th century CE. The site is located in the Gautala Sanctuary, which gives us a fair idea of its ancient environment. This, in a real sense, is the forgotten ‘jewel’ of Maharashtra.

Reaching There

80kms from Aurangabad and more or less the same distance from Ajanta, 51 km from Ellora.

Geographical Details

Name of this Site-Pitalkhor

Nearest Village-Bhamarvadi (9kms)

Nearest city-Kannad (17kms), Chalisgaon (40kms)

Other places of interest-Patani Devi, Gautala Wildlife Sanctuary, Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad.