Following the Buddha around Bombay

At the end of the rainy season, the hilltop Dhamma Giri meditation centre in the small Maharashtran town of Igatpuri glistens. Giant raindrops fall with loud taps on banana leaves, strange flowers with heady perfume bloom just for a day and waterfalls drape down distant hills like strands of tinsel. At 4 am, when the wake-up bells ring each morning, the tall trees smell like earth and fog creeps around the elegant Burmese-style pagodas and gazebos, making their statues of mythical lions and other creatures look as though they have just emerged from another world.
It is a magical scene, matched only by the intensity of the meditation. Those who come for the 10-day courses (and I’ve done a few) spend long hours in the depths of their minds, tinkering, observing and rewiring, employing meditation techniques originally taught by the Buddha. It is a rigorous process that calls for monastic rules – no talking, no full meals after noon,10 hours of meditating a day – that have earned the courses the nickname “the meditation marines”. But the results are so positive and so profound that the courses have grown in popularity purely by word of mouth, and travellers are increasingly fitting them into their India itineraries.

Even more magical than the Dhamma Giri experience may be the location, just three hours northeast from Mumbai (formerly called Bombay).The city, better known to travellers for its excellent restaurants, architecture and shopping than for its Buddhist history, is now also a jumping-off point for visitors seeking the other high life: the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings).

Those coming to India seeking enlightenment usually head straight to the ashrams and budget-friendly guesthouses of Dharamsala in the north of the country or Bodh Gaya in the east, or they hit the “Buddhist circuit” – the region around Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha lived and taught. But the western state of Maharashtra also has a rich Buddhist tradition that goes back almost as far as the Buddha and is an excellent – though still barely known – destination for travellers seeking spiritual enlightenment.

Part of the reason for Maharashtra’s good karma is that Mumbai has been an important port for millennia, and the Buddha’s teaching often travelled along trade routes. Beginning around the 2nd Century BC, when the teaching reached the region and monastic communities emerged, a vast network of rock cave dwellings – mostly for monks to sleep and meditate in – were carved along the routes. The construction continued for a thousand years or so, and it is thought that at its peak the region had around 1,200 caves, many of which can be easily visited from Mumbai today.

The caves of Ajanta and Ellora, about seven hours northeast of the city, contain some of Buddhism’s most beautiful art and architecture. The 30 caves at Ajanta were carved out across several centuries, beginning in the 2nd Century BC, and have stunning ornate mural paintings depicting the Buddha’s life and former lives. Unlike other caves whose paintings have faded or been lost to time, Ajanta’s were abandoned and overgrown for several hundred years, which helped to preserve them.

The 34 caves at nearby Ellora, built in a later phase of Buddhism between the 5th and 7th Centuries, are a wonderland of Buddhist, as well as Hindu and Jain sculpture: 5m-tall stone Buddhas teach the dharma at the centre of towering domed meditation halls; other giant Buddhas line the caves in seated meditation, majestically silhouetted against the bright sun outside; and voluptuous dancing Hindu deities seem to jump off the rock walls.

As old as Ajanta but simpler – and, some would say, more sophisticated – in design are the Karla, Bhaja and Bedsa caves – 30 in total – located two hours southeast of Mumbai near the cool hill station of Lonavla. The earlier caves here are minimalist, elegant and streamlined – perfect for rainy-season meditation. The animated Hindu deities and Mahayana Buddhist figures, wearing all manner of stone decorations, were added later, mostly in the 5th to 10th Centuries.

Monastic cave life can even be seen within Mumbai. The 109 Kanheri Caves, part of a monastic complex that expanded over 1,000 years, are set right in the middle of Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the city’s northern edge. And Elephanta Island, which is home to a mix of Hindu and Buddhist caves, is an easy day trip for visitors, just a short ferry ride from the famous Gateway of India monument on the city’s southeast coast.