Karla caves are 2,000 years and it is a very easy trek where
one can explore old rock-cut Buddhist architecture. Early Buddhist
rock-cut caves can be found all over the Sahyadris. They served as
monasteries and were built along the region's ancient trade routes
connecting important inland towns.
One of these routes the Bhor ghat runs from Kalyan to Karla where several fine examples of Buddhist caves are easily accessible. One can explore three examples of Hinayana Buddhist architecture. Hinayana Buddhist faith represents the original doctrine of Buddha before his deification and explains the lack of any images of the Buddha in the caves at Bedsa, Bhaja and Karla. Each site consists of one main prayer hall or Chaitya and several residential halls or viharas for the monks. Cisterns carved in to the rock are fed by underground springs and rainwater, and like the rest of the architecture, represent unique engineering skills.
To begin this trek, reach Kamshet station by local train either from Pune or Lonavla. At Kamshet one can hire a jeep or catch a bus to drop one at Bedsa village. If one prefers to walk, head to the Bombay - Pune highway turn left from the station and then take a road that leads to Pawna dam and Kale colony. Follow this road for about 12-km until one reaches Bedsa village.
Bedsa caves will come into full view well before one reach the village. From the village a trail leads up to a second village and to the base of the hill, and is followed by a 20-minute climb to the caves. In the monsoons (June-September) the path can be slippery. There is absolutely no accommodation or other facility at Bedsa, though the water tanks always have cool, clean potable water. If one plan to camp in the village or on the hillside one needs to bring everything one requires.
An unusual feature of Bedsa caves is the mass of rock in
front to the Chaitya that hides the main facade. Two imposing pillars at
the entrance create a striking effect characteristic of ancient places of
worship. An animal and rider sculpture crowns the pillars and is similar
to the ones at the famous Sanchi Stupa.
A typical sun window lets in rays of the rising sun diffusing the light to reach the inside. Unfortunately the caves are not well maintained even though Bedsa is one of the smallest with only four caves. From Bedsa a steep trail leads to the top of Bedsa hill. Start at the few crudely cut steps in the rock to the left of the main cave (when facing it), which turns into a trail that is often overgrown and concealed.
It will take one about 45 minutes to the top. From there go left along a fairly well used trail to a small pass (Barrow's pass) where the path forks. Both paths lead to Visapur village about 4-km away. Visapur fort and its soaring cliffs now loom in front of one, a motorable dirt track goes left and leads to Lohagad fort. Follow a trail on the right that leads to a well (clean water) and then to the base of the fort in front of one. From the well, the trail wends its way through a (now rapidly disappearing) wooded area. It then merges with a streambed and leads into Visapur fort. At this point another trail leads off to the right. Taking this will bring one to a village from where one can follow a trail to the Col between the two forts (Lohagad and Visapur) and then down to Bhaja village by a well trodden path (this is an easier but much longer trail).
A much shorter route leads one straight down the hillside.
After passing the village, take a sharp right that will bring one to a
rocky path strewn with boulders and eventually some crude steps cut into
the rocks, and to Bhaja. It's a little tricky finding one's way from Bedsa
to Bhaja, so if one feel nervous one can pay a villager from Bedsa to
escort one. It can be an incredibly hot 5-hour walk in summer, so it's
best to leave early in the morning.
Bhaja caves are a regular picnic spot on Sundays so if one is looking for peace and quiet come in on a weekday or on a Sunday evening. If one happens to arrive during a Buddhist festival don't be surprised to find monks from the monastery nearby chanting in the main hall. The Vihara's acoustics echo their incantations creating a meditative atmosphere. The evening sunlight's up the Chaitya cave at Bhaja.
Some of the caves have figures of humans and animals. Above one of the water tanks just outside the gate leading to cave 19 is an inscription, which probably records the name of a donor. The wooden arches in the main Chaitya are believed to be the original beams dating back to the 2nd century BC. A crudely carved Shiva Linga in one of the caves is a recent introduction, part of an attempt to claim these caves are Hindu.
From the caves it's an easy 10-minute walk to Bhaja village along steps built into the hillside. Here one can buy food or provisions and make telephone calls. A twenty-minute walk will bring one to Malavali station. This road will cross the railway track and the Bombay-Pune highway and eventually get one to Karla caves in about an hour and a half. Accommodation is available at the MTDC Holiday Camp near Malavali station but its facilities are very basic.
Karla caves also built in the second century BC, are the oldest of the three but the best-preserved and finest example of ancient rock cut caves in western India. A large column at the entrance with a lion carved at the base and a sun window make a grand impression. Vivid sculptures of men and women on horses crown the capitals of the pillars. Buddha sculptures carved in the panels indicate later Mahayana Buddhist occupation and the large Shiva temple outside represents some attempt to claim this site for Hinduism.
Return to Malavali station along the same route that took one up, from where local trains are available to Pune and Lonavla.
The Karla mountains, probably dating back to 160 BC, harbour the largest cluster of Chaitya caves. Their sheer rock faces provide the appropriate terrain for a rock climber to reach up to the white, fluffy clouds. Another popular adventure spot could be at Bhandardara. Bhandardara is 180-km by road. It has one of the most beautiful lakes in the country surrounded by majestic hills.
One can go off on long treks around the surrounding hills
like Ratangadh, a favourite fort of Shivaji or Kalsubai, the highest peak
in Maharashtra, to the sprightly Randha falls or to Amriteshwar, a 1,200
year- old temple. Various forts in the Sahyadris also provide a good base
for trekking activities.
Forts around Pune like the Sinhgad, Lohagad, Visapur, Shivneri, Purandar, Rajgad, Raigad etc. are some of the few forts. Besides this Pratapgarh near Mahabaleshwar, Panhala near Kolhapur and Torna near Bhor are other exciting options. There are various clubs and private institutions which organise trekking expeditions on a regular basis to the above-mentioned forts.