Beautifully carved out of black basalt rock, the Mahakali Caves just outside Mumbai are one of the few places in the world to see ancient cave dwellings within the borders of a bustling metropolis. These rock-cut caves have existed since the ancient Ashoka Empire, used by Buddhist monks as dwellings and meditation chambers as much as 2,000 years ago.
There are 19 caves in total, believed to have been carved between the first and sixth centuries. There are also several cisterns cut from the same rock. Most of the caves are simple and small, with minimal carvings or ornamentation—stark chambers were used as dwellings for the monks and a place to meditate. The exception is the chaitya, the main Buddhist shrine and prayer hall, which is adorned with stupas and large carved statues of Buddha idols. Some of the cave walls have scriptures carved in Pali, a language considered older even than Sanskrit.
Strangely, the modern name of these Buddhist caves, Mahakali, refers to the Hindu goddess Kali. This is something of a misnomer, and likely comes from the fact that there is a Hindu temple to Kali nearby. The site is also known as the Kondivite Caves, after the nearby Kondivite village. Interestingly, one of the stupas originally erected as a Buddhist monument is now revered as a Hindu lingam statue.
Know Before You Go
The Mahakali Caves are located in the Andheri East suburb of Mumbai. From Mumbai, take the train to Andheri Railway Station or Jogeshwari Railway Station, or there are several bus lines that will drop you close by. The site is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Many of the low-lying rock caves have collapsed over the centuries or have been poorly maintained and are in a state of disrepair. The Archaeological Survey of India and the Committee on Caves are making efforts to protect the caves from encroaching human development.