The Pataleshwar Caves: an unsolved Rashtrakuta mystery

The circular Nandi mandapa
The circular Nandi mandapa

This is a mystery from the first millennium: a cave temple with traces of sculptures on its walls, but nothing to indicate their origin or the faith that gave birth to them. The name of the Pataleshwar (lit. Lord of the Netherworld, referring to the underground location here) Caves evokes visions of deep catacombs in the womb of the earth, water trickling down musty-smelling limestone walls; this protected monument does not quite match such visions of dark grandeur, but has its own story to tell. Located beside a bustling thoroughfare and adjacent to the more popular Jangli Maharaj Temple- a shrine dedicated to a Pune saint who participated in the 1857 Rebellion- it is quite easy to miss if you are unaware of its existence.

There is very little to go on besides a sketchy Wikipedia article, according to which work on the caves was begun in the 8th century (disputed by the loud tour guide who said it was from the 9th century) by the powerful Rashtrakutas. A fault line noticed near the sanctum sanctorum of the present temple is believed to have raised concerns over continuing construction without imperilling the structure, and so the caves remains without embellishment: a slight disappointment, if you are visiting with fresh impressions of Chola glory in your head.

To one corner of the stone pit is a stone Nandi, incongruously placed quite far away from the usual spot of honour devoted to it right in front of Shiva. A rough circular mandapa in the centre of the open courtyard is occupied by another beautifully carved Nandi sculpture, and this one evidently receives enough attention, judging by the flowers and silver ribbon (!) around its neck.

Opposite the mandapa is a long, covered hall, which houses three chambers. The sanctum sanctorum is dedicated to Shiva: a golden-coloured linga with its accoutrements, the coiled snake and the pot of water suspended overhead. A little pool by its side offers evidence of the milk and water offerings regularly made to the deity. In a room on the left is Ganesha in his own shrine; an unknown god (or goddess) occupies another room on the right. Further away, almost invisible in the dark, is a small statue of Hanuman, facing modern marble effigies of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. Voices echo within the hall, and pools of water make sudden appearances, as I realised after missing a step. Hieroglyphics mark the undulating floor, but it is rather hard to tell whether they are inscriptions left behind by the Rashtrakutas or more recent avowals of young love.

But the most striking aspect lies in the stone walls: outlines of various figures clearly mark the panels designated for sculptures and carvings, and you are left wondering whether they have eroded over time, been destroyed by invaders or simply left incomplete. You can almost see Shiva’s thick locks, a dancing yogi, or an elephant’s trunk in the outline. But here is where the controversy comes in. The origin of the temple, indeed its very existence, is disputed. Some people believe that the caves were in fact constructed by those of Buddhist faith, and Hindu worship began there much later. In a bid to steer clear of religious controversy, no “official” pamphlets or guides seem to have been printed.

Delving into the history of the Rashtrakutas and their architecture might offer some clues to clear the air of mystery that pervades the Pataleshwar Caves- who built the caves, why was construction abandoned so abruptly, what do these panels represent? Is the uneasy truce that some claim maintains peace here getting in the way of historical exploration?

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