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
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.
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
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
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.
The Buddha’s teachings gradually
disappeared from India between the 8th and 12th Centuries,
but have been revived in recent years. BR Ambedkar, a Maharashtran lawyer,
human-rights activist and author of the Indian constitution (you can see where
he studied and practiced law in the city centre) was also a Dalit – the lowest
caste in Hinduism – who fought discrimination with Buddhism as his moral
platform. He inspired millions of Indians, especially Maharashtrans, to convert
to Buddhism in the 1950s, and today you can see Buddhist villages and temples across
the state built in his honour. The biggest Ambedkar stupa is in the town of Nagpur
in far north-eastern Maharashtra, but Mumbai’s Dadar neighbourhood is home to the
Dr Ambedkar Smarak Chaitya Bhoomi monument where regular ceremonies are held in his
honour. The major ones in October and December and the occasional mass
conversions attended by thousands of people are definitely worth a visit.
Maharashtrans, already familiar with the
Buddha’s teaching through Ambedkar, were especially receptive to the meditation
courses that became popular in India in the 1950s, brought to the country by SN
Goenka, an Indian who grew up and learned meditation in Burma. Today there are
13 retreat centres across the state -- including Dhamma Giri and one right in Mumbai, the Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Centre -- which are open to international
visitors as well as locals.
The Mumbai centre sits in the shadow of
the monumental Vipassana
Global Pagoda on the island of Gorai, a short ferry ride from Mumbai’s Borivali
neighbourhood. The 96m-high golden pagoda rises up like a mirage, bringing to
mind Burma’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Built in 2008 to showcase the Buddha's
teaching, the pagoda is the world's largest unsupported dome structure, pieced
together using an ancient technique of interlocking blocks. It contains a
museum and cavernous meditation hall that seats 8,000 people.
the base of the pagoda tower, just as they were in stupas 2,000 years ago, are
pearlized remains of the Buddha -- their presence is thought to be conducive to
meditation. So you can take a meditation course underneath the Buddha’s relics
and reflect on impermanence, just as people have done in Maharashtra, maybe
even on that exact spot, for centuries.
Intensive residential 10-day meditation courses at Dhamma Giri and other
centres in Maharashtra are free of charge, though registration is essential. Read
more about the courses and apply online at dhamma.org.