Isn’t it human nature to disregard the importance of things that are right in front of us? In my opinion, this exact thing is happening to this wondrous cave temple right next to a busy street in Pune, Maharashtra, that I happened to visit this year. The Pataleshwar Cave Temple is an 8th-century rock-cut shrine hewn by the Rashtrakuta Dynasty. Though patal means ‘underworld’ and eshwar means ‘god’, which literally translates to god of the underworld, this temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Located on the bustling Jangli Maharaj Road, this ancient marvel, which is an ASI protected monument, captured my heart with its simple beauty.
Though I’ve spent three years of my life studying and consequently working in Pune, I never quite made the effort to travel through the city like a tourist. While I definitely made time for the more famous timeless residents such as Shaniwar Wada, Sinhagad Fort and Aga Khan Palace, along with some of the legendary eateries like Goodluck and Vohuman CafÃ©, the existence of these caves was completely unknown to me till very recently. No local ever talked about it, and when I searched the Internet, the oldest monument of Pune’s ranking was woefully low amongst the better-known landmarks here. In fact, a friend of mine who has spent his entire life in Pune didn’t know about them either!
After reading about the caves (thank you, Wikipedia!), I was eager to correct this omission, so my friend and I hopped onto his scooter, navigated Pune’s narrow streets, and made our way to the cave temple. You should follow my lead and research before visiting as the only information board on the site pertains to it being a protected monument and any damage or defacement accompanies a fine or imprisonment under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASR Act) of 1958.
We reached JM Road as the sun was baking the city mercilessly in the afternoon. It was a stroke of luck that we found a place to park right outside the entrance to the caves, otherwise we would have surely overshot it. The signboard outside is so incredibly easy to miss, hidden by some trees as it is. (Keep an eye on your right when you’re on JM Road coming from Sancheti Hospital.)
The entrance to the complex leads through a small garden where I saw many picnickers and families relaxing in the shade of thick trees. I was certain that the cave complex would be chock-a-block with tourists too. When we reached the steps that lead down towards the temple, to my utter surprise, there were hardly any people milling about.
An ugly, white-washed building, ironically named ‘Silver Splendor’, which was intrusively looming behind the ancient complex, definitely marred the scenery, but I chose to ignore its presence and focus instead on exploring every inch of the caves.
A lone man dressed in traditional dhoti and kurta, complete with saffron head gear, sat at the circular shrine right outside the temple quietly observing us. This is the Nandi mandapa, which boasts an exquisitely-carved Nandi statue, Lord Shiva’s mount. There is another Nandi statue in the left hand-side corner of the complex, which most people may miss. This one looks even more stately, with the grey cave walls acting like the perfectly muted background.
At one end of the complex is the gate that leads into the cave. This is the main Shiva shrine that is still frequented by locals today, so you need to take your shoes off and keep them outside. Once we entered, we immediately felt respite from the blistering heat outside — the rock-cut cave is very cool, literally and figuratively! Many beautifully symmetrical pillars support the cave’s roof.
I noticed a wall on the right side of the cave which had an intricate floral design at the bottom, but the wall itself appeared unfinished. If you look closely, you can see the outline of a figure, and many assume that it is perhaps an incomplete carving depicting a scene from Hindu mythology.
There are two theories pertaining to this unfinished appearance. One is that the makers discovered a fault line here and abandoned the cave while a temple was being carved because it would have been unstable. The other theory points to political destabilisation in the region, which eventually led to the abandonment of the cave. No one knows the precise history of the caves, which makes a foray here all the more exciting and full of mystery.
The cave contains three sanctums, of which the main sanctum houses a Shivalinga. When you take a circumambulation of the sanctums, you really see the unfinished aspect of the cave temple. There is also a museum here, which has an interesting exhibit — a grain of rice engraved with 5,000 characters!
A gander through this ancient cave will take all of 15-minutes, and I urge one and all to visit this wonder of wonders. You should stop over at this exquisite temple even if you’re not religious or spiritual — it’s the perfect place if you need a few minutes of quiet contemplation. Come here to dive headfirst into the rich and vibrant history of the city of Pune, and I promise that you will not return disappointed.
Getting there: There are direct flights to Pune from most Indian cities, including Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. One can also take a train to Pune from all over the country.