The first set of caves we visited in Maharasthra is the Bhaja caves, one of the earliest of the caves in western India, dating to not long after the time of King Asoka, around 2nd c. BCE.
There is a fairly steep climb up the hill to reach the site, which is fenced off. A few metres before the entrance is a ticket office, but it was not open when we arrived. After some time someone came with a key to let us in and took Rs. 200 for entrance fee.
The site itself can be divided into three sections. Upon entry the first section contains the Chaitya hall and fanning out around it vihāra rooms, where the monastics would have lived.
The Chaitya hall shows signs of being influenced by wooden architecture, both in its general design, and in its decorations. The entrance to the hall slopes inwards as though to distribute the weight, which would have been necessary if it was wooden, but with stone, of course, is not needed.
The Chaitya hall itself is fairly well-preserved, though there are signs of graffiti in places, including on the chaitya itself. It has ancient wooden rafters, perhaps made of teak, still in place, even after 2,200 years, and the decoration is simpler here than at later sites.
To left and right of the Chaitya hall there are vihāras, or monks’ quarters, generally a small room with a stone bed or two, which would presumably have been covered straw, or something similar.
We did spend some time in meditation here, and as there were no other visitors, and until just before we left around noon the atmosphere was very quiet and peaceful.
The second section is a group of fourteen small Chaityas on the outside of the rock and inside a cave, which have been built for distinguished monks who presumably resided at the caves. To preserve them the authorities have seen fit to erect a very ugly plastic cover over them, which very much ruins the aesthetic.
Further on from this is another vihāra group, one of which is very special, having very fine carving on the outside of the rooms, depicting various scenes. The other vihāras are less elaborate, but interesting nevertheless.
Another notable feature is the cisterns, collecting water which has seeped through the rock, which would have provided natural mineral water. The site, when we were there, in February, was very dry and hot, but it is noticeably cooler inside the caves. The view from the caves over the surrounding countryside was good and clear.
In retrospect the Bhaja caves seem to have been some of the best preserved of the caves we visited, not suffering too much damage on the one hand, and as far as I could see, no encroachment from Hindu worshippers on the other.