Views from the Black Mountain: The Rock-Cut Mahāvihāra at Kānheri/Kṛṣṇagiri in Konkan
The Buddhist complex of Kānheri/Kṛṣṇagiri (Black Mountain), today situated within the metropolitan area of Mumbai, is the largest and longest lasting rock-cut monastery in the Western Deccan. It is comprised of over one hundred excavations and numerous inscriptions spanning a thousand years, from the beginning of the Common Era to the 11th century CE. In an important 5th century copper plate inscription found at the site, the monastery is identified for the first time as a ‘mahāvihāra’. A thorough re-examination of archaeological and artistic evidence from Kānheri indicates that the Black Mountain monastery – often treated cursorily or even completely overlooked in broader scholarly discourse – had developed as a major religious center during the medieval period with far reaching connections across the Buddhist world.
Inscriptions from caves 11 and 12 confirm the prominent role of Kānheri as a hub for Buddhist scholasticism in the 8th and 9th centuries. In addition, later medieval Buddhist textual sources and historiographies mention famous ācāryas allegedly receiving esoteric training at Kṛṣṇagiri. The layout and visual program of some of the later caves confirm that the Śrī Kṛṣṇagiri Mahārāja Mahāvihāra, as the monastery was called in Rāṣṭrakūṭa epigraphs, was well connected to Buddhist esoteric circuits. Kṛṣṇagiri appears to have entertained exchanges with the mahāvihāras of North India, with the Himalayan regions, and with Southeast Asia. In sum, the evidence presented in this paper should prompt us to shift our understanding of Kṛṣṇagiri. from a marginal regional monastery to a major international learning center in the networks of Buddhist transmission across South and Southeast Asia.