The Shelter of Caves, Part 9

BY: SUN STAFF - 18.4 2017

Ananda Pagoda - Bagan Plains, Burma

A study of famous caves in ancient Bharat.

Nandamula Cave

The Mahabharata provides a brilliant description of the sacred Himalayas as being "sublime, ornamented with jagged and mineral-rich peaks and embraced by clouds that drift in the wind. It is adorned with rivers, groves and vales and inhabited by lions and tigers that live in its many grottos and caves. The mountains are astir with flocks of song birds, with bumble bees, swans, moor hens, peacocks, pheasants, cuckoos, woodpeckers and black-eyed cakoras which cherish their chicks, in lovely lakes adorned with lotuses". (Mb. 3, 33,5)

Of course, the caves of the Himalayas are home not only to lions and tigers, but to great rishis and ascetics of every stripe. Srila Vedavyas and Lord Shiva are among the most prominent denizens of the Himalayan caves. They are joined by countless demigods, great Vaisnava and Shaivite devotees, and aspirants of all faiths who give themselves over to the rigors of tapasya in these austere mountain abodes.

In Buddhist literature, one of the most famous Himalayan caves mentioned in the Jatakas is the Nandamula Cave, which is located somewhere near the foot of Mount Nanda. Pacceka Buddhas (a line of Buddhist adherents) are mentioned as living in this ancient cave, and 'flying' from there to Varanasi and other holy tirthas in India, then back again (Ja.III,157,190; 230; 259). One description states:

"He wore rag robes red as lac, dark as a rain cloud, his belt was yellow like a flash of lightning and the clay bowl hanging over his shoulder was as brown as a bumble bee. He rose into the air and after having given a talk on Dhamma he flew to the Nandamula Cave in the north of the Himalayas." (J.IV,114)

In the Paniya Jataka there is another fascinating description of the Pacceka-Buddhas who reside at Nandamula Cave. They are identified as having hair 'two fingers long', and wearing yellow robes, living high up in the Himalayas in Nandamula Cave. The pastimes of five of these Pacceka-Buddhas are narrated in Paniya Jataka: All delivered spiritual addresses to their audience while they were poised in mid-air, after which they were transported (mystically flown) back to Nandamula Cave.

Among the great mountain peaks mentioned in the Jatakas are, of course, Mt. Kailash, along with Mount Nanda (Ja.VI,490). Nanda Devi peak is mentioned as being the second highest peak in India, standing an astounding 7,817 meters high (25,646 feet) (Ja.IV,216; 230; 233).

Nandamu (Ananda) Temple - Myanmar, Burma

Nandamula Cave replicated in Burma

In Bagan (Pagan), an ancient temple city in Myanmar, Burma, there is a Buddhist temple associated with the Nandamula Cave. Burma was founded in the 11th Century by King Anawratha, a Buddhist adherent who ascended the throne in 1044 A.D. According to the historical record, sometime in the 12th Century, eight monks approached the successor of Anawratha, his son, King Kyanzittha. Seeking alms, the monks said they lived in the Himalayas, at Gandamadana Mountain, in the temple at Nandamula Cave. While the king gave them audience, they provided a very graphic description of the Nandamula Cave environs.

The King invited them to make an extended stay at the palace, through the rainy season. During their stay, he wished to hear more details of Nandamula, and the monks are said to have invoked their siddhas in order to vividly describe for the king the landscape of Nandamula. The King was so attracted to their story that he requested the monks to build a temple in the middle of the Bagan Plains. He requested that it be a replica of the Nandamula Cave temple, with the same cool interior environs. The monks complied, and built what became known as the Nandamu Temple. Also known as Ananda Pagoda, the temple was completed in 452 Burmese Era. (1192 A.D.)

Unfortunately, after they finished constructing the replica cave temple, the King, wishing to control ownership of the uniqueness of the temple design, had the monk architects put to death so they could not build another temple like it.

Today, the Myanmar temple fashioned after Nandamula Cave is known as Ananda Guphaya, though there appears to have been very little 'ananda' on the part of the king.

History suggests that King Kyanzittha took this course of action because he wanted to reinforce the Theravada Buddhism that his father, King Anawratha had brought to the kingdom. Theravada was waning at the time due to competing Vedic influences, along with the mleeechas' return to animalism, spreading out from the region of Nepal. In an effort to unite his Buddhist brethren, he had Nandamu (Ananda) Temple built -- a beautiful edifice of propaganda.


Nandamu (Ananda) Temple Architecture

Interestingly enough, the Vedic influences that were competing with Theravada Buddhism at the time are also evident in the Ananda Temple architecture itself. Historians suggest that the monks may have been Vaisnava converts, because they built the temple in a distinctly Vedic style that reflects both Odisha (Orissan) and Bengali styles of temple architecture.

The plan of the temple has been compared to the Somapura Mahavihara temple in Paharpur, Bangladesh, and also to the Udayagiri complex in Odisha. These influences also manifested in later temple structures built across Burma's Bagan Plain, including the Dhammayangyi Guphaya built by Kyanzittha's grandson, King Narathu. This tirtha was fitted with a fabulous golden sikhara, like a soaring Himalayan mountain peak. Such sikharas are commonly seen on North Indian temples… and also across Bagan, thanks to the murdered monks from Nandamula.

In our next segment, we will continue to explore the cave theme as it manifests in Vedic temple architecture.