Name: Dungeshwari (Mahakala) Cave Temple
Where: Gaya, Bihar, India
What to do: See Tibetan-style temples and a cave shrine where Buddha is said to have almost died.
Getting there: Private transportation is needed.
In the various sects of Buddhism found throughout the world, there exists the common agreement that there are four important pilgrimage sites which embody the most important stages in the life of Siddhartha Guatama. Those are:
1) Lumbini – Where Siddhartha Guatama was born
2) Bodhgaya – Where Guatama achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree
3) Sarnath – Where the Buddha gave his first sermon
4) Kushinagar – Where Guatama died and achieved Parinirvana
After these four come sites of auxiliary importance, however many of them are much more spectacular, or at least peculiar, than the four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The Dungeshwari Cave Temple is one such that is more peculiar than spectacular.
The Story of Dungeshwari Caves
Although the 4 major stages in Guatama’s life are said to be represented in the four pilgrimage sites, the places where he is thought to have spent other periods in his life are also important sites for devout followers.
The Dungeshwari Cave Temple (also called Mahakala Caves) is where Guatama is said to have spent 6-7 years (according to varying accounts) meditating in extreme asceticism. At least one point during this experience, he had starved himself to the edge of death. His only relief came when a local woman came to offer him a modicum of sustenance.
It was from this experience that he come to the conclusion that self-deprivation would not lead to his, nor others’, enlightenment. With this realization, he left the Dungeshwari Caves behind and proceeded to his eventual enlightenment at nearby Bodhgaya.
Visiting the Dungeshwari Cave Temples
When first arriving, a barren and rocky landscape greets you at the base of a sheer cliff. In the shade of the few sparse trees that dot the area wait a sizable number of beggars who will insist on following you to the trail up to the temple or back to your vehicle. At the driver’s suggestion to avoid this crowd, I hired a motorbike driver to take me up the first and steepest section of ramp toward the temple. He did this for 100 INR (1.40 USD).
Remnants of an older pilgrimage trail stand out beneath the newly-paved path heading up the mountain, said by a sign at the base to have been sponsored by a group from Laos. At the top of the zigzagging trail are a number temples, prayer flags, and even the writing that would lead you to believe you’d suddenly arrived in Tibet. That is, if the weather weren’t 40 degrees and the temples surrounded by rowdy monkeys.
From the top is a viewing platform facing westward toward the Phalgu River. Also known locally as the Niranjan River, this waterway is bone-dry more than half the year, leaving only the sandy riverbed in view. This was the case when I visited. People were walking across through the dried riverbed and a road was actually diverted through the sand while the nearby bridge over the river proper was being repaired. The other 5 months of the year, my driver told me, it was very full and strong.
Although I’ve read that there are 3 caves at the site, I was only able to find one actual “cave” at the top. This rocky overhand has since been plastered over in the Tibetan style and covered in golden leaf. Leading into the cave is a small, square hole carved into the side and adorned with 2 small, wooden doors. On either side of the doors is a small indentation for a Buddha idol.
Past this cave entrance is a Tibetan-style building encasing one of the outer cliff faces. Inside this structure are a number of glass displays holding various Buddhist artifacts and statues, including one life-size Buddha tucked away at the far end of the building.
A line of pilgrims were awaiting their turn to enter the lone cave. Due to its size, only a handful can fit inside at any given time.
Once inside the cave, the first thing your eyes are drawn to is a small, golden statue of the ascetic Guatama. Here, his emaciated features are heavily pronounced as a white robe is draped over him. In front of his pedestal is a donation box almost as large as the statue itself.
The blackened walls of the cave feature prayers painted in white and accented with small bits of gold leaf. Another 2 statues of figures I do not know are nearly hidden in red drapes on the right side of the cave. In front of them stand candles and another donation box.
It seemed a place where people were in and out quickly to pay their tribute, rather than spending long periods in meditation as their depicted idol had done. Perhaps this was due to the high traffic in and out of the cave, or that maybe that is simply the nature of this particular pilgrimage site. Either way, it is one of the smaller, less spectacular sites to visit along Guatama’s trail, but it is certainly worth seeing if in the Gaya area.
How to Get to Dungeshwari Caves
Dungeshwari Caves are located across the river from the towns of Gaya and Bodhgaya. The simplest way to get to the Dungeshwari cave would be to arrange a driver from your accommodation, as most in India are able to do this for you. This can be part of a larger trip around the area, or a direct trip there and back, which will take about 2-3 hours.
Otherwise, tuk-tuk drivers in both Gaya and Bodhgaya will be able to take you there. A round trip should cost no more than 5-600 INR.