Located about 100km southeast of Mumbai and 12km east of Lonavala, Karla or Karle is known for its Hinayana Buddhist caves.
These caves belong to both the early (2nd century BC to 2nd century AD) and later (5th century AD to 10th century AD) phase of Buddhist rock cut architecture in western India. There are a total of 16 caves. Cave 8 is a Chaitya Graha (place of worship) , the rest are Vihara (residence) and Mantapas (pavilions).
The Karla Caves may not be as eloborate as the much famous Ajanta and Ellora Caves, nevertheless the Chaitya Graha in Karla has the distinction of being the biggest (38ftx14ftx14ft) rock cut Chaitya grahas in India. At least 2300 years old, the wooden architectural frames lining the cave's ceiling is probably the oldest surviving wooden architectural feature you can find in India.
It's possible to visit Karla and Bhaja Caves as a daytrip from Mumbai. Malavali is the nearest railway station. Take an auto-rickshaw from Malavali or Lonavala. Pune to Karle is about 60km. Get down at the Lonavala exit if you are travelling by bus, and look for a local shuttle or autorickhaw option to reach Karla. Or take one of those Pune-Lonavala local train and get down at Malavli station.The base to the Karla caves is about 5km from Malavli railway station. If you are traveling from Mumbai side, Lonavala is the right station for Karla.
Out of the 16 caves, 3 were done during the Mahayana and the rest during the Hinayana periods. Except a few it appears as if all these caves were executed as complex part of a master design plan. You can easily access the grandest of these caves. There are a few more caves towards the south side. The wide flat land narrows down on the south and runs almost as a ledge path around the hill, bordering the cliff to access those scattered caves. Risky to trek along the cliff edge during the slippery monsoon periods.
One of the most interesting part of these caves are the vivid inscriptions available describing the circumstance of its execution. These were made with donations and contributions from laymen to the elites of the period.
Inscriptions found here speaks of 27 individuals from various places like Vejamti (Banavasi, north Kanara district in the presentday Karnataka state, nearly 600 km south of Karla), Sopara (ancient port town , near the present day Nallasopara , located 100 km northwest of Karla) and unidentified towns of Umehanakata and Dhenukakata. Most of the donors from Dhenukakata were Yavanas. The inscriptions of kings Usavadata (son in law of the popular Western Kshatrapas king Nahapana (119–124 CE) ) and Vasisthiputra Pulumavi (130-158 CE) mention donation of land to the Veluraka Samgha, (Karla was known as ‘Veluraka’ during those periods). The inscription of king Pulumavi is dated in his 24th year of his reign (154 CE).
Though it looks like a sleepy little village now, Karla was on a strategic trade route than connected the Deccan planes with seaports cities of Kalyan and Sopara.
The highlight of Karla Caves, the chaityagriha is unique as it is one among the two chaityagrihas in western Deccan which has huge lion pillars in front, the other being Kanheri Caves near Mumbai.