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Entrance to the Arvalem Caves                     Source: Zeepak / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Sacred Yet Mysterious Arvalem Caves in Beautiful Goa

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Goa is widely regarded as one of the most idyllic places to visit in all of India, if not Asia. Yet there is far more to this southwestern state than its beautiful beaches. Like the rest of India, it has many incredible heritage sites. One of these is the Arvalem Caves, also known as the Pandava Caves, named for the five Pandava brothers who are central characters in the Indian epic Mahabharata who, according to tradition, sought sanctuary in the caves during their exile. This series of ancient rock-cut caves remain somewhat mysterious.

History of the Arvalem Caves

Although there is no firm agreement on who created the caves, it appears that the caves were used by Buddhist monks as a residence. Monks travelled to Goa and founded several monasteries in the area. Tibetan Buddhist monks also had a monastery at Lamgao Caves in the same state. By the 6 th century this area was overwhelmingly Hindu, and the worship of Shiva was popular.

A large statue of the Buddha found near the location of the caves is thought to have been part of a Buddhist monastic complex which included a school. The austere style of the caves and the compartments would indicate that they were used by monks with a connection to the Deccan region . Buddhists often used caves for meditation, a tradition that was ultimately derived from the Buddha himself. The documentary evidence for the site is almost non-existent, although there is the possibility that they could have been used by Jains, who were also active in the Goa region.

Shivalinga made up of black stone decorated with flowers & bael leaf known as Aegle marmelos (StockImageFactory / Adobe Stock)

Shivalinga made up of black stone decorated with flowers & bael leaf known as Aegle marmelos ( StockImageFactory / Adobe Stock)

The caves were abandoned by the Buddhist monks shortly into or before the 6 th century AD, likely due to the decline of Buddhism in the area. After the 6 th century AD, the local rulers were all Hindus and Goa saw a resurgence in Hinduism. Without royal patronage, the Buddhist monastery could no longer continue. A number of Shivalinga, symbols of the god Shiva, have been unearthed in the caves, likely placed in the caverns after they became a Hindu place of worship.

The site was finally abandoned after the Portuguese who conquered Goa actively persecuted Hindus. Archaeologists investigated the caves in the 19 th century and in recent years it has become a popular heritage site.

The Unusually Stark Arvalem Caves

Access to the site is by a series of stone steps. The natural caves have been expanded and adapted by cutting into the hard laterite rock , a time-consuming feat.

The pillared façade at the caves is similar to those found at other sites in southern and central India. All the caverns at Arvalem are supported by pillars. There are six caves in total with five used for worship and the last used as a communal area.

No paintings adorn the walls as they were deliberately austere, which is unlike other Buddhist caves and monasteries. What makes the caves so unique is that while sharing many Buddhist styles, they are also distinct.

Three shrines at the sacred site are dedicated to Shiva along with the five Shivalingam to be seen. One of these which is located in cave number two and dedicated to the Sun, dates back to the 6 th century AD. There are a number of inscriptions in Brahmi script and Sanskrit. 

The Journey to the Arvalem Caves

The caves are located on mainland Goa, near the village of Sanquelim. Public transport is available or if you prefer a bit of sight-seeing, hire a bike. The scenery is spectacular.

Arvalem Waterfall, Goa, India (Zamarreñian / Adobe Stock)

Arvalem Waterfall, Goa, India ( Zamarreñian / Adobe Stock)

The famous Arvalem waterfall is located not far away as is a very impressive Hindu temple . It is possible to visit the caverns as part of a package tour and a fee is charged to enter the location.

Top image: Entrance to the Arvalem Caves                     Source: Zeepak / CC BY-NC 2.0

By Ed Whelan

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