Kanheri, the Kanhasela, Krishnagiri, Kanhagiri of ancient inscriptions, is located north of Mumbai, was a major Buddhist center. Kanheri is located in the island of Salsette and 6 miles from Thana. Before the merge of Seven Isles, after land reclamation during 19th and 20th century CE, this area was known as the Salsette Island. This is one of the most populated islands in the world.The caves are excavated in volcanic breccia, the hills rising at places to 1550’ above mean sea level. Kanheri is credited with the largest number of cave excavations in a single hill.The Kanheri Caves are also known as the 'lungs of Mumbai', because this is the only place in the city with the maximum amount of greenery and consequently, a lot of fresh air.
The caves date back to 1st century BC and are believed to be one of the oldest cave formations of the country. The Kanheri Caves are renowned for their natural Basalt formations, ancient Indian styled architecture and the 109 special entrances to the caves. The word Kanheri originates from the Sanskrit term 'Krishnagiri'. Each cave here, unlike the other caves in the country, is adorned with a 'splinth' or a rock bed. Congregation halls with large stupas also indicate that the caves were Buddhist shrines and a focal point during the Buddhist settlement in the 3rd century. The Kanheri Caves became a distinctive Buddhist institution for congregational worship, study and meditation.
Major parts of 109 caves of Kanheri are simple cells cut in basalt - viharas - cells for monks where they lived, studied, meditated. Few larger cells though are chaityas - halls for congregational worship. One of chaityas still contains defaced woodwork on its roof.
The largest and best known monument of Kanheri - large chaitya, Cave 3 - was shaped in late 2nd - 6th century AD. This was the latest chaitya of Hinayana branch. It is adorned with two giant, up to 7 m high figures of standing Buddha’s on each side of the entrance porch. It is considered that exactly with these statues of Buddha in 6th century there started a tradition to create collosal statues of Buddha - this tradition spread over Asia and continues up to this day. Main hall of this cave is 28 m long and 13 m wide, it is adorned with 34 columns with 5 m high stupa at the far end. Columns are adorned with elephants kneeling and worshipping the Stupa. Chaitya is adorned also with mithunas - love pairs characteristic for the art of Kushan period.
At some time in 16th - 17th century a Franciscan friar Fr. Antonio de Porto converted some monks of Kanheri to Christianity. In this period Cave 3 was converted into Christian chapel dedicated to St. Michael.
The latter in some cases are flanked by Bodhisattvas and in rare cases with their consorts. Avalokitesvara is the other prominent figure apart from Buddha who finds importance here. Avalokitesvara (who refused Buddhahood till the liberation of all beings) could be seen prominently in Caves 2, 41 & 90 delivering his devotees from the eight great perils namely shipwreck, conflagration, wild elephant, lion, serpent, robber, captivity and demon. Another interesting sculpture of Avalokitesvara is found in Cave 41 which is a four armed eleven faced one, the only of its kind in India. The cult of this form was popular in China, Chinese Turkistan, Combodia and Japan in 7th – 8th centuries A.D. The Jataka stories are also found depicted as that of Dipankara Jataka in Cave 67 to cite an example.
The Buddhist establishment at Kanheri has interesting evidence in the form of small structural stupas built on the floor of some of the caves. Such stupas were noticed in Caves 33, 38, etc. These stupas often contained large number of clay tablets inscribed in 10th century A.D. characters of the Buddhist creed. Another notable feature is the presence of a cemetery located on an isolated and secluded terrace. Here both stone built and brick structural stupas are found erected on the charred remains of distinguished monks.