These are the most prominent names that come to one’s mind at the thought of Buddhism in Maharashtra.
Coming from Lumbini in the north, Gautam Buddha spent much of his time in the eastern part of India, particularly Bihar. Buddhism slowly spread to other parts. Maharashtra too was home to Buddhism with the Satavahans and Vakatakas patronizing the religion. The caves built for the monks and nuns were donated by various rulers and Maharashtra is replete with such rock-cut caves. One of the most significant monuments is the Karla caves, in close proximity to Pune. The cave is said to have the only wooden chatra, the only one in India. These caves, often donated by the rulers or rich merchants were intricately and scrupulously carved out with various motifs, images of the Buddha himself etc. Caves were excavated with the help of a chisel and hammer.
Owing to the religious tolerance policy of the Satavahanas, Vakatakas, Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas, there took place a systematic spread of Buddhism in ancient Maharashtra. It is doubtless that Buddhism was introduced in Maharashtra during the reign of Ashoka, leading to the excavation of many caves for the monks and nuns. Some of the caves are found at Pittalkhora which lay on the trade route of Tagara, modern Ter, to Ujjain in the north and Shurparaka, modern Sopara, in the west.
Ajanta, one of the most prominent cave sites lay on the trade route from Ujjain to Pratishtha, modern Paithan. Ajanta is well known for its beautiful paintings and the carvings found inside the caves. The location amidst which the caves are excavated adds to the beauty of the caves.
As is known, Buddhism was an outcome of supremacy of Brahmanism and various vices that had become a part of Hinduism and in course of time corrupted the religion, and made it very unpopular. The simplicity of Buddhism was one of the reasons for its rapid growth and spread in ancient Maharashtra. Ashok’s role in patronizing the religion had gone proved extremely beneficial in the spread of it all over the country. His contribution in terms of missions and edicts and pillars greatly strengthened the religion, helping it spread further.
With time, Hinduism was revived and the prestige and glamour of Buddhism completely disappeared. Although the revival was not the only reason for decline of Buddhism, various internal factors too contributed. Some of the reasons were lack of royal patronage, defects in the sect and dispute over petty issues, Islamic invasions etc.
Thus it is clear that Buddhism had spread to every part of the country with Ashoka having erected pillars and having Rock Edicts across the boundaries of his empire. What is notable is that, the caves in Maharashtra, majority of them were placed on trade routes which were easily accessible to nuns and monks especially during the rains.