The rock-cut Buddhist Karla Caves, while nowhere near as extensive or elaborate as the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra, are remarkable because they have the largest and best-preserved prayer hall in India. It's believed to date back to the 1st century BC.
The caves have been cut into the rock in the hillside above the village of Karla in Maharashtra. Karla is located just off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, near Lonavala.
Travel time from Mumbai is around 2 hours, and it's under an hour and a half from Pune (in normal traffic conditions).
If you don't have your own vehicle, the closest railway station is at Malavali, 4 kilometers away. It's accessible by local train from Pune. The larger Lonavala railway station is also nearby and trains from Mumbai will stop there. You can easily take an auto rickshaw to the caves from either railway station. Do negotiate the fee though. Expect to pay at least 100 rupees one way from Malavali. If you're traveling by bus, get down at Lonavala.
Tickets and Entry Fee
There's a ticket booth at the top of the hill, at the entrance to the caves. The entry fee is 20 rupees for Indians and 200 rupees for foreigners.
History and Architecture
The Karla Caves were once a Buddhist monastery and consist of 16 excavations/caves. Most of the caves belong to the early Hinayana phase of Buddhism, except for three from the later Mahayana phase.
The main cave is the huge prayer/assembly hall, known as a chaityagriha, that's believed to date back to the 1st century BC. It has a magnificent roof made out of carved teak wood, rows of pillars decorated with sculptures of men, women, elephants, and horses, and a large sun window at the entrance that deflects rays of light towards the stupa at the rear.
The other 15 excavations are much smaller monastery living and prayer spaces, known as viharas.
What's interesting to note is that the caves contain few representations of the Buddha (large feature images of the Buddha were only introduced during the later Mahayana phase of Buddhist architecture, from the 5th century AD). Instead, the outer walls of the main hall are predominantly decorated with sculptures of couples and elephants. There's also a towering pillar with lions atop it at the entrance, similar to the lion pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh to mark the spot where Buddha gave his first discourse after he became enlightened. (A graphic representation of it was adopted as the national emblem of India in 1950).
Reaching the Karla Caves requires a walk up 350 steps from the base of the hill or nearly 200 steps from the car park around halfway up the hill. As there's also a Hindu temple (the Ekvira temple, dedicated to a tribal goddess worshiped by the Koli fishermen community) next to the caves, the steps are lined with vendors selling religious paraphernalia, snacks, and drinks. There's a vegetarian restaurant in the car park as well. The area does get quite busy with pilgrims coming to visit the temple rather than the caves.
Unfortunately, at times, it gets crowded and noisy, and these people have little appreciation for the caves and their significance. Avoid going there on Sundays in particular.
There's also another set of caves at Bhaja, 8 kilometers south of Karla. They're similar in design to the Karla Caves (although Karla has the most impressive single cave, the architecture at Bhaja is better) and much quieter. If you're really interested in caves and Buddhist architecture, you may also wish to visit the more remote and less frequented Bhedsa Caves located closer to Kamshet.
If you wish to stay in the vicinity, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation has an average property at Karla on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. You can read reviews of it here. You'll find more attractive options at Lonavala though.