Caves have always been a subject that raise plenty of curiosity and a lot of interesting stories. Of late caves have large number of visitors, who come to these wonderful structures that are man-made or natural. One such interesting structure is the Son Bhandar caves found at Rajgir in Bihar. The town of Rajgir is host to many events that are considered to be important in the history of the country. Buddha is said to have given sermons to Bimbisara, the King of the Magadha empire, at Rajgir.
Eastern cave is partly ruined – front part of cave chamber has fallen. Upper floor above the cliff made in brick is added later, during Gupta period and possibly caused the collapse of front wall of the cave. Most likely also this cave had verandah in front. Southern wall of this cave contains important early Jain artwork – exquisitely sculpted small reliefs of six Jain Tirthankaras – Padmaprabh, Parsvanath, Mahavira and others. This relief seems to be added later, some time after the completion of caves, it shows little congruity with the plan of rock-chamber.
On the wall of the cave, there is a trace of carving which resembles that of a doorway and next to it is a 'difficult to understand' inscription in the Sankhilpi or Shell script. It is said that this inscription is a password and the person who would read it could open the door and enter the passage.
Shankhalipi was also taught at the Nalanda University as per the writings of the great Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited the university during the Magadha period. Unfortunately, after the Islamic invaders destroyed the Nalanda University, all keys of this language were destroyed. Today historians are unable to understand or read this script fully.
Our podcast today is about this riddle, and a team of 2 extraordinary gentlemen who solved the it. In 1981 Padma Shri recipient Prof B N Mukherjee published a paper titled "So called shell script : a note on its decipherment/ B.N. Mukerjee (In) Indian Museum bulletin, v. 16 (1931), p. 128-137"
The Sone Bhandar caves are two rock cut caves that are located at the foot of the Vaibhar Hills. The caves were hollowed in the cliff of the hill during the 3rd and 4th century AD. Inscriptions found inside one of the caves narrates that the caves were constructed by the Jain saint Muni Vairadevi as an abode for the Jain ascetics during that time.
When the British took control of India, they heard of the legends of the Sone Bhandar caves and went about trying to pry it from the rock through force. They allegedly fired upon the walls of the cave with cannon fire, destroying large swaths of the caves, but the wall behind which the treasure supposedly lies was said to be virtually unscathed. Indeed, to this day there are black marks on the wall around the mysterious inscription that purportedly are from the cannon balls striking the wall, making it all the more intriguing.
Going by the legends, the cave is said to have a passage, which would take you to a treasury of gold, although the entrance to this cave is hidden in such a manner that it still remains a mystery. The passage is said to be going through the Vaibhagiri mountain and would reach the Saptapami caves on the opposite side of the mountain ranges. Some believe that this treasure belongs to Jarasandha, while a few say it belongs to Bimbisara. Going by Bimbisara's legend, it is said that when his son Ajatashatru restricted his father from the powers of a royal, his mother is said to have secretly hidden some wealth.
According to the tale, the treasure lies within a secret passageway, and is locked behind an impenetrable wall that will only open when the proper mantra is recited. In fact, there is an outline carved into the rock in the form of a doorway within the cave that bears a mysterious inscription that is supposedly the correct password. One need only read out this mantra and the formidable rock will open up to reveal its treasures within, but the problem is that it is written in the cryptic lost language of Shankhalipi, all records of which were long ago wiped out by Islamic invaders, and so no one has yet been able to decipher it. This has not stopped many from trying, with thousands of people, both amateur and professionals alike trying to break the mysterious code over the centuries to no avail. Supposedly only King Bimbisara knew the exact way to open the doorway, but he took it to his grave when he died in prison by his own hand.
It was British Archaeological Surveyor of India Cunningham, who made serious investigation about these caves for the first time in order to reveal its mystery. After profound study and research based on historical facts and inscription found at different places, He inferred these caves to be related with buddhism. Although it could never be established with unison because different contemporary historians and research scholars associated son bhandar caves with Jainism. This was based on the facts of inscription found on the walls of the caves which read that it was Vair muni who inspired construction of these caves for jain ascetics. Apart from this, view is further strengthen by the carved sculptures of jain monks and teerthankars on the walls of the caves. It is believed that jains remained associated with these caves for a longer period but after they left the place it got converted as a place for hindus. A sculpture of Lord Vishnu found here confirmed this etymology.