Caves have always fascinated man. Thousands of years ago, they provided the Peking man and the Neanderthals refuge and shelter. They were storehouses of food and resources. Gradually, during the middle Palaeolithic Age (300-45 ka), caves were where ceremonies and burial rituals were conducted. Totemic rituals and animal worship too found their place here. It was only much later during the upper Palaeolithic Age (50-10 ka) that caves became blank canvases for man to express his imagination. Here’s where he started recording his life and beliefs through art.
Not only have caves borne witness to man’s instinct and intellect, but have also preserved and chronicled the primitive man’s journey. A treasure trove of stories and beliefs, caves provide glimpses into the life of the caveman. Fast forward several millennia, caves still are very much part of our lives. Several of them are homes to hermits and ascetics, and several others, pilgrimages, temples and sanctuaries. Bearing witness to our journey, in all possibility, caves would continue to narrate our story to future generations.
Indeed, caves are intriguing. Soulveda explores some of the lesser-known cave temples around the world and their legends.
The Tsodilo caves of Botswana, South Africa
Tsodilo Hills, a UNESCO world heritage site, has seen thousands of years of human evolution. The indigenous community of the Sans believed that this site, with its natural spring water and caves, was the birthplace of life.
A local legend goes that the Tsodilo caves were not just dwelling places, but also ritual sites. It is said that hunters offered prayers to their ancestors for a successful hunting expedition in these caves. And when their prayers were answered, they would show their gratitude by conducting specific rituals.
Of the many caves in the Tsodilo hillock, the Rhino Cave is perhaps most fascinating. This cave is said to be the oldest religious site known to man. Here, the deity is a natural rock formation that resembles a python’s head, with several deliberate scratch marks that resemble a python’s scales. Historical evidence suggests that the San people perhaps used the cave to worship the python god.
The Ploutonion Cave Temple at Hierapolis, Turkey
The Ploutonion at Hierapolis, also called the Pluto’s Gate, was a famous religious site dedicated to Pluto—the Roman god of the underworld. This gate leads to a cave that emits deadly gases. Ploutonion was the place where ritual passages (animal sacrifices) to the underworld were conducted.
A legend has it that except for the temple priests, no other living being could go inside the cave and come out alive. Greek geographer Strabo is known to have written: “This space is full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.” He is also known to have written about the eunuch priests. He speculated that the priests perhaps held their breath, or became immune to the toxic gasses due to divine providence.
The Cave Churches of Matera, Southern Italy
Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site also referred to as the second Bethlehem. It has a honeycomb of cave churches and settlements carved out of rocks. Several legends echo in the rocky city of Matera even to this day.
It is said that the settlements (sassi) of Matera were where paganism was once extensively practised. The inhabitants are known to have secretly conducted pagan rites and initiation ceremonies here. This legend imparts a mystical aura to the caves of Matera.
Another legend goes that Saint Eligio, a guardian of domestic animals, lived in these settlements. He is said to have blessed and protected animals with his supernatural powers. Even today, on Saint Eligio’s Feast Day, peasants and shepherds bring their livestock near his statue to have them blessed. It is believed that the saint’s blessings would protect the animals.
Badami Caves of Karnataka, South India
Badami cave temple is located atop a cliff near a pristine lake. This temple is surrounded by two hills and is known for exquisite sandstone carvings. An interesting legend surrounds the cave temple complex. It is said that the two hills were ruled by demons Vatapi and Ilvala. Harbouring implacable hate towards Brahmins, these demons invited unsuspecting passers-by for a feast and tricked them into eating a demonic mango. While demon Vatapi transformed himself into the mango, Ilvala lured the guest to eat it. Vatapi then tore open the guests’ stomachs and killed them.
Once when Sage Agastya encountered the demons, he was invited for a banquet as well. However, the wise sage already knew of the demons’ true intentions. Upon eating the demonic mango, the sage immediately said a prayer to digest the fruit, thereby killing Vatapi. When Ilvala got angry, the sage reduced him to ashes as well.
To commemorate this legend, the two hillocks surrounding Badami are called Vatapi and Ilvala. And the lake is named after Sage Agastya.
The Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron, Palestine
The Cave of the Patriarchs refers to several underground chambers in the city of Hebron. According to a legend, this cave is part of the biblical garden Eden. And so, the belief goes that, the cave of patriarchs is through which the souls depart to heaven. It is hence the burial site of several spiritual patriarchs and matriarchs mentioned in the Bible and the Quran—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, and a sacred site for both Jews and Muslims.
Historically speaking, King Herod built the cave complex as a Jewish structure. Then, the Christians took over and built a basilica. Soon after, the Muslims too took control and built a mosque. Today, this cave is the oldest prayer structure in the world still in use. This place is unique for there is a mosque and a Jewish synagogue side-by-side, separated only by a wall.