The mystery behind the ancient caves of Arvalem in Goa

The rock-cut Arvalem Caves are a lesser-known ancient gem in North Goa, with many a legend attached to their origin.
Arvalem caves
The ancient caves of Arvalem. Image: Courtesy of Goa Tourism.

One of the biggest draws of Goa is its intricate, ancient architecture with Portuguese influences. But rich, intriguing history extends much further back than the arrival of the foreign invaders in the Sunshine State. There are a number of monuments and structures built centuries ago that survived the test of time. The Arvalem Caves located near the famous eponymous falls in Sanquelim, North Goa, are probably the most mysterious of the lot.

An hour’s drive from Panaji, these caves are believed to have been carved in the sixth century. Their origins have always been a subject of interest for scholars. Due to the duality of the carvings and artefacts found in the ruins over years, there are different stories attached to their foundation.

Arvalem caves
One of the three lingas found in the chambers of Arvalem Caves. Image: Shutterstock/Hitesh Jawahirani.

Many believe they are of Buddhist origin, and were carved out of a single laterite rock by travelling some monks. The walls and ceilings are bare, without any ancient cave paintings, but the overall architecture resembles that of similar caves known to have been carved by the Buddhists, i.e. rock-cut caves with the sanctuary at the northern end and the vihara at the southern end. A large statue of Mahavir Gautama Buddha, dated to the fourth century, was also excavated close to this site.

The presence of lingas in the caves, however, lends credence to the Brahmin origin theory, that many others believe in. These lingas (phalluses) are carved and inscribed in Sanskrit and the style of these carvings is attributed to the Bhoja period.

Arvalem caves
The breathtaking Arvalem Falls is a paradise for those looking for a quiet, secluded spot in this part of Goa. Image: Shutterstock/Romtea.

Another legend claims that the five Pandava brothers of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, found shelter here during their time in exile. Also popular as Pandava Caves, they were cut into five chambers, while the lingas were discovered in three of them. Each of the three shrines have the linga carved with inscriptions and set on a pedestal, which is similar to those in the Ellora and Ajanta caves.

The mystery behind the origin of Arvalem Caves makes them all the more alluring to tourists and devotees alike. Pair up your visit to the caves with a trip to the nearby Arvalem Falls as well as the popular Rudhreshwar Temple. Cascading down from the height of 50 metres, the cool waters and lush surroundings of these waterfalls make it an ideal spot for a scenic saunter or picnic.

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