As a child, you might have heard the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Ali Baba got hold of the riches stashed by the thieves in a cave by uttering the magic words ‘khul ja sim sim’. A similar cave believed to be housing a treasure lies in Rajgir town of Bihar. But one needs to find the ‘password’ to open the doorway to riches. No one has been able to crack open the code in over 1500 years.
The Son Bhandar, also called Sonebhandar or Swarna Bhandar (storehouse of gold) caves, are two adjacent chambers carved out of the rock at the foot of the Vaibhar hills in Rajgir town of Nalanda district. Experts estimate that the two caves were built in the 3rd or 4th century BCE.
The inner chambers of the caves are plain but have a fine polish on them that points to the high degree of skill in architecture achieved over 1500 years ago.
The main cave is rectangular with a cone-shaped ceiling and the entrance is shaped like a trapezoid.
The second cave has some beautiful Jain reliefs carved in it. An inscription at the entrance states that the cave was built by Jain monk Vaira Deva as a dwelling place for Jain ascetics.
The legend of the treasure buried inside the caves was so popular that even Mughal kings and the British tried to find it. The Mughal rulers searched every inch of the caves but found nothing. The British went a step ahead and brought cannons to blow up the 1500-year-old caves to satisfy their greed.
The legend of the Son Bhandar caves dates back to King Bimbisara’s rule. Bimbisara, the grandfather of King Ashoka, ruled the kingdom of Magadha and laid the foundations of the Mauryan Empire.
Bimbisara was a learned king known for his cultural achievements. He was a friend of Buddha and was spiritually inclined, hosting Buddhist and Jain monks at his palace.
In his later years, Bimbisara turned away from the worldly pleasure and took to a spiritual path. It is said that he was planning to give away his immense wealth to the poor and monks. However, his ambitious son Ajatshatru got to know of the king’s plans and usurped the throne, imprisoning Bimbisara.
One of Bimbisara’s queens then took the help of a Jain monk to safeguard the king’s wealth. She handed over the riches to the monk called Vaira Devan for safekeeping. The legend goes that Vaira Devan hid the treasure in the cave and sealed it using his spiritual powers.
On one of the cave walls, a doorway is carved and beside it is an inscription which has not been deciphered to date.
The inscription is said to be in the Shankhalipi. Shankhalipi or shell script was a modification of Brahmi script that was in use at the time. Shankha means conch shell and the script has ornate spiral characters arranged in neat lines to form sentences. Shankhalipi has also been found in other caves in India as well as in Java. More pictures of Son Bhandar:
(The picture featured at the top has been sourced from Wikipedia.)