Sacred Caves

Caves, since our very beginnings as humans, have attracted and fascinated us. They are usually found on the sides of mountains, in themselves special places where earth and sky meet, and, as orifices into the subterranean, they completely unify the world, and form an interface between the heavens above and that which lies beneath us. It is no coincidence then, that from Neolithic times, as evidenced by the caves at Lascaux, France, caves have held a special place in our spiritual outlook. Sacred caves can be found throughout the world, from Hellenic Greece to the Indian cultures of the Americas.

In Southeast Asia, caves had been used for the Animist rituals of the indigenous inhabitants for thousands of years, to communicate to the spirits that shared their world. The earliest known use of caves by Buddhists dates back to the 6th century AD. The Buddha himself dwelled and meditated in caves, and this practice became common wherever Buddhism spread. Caves serve monks and nuns as peaceful, secluded places ideal for meditation, chanting, and reflection upon the true nature of existence. It is estimated that there are over a thousand sacred Buddhist caves in Thailand and Laos, not to mention other areas of Asia, such as China, Tibet, Nepal, and of course India, where there are many thousands more. During the war in Laos, caves, both natural and human-made, served as havens from the ravages of war. The inclusion of a sacred cave in the novel "The Plain of Jars", is more than merely a device to tintillate the reader, but also serves as a realistic site where someone might have taken refuge and where clues to the past may be found.

Buddhist caves in Southeast Asia are still part of the present-day Buddhist culture and even those famous as tourist spots are active places of worship. Some caves contain deep recesses and series of rooms reached by climbing stairs or a ladder. Many caverns extend for more than 10 kms . An example is the famous Chiang Dao cave in Thailand.


When a monk inhabits a cave, a yellow cloth is hung at the entrance. The monk meditates and sleeps in the cave. A monk can occupy a cave for only a few days, or for months or even years. Other monks and ordinary people may visit, for short or long retreats. The caves are often either a part of monasteries or located nearby them, such as the relationship between the Cave of the Enlightened One and the Forest Temple mentioned in the novel. While living in a cave may seem inconceivable to us, Buddhist monks, following a 2500-year-old Buddhist tradition, continue to practice their religion in caves for short or longer periods. It could be said that there is some kind of correspondence between "inside" (the cave) and the search for the "inner" self.

Monks and Bats

"How do you tell what day it is?"
"I count the days by the bats. they make a great noise when they leave the cave to eat, which, like myself, is once a day."
Andrew questioning the hermit Monk Puritatto, from the novel "The Plain of Jars"

Many varieties of bats dwell in caves, and are a major part of the ecological balance, as approximately 25% are pollinators sustaining not only the forest flora, but important fruit crops such as durian, breadfruit, cashews, and figs, while the insect eating bats play a major role in controlling insect populations. Some investigators, such as Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, directly correlate the conservation of bat species with the Buddhist usage of caves. The devotion and respect for all forms of life, as preached by the monks, have made bats and other cave creatures sancrosanct, and thus directly discourage the exploitation and harm of these species.

For some spectacular photos of sacred caves, check out the Sacred Cave photogallery

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