‘Open sesame’ (khul ja sim sim) were the magic words that led Ali Baba into the cave of the forty thieves – and us hooked into the world of Arabian Nights. Inside the cave, Ali Baba had found immense treasure that the thieves had been piling for years.
Believe it or not, such a mysterious cave laden with treasures does exist. Lying in the eastern state of India, it is called the Son Bhandar Caves.

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Son Bhandar Caves

The Treasure of the Son Bhandar Caves

Legend says that King Bimbisar’s immense treasure was safely hidden in the Son Bhandar Caves when his son Ajatashatru usurped his throne. The name of the cave itself speaks a lot. It translates as gold from ‘son’ with ‘bhandar’ meaning a storehouse – calling itself as the Gold Cave. But is there seriously any treasure or could it be a long living hoax?

The legend of the Son Bhandar Caves had attracted the attention of the Mughals at a certain point of time. The Son Bhandar consists of two artificial caves carved out at the foot of the Vaibhar Hills in Rajgir. The caves appear plain and nonchalant, and look more suitable for the ascetics than for any treasure.  In fact, Jain munis used that cave as their shelter and in some areas of the cave they created sculptures which are historically quite valuable. The Mughal army searched the two caves inch by inch and found absolutely nothing. No doorway, no treasure. After that, it was the turn of the British. They were so much determined to get the treasure, they did not care about the 1500-year old rock cut caves that are otherwise also a religious heritage. To lay hands on the hidden treasure, they brought cannons and decided to tear the whole place down. Armed with modern machines, nothing would stop them to obtain the treasure.

Son Bhandar Caves

This is where the legend of Son Bhandar Caves gets interesting, and very mysterious.

The cave did not budge a bit. Not even to the cannonballs. Unbelievably, all the cannonball could do is to leave an ugly dark smudge on the walls, and it can still be seen there. The invaders had to leave empty handed. This implied that the treasure still lies safe, and untouched and unreachable in the Son Bhandar Caves.

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King Bimbisara’s Treasure

Bimbisara was the son of a chieftain. However through his prowess, he became king only at the age of 15 and established an empire only few can dream of. Through battle, alliance and marriage – King Bimbisara created a huge and powerful kingdom. His capital was Pataliputra (modern day Patna) and his Magadhan empire had expanded far and wide across India bringing him immense power and – wealth.

Son Bhandar Caves

The great King Bimbisara became well known for many achievements but is most well remembered as the friend and protector of Gautam Buddha. In his older years, Bimbisara had turned his attention away from material conquests and more towards spiritual ones. He was generous towards ascetics and monks. He gave away his wealth open handedly to help the monks who were carrying the spiritual messages of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.

King Bimbisara’s illustrious and ambitious son, Ajatashatru was a legendary warrior. However, he could not appreciate his father’s compassion towards these monks. Some courtiers added fuel to the fire and the son resolved to relieve the old king from his duties. Bimbisara was usurped by his own son and put into a dark prison.

While Ajatashatru seized the throne, it is believed that his mother the Queen, hid the brilliant and rare riches of the Magadhan Empire here in the Son Bhandar Caves. Why the Queen chose this cave, no one knows. This cave was made by Vairadeva, a wise Jain monk and was used as a place for meditation.

The Queen approached the monk for safekeeping the royal treasure in the two roomed cave. It is said that the great monk had not only kept the treasure deep inside the cave but also locked it with his spiritual powers. That itself is the reason why no one and no machine has been able to pry into it.

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Son Bhandar Caves ‘Code’ 

Legend says that the Son Bhandar Caves are locked by a mantra and can only be opened by its own ‘password’. The town of Rajgir, famous for its hot water springs also brings many tourists here. Most are here for sightseeing but there are quite a few who try to ‘break the code’.

Son Bhandar Caves

The Son Bhandar Caves sit at the bottom of the Vaibhar Hills. Two artificial caves have been carved out of the rock. The chambers are plain but finely polished which puzzles many scholar how this was achieved more 1500 years ago. The caves have few religious sculptures. In fact even without the treasure, this cave is one of the most important historical spots in India. The cave has inscriptions in its inside and outside.

Son Bhandar Caves

Out of the two caves, this one is said to have a hidden entrance to the treasure. As per generations of storytelling, if one could open this door it will take you through a tunnel through the hills. The passage connects to the Saptaparni Caves on the other side.

 Here is a video of tourists paying a visit to Sonbhandar Caves and listening to its intriguing history.

The cave room is rectangular with a ceiling as high as 1.5 metre. On its bare wall, there is a some carving which many see as the hint of a door. Suspicions arise when one also sees an inscription next to this ‘door’. This inscription is referred as the ‘code’ of the Son Bhandar Caves and it is supposedly tells how to open the door. The mystery thickens when historians say they cannot read or interpret this script fully.

The script is written in the interesting language of Shankhalipi. ‘Shankha’ means the ubiquitous conch shell found in every Indian home. Usually the language used the then was Brahmi, which is one of the oldest scripts in the world. Shankhalipi was a modification of this language. Shapes and figures of ‘shankhas’ were ornately used to express and communicate. Shankhalipi has been found across Indian caves and temples, albeit rarely. Trace of Shankhalipi has also been found in Java and Burma. Shankhalipi was taught and recorded at the Nalanda University, as per the writings of the great Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Unfortunately, after the Islamic invaders destroyed the Nalanda University the language could not be restored.

Son Bhandar Caves
Son Bhandar Caves

The secret to open the Son Bhandar Caves was perhaps known only to Bimbisara and his Queen other than the monk himself. Bimbisara died in the prison not much later. Ajatashatru is said to have a change of heart soon after. The treasure was probably forgotten, or perhaps ignored by him.

The inscription to ‘crack the password’ is out there in plain sight for everyone. What lies inside it? How can one even imagine a king’s treasure, no other than the great Bimbisara. Were these billions of fortune ever used by the monks in secret?

Among India’s many hidden treasures, Son Bhandar Caves is one of them. It makes one wonder, what sort of treasure it keeps. Bimbisara, the great admirer of the Buddha, would he hide diamonds and gold – or something much more? Something whose worth is perhaps – unimaginable? Perhaps time will tell.

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Son Bhandar Caves

Image credits: bl.uk, Wikipedia