About eight kilometres south of Nashik city along the Mumbai-Agra national highway, the Trimbak-Anjaneri hill range ends in three isolated hills, which are six to 1,100 feet above the plain. On the highest, which is 1,061 feet above the plain and 3,004 feet above mean sea level, a group of Buddhist caves are located.
These caves carved between 250 BCE and 600 CE run along the north face of the hill about halfway up. The three hills are steep and pointed. The triple fire-tongue shape was the origin of its name ‘Trirashmi’ (triple sunbeam), which is inscribed in the caves. It is now popularly known as Pandu caves or Pandav Leni.
The caves face north and north-east. Their northern frontage saves them from the sun and the south-west rains, because of which the rich carved work and inscriptions have survived 1,500 to 2,000 years. The broad terrace which runs in front of them offers a panoramic view of Nashik city from the south.
There are 24 caves which are numbered from west to east. All the caves, except cave no. 18 (which is a Chaitya- chapel), are dwellings. The caves when first finished do not seem to have contained images. The later image-worshippers, instead of cutting fresh caves, changed the old caves to suit the new worship.
The images are mainly of Gautam Buddha, Bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani, besides Tara- the female Buddha. Similar images are found in some of the caves at Kanheri, Ajanta, Karla, and Ellora. The changes were introduced, according to inscription no. 23, between the fifth and sixth centuries after Christ.
According to paleographic evidence, the kings mentioned in the inscriptions are Kanha from the Satvahana dynasty, Hakusiri, Nahapana, Gautamiputra Satkarni, Vasishthaputra Pulaumavi, Gautamiputra Yajnasi Satakarni, Madhariputra Sivadatta, and Isvarasena.
The caves may be divided into two groups. One made between 110 BCE and 40 CE and the other, after that, when images of Buddha were incorporated. The second group belongs approximately to about the fifth or sixth century. The caves of the first group have no objects of worship except the chaitya shrines, while the second group has images of Buddha, instead of relic-shrines. It indicates that the work in the two periods must have been done by different sects.
The worship of images of Buddha and the use of Sanskrit in inscriptions point to northern rather than southern Buddhism. The cause must be sought in some religious change in the interval between the two periods. Either on the decline of southern (imageless) Buddhism, the northern Buddhism became predominant and occupied the caves, as between the third or fifth centuries, the territory was governed by staunch Shaivite kings.
The Nashik caves show that Buddhism disappeared from Nashik before the 11th century. Subsequently, Jains of Digambara sect carved images of Rishabhdeva, Ambika and Veer Manibhadra in cave XI. Later the caves seem to have been used as a fort during the Maratha period.
The people had entirely forgotten that they are Buddhist caves and started calling them Pandav Leni. However, in recent years, the revival of Buddhism has resulted in Buddhists visiting the caves to pay tributes to Buddha. When the Nashik Municipal Corporation constructed the Dadasaheb Phalke memorial at the foothill of Trirashmi, a Buddhist stupa was also built.