The hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri located on the outskirts of Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, are historic remnants of India’s rich past. The hills house a number of caves, most of which have been carved out by Jain monks and artisans from the times of King Kharavela (of the Mahameghavahana dynasty). Not only are these caves testimony to the architectural genius of ancient India, they also bear messages of love, compassion, and religious tolerance. The Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves are considered among the wonders of India and date back to the first century BC.
The history of Udayagiri and Khandagiri
One of the oldest surviving in the country, the caves of Udaygiri and Khandagiri date back to somewhere between the 1st and 2nd century. Facing each other, the caves are situated atop the hills of Udaygiri and Khandagiri. The caves well-known for their religious importance in the Jain culture, the caves are believed to have been carved out during the reign of King Kharavela and were initially carved out to serve as residential cells for Jain monks.
Why Udayagiri and Khandagiri!
Located approximately 6 kms from the main city of Bhubaneshwar, the caves of Udaygiri and Khandagiri transport you back to the bygone era and bring you face to face with lives of the Jain ascetics. Since, the caves once housed monks, the simplicity in the structure as well as the carvings is quite evidently visible. The 18 caves of Udaygiri as well as the 15 caves of Khandagiri are covered with paintings, motifs and engravings of court scenes, royal processions and hunting expeditions.
The name Udayagiri means Hill of Sunrise. There are 18 caves in Udayagiri. The Rani Gumpha or the Queen’s Cave is the largest, most majestic cave here. It is a two storied monastery supported by many columns and terraces. The cave contains beautiful sculptures of dancing women, royal entourage, and musical instruments. Other important caves in this hill are the Alkapuri Gumpha, a double storied cave with columns which contains sculptures of elephants and heavenly creatures apart from ornaments and treasures.
The Ganesa Gumpha is one of the rare caves with multiple dwellings and terraces. It is best known for the sculpture of Ganesha that is inscribed on the rear wall of the cave. It also shows a Jain Tirthankara at worship and contains sculptures of elephants. The entrance to the Vyagraha Ghumpa is also noteworthy for its splendid sculpture over the entrance.
The main inscription that provides us insight into the reign of King Kharavela of the 1st century BC Kalinga is the one found in the Udayagiri cave called Hathi Gumpha. The Elephant Cave inscription speaks of the glories of the king. It starts with the Namokar Mantra – a sacred chant of the Jains and goes on to describe the king in these terms – “the worshipper of all religious orders, the repairer of all shrines of gods”. The inscription consists of seventeen lines cut out in the Brahmi script. What is poignant about this inscription is that it faces rock edicts of King Asoka at Dhauli, some six miles away. The two kings were enemies and Asoka succeeded in conquering Kalinga. Following this, the patronage of the Jain religion slowly fell away and Buddhism found ascendancy in these parts. Apart from the Hathi Gumpha inscription, there are a number of minor inscriptions in other caves in these complexes.
Both the Tatowa Gumphas have parrot carvings over the entrance arches. These caves also bear some inscriptions of the time and the use of natural colour pigments is evident. The Ananta Gumpha is a very interesting cave in this complex and in this cave there are ancient Jain motifs such as Swastikas and serpents. The Navamuni Gumpha carries sculptures depicting 9 Jain Tirthankaras or seer-sages. This cave depicts a number of Digambara Jains at prayer. The Barabhuji Gumpha came to be named after two sculptures with 12 arms each. This cave has a relief depicting a number of Hindu deities.
By Flight: The city of Bhubaneshwar has its own airport, the Biju Patnaik International Airport which connects it to the major cities of India.
By Train: Bhubaneshwar is well-connected by the expansive Indian Railways network and the capital city has its railway station as well.
By Road: The closest metro city to Bhubaneshwar is Kolkata which is approximately a 12-hour drive (446 kms).
Millennium old rock cut sculptures located in cave temples. Bisected by the Tropic of Cancer. Inscriptions in an ancient, almost-extinct language as pointers. A long-separated iron pillar that refuses to rust even after centuries. These sound like elements taken straight from the Da Vinci Code. Except that these are not half-way across the globe but right in the heart of our own country. In Udayagiri.
Sometime in the early 5th century, artisans began work at Udayagiri under the patronage of the mighty Gupta ruler Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (375-414 AD) creating what is today seen as a cave temple complex. But these artisans, apart from being exceptionally skilled, were not working on a random tribute to a ruler’s ego.
Instead – under the direction of Virasena, Chandragupta’s minister for war and peace – they were painstakingly putting together an edifice that combined astronomy and sculpture, and if historians are correct, metallurgy as well.
To understand the place, zoom out a bit and cut to the present. The cave-shrines at Udayagiri are built all around a wide, uneven platform of rock located on one side of twin hills. The two hills are joined by a saddle-shaped ridge and rise about 110m. In reality, there are no ‘caves’ here. What are popularly called ‘caves’ are in truth carved structures in the northern hill created out of natural depressions formed by overhanging rocks.
The first thing I notice on reaching the shrines is a giant standing figure with the head of a wild boar and the body of a man. This is the iconic Varaha, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, which is believed to have saved the earth during the mythological churning of the ocean for nectar. I hazard that the delicate figure of the woman the Varaha balances on its snout can is the symbol of Bhumidevi, or Mother Earth.
Speaking from experience, the Varaha is best viewed at first light – when the rays of the sun fall on it – making the rock cut and its surrounding figures of gods glow, almost in defiance of the unimaginative iron railing put up as a defensive measure by the ASI.
Adjoining the Varaha is the wide rocky platform that I mentioned earlier. It is surrounded by small cave shrines cut into hollows of rock. Each shrine is flanked by stunning rock cuts – of Vishnu, Ganesha and other gods.
And on one side of the platform a gap in the rocks reveals a passageway leading up the hill. Built in another hollow in the wall within this passage is the second of Udayagiri’s iconic Vishnu representations. This one is in the form of a nearly eight foot long bas-relief of Anantasayi Vishnu – the god reclining on the coils of his celestial serpent with lesser gods surrounding him.
The primacy given to Vishnu at Udayagiri is not surprising, given that the Gupta period witnessed a surge in Vaishanism, under the patronage of the rulers themselves. Chandragupta II himself adopted the title of Parama-Bhagvata and is believed to have used the emblem of Garudadhwaja as his own, both steps aimed at projecting himself as head of the Vaishnava faith. He is believed to have patronized the building of 19 of the 20 caves at Udayagiri, the last one being a Jain cave-shrine.
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