Fascinating but Neglected Caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri

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Rock cut caves and sculptures have always fascinated me. This time, during my trip to Bhubaneswar, I made it a point to keep some time apart for a visit to the famed Udayagiri caves. While the main motivation for the visit was to appreciate the history and architecture of the cave, I also wanted to compare these rock cut caves with the cave temples of Mahabalipuram. True, it was unfair to compare these two great monolithic marvels built centuries apart – the former about 2200 years back and the latter about 1300 years back. But antiquity has its own charm and oddities.

Image 1: Hathigumpha (Coutesy: S. Raghavan)

However, I was thoroughly disappointed with the gross neglect of the caves. But the way these caves were being used as living quarters by sadhus and mendicants just appalled me. In the soothing shade inside one of the caves, a young couple were in intimate discussion – definitely not about the inscriptions. In another cave, a sadhu was enjoying his chillum in a contented reclining pose. The caves had graffiti all over them, mostly the handiwork of lovers who wanted their names to be counted in history. These caves which had survived the onslaught of weather and time over 22 centuries, are now on the verge of being turned into ruins this century.
If and once you get over the shock of this gross neglect and misuse, you slowly tend to get engulfed by the intriguing history and the layout of the caves.

The Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves, which stare at each other from opposite hillocks, are believed to be partly natural and partly artificial caves. They are of archaeological, historical and religious importance. They are a set of finely and ornately carved caves. It is said that most of these caves were carved out as residential blocks for Jain monks during the reign of King Kharavela. Udayagiri means "Sunrise Hill" and has 18 caves while Khandagiri meaning "Broken Hill" has 15 caves. The most outstanding of this group of caves is Ranigumpha in Udayagiri which is a double storeyed monastery. Even today, at close range, an observant visitor can notice patches of spectacular carvings among others which have weathered over time. These patches give a glimpse of how imposing these caves and temples must have been at the time of their construction.

Image 2: Rani Gumpha (cave no-1), Udayagiri (Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udayagiri_and_ Khandagiri_Caves)

These once spectacular caves also have an intriguing history. They were built during the tumultuous days of the resurgence of the Kalingan empire and the withering away of the Mauryan empire, their former subjugator.

Very early in Kalingan history, the Kalingas acquired a reputation for being a fiercely independent people. Ashoka's military campaign against Kalingawas turned out to be one of the bloodiest in Mauryan history due to the fearless and heroic resistance offered by the Kalingas to the huge armies of the expanding Mauryan empire. It is believed that on account of their exceptional bravery, emperor Ashoka was compelled to issue two edicts specifically calling for a just and benign administration in Kalinga.

Mauryan rule over Kalinga did not last long. By the first century before the common era, Kalinga's ruler Kharavela had control over much of the sub-continent and Mauryan Magadha had become a province of the Kalingan empire. It is during Kharavela’s reign that the magnificent caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri were built. Surviving inscriptions in the caves in Prakrit mention that Prince Kharavela was trained not only in the military arts, but also in literature, mathematics, and the social sciences. He was also reputed to be a great patron of the arts and was credited with encouraging dance and theatre in his capital. These records reveal that Kharavela, on the premature death of his father, took up the administration first as a Yuvaraja and then on completion of 24 years of age ascended to the throne as Maharaja. The Mahameghavahana dynasty continued to rule over Kalinga and Mahishaka up to the 1st century CE.

Historical records point out that the Kalingan state had a formidable maritime reach with trade routes linking it to the then-Simhala (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Vietnam, Kamboja (Cambodia), Malaysia, Borneo, Bali, Samudra (Sumatra) and Jabadwipa (Java).

While Kharavela patronised Jainism, evidence shows that all religions were respected in his rule. To this day the Buddhist rock edicts of Ashoka at Dhauli, about 10 kms away, face the Udayagiri caves showing that Buddhism also thrived under his regime.

Coming back to the caves, they were constructed for the residence of Jaina ascetics with frugal amenities. Most of the caves consist of a row of cells, or dormitories, open either directly to the verandah or to the open space in front. Each cell has a crude rock bed with a sloping rise of the floor to serve as a pillow. The doorways of the cells have pilasters on either side with crowning animal figures and arches over them are decorated with flowers, creepers and animal motifs. These artistic panels depict popular legends, historical episodes, religious observances and dancing performances.

Ranigumpha and Swargapuri- Manchapuri caves are the largest and double storied. Ranigumpha, or the queen’s palace, stands out architecturally from the rest. In contrast, Hathigumpha stands out for its historical importance -- housing the famous inscription of King Kharavela engraved on its brow. The developed state of early medieval Indian art is visible in the depiction of 24 Tirthankaras along with Sasanadevis in the Barabhuji cave, Surya Gajalaksmi and Jaina symbols in the Ananta Gumpha of Khandagiri.

The pride of place of Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves in ancient Indian architecture is undeniable. But they are on the verge of irretrievably getting turned into ruins.

S. Raghavan is the editor of Ghadar Jari Hai. He has a deep interest in India's cultural, economic and social past, present and future.