Udayagiri Caves (sometimes called Udaigiri Caves) are a series of rock cut caves carved into a 2km long sandstone ridge, 6 km west of Vidisha and very close to Sanchi. The name Udayagiri means ‘sunrise mountain’, and whilst this name first appears in inscriptions dating from the 11th century, archaeologists have speculated that perhaps a sun temple once existed at Udayagiri that potentially predated the arrival of Buddhism in India. Other inscriptions at Udayagiri refer to the site as Visnupadagiri (meaning “the feet of Vishnu”).
Here at Udayagiri is one of the earliest cave temple sites in India, attributed to the ‘Golden Age’ of Hindu revival marked by the change from Vedic to idol worship, around 1,500 to 1,700 years ago.
Unlike the more famous cave complexes such as Ellora or Ajanta, these caves are not architecturally significant. Many are little more than single cell structures and some could perhaps be better defined as niches rather than actual proper caves. What Udayagiri caves is famous for however are the carvings. It is here that the elaborate Gupta style carved doorways first appeared, along with other Gupta motifs such as scroll and leaf decoration. There is a single Jain temple in the collective Udayagiri group, the rest are all Hindu Temples.
Some historians have suggested that the Iron Pillar in the courtyard of Quwwat-ul-Islam at the Qutb Minar site in Delhi originally stood at Udayagiri. An inscription in one of the Udayagiri caves states that a devotee who repaired the shrine ‘bows forever to the feet of Vishnu’. Chandragupta II’s inscription on the Delhi pillar mentions that it was standing at Vishnupadagiri, the ‘hill of Vishnu’s foot-prints’. However, the location of Vishnupadagiri has alternatively been identified as being in the Gurdaspur region of Punjab.
Visiting the Udayagiri caves site poses a couple of challenges, with little resource on the internet to help you orientate yourself and get the best out of what there is to offer. So I’m going to do my best to try and rectify that with this blog post.
The caves are essentially divided into three groups, which I’ve called the southern, central and northern groups, as can be seen on the map below.
All three groups have their own access from the road that runs north-south by the side of the village. You could simply park at one of these access points and see all the caves on foot, but the network on paths on the sandstone ridge are many, and there’s no signage to guide you along the way. So I opted for the simpler and perhaps quicker option of parking at all three locations in turn and seeing the groups independantly. I suspect many visitors only get to see the central group as that has both the highest concentration of caves and includes the two most famous ones, but it’s worth exploring the others which will help you appreciate the overall landscape and setting of the cave complex.
The other challenge is the cave numbering system. As with the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, there are conflicting cave numbers depending on which resource you are reading. This time we have Cunningham’s designation versus the more recent A.S.I. numbering. The final challenge is that not all the caves were open during my visit, so I was left with pressing my nose up (and camera lens) against the metal gates to get some sort of glimpse as to what lies within.
Set high up on the ridge, and visible from the road. It is not strictly a cave as the natural ledge of the rock has been integrated into the roof structure with side walls and four pillars.
You can see evidence of a deity that was once carved into the back wall, but was chiseled away at some point. A Jain carving now resides to one side of the cell. Cunningham also called this Cave 1.
Slightly to the north of Cave 1, with some badly damaged reliefs on the doorjamb. I failed to locate this cave !
From here you can either continue north on foot along the ridge to the central group of monuments, or return to your car and drive the short distance to them (see above map).
Cave 3 (Kumara Temple)
Also known as the Skanda temple, it has a plain exterior with the interior containing a rock-cut image of Skanda, the war god.
The sculpture has been damaged, with his staff or club and parts of the limbs broken. This is widely considered to be the most beautiful 5th century image of Kumara (Kartikeya). Cunningham called this Cave 2.
Cave 4 (Veena Temple)
Named after the two seated Veena players carved on the lintel, the Gupta king Samudragupta was known to have played this instrument. Inside the temple is one of the treasures of Udayagiri, with the sanctum containing an ekamukha linga.
It’s an exceptional carving, with hair falling down on both sides of the face. Sadly this was one of the caves that was locked, so I did my best to capture it from the gate. The cave is dated to around 400 A.D, Cunningham called this Cave 3.
The undoubted highlight of Udayagiri, which resides in a shallow niche that can hardly be described as a cave at all. Here we have the much photographed colossal Varaha panel, depicting Vishnu in his Varaha (man-boar) avatar rescuing goddess earth in crisis.
The colossal figure of Varaha is 13 feet high, his left foot resting above the coil of a snake who is seeking forgiveness from him by joining both is hands. Goddess Bhudevi is resting on his left shoulder, clinging with one hand to his tusk.
There are many other figures carved on either side of Varaha. Brahma and Shiva riding over Nandi together with many other gods with halos behind their heads. Ganga and Yamuna are also shown descending to earth from heaven and reaching with the ocean. Set within the ocean itself is a solitary male figure, presumed to be Varuna, the god of the ocean. Cunningham called this Cave 4.
Directly next to Cave 5, with a T-shaped door leading to a (locked) rock cut sanctum.
Outside the entrance is a carving of Durga slaying Mahishasura (a buffalo demon). This is believed to be one of the earliest representations of this Durga legend in a cave temple.
A little further to the left is the pot-bellied Ganesha. This seemingly humble depiction of Ganesha has great significance as it ties down his existence in the Hindu pantheon to at least 401 A.D.
An inscription panel in the cave records Gupta king Chandragupta II and his minister Virasena visiting in the Gupa year 82 (401 A.D.).
There’s also some interesting and much later graffiti in this cave of various animals. Cunningham called this Cave 5.
Right next to Cave 6, it consists of a large niche containing much damaged figures of the eight mother goddesses, only their outlines are now visible.
Cave 8 (Tawa Cave)
Cunningham named this Tawa cave due to the the shape of the roof resembling a tawa (saucepan or baking plate). The cave is most famous for it’s inscription recording that Gupta king Chandragupta II and his minister Virasena visited this cave (probably the same time as they visited and inscribed cave 6), and for the lotus carving on the ceiling of the sanctum.
From here you start climbing up a sandstone ridge with excavations either side.
A small excavation not far from Cave 8, with hints of Vishnu carving now almost completely lost.
Cave 10 houses an image of Vishnu with his personified weapons; Chakra Purusha and Gada Devi.
Another small excavation with ephemeral hints of weathered carvings.
A niche containing the standing figure of Narasimha (man-lion avatar of Vishnu). Below him and to either side are two standing images of Vishnu.
This cave also has evidence that the excavations truncated pre-existing Sankhalipi (shell script) inscriptions on the rock, which importantly ties the use of that script to at least 401 A.D.
Shell inscriptions are curvilinear and have not yet been deciphered. Udayagiri contains the largest collection of these 4th – 5th century inscriptions.
Another highlight of Udayagiri, but sadly obstructed during my visit by locked gates. This cave contains a large Anantasayana panel, depicting Vishnu as Anantasayana lying over the serpent Adisesa.
Below this leg of are two men, one larger kneeling devotee in namaste posture, and another smaller standing figure behind him. The kneeling figure is generally believed to be Chandragupta II, symbolising his devotion to Vishnu.
The last cave at the top of the passage, on the left hand side. Now badly damaged, all that exists is the doorjamb and two sides of the square chamber.
Cave 15, 16 & 17
These are small excavations with nothing of great note, I either completely missed them or left them unphotographed !
Nothing more than a niche, but containing an impressive image of the four armed Ganesha, together with a devotee who is shown carrying a banana plant.
This carving is significant for still having traces of red paint that once covered many of the carvings at Udayagiri. The waterproof paint, made from tree sap, was applied by the stone masons to protect their work from rain damage.
From here you can either continue on the path towards the northern group of temples, or return to the car and drive a little further north.
Cave 19 (Amrita Cave)
This is the largest of all the caves at Udayagiri, and would once have been even bigger with its mandapa in front. The doorway to the cave is heavily decorated, more than any other cave in the complex. Here are carved scenes from the samudra manthan mythology, a narrative that led to Cunningham calling the cave ‘Amrita Cave’.
The cave has two Shiva lingas, one of which is a mukhalinga (linga with face).
This cave also has a Sanskrit inscription in Nagari script dated to 1036 A.D, recording the pilgrim Kanha donating resources to the temple and expressing his devotion to…yes, you’ve guessed it – Vishnu! Cunningham called this Cave 9.
In the north western edge of the hill and the only Jain temple, I was unable to find this temple. I have subsequently read that it is not accessible, whatever that means ! The cave is reported to have an eight-line inscription in Sanskrit, praising the Gupta kings for bringing prosperity to all, and then notes that Sangkara has set up a statue of Parshva Jina in this cave after commanding a cavalry, later giving up his passions, withdrawing from the world, and becoming a yati (monk).
A path from cave 19 leads further on around to the left, and then up a series of steep stairs. This takes you to the top of the sandstone ridge, with a viewpoint on a rocky outcrop. Here there is evidence of quarrying, and some nice notice boards informing you of the quarry and geology of the region.
From here you will see the resthouse a little higher up (see above photo), it appears to have been shut down some years ago and is at risk of becoming a monument itself ! Continue past here and shortly you will reach the site of a ruined Gupta temple.
The temple platform was unearthed during excavations in 1914. Little is known about it, but it’s plan is similar to other Gupta period buildings such as the Shiv temple at Bhumra and the Parvati temple at Nachna. There’s broken masonry everywhere, including what was probably once a substantial side pillar.
The path continues on, almost certainly to reach the central group of caves, so you would come to the Ganesh niche of Cave 18 first.
Although challenging for the lack of signage or map of the overall site, Udayagiri Caves is an incredible place and one that deserves as much exploration as you can afford. These caves contain some of the oldest surviving Hindu temples and iconography in the whole of India, and is the only site that can be verifiably associated with a Gupta period monarch from its inscriptions.
If you’re planning to visit one of India’s most important archaeological sites, remember to take food and water with you as options to purchase anything is very limited. The site has no entrance fee, and I imagine is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
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