Udayagiri Caves – Bhubaneswar

Dating back as early as the 2nd century B.C, Udayagiri Caves are a fascinating set of deep cut sandstone caves 3km west of Bhubaneswar in Odisha. Built by the Jain ruler Kharavela, the caves were part of a large Jain monastic complex. Whilst many of the caves appear to have been converted into shines, originally it is believed they served as dormitories and study areas for the monks.

The caves were first formally recorded by Andrew Stirling in 1824 in Asiatic Researches vol. xv, although it wasn’t until James Furgusson’s visit in 1836 that there was sufficient time to properly survey and record each individual cave. These records were enhanced further by Markham Kittoe in 1838, Joseph David Beglar (assistant to Alexander Cunningham) in 1874, and Rajendralala Mitra a year later, in 1875. They all believed the caves to have a Buddhist origin, completely overlooking the various Jain symbols and motifs that would perhaps suggest otherwise. As both religions share similar symbolism and with less of an understanding 180 years ago, this is not of any particular surprise.

On the neighbouring hill to Udayagiri is the Khandagiri Cave complex, which will be the subject of a separate blog post. Udayagiri means “sunrise hill”, perhaps a little more appealing than the translation of Khandagiri, which means “broken hill”. Ironically the names are quite appropriate even today, but more on that when I document my experience at Khandagiri (it wasn’t great).

Several of the caves are Udayagiri have some extremely fine carvings which are broadly thought to have been created at roughly the same time, circa 50 B.C. The caves are also known for their inscriptions, the most famous of which is the Hathi Gumpha inscription (Cave 14) which is the main source of Kalinga history during the 1st and 2nd century B.C. under the Mahameghavahana ruler, Kharavela.

The number of caves at Udayagiri is open to question. Inscriptions here record a total of 117 excavated by the Jain ruler Kharavela, but the number of caves officially recorded today is just 18. The numbering is probably a little haphazard as there are some small very simple single-cell caves that don’t appear to have any formal number assigned to them today. Most of the caves have a plaque in front of them with their name and assigned number, although in a few cases this is also missing. With a bit of detective work I have managed to piece together the caves I explored in order to produce this blog.

The caves are described below in numerical order which is not going to be the order in which you tour the site. With so many pathways and options for how you tackle an exploration of the caves, you can easily end up at a different cave to the one you were expecting !

Cave 1 : Rani Gumpha

Built in two storeys, the west-facing Rani Gumpha cave is the largest and finest excavation in the Udayagiri complex. The word ‘Rani’ means Queen, some believe that the queen of king Lalatendu Kesari once occupied this cave.

The cave takes the form of a three-sided open courtyard with cells on each side over the two levels, several of the doorways have carved guardians.

The carvings on the lower floor are in parts quite badly damaged due to the weathering and erosion, but some impressive detail still exists in the more sheltered areas.

Although much of the imagery can be open to interpretation, there appear to be scenes depicting a submission in front of royalty, a group receiving a king, a dance party, and possibly a family visiting a religious site.

It has been suggested that some of these panels depict the military exploits of King Kharavela, but not including any specific battle scenes.

There are some wonderful relief carvings next to and beside many of the cell entrances, most notably on the second level where they are best preserved.

The superb sequence of relief carvings on this upper floor are quite mysterious and remain unidentified, potentially from a lost epic. Themes here are replicated in the Ganesh Gumpha (Cave 10) as well as other caves in the complex.

From left to right, the initial scene depicts an attendant carrying a multitude of items on his tray and in his arms.

This is followed by a group of three elephants cowering before a group of ten people, including a man holding a club and a woman whose arms are raised as if to strike the animals.

Further along are a man and a woman fighting with swords and shields, and what appears to be a woman being abducted, she is being carried away in the arms of an armed male.

Next to that is a horse sheltering under a parasol with three attendants, with an archer (possibly a king?) taking aim at a winged deer which is accompanied by two fawns. This archer (probably the same one) is seen again next to a naked woman climbing down from a tree.

The final scene that is well enough preserved shows a music and dance performance in a court. At one end are the king and queen with accompanying attendants. The musical party appears to involve six women, three of which are playing cymbals, a harp, and a mridangam (a double-sided drum).

There appears to be further scenes to the right which are unfortunately now lost. Some scholars have speculated that these scenes depict the personal life of King Kharavela

Cave 2 : Bajaghara Gumpha

In start contrast to Cave 1, this cave is small and very simple. It is thought to have been a Jain monks’ shelter. Some back-to-back animal carvings exist on the capitals of the pillars.

Cave 3 : Chota Hathi Gumpha

This cave is named after the fantastic carvings of elephants on the front facade. Aesthetically the impact of these carvings is somewhat marred by the relatively recent addition of two modern columns supporting the overhanging rock above.

Rather frustratingly, there is an inscription in this cave but it is both incomplete and damaged. It reads “The cave of…”

Cave 4 : Alakapuri Gumpha

Now quite heavily damaged and incorporating modern supporting pillars, this almost completely plain double story cave is the first excavation you will encounter having entered the Udayagiri complex.

Cave 5 : Jaya Vijara Gumpha

Located next to the upper level of Cave 4, this is a two cell excavation with a benched veranda. The female guard at the cave entrance is holding a parrot in her right hand.

There’s some great carvings in this small cave, with some similarity with the upper level of cave 1, especially the opening scene.

This continues to the right with a scene depicting a tree encircled by railings with an umbrella on top. I love the way this railing around the tree has been carved to give the feeling of a three dimensional image.

There’s a number of carvings on the capitals that could be quite easily missed by the casual observer.

Cave 6 : Panasa Gumpha

With the front veranda now collapsed, there is little of note in this small cave.

Cave 7 : Thakurani Gumpha

Immediately to the left of Cave 6 is this two storeyed excavation.

The pillar capitals are carved with winged animals, but aside from that the cave is plain.

Cave 8 : Patalapuri Gumpha

This is a fairly large cave with four cells, but almost completely undercoated with some modern additions.

The only carvings to be seen here are again on the pillar capitals, with more examples of winged animals.

Cave 9 : Mancapuri and Swargapuri Gumpha

This cave has two storeys, with the lower level known as Mancapuri and the upper level as Swargapuri.

The Mancapuri has some very good relief carvings inside. Here we can see four standing men and an elephant, but note how the second person appears to be wearing a crown, signifying royal personage. Above them are four flying figures with a symbol of the sun also carved.

Some scholars believe this crowned figure may depict King Kharavela and his family paying homage to Kalinga Jina.

An inscription in this cave reads:

“(This is) the cave of the clever, the King, master of Kalinga, whose vehicle is the great cloud, Kudepasiri”

A second smaller inscription nearby records; “The cave of the Prince Vadukha.”

Interestingly, elsewhere in this cave are additional images of crowned royal people, which does strongly associate it with a king or queen perhaps.

The upper level, Swargapuri, is extremely plain but does contain one interesting inscription which reads:

“This temple of the Arhats (and) cave for the Sramanas of Kalinga has been made. It has been made by the chief queen of the illustrious Kharavela, the overlord of Kalinga, who was the daughter of King Lalaka and the grandson of Hastisahasa [or Hastisaha]”

Cave 10 : Ganesha Gumpha

There is some disagreement as to how this cave got it’s name. Whilst there is a carved image of Ganesha on the back wall of the cave, obviously a much later addition, most scholars agree the name is derived from the two big statues of elephants carrying garlands flanking the entrance to the cave.

Discovered broken and repaired in the early 1900s, this is the first example of animal sculpture being used to guard an entrance to a cave.

There are some more fantastic carvings inside this cave. The first scene on the left is extremely similar to a scene that can be found in Cave 1 (Rani Gumpha).

Here a man is resting near a cave with a woman sitting nearby, immediately next is a woman leading a man towards this first couple. The next scene shows a man and a woman in combat with swords and shields. The final scene in the set shows a man carrying away a woman.

Nobody thus far has come up with a satisfactory explanation as to what exactly is being shown here in terms of the theme.

The second large relief has however been identified. This is thought to be the story of Udayana (King of Kausambi), carrying away Vasavadatta, the princess of Ujjayini.

The first scene in the relief shows one female and two males on the back of an elephant being chased by a party of soldiers. The man seated in the middle, over the elephant, is shown shooting arrows over the soldiers behind, while the man next to him is throwing coins from his money-bag to lure soldiers.

The next scene shows all three figures dismounted from the elephant, suggesting that they have reached a safe place, probably Kausambi, the capital of Udayana.

In the next scene, a male figure holding his bow is shown leading the other two, the female and the other male, still holding his money bag.

The final scene shows the female in remorse while the male is trying to console her. It is thought the female here is Vasavadatta while the male figure is Udayana. The other male figure, standing at a distance, now holding a bow as well as the money bag, is Vasantaka (see above).

The rear wall of the right cell has a carved image of Ganesha alongside an inscription dated to the 9th century A.D. recording donations by a physician named Bhimata, son of Nannata, during the reign of King Santikara.

Cave 11 : Jambesvara Gumpha

This is a small single cell excavation with two entrances.

An inscription in this cave records that it is the cave of Nayaki, wife of Mahamade.

Cave 12 : Vyaghra Gumpha (Bagha Gumpha)

This cave has a relatively unique feature in that the exterior has been carved in the shape of a tiger’s head, mouth wide open to house a single cell within, and the upper jaw providing shade for the entrance.

James Furgusson believed this to be one of the oldest caves in the complex. An inscription, which starts with a triangular symbol and ends with a swastika, records that it was the cave of a town-judge called Sabhuti.

Cave 13 : Sarpa Gumpha

The name Sarpa means ‘snake’, this cave got it’s name due to the three-headed serpent head which has been carved on the facade of the veranda.

I confess at the time I didn’t even notice this detail. This is a single cell cave which you are not able to access due to it’s elevated entrance.

There are two inscriptions in this little cave which have had different translations over the years. One set of translations is :

The unsurpassable chamber of Chulakama (Kshudrakarman)

“The temple of Kamma and Halakshina

Cave 14 : Hathi Gumpha

Unlike other caves in the Udayagiri complex, Hathi Gumpha is not a man-made excavation, but is a natural cavern. The cave name is not derived from any elephant carvings to be found here, instead it is thought that this may have been a stable for the elephants.

The cave is extremely plain in terms of decoration, aside from a curious carving on the roof in the far reaches of the cave. What makes this cave so famous is an inscription in Brahmi script dated to the 1st century B.C.

The inscription consists of 17 lines, unfortunately positioned on the brow of the natural cavern which has resulted in the script being heavily damaged from weathering. This inscription has acted as the main source of information about the Kalinga ruler Kharavela.

There is much documented about this inscription, I suggest taking a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Hathigumpha inscription if you’d like to learn more.

Cave 15 : Dhanaghara Gumpha

A simple single cell excavation with the carved guard on the left hand side and a small elephant above his head. A rather large monkey that didn’t seem to like company was in this cave, so I didn’t bother to explore it any further !

Cave 16 : Haridasa Gumpha

Named after an ascetic who used to live in the cave, I failed to see this excavation during my visit.

Cave 17 : Jagannatha Gumpha

Named after a painting of Jagannatha that once existed in this cave (now missing), it’s not the only thing that is missing as I failed to locate this cave 🙂

Cave 18 : Rasui Gumpha

Believed to have once been used as a kitchen, I failed to locate this single cell cave during my visit.

Apsidal Chaitya Structure

Only discovered in 1958, this structure on the top of the hill with a long nave and apsidal end looks in plan to be extremely similar to Buddhist chaityas. Scholars had speculated that such a shrine must exist on the hill as there was nowhere for all the monks to worship. Additionally, the Hathi Gumpha inscription in Cave 14 refers to chaitya temple built by Kharavela, so it was pretty certain such a structure must have existed somewhere.

The structure has been severely robbed of stone with only the very first courses still surviving. Many speculate that it is here that a tooth relic was once kept, which was subsequently moved to Sri Lanka.

The top of the hill offers a great view across to the opposing hill, and the additional Jain excavations that are collectively known as Khandagiri Caves. That will be for my next blog, a very different experience to Udayagiri Caves.

Doing any sort of internet search on Udayagiri Caves will give you an opening time that ranges anywhere from 6am to 10am. On my visit in Feb 2020 the caves were opening around sunrise, at 6am.

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