Rock-cut Shelters of Udayagiri and Khandagiri, Orissa

Despite having been a formidable maritime empire, with trading routes down into Indonesia, the history of Orissa, formerly Kalinga is hazy until the demise of the Kalinga dynasty in 260 BC at the hands of the great emperor Ashoka. Appalled at the carnage he had caused, Ashoka forswore violence and converted to Buddhism. Around the 1st century BC Buddhism declines and Jainism was restored as the faith of the people. During this period the monastery caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri were excavated as important Jain centres.

Six kilometres west of the city centre are two hills riddled with rock-cut caves called lena in the inscriptions and are essentially dwelling retreats of the Jaina ascetics. There are altogether 18 caves in Udayagiri and 15 caves in Khandagiri hill.

These caves were excavated by Kharavela and his successors in 1st century B.C. The activities continued till the time of Somavamsis of A.D10th-11th century. Most of the caves consist of a row of cells open either directly to the veranda or to the open spaces in front. The cells are essentially dormitories, an inference substantiated by a sloping rise of the floor at the rear end to serve the purpose of a pillow. In later periods some of the cells were converted into shrines with minor alterations, such as increasing the height of the chamber and by the excavation of the floor to a deeper depth. The doorway of cells has pilasters on either side with crowning animal figures and arches over them are decorated with flowers, creepers and animal motifs.

Udayagiri or Sunrise hill on the northern side has the most interesting caves. Ascend the ramp, noting Swargapuri (Cave 9) to the right with its devotional figures. Hathi Gumpha (Cave 14) is mostly natural and the earliest as it depicts prehistoric rock paintings and petro glyphs. This cave has the distinction of bearing on its brow the famous 17 line inscription of king Kharavela of Kalinga in early Brahmi script and Magadhi Prakrit language datable to 1st century BC recording the career and achievements of Kharavela in a chronological order from his early childhood to thirteenth regnal year. Here, the famous inscription of Kharavela records many of his expeditions including victory over Magadha and retrieval of the Jaina cult-image taken over by the Nanda king.

Towards the left of Hathi Gumpha is the Bagh Gumpha(cave 12), a single celled cave datable to circa 1st century BC having an opening carved like a tiger’s head. Nearby are Pavana Gumpha (Cave of Purification) and small Sarpa Gumpha (Serpent Cave), where the tiny door is surmounted by a three- headed cobra. Towards the south east side lies the Ganesha Gumpha (cave 10), almost directly above the two-storey Rani ka Naur (cave 1). Ganesha Gumpha (Cave 10), datable to c. 1st century BC contains two dwelling cells with a benched veranda in front. The arched doorway of the cells above the railings are relieved with scenes like the abduction scene reminding that of Cave-1 and the other scenes representing the popular story of Udayana and Vasavadatta. The cave is named after an image of Ganesha carved inside. The cave is significantly noted for a five-lined inscription of 8th century AD.

Rani ka Naur or the Queen’s Palace is the most interesting and important among other caves and is carved with Jaina symbols and battle scenes.

Chota Hathi Gumpha (cave 3) has carvings of elephants whereas the double storey Jaya Vijaya Cave (cave 5) has a Bodhi tree carved in the central compartment.

The Khandagiri caves are situated across the road which offers fine views over Bhubaneswar from its summit. The steep path splits about one-third of the way up tha hill. The right path goes to Ananta Cave (cave 3), with its carved figures of athletes, women, elephants and geese carrying flowers. Further along is a series of Jain temples; at the top is another Jain temple from 18th century.

The depiction of 24 tirthankaras along with their sasanadevis in the Barahbhuji cave, Gajalaxmi, Surya (7), Swastika and Nandipada symbol in Anant Gumpha in relief are noteworthy achievement in early Indian art.