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Among the earliest groups of Jain rock-cut shelters, dating as far back as the 1st century BCE, the caves of Udayagiri (Hill of Sunrise) and Khandagiri (Broken Hill) on the coastal plains of Orissa, occupy a significant place in history, rock-cut architecture, art and religion.

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About 6 kms west of Bhubaneshwar, a dramatic sight catches the eye – two hills abruptly rising to present a twin presence. Named Udayagiri and Khandagiri, they are home to thirty-three shelters for Jain ascetics. According to inscriptions found inside several of these caves, they were said to have been the handiwork of Emperor Kharavela, his queen, their sons, successors and officers. Of these, eighteen are in Udayagiri and fifteen in Khandagiri.

Udayagiri hills
Udayagiri hills

Excavated at varying heights and connected by rock-cut steps, these caves reflect Jain austerity, evident in the sparseness of their interiors. The low ceiling, generally flat or arched, permitting only a bowed posture and the lack of ornamentation (except for a few carved Jain images) add to the seminal spirit of these spaces. Out in the verandas of some of the more prominent caves, shelves have been provided to hold articles of daily use.

As for the cells themselves, they have been designed on one, two or three sides of the verandas. At places, extra side wings along with independent pillared verandas have been added to the main wing. The upper storey in most cases is not directly above the lower one but instead is set back.

Chhota Hati Gumpha and others, Udayagiri

Whilst the interiors of these cells are austere, their façades contain, in some cases, one and, in other, four doors depending on their size and are extensively decorated with sculptures. Although a few of the doorways are simple, most of the cells with veranda and some of those without pillared verandas have doorways with side pilasters, a tympanum and tympanum arch within two semicircular lines. The verandas themselves vary in length depending on the size of the back rooms. They are generally benched inside corresponding to the three walls. Their floors are dug lower than the cells and their flat roofs are supported by massive pillars as well as non-functional brackets, pilasters and lintels. The ends of the verandas are often provided with armed guards, both mounted on animals and standing bare foot or at times wearing boots. In rare cases, however, female figures are present at one side of the veranda of a few caves.

The sculptures in these monuments comprise mainly of large panels displaying popular legends, historical episodes, religious observances, dancing performances depicted within intervening spaces between arch bands and tympanums and individual guards, bracket figures, vidyadharas, capitals of pillars and a series of decorative designs, both floral and linear within arch bands, pilasters, brackets and railings. In addition, Jain Tirthankaras and Sasana Devis along with their vehicles, costumes and emblems of the medieval period are found on the inner walls of important caves of Khandagiri hill.

Rani Gumpha or Queen’s cave, Cave 1, Udayagiri

The broad panels on façades of the lower storey of Rani Gumpha represent the political and cultural activities of Kharavela like waging wars, subduing enemies, receptions accorded to victorious kings and the observance of dancing sequences. In the upper storey of the same Cave are elaborate panels showing an elephant hunt and a duel between a man and a woman. Similarly, the first frieze of the Ganesh Gumpha is a mere repetition of the duel scene of Rani Gumpha. The Manchapuri frieze indicates the reinstallation of Kalinga Jina by the members of the royal family of Kharavela. The broad façade of Chhota Hathi Gumpha shows the reverence of wild elephants. The tympanums of Ananta Gumpha, on the other hand, depict worship of the sacred elephant, the sun God riding on a chariot, Gajalaxmi and worship of the sacred tree more vividly. The outer faces of the small guard rooms of Rani Gumpha represent scenes of forest life in all its beauty and grandeur.

Inner and outer brackets seemingly provided to support the superstructures and the railings are relieved with decorative motifs, human beings, and animals in various poses, Gana figures as well as winged and enigmatic figures. The worship of the elephant, performance of dance to the tune of a stringed instrument under a tree, ladies holding trays of offerings, cavaliers, mounted elephants, lions and birds give us an idea of the life and activity of the period.

Façade of Ganesh Gumpha Cave 5, Udayagiri

The tops of the pillars as also those of pilasters are relieved with makaras while winged animals with the head of birds, lions, bulls, horses, elephants and deer have found a prominent place as crowns of the capitals of Rani Gumpha, Ganesh Gumpha, Ananta Gumpha, Tatowa Gumpha and others. Honeysuckle, lotus and other floral motifs featured prominently in the decoration of the surfaces of the arch bands with occasional display of animals chased by boys and birds carrying buds in their beaks. Vidyadharas or semi-divine figures running in haste or hovering in the sky with offerings in hand can be seen on either end of the façade of Rani Gumpha, Ananta Gumpha and Jaya-Vijaya Gumpha.

It is indeed extraordinary that the twin hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri contain such a wealth of structural and relief work. However, the completeness of their story and context will never be revealed. All we have are the inscriptions and the forms and images of these creations to guide us into a time gone by. Meanwhile, Nature continues her task of eroding and denuding what remains.


Kharavela’s inscription in Hati Gumpha, Cave 14, Udayagiri

The Hathi Gumpha is a large natural cavern, which is architecturally plain but significant because it holds the famous inscription of king Kharavela, which unfolds the story of his life, his expeditions and exploits off the battlefield inscribed in Magadhi characters.

This inscription is located on the overhanging brow of the cave and consists of seventeen lines covering an area of fifteen feet and one inch in length and five feet and six inches in height. Although, the entire record appears to have been very carefully inscribed, it has suffered inclement weather.

The inscription is the only source of information about the illustrious King Kharavela. There are no other archaeological or literary sources, which inform about him. The descendant of Mahameghavahana, King Kharavela belongs to the Ceti dynasty. He calls himself Kalingadipati (expressing his sovereign rule over Kalinga) and seems to have been a well-educated and well-trained person in all fields related to administration and warfare. For nine years, he was appointed as Yuvaraja and at the age of twenty-four he became the king of Kalinga. As soon as he was anointed king, he worked for the welfare of his people and beautified his capital.

The inscription details that from the second year of his reign, he started his military campaigns in Western India, Northern India up to Mathura and Magadha and Southern India up to the river Godavari and mentions the strength of his army and the manner in which it routed the enemy. There are also details about some dynasties and the names of kings and kingdoms such as Satakarni, the Nandas, the Tamil confederacy, the Pandya State and the Greek King, Demetrius.

His social and cultural contributions are not only highlighted but also enumerated, such as – the organization of festivals and fairs for the people in his capital, which included folk dances, classical dances, songs and instrumental music. As regards his religious preference, he seems to have followed Jainism but was tolerant towards other religions as well, which is shown from tax exemptions given to Brahmanas. He performed the Rajasuya yajna. At the close of the inscription, King Kharavela is mentioned as the King of Peace, Prosperity, Monks and Religion.


Author and Photographs: Shreekant Jadhav
Web Editor: Kshitija Pande
Source: Heritage India Magazine Volume 4 Issue 1



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