We have been planning to visit the famous temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri in Odisha for sometime. We decided for a short trip to Puri this time due to paucity of time. We reached Bhubaneswar by air in the morning. We had planned for sight-seeing in Bhubaneswar before proceeding to Puri and had made necessary arrangements.

Beautiful Biju Patnaik International Airport, Bhubaneswar
Beautiful Biju Patnaik International Airport, Bhubaneswar

The hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri located on the outskirts of Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, are historic remnants of India’s rich past. The hills house a number of caves, most of which have been carved out as residential blocks for Jain monks during the reign of King Kharavela of the Mahameghavahana dynasty. Not only are these caves testimony to the architectural genius of ancient India, they also bear messages of love, compassion, and religious tolerance.

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Udaygiri caves

The Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves are considered among the wonders of India and date back to somewhere between the 1st and 2nd century BCE. Facing each other, the caves are situated atop the hills of Udaygiri and Khandagiri. The name Udayagiri means Hill of Sunrise. Khandagiri is topped with a fine temple.

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Khandagiri hill
A Jain temple on the top of Khandagiri
A Jain temple on the top of Khandagiri

Most of the caves are not natural ones but are rock cuts and are believed to have been dwelling cells and meditation quarters for Jain monks of the time. The monks are believed to have lived here under harsh conditions and yet have been able to produce stunning and intricate sculptures depicting the royalty, courts, religious symbols, and ordinary life of society.

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There’s a ticket of ₹25 ($0.35) per person for entering the Udaygiri caves, while there isn’t any ticket for Khandagiri. The rates are different from citizens of SAARC countries and citizens of other countries.

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Ascending the ramp at Udayagiri, there is Swargapuri (Cave 9) to the right with its devotional figures. Hathi Gumpha (Elephant Cave; Cave 14) at the top has a 117-line inscription relating the exploits of its builder, King Kharavela of Kalinga, who ruled from 168 to 153 BCE.

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From the Hathi Gumpha, we moved to other caves. Meant for the residence of Jain ascetics noted for their self mortification, the caves provide a little amenities. Most of the caves consist of a row of cells open either directly to the verandah or to the open space in front.

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There are rudimentary shelves cut into the rocks. The shape of these shelves reflect probably the monks used those as shelves to pile their sacred scriptures. These are essentially dormitories, an inference substantiated by a sloping rise of the floor to serve the purpose of a pillow.

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In 1825, A Stirling, the historian, brought the existence of these caves to public notice and attempted to translate the inscriptions. While it is difficult to obtain an accurate translation due to the disuse of the language – Brahmi, the weathering of the inscriptions, and inaccuracies, what is certain is that these rock edicts declare the respect and the dedication of the king towards all religions and the love his people bore him.

Rani Gumpha

The Rani Gumpha or the Queen’s Cave (Cave 1) is the largest, most majestic cave here. It is a two storied monastery supported by many columns and terraces. The cave contains beautiful sculptures of dancing women, royal entourage, and musical instruments.

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The Ganesha Gumpha is one of the rare caves with multiple dwellings and terraces. It is best known for the sculpture of Ganesha that is inscribed on the rear wall of the cave. It also shows a Jain Tirthankara at worship and contains sculptures of elephants.

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The Ganesha Gumpha is ornated with beautiful relief showing the king’s hunting and war expeditions.

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The cave has wonderful acoustics possibly to transmit messages or resonating the recitation of mantras. It was done by using layers of rocks creating hollow space — a marvellous piece of engineering and acoustic feat. My son and I put our heads through one of the holes to find a well laid system! These were also built for drainage of rainwater without affecting the living areas and causing minimal damage to the limestones.

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Hathi Gumpha Inscription

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The main inscription that provides us insight into the reign of King Kharavela of the 1st century BC Kalinga is the one found in the Udayagiri cave called Hathi Gumpha. The Elephant Cave inscription speaks of the glories of the king. It starts with the Namokar Mantra – a sacred chant of the Jains and goes on to describe the king in these terms – “the worshipper of all religious orders, the repairer of all shrines of gods”. The inscription consists of seventeen lines cut out in the Brahmi script.

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The 17 line inscription records the expeditions of king Kharavela including victory of Magadha and retrieval of Jaina cult image taken away by the Nanda king long before.

What is poignant about this inscription is that it faces rock edicts of King Ashoka at Dhauli, some six miles away. The two kings were enemies and Ashoka succeeded in conquering Kalinga. Following this, the patronage of the Jain religion slowly fell away and Buddhism found ascendancy in these parts. Apart from the Hathi Gumpha inscription, there are a number of minor inscriptions in other caves in these complexes.

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Yo, Bahubali!!!

Bhagwan Lal Indraji is credited with the first authentic reading, which he presented before the Sixth International Congress of Orientalists, 1885. It is to be noted here that, Pandit Indraji was the first scholar to declare that the king eulogised in the Hathigumpha inscription was named Kharavela.

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A walk around these rock-cut architectures offers a lot to understand about an ancient era. The detailing and the variety in the creation of each site is wonderful to see. No doubt, these are no less than the famous Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Maharashtra. Especially, for heritage lovers this place is a heaven.

9 comments

  1. Hello Sir, I visited these caves around 9 years back and was simply wowed by it. It is so serene and peaceful there. Wish there was someone who knew Brahmi language! Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I truly believe that Odisha Govt should use your article in their promotion (of tourism) literature. You have exceptional skills in writing travelogue.
    I have been to Bhubaneswar few times (all for work/ business) and missed out visiting this wonderful place. Whenever I go next, this will be in top of my “to-do-list”.

    Liked by 1 person

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