A trip to the Udayagiri caves near Bhopal

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If you are travelling to Sanchi to visit the UNESCO world heritage site Sanchi Stupa, then don’t hesitate to travel a bit further and visit the Udayagiri caves. The place is home to some 20 rock cut cave temples carved out on a hill during the Gupta period in the 5th century AD and just 8 kilometers from Sanchi . It is very important to mention here that the very name of the place might confuse you as rock cut cave temples with the same name (of the famous Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves)  also exist in Odisha. The Udayagiri cave temple complex we are talking about is about 57 kilometers from Bhopal in the Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh. 

Udayagiri caves complex remains a destination that is less travelled for obvious reasons.  In a region that boasts places like Sanchi , Bhopal, Bhimbetka, and Bhojeshwar, to name a few, a tourist may decide to skip Udayagiri. However, if you delve a little deeper into the history of Udayagiri, it quickly becomes obvious that Udayagiri is more than just a few rock-cuts. I had the opportunity to visit this little gem of Madhya Pradesh last month and the experience turned out to be one awesome. I found the rock cut cave temples here are well protected by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI)

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History of Udayagiri Caves

The Udayagiri Caves were built under the patronage of Chandragupta II, who is generally known to have reigned the Gupta Empire in central India during 380-414 CE. The Udayagiri Caves were built in the late 4th century and dedicated in 401 CE.

Archaeological excavations in the 20th century on mounds between Vidisha rampart and Udayagiri have produced evidence that indicate Udayagiri and Vidisha once had a contiguous human settlement zone. Udayagiri hills would have been a Vidisha suburb located near the confluence of two rivers. The Udayagiri Caves are possibly colloquially referred to in Kalidasa’s work Meghaduta in section 1.25 as the “Silavesma on the Nicaih hill,” or the Vidisha elites’ pleasure spot on the caves-filled hill.

Udayagiri Caves
Ugayagiri caves, PC: Kalpana Mishra

Between the 5th and 12th centuries, the Udayagiri site was important to Hindu pilgrims as sacred geography. This is demonstrated by a number of deciphered inscriptions in scripts. Some inscriptions from the 9th to the 12th century, for example, relate land transfers to the temple, an old tradition that generated funding for the conservation and running of important temples. These do not include any well-known rulers.

 Some of these inscriptions mention grants from people who may have been regional chiefs, while others read like normal citizens who cannot be traced to any text or other inscriptions in Central India. One Sanskrit inscription, for example, is a pilgrim named Damodara’s record dated 1179 CE who made a donation to the temple. 

According to some historians, the iron pillar in the courtyard of Quwwat-ul-Islam at the Qutb Minar site in Delhi was originally located at Udayagiri. Most historians agree that the Delhi pillar was moved to Delhi from another faraway place in India, however they disagree on the site or when this relocation took place. If the Udayagiri source theory is correct, it means that the site was raided, and artefacts were damaged and removed during an invasion of the region by Delhi Sultanate armies, possibly those of Sultan Iltutmish, in or about the early 13th century.

Udayagiri Caves
Rock inscription at Udayagiri, PC: Kalpana Mishra

The archeological aspects of the Udayagiri caves were studied by Sir Alexander Cunningham who reported about his findings for the first time in the 1870s. His site and iconography-related report was published in Volume 10 of the Archaeological Survey of India’s Tour Reports, while the inscriptions and drawings of the Lion Capital at the site were published in Volume 1 of the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicum.

 His remarks that Udayagiri is an exclusively Hindu and Jain-related site, its proximity to the Buddhist site of Sanchi and the Bhagavata-related Heliodorus pillar, and his dating parts of the site to between the 2nd and early 5th centuries CE, brought it to scholarly attention.

Must Read: Bhojeshwar temple: The unfinished masterpiece of Bhopal

Journey to Udayagiri caves

As I have said earlier you must club your Sanchi visit with Udayagiri Caves which is only 8 kilometers away. So when you are done with visiting the iconic Sanchi Stupa, it is time you head towards Udayagiri caves. There are not many options to reach the place. If you have come with your own or hired vehicle, you can head straight for Udayagiri caves. The only other option is to take an auto rickshaw which costs you Rs 300. There is no bus connectivity to the place. I settled for the auto rickshaw as I had travelled to Sanchi by bus. 

A narrow, but decent motorable road takes you to the site in just 20 minutes. The journey is short, but quite enjoyable as you travel amidst the green fields with the standing crop en route to your destination. Udayagiri caves are located by the road side of the village on the foothills of Udayagiri hills also known as Vishnupadagiri. My auto driver Jubel Ali was a young decent chap and quite a knowledgeable person. He suggested that I visit the place where Tropic of Cancer (Kark Rekha) passes through during my return trip to Bhopal.

Though I had read about the Tropic of Cancer passing somewhere near Bhopal, I had completely forgotten about it. Thank you Jubel for reminding and suggesting the place. You made my day. Those wishing to travel to Udayagiri caves can contact at Jubel at 06263154486.

Udayagiri Caves
PC: Kalpana Mishra

The Udayagiri Caves

After you have entered the cave temple complex,  a decent pathway flanked by thick bamboo forest on the foothills leads you to the caves situated some 200 meters away from the entrance gate. Udayagiri’s cave-shrines are carved all around a wide, uneven platform of rock on one side of twin hills. The two hills are joined by a saddle-shaped ridge and rise approximately 110 metres. There are no ‘caves’ here in reality. What are commonly referred to as “caves” are actually carved structures in the northern hill formed by natural depressions caused by overhanging rocks.

The complex is home to 20 rock cut cave shrines including one dedicated to Jainism. The iconography of the Udayagiri caves features Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaktism (Durga and Matrikas), and Shaivism (Shiva). However, the showstopper of the cave complex is the giant standing figure with the head of a wild boar and the body of a man. This is Varaha, an avatar of the god Vishnu who is said to have saved the earth during the mythological churning of the seas for nectar. The woman the Varaha balances on its snout is a symbol of Bhudevi, or Mother Earth. 

A closed cave, PC: Kalpana Mishra

The caves typically have square or near-square floor plans. Many are small, but according to Alexander Cunningham, they were possibly larger because their fronts exhibited traces of a structural mandapa on pillars. Some caves such as 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 13 have the most number of sculptures while few others have inscriptions. Some caves are closed, but you can view the interior through the grilled door. 

Let’s take a walking tour of the cave shrines——

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Cave 1

Cave 1 is the southernmost cave and a false cave because one of its sides and front are not natural rock but were built in. Its roof is built into the natural ledge of the rock. Its moulding style is identical to that of the Tigawa Hindu temple. The mandapa inside the temple is a square with a 7-foot (2.1-meter) side, and the sanctuary is 7-foot-by-6-foot. Cunningham noticed four square pillars outside. A deity was etched into the rock wall on the cave’s back wall, but this was later damaged by chiselling. The iconographic marks are no longer there, and the god is unknown.

Udayagiri Caves
Cave 3, PC: Kalpana Mishra

Cave 3   

The first of the centre group or cluster of shrines and reliefs is Cave 3. It has a simple entrance as well as a sanctum. There are traces of two pilasters on each side of the entrance, and a deep horizontal cutting above indicates that there was a portico (mandapa) in front of the shrine. On a monolithic platform inside is a rock-cut sculpture of Skanda, the war god. The plinth’s mouldings and spout are now damaged. Skanda’s sculpture has been vandalised, with his staff or club and limbs damaged and gone. Skanda’s weight is evenly distributed on both legs, as seen by the surviving remnants, which depict an immensely powerful torso.

Udayagiri Caves
Ekamukha Linga, Cave 4, PC: Kalpana Mishra

Cave 4 

Cunningham dubbed Cave 4 the Vina cave. It contains both Shaiva and Shakti elements. It is a 14×12 feet excavated temple. The cave has a style that suggests it was built in tandem with the other caves. The entrance structure is simple, but it is flanked by three bands of intricate carvings. In one of these bands, a man playing the lute is shown in a circular boss to the left of the door, while another boss to the right depicts another man playing the Vina. Ganga and Yamuna, the river goddess, flank the entryway on two short pilasters with bell capitals.

The sanctum of the temple is devoted to Shiva, and it houses an ekamukha linga, or a linga with a face etched on it. Matrikas thrive outside its entrance, in what was once a mandapa and is now the eroded remnants of a courtyard (mother goddesses).

Udayagiri Caves
Lord Vishnu, Varaha Avatara, Cave 5, PC: Sudeep K Guru

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Cave 5

This cave is more of a shallow niche than a cave and it features the much-celebrated colossal Varaha panel of Udayagiri Caves. The narrative is that of Vishnu in his Varaha or man-boar avatar rescuing goddess Earth from a crisis. Michael Willis famously referred to the relief as the “iconographic center-piece of Udayagiri.” 

The Varaha panel depicts the Goddess Earth (Bhudevi) in an existential crisis after being assaulted and kidnapped by the oppressive demon Hiranyaksha, where neither she nor the life she supports can endure. In the cosmic ocean, she’s drowning and overwhelmed. Vishnu appears in a human-boar avatar. As the tradition goes, he dips into the ocean, finds her, she grasps his tusk, and he lifts her to safety.

Udayagiri Caves
Cave 6, PC: Kalpana Mishra

Cave  6

This cave shrine is just beside the Cave 5 and depicts all the three major Hindu sects like Vaishnavism, Shaivaism and Shaktism. The sanctum door is flanked by guardians. Vishnu and Shiva Gangadhara figures are on either side. There is also goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura, the buffalo demon carved in the cave. This is one of the earliest renderings of the Durga mythology in a cave shrine. 

A seated Ganesha figure to the left of the entrance and a rectangular niche with seated goddesses to the right are equally noteworthy in this cave. The coexistence of all three major traditions within the same temple is also remarkable, as it suggests the norm for temple space in following centuries.

Udayagiri Caves
Inverted Lotus carving in Cave 8, PC: Kalpana Mishra

Cave 8

 Cunningham dubbed this cave the Tava cave. The reason for this is that from the outside, the flat roof resembles the Tava (Indian griddle). Though the cave is badly damaged, there are historical inscriptions in Sanskrit inside it dating back to Chandragupta Vikramaditya and his minister Virasena’s visit. The empty hollow ruins outside the cave indicate that there was a mandapa outside this cave.

You can see the famous early 5th-century Sanskrit inscriptions in this cave that can be found on the cave’s back wall. It is five lines long and composed in Vedic metre. Some of the inscriptions have been damaged. Another highlight of the cave is the carved inverted lotus on the ceiling. 

Udayagiri Caves, PC: Kalpana Mishra

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Caves 9-11 

You can find these three caves just beside Cave 8 and are minor excavations. All three are next to each other. Their entrances face north-northwest, and all feature damaged Vishnu carvings. Caves 9 and 10 are rectangular niche-like openings, whereas Cave 11 is a bit larger and has a square shape. Cave 10, the middle one, is a little higher in height.

Cave 12

Cave 12 is a Vaishnavism-related cave noted for a niche featuring a standing statue of Narasimha or Vishnu’s man-lion avatar. Two standing figures of Vishnu flank the Narasimha carving below. As per Hindu belief, as and when there is disorder in the society, Vishnu will be born as an avatar to restore order.

Udayagiri Caves
Lord Vishnu Anantashayana, Cave 13, PC: Sudeep K Guru

Cave 13

You can see a massive Anantasayana panel in Cave 13 depicts a resting figure of Vishnu as Narayana. Two men stand below Vishnu’s leg, one a larger kneeling devotee in namaste pose and the other a smaller standing figure behind him. The kneeling figure is usually cited as Chandragupta II, demonstrating his devotion to Vishnu. Virasena, his minister, is most likely the other figure.

Cave 14, PC: Kalpana Mishra

Cave 14

 As you walk along you come to Cave 14 which is the last cave on the left side of the passage near the top. It is made up of a recessed square room with just two sides surviving. The chamber’s form can be seen in the floor, with a water channel punched through the wall on one side, as in the other caves at the site. One side of the door jamb has been intact, revealing door sills with receding faces but no relief carving.

Udayagiri caves
PC:Photo Dharma/Wikipedia

Cave 19

Cave 19 is also known as the “Amrita Cave.” It is close to the village of Udayagiri. It is the largest cave in the Udayagiri Caves complex, measuring 22 feet in length and 19.33 feet in width. It includes four large square-section, 8-foot-high (2.4-meter) pillars that support the roof. 

You can see the capitals of the pillars are artistically adorned with four horned and winged animals standing on their hind legs with their forefeet touching their mouths. According to Cunningham, the cave’s roof is divided “into nine square panels by the facades passing over the four pillars.” Given the structural evidence in the type of ruins, the temple was most likely much larger with its mandapa in front.

The cave includes a Sanskrit inscription in Nagari script dated 1036 CE by a common pilgrim named Kanha, who donated resources to the temple and expresses his devotion to Visnu in the inscription.

Cave 20

This  is the only cave dedicated to Jainism in the Udayagiri Caves complex. It is perched on the northwestern edge of the hills. The image of the Jain tirthankara Parshvanatha sitting under a serpent hood stands at the entrance. The cave is divided into five rectangular rooms with stacked stones, measuring 50 feet in length and about 16 feet in depth. The southern room leads to another excavated area with three rooms. An eight-line Sanskrit inscription is found in the northern rooms of the cave.

Tropic of Cancer (Kark Rekha) near Bhopal

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 Tropic of Cancer (Kark Rekha)

Tropic of Cancer or Kark Rekha passes through near the village of Chhola on the road connecting Bhopal and Vidisha. It is 30 kilometers from Bhopal and 18 kilometers from Sanchi. Sign boards are present on both sides of the road. So, you can easily spot the place. Udayagiri caves are just a few kilometers north of the tropic of cancer. As suggested by our auto driver I visited the place during my return journey to Bhopal.

Normally, when travelling from south to north, most of us cross the Tropic of Cancer, but this location has been designed so that one can stop and take a few pictures before continuing.

Tropic of Cancer is an imaginary line, at an angle of 23.50 degrees North from the Equator, that passes through the middle of India. If you run this imaginary line around Earth (Yes, Flat-Earthlings, the Earth is spherical), it passes through 17 countries, India being one of them.

 The Tropic of Cancer passes through eight states in India: Gujarat (Jasdan), Rajasthan (Kalinjarh), Madhya Pradesh (Shajapur), Chhattisgarh (Sonhat), Jharkhand (Lohardaga), West Bengal (Krishnanagar), Tripura (Udaipur) and Mizoram (Champhai). In that order.

Udayagiri caves
Cave 6, PC: Kalpana Mishra

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Travel Tips

  • To visit Udayagiri caves, you have to reach Bhopal first. To reach Bhopal either you take a flight or a train. The Raja Bhoja International Airport in Bhopal has good connectivity of flights from all major cities of India. Bhopal Junction is also a major railway station and is directly connected to all major small and big cities in the country. Udayagiri is about 57 kilometers from Bhopal. To reach there you can hire a taxi or if you are travelling on budget, you can take a bus to Sanchi and then travel to Udayagiri by auto rickshaw.. Udayagiri is just 8 kilometers away from Sanchi.
  • Udayagiri is a small village and thus accommodation facilities are not available here. You should stay in Bhopal where you can get a hotel according to your budget. It is also a good idea to stay in Bhopal as it will be easier for you to explore nearby places like the world heritage sites Sanchi Stupa and Bhimbetka Rock Shelters which are not far from Bhopal. Bhojeshwar temple, Udayagiri caves and the Raisen fort are other attractions near Bhopal.
  • The best time to visit the Udayagiri Caves is during the winter months of October – March. This is because during the summer months it gets very hot in Madhya Pradesh and it is not very conducive to travel. Moreover, the caves themselves get fairly humid and this may get quite uncomfortable during the searing summer months.
  • Entry fee for Indian nationals is Rs 25 per person while for foreigners it is Rs 300.
  • Take enough water and some snacks with you as you won’t get anything once inside the cave complex. 
  • There are two other cave sites in India with the same name as Udayagiri. One is in Rajgir of Bihar and the other near Bhubaneswar in Odisha. So, don’t confuse these caves with the other two.   .

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