Udaigiri Caves

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Udayagiri caves are archaeological caves near Vidisha, carved when the city was a provincial capital of the Gupta Empire (4th- 5th century AD). The site is near present Vidisha in Vidisha district, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India, and under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India and is of utmost importance for the history of India and the Gupta empire. Udayagiri consists of a substantial U-shaped plateau immediately next to the River Bes. Located a short distance from the earthen ramparts of ancient Besnagar, Udayagiri is about 4 km from the modern town of Vidisha and about 13 km from the Buddhist site of Sanchi. Udayagiri is best known for a series of rock-cut sanctuaries and images excavated into hillside in the early years of the fifth century CE. The most famous sculpture is the monumental figure of Vishu in his incarnation as the boar-headed Varaha. The site has important inscriptions of the Gupta dynasty belonging to the reigns of Chandragupta I (c. 375-415) and Kumaragupta I (c. 415-55). In addition to these remains, Udayagiri has a series of rock-shelters and petroglyphs, ruined buildings, inscriptions, water systems, fortifications and habitation mounds, all of which have been only partially investigated.

There are a number of places in India with the same name, the most notable being the mountain called Udayagiri at Rajgir in Bihar and the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves in Orissa.

Historic name

The name of the site in ancient times is not directly attested. Udayagiri, literally the 'mountain of the sunrise', first appears in inscriptions of the eleventh century and it is now the name attached to a small village at the foot of the hill. Some historians have suggested that the iron pillar at Delhi originally stood at Udayagiri. If true, the inscription on the pillar shows that Udayagiri was called Vi??upadagiri, the 'hill of Vi??u's foot-prints' in the fifth century CE. This is supported by an inscription in one of the Udayagiri caves (Cave 19) reporting that the devotee who repaired the shrine 'bows forever to the feet of Vi??u'.

Caves, sculptures and inscriptions

The caves at Udayagiri were numbered in the nineteenth century from south to north by Alexander Cunningham but a more detailed system was introduced by the Department of Archaeology, Gwalior State. Due to the changes, the exact numbering sequence is debated, in part because many of the caves are little more than shallow niches or empty chambers. Most visitors will be interested in the sculptures, architecture and inscriptions found at Caves 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 13, the numbering of which is now generally accepted.

Cave 1, the only substantial residue on the southern part of Udayagiri hill, has a frontage adapted out of a natural ledge of rock, thus forming both the root of the cave and its portico. The row of four pillars bear the ‘vase and foliage’ pattern of which the eminent art historian Percy Brown so eloquently says: “the Gupta capital typifies a renewal of faith, the water nourishing the plant trailing from its brim, and allegory which has produced vase and flower motif, one of the most graceful forms in Indian architecture”.

 Cave 4, Siva linga

Cave 3 is the first of the central group or cluster of shrines and reliefs. It consists of an irregularly finished cella with a plain entrance. Traces of two pilasters are seen on both sides of the entrance and there is a deep horizontal cutting above which shows that there was some sort of portico in front of the shrine. Inside there is a rock-cut image of Karttikeya or Skanda, the war god, on a monolithic plinth. The mouldings and spout of the plinth are now damaged. The figure, with an impressive muscular torso, stands with his weight equally on both legs; one of the hands holds the remains of a staff or club. The broad square face is typical of the early fifth-century style of figural sculpture.

 Cave 4 has a rectangular cella with a rock-cut plinth in which is set a spectacular Siva linga. The hair is tied up into a topknot with long locks cascading down each side. The arrangement of the hair recalls the story of how Siva broke the fall of the River Ga?ga as the waters came down from heaven. There is a water channel in the plinth and in the floor of the chamber leading to a hole that pierces in the cave wall. The cave is entered through an entrance of exquisite proportions with delicately-carved floral scrolls. The lintel of the door extends beyond the jambs to create a T-shape, a common characteristic of early temple architecture. Unlike most doors, however, the frame consists only of square moulding, identical on the top and sides. The base of the jambs and the sill are modern replacements. Externally, the cave is flanked by rock-cut pilasters and two guardians (dvarapala) now damaged and weather-worn.

 Cave 5, Vishu as Varaha, detail showing the earth goddess carried on the god's tusk

 Cave 5 is a shallow niche more than a cave and contains the much-celebrated figure of Vi??u in his Varaha or Boar-headed incarnation. The complex iconography of the tableau has been explained by Debala Mitra.

 Cave 6 is directly beside Cave 5 and consists of rock-cut cella entered through an elaborate T-shaped door. The original image inside is missing but it was probably a Siva li?ga. Outside the cave is a panel with an inscription recording the creation of the 'meritorious gift' (deyadharma), probably the cave and the adjacent images, in Gupta year 82 (401 CE).[7] In the ceiling of the cave is an undated pilgrim record of somebody named Sivaditya. The door guardians flanking the entrance are regarded by art historians as among the most powerful works of early Gupta sculpture. Beside them, on either side, are figures of Vi??u and of Siva Ga?gadhara, the latter much worn from the falling of water over the image. Of special note is Durga slaying the Buffalo Demon, one of the earliest representations of the theme in India. Of special note also is the figure of seated Ga?esa, to the left of the cave entrance, and the rectangular niche with seated goddesses, located to the right. Aside from this being the oldest datable Ga?esa in India, the arrangement, with a guarded sanctum in the centre, Ga?esa on one side and the mother goddesses on the other, presages the arrangement of temple space in subsequent centuries.

 Cave 8 is slightly to the north and east of the Cave 6 cluster. It is excavated into a dome-shaped rock surmounted by massive horizontal slab. The curious form was created by the natural erosion of the rock over time (the ashlar supports of the slab were added sometime in the 1930s by the Department of Archaeology, Gwalior State). Two abraded figures guard the entrance to the inner chamber. Inside, the cave is empty apart from a lotus carved in the ceiling and a damaged inscription on the back wall. The inscription is a record of great historical importance. It states, in anu??ubh verse, that the work was composed by Virasena, the king's minister, and that he had come here (iha, i.e. Udayagiri) in the company of Candragupta II who was engaged in a campaign of world conquest.[11] Amongst all the Gupta inscriptions and antiquities, this is the only record that documents the actual presence of a Gupta king at a particular place.

 The Passage, which starts beside Cave 8, is a unique feature of Udayagiri. It consists of a natural cleft or canyon in the rock running approximately east to west. The passage has been subject to series of modifications and additions, the sets of steps cut into the floor being the most conspicuous feature. The lowest set of steps on the right hand side is visibly water-worn and evidently served as a water-cascade in historic times. Shell inscriptions (so-called by modern epigraphy specialists because of their shell-like shape) are engraved on the upper walls of the passage are the largest examples of this kind of writing known in India. The images of the fifth century cut through the shell letters indicating they pre-date Gupta times. The inscriptions, which appear to be names in Sanskrit, have not been fully deciphered. The upper walls of the passage have large notches at several places, indicating that stone beams and slabs were used to roof over parts of the passage, giving it a significantly different appearance from what can be seen today. In terms of sculpture, the passage has a series of niches and caves, numbered 9 through 14. Only a few contain sculptures, mostly of standing Vi??u, all of which are damaged.

 Cave 12 consists of a niche containing a standing figure of Narasimha or N?si?ha, Vi??u in his 'Lion-man' incarnation. Below on either side are two small standing attendant figures. The images cut through a shell character about two meters in height. In the floor below N?si?ha there is a short Brahmi inscription.

 Cave 13, detail of the recumbent figure of Naraya?a

 Cave 13 contains a large figure of recumbent Vi??u or Narayana. Before the niche are two shallow recess in the floor. These received pillar bases for some sort of porch. There is a shallow vertical recess above the cave, matched by a similar recess in the opposite cliff face, suggesting that there was some sort of architectural curtain wall across the passage at this point. The cave has received a modern in screen, a great disfigurement. Below the image is a knelling devotee, probably Candragupta II.

 Cave 14, the last cave on the left hand side at the top of the passage. It consists of a recessed square chamber of which only two sides are preserved. The outline of the chamber is vissible in the floor, with a water channel pierced through the wall on one side as in the other caves at the site. One side of the door jamb is preserved, showing jambs with receding faces but without any relief carving.

The spurts of creative outpourings of the Guptas were legendary and served as the hallmark of the dynasty. If you want to have a rich glimpse of architectural legerdemain of the Guptas, just check out the Udaigiri Caves of Madhya Pradesh. 13 km from the stupa-crowned hillock of Sanchi and 4 km from the town of Vidisha, are a group of 20 rock-cut Gupta cave shrines believed to be the abodes of Buddhist monks in 2nd century BC. Sculpted into a sandstone hill, they truly beautify the landscape of the place.

According to an inscription etched on one of these caves, they trace their origin to the imperial rule of Chandragupta II (382-401 AD). If we go by this fact, we can predict their existence to 4th -5th century AD. These cave sanctuaries comprises of both Hindu and Jain caves that run in sequence, one after the other. Two of these are Jain caves and the rest are all Hindu caves. They evoke pictures of Gupta regime and possess all the archetypal characteristics that gave Gupta art its unique vitality and fervor.

The aesthetic way of expressing art and enlivening monuments with inventive designs by the Guptas, deeply resonate in these structures. Skillfully molded capitals and the inimitable treatment of inter-columniation define the traits of their artistic manifestation. Moreover, the beautifully adorned entranceway and richly carved facades and doorways of the caverns are one of the best representations of art in India. The caves are also assigned numbers, probably listing the sequence in which they were excavated.

 Cave 1, the Rani Gumpha or 'Queen's Cave', is around the corner. The pillars, arches and the rear of the courtyard, on the lower level, exhibit beautiful sculptures. On the back wall of the upper story, one can also see a decorative frieze that shows animals and other communal scenes. Caves 3 and 4 are double-storied and contain sculptures of a lion ensnaring a prey, elephants with snakes swathed around them and pillars emblazoned with many mythical-looking winged animals.

Apart from these festooning, one can also notice impressive carvings of Lord Vishnu here. These strictures invest the place with spirituality. Cave 5 has an elaborate image of Vishnu in his boar incarnation, with a frieze of Gods decked above. Cave 20 has Jain carvings and Cave 9 has pillars in its hall. Besides, the ruins of the 6th century Gupta temple, perched atop the summit of a hill, highlight the antiquity of the place. While on a trip to Ujjain, make sure that you visit these stupendous caves at Udaigiri, to witness true art from close quarters...

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