The Udayagiri Caves (23:32:11N 77:46:20E) feature some of the oldest Hindu cave temples. They are located in the city of Vidisha, northeast of Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. They were carved and completed under the patronage of Chandragupta II, Emperor of the Gupta Empire, in the late 4th and 5th century CE. One of India's most important archaeological sites from the Gupta period, it is currently a tourist site under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India.
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 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 site is notable for its ancient monumental relief sculpture of Hindu god Vishnu, in his incarnation as the boar-headed Varaha, rescuing the earth symbolically represented by Bhudevi clinging to the boar's tusk as described in Hindu mythology. The site has important inscriptions of the Gupta dynasty belonging to the reigns of Chandragupta II (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. The complex consists of twenty caves, of which one is dedicated to Jainism and all others to Hinduism.
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 Viṣṇupadagiri, the 'hill of Viṣṇu'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 Viṣṇu'.
The site at Udayagiri Caves was extensively reworked under the patronage of Chandragupta II, who ruled the Gupta Empire between c. 380 and 413/415 CE. Archaeologist Michael D. Willis argued that Chandragupta II did so in order to reflect a new concept of Hindu kingship, in which the monarch was seen as both the paramount sovereign (cakravartin) and the supreme devotee of the god Vișņu (paramabhāgavata).
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 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 Kārttikeya 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 Śiva 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 Śiva broke the fall of the River Gaṅgā 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 (dvārapāla) now damaged and weather-worn.
Cave 5: Varaha
Cave 5 is a shallow niche more than a cave and contains the much-celebrated figure of Vishnu in his Varaha or Boar-headed incarnation. The complex iconography of the tableau has been explained by Debala Mitra. Willis has described the relief as the "iconographic centre-piece of Udayagiri".
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 Śiva liṅga. 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). In the ceiling of the cave is an undated pilgrim record of somebody named Śivāditya. 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 Viṣṇu and of Śiva Gaṅgādhāra, the latter much worn from the falling of water over the image. Of special note is Durgā slaying the Buffalo Demon, one of the earliest representations of the theme in India. Of special note also is the figure of seated Gaṇeśa, 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 Gaṇeśa in India, the arrangement, with a guarded sanctum in the centre, Gaṇeśa 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 anuṣṭubh verse, that the work was composed by Vīrasena, the king's minister, and that he had come here (iha, i.e. Udayagiri) in the company of Chandragupta II who was engaged in a campaign of world conquest. 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) 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 Sankha Lipi indicating they pre-date Gupta times. The inscriptions, which appear to be names in Sanskrit, had not been fully deciphered until recently. 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 Viṣṇu, all of which are damaged.
Cave 12 consists of a niche containing a standing figure of Narasimha or Nṛsiṃha, Viṣṇu 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 Nṛsiṃha there is a short Brahmī inscription.
Cave 13 contains a large figure of Nārāyaṇa, the recumbent figure of Viṣṇu resting. 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.
Beside the image of Nārāyaṇa is a kneeling devotee, and it has been argued that this figure is a depiction of Chandragupta II himself, symbolising his devotion to Viṣṇu.
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 doorjamb is preserved, showing jambs with receding faces but without any relief carving.
Political and historical allegory
In an academic paper on historical and political allegory in Gupta art published in 1983, Frederick M. Asher argued that the depiction of Vāraha at Udayagiri symbolised the unification of Northern India under the rule of Chandragupta II. In this way, Asher argued that Vāraha's rescue of the Earth from the chaos of the cosmic sea echoed Chandragupta II's rescue of Northern India from the political instability and fragmentation that it had experienced prior to the rise of the Gupta Empire. Across much of India during this period, Vāraha had been used as a symbol of royalty, but Asher opined that "nowhere is the allegory stated in such magnificent visual terms" as at Udayagiri.
Asher identified further potential political allegories in two figures depicted on one of the two projecting walls, who were female personifications of Gaṅgā and Yamunā, the rivers that flowed through the heartland of the Gupta Empire. Asher suggested that while these two figures were here depicted flowing into the primeval ocean, Ekavarṇa, from which Vāraha saved the Earth, they also carried with them further political allegory. In Sanskrit, the word for ocean is samudra, and so Asher suggested that to people of the time this might have recalled the name of Samudra Gupta, Chandragupta II's father, who merged many kingdoms into his empire in the same way that the two rivers merged into the ocean. Although not rejecting them, the scholar Michael D. Willis expressed caution in accepting Asher's theories here.
- Fred Kleiner (2012), Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History, Cengage, ISBN 978-0495915423, page 434
- Margaret Prosser Allen (1992), Ornament in Indian Architecture, University of Delaware Press, ISBN 978-0874133998, pages 128-129
- A. Ghosh, An Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology, 2 vols. New Delhi, 1989: s.v. Besnagar.
- The inscriptions are dealt with in J. F. Fleet, Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and their Successors, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, vol. 3 (Calcutta, 1888), hereinafter CII 3 (1888). Some of the records are re-edited, often with mischievous results, in the revised edition, D. R. Bhandarkar et al, Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, vol. 3 (revised) (New Delhi, 1981).
- R. Balasubramaniam, ‘Identity of Chandra and Vishnupadagiri of the Delhi Iron Pillar Inscription: Numismatic, Archaeological and Literary Evidence’, Bulletin of Metals Museum 32 (2000): 42-64; Balasubramaniam and Meera I. Dass, ‘Estimation of the Original Erection Site of the Delhi Iron Pillar at Udayagiri’, IJHS 39.1 (2004): 51-74; ibidem., ‘On the Astronomical Significance of the Delhi Iron Pillar’, Current Science 86 (2004): 1135-42.
- M. Willis, ‘Inscriptions from Udayagiri: Locating Domains of Devotion, Patronage and Power in the Eleventh Century’, South Asian Studies 17 (2001): 41-53.
- Willis 2009. p. 3.
- D. R. Patil, The Monuments of the Udayagiri Hill (Gwalior, 1948).
- Debala Mitra, ’Varāha Cave at Udayagiri – An Iconographic Study’, Journal of the Asiatic Society 5 (1963): 99-103; J. C. Harle, Gupta Sculpture (Oxford, 1974): figures 8-17.
- Willis 2009. p. 79.
- Cunningham, Bhilsa Topes (1854): 150; Thomas, Essays (1858) 1: 246; Cunningham, ASIR 10 (1874-77): 50; Fleet, CII 3 (1888): number 6; Bhandarkar, EI 19-23 (1927-36): appendix, number 1541; Bhandarkar, Chhabra and Gai, CII 3 (1981): number 7; Goyal (1993): number 10. The most recent reading and translation is in Willis, The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 57 ISBN 978-0-521-51874-1.
- Cunningham, ASIR 10 (1874-77): 50, plate xix, number 3; GAR (VS 1988/AD 1931-32): number 5; Dvivedī (VS 2004): number 714.
- Phyllis Granoff, ‘Mahiṣāsuramardinī: An Analysis of the Myths’, East and West 29 (1979): 139-51.
- Willis, The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual, p. 142.
- Parts of the record are re-read and new translations given in Willis, The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual, p. 40.
- Richard Salomon, ‘New Sankalipi (Shell Character) Inscriptions’, Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 11-12 (1986): 109-52. Claims regarding decipherment must be discounted, see Salomon, ‘A Recent Claim to Decipherment of the Shell Script’, JAOS 107 (1987): 313-15; Salomon, Indian Epigraphy (Oxford, 1998): 70
- Willis 2009. p. 35.
- Asher 1983. p. 55–56.
- Asher 1983. p. 57.
- Asher 1983. pp. 56–57.
- Willis 2009. pp. 50–51.
- Academic books and papers
- Asher, Frederick M. (1983). B.L. Smith, eds. "Historical and Political Allegory in Gupta Art". Essays on Gupta Culture (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass). pp. 53–66.
- Willis, Michael (2004). "The Archaeology and Politics of Time". The Vākāṭaka Heritage: Indian Culture at the Crossroads (Groningen: Egbert Forsten). pp. 33–58. ISBN 90-6980-148-5.
- Willis, Michael (2009). The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-51874-1.
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