Caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri – a guided tour with the Emperor Kharavela

I see a young woman (young! well if the adjective does not reflect her age, it definitely reflects her spirit and desire to know more) completely lost while visiting my offering to the world – the famous cave complex of Udayagiri and Khandagiri.

This cave complex is situated around six kilometer west of Bhubaneswar. I live here, this is my abode. I pass my time, observing tourists visiting the complex, their behavior. I secretly listen what they are talking about. No, I am not interested in lover’s sweet talk, their tiff, discussions among numerous family picnickers. I am more interested in scholars visiting the caves and genuine tourists who want to know about these caves.

I notice this lady rejecting the services of a guide at the entrance of the cave and deciding to explore the caves on her own; then I saw her repenting her decision of not hiring the guide as she is unable to make out anything on her own.

Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Luckily, she finds the guide again with an elderly couple and takes his services to know more about the caves. This does not help her as she realizes quickly that the guide is equally ignorant and again repented her decision, this time for taking his services. In the hordes of tourists that come here for picnics, and tourists that come here to click pictures and to claim that ‘I-have-been-there-too’ (some going to the extreme of engraving their names on the stones for the future generations to see and hate them for vandalizing their own heritage), she looks different. After a long long time I feel like coming out of my oblivion and to break my silence of centuries and to take her on a tour of these caves with me.

Well, centuries of silence and seclusion has its effect on me as well. I no longer remember all the facts in details and so while taking her on this tour, I would be sharing with her what I overhear and learnt from the scholars and the archaeologists that occasionally visit the complex. You are smiling! I would be telling my story that I learnt from researchers. It is in-fact funny, but do take it into considerations that this story of mine and this cave complex is many centuries old.

Beautiful Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Beautiful Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Oh, I didn’t tell you about me! Are you able to guess? No! No idea at all! It’s ok, not many people know about me. I am the Emperor Kharavela of Chedi dynasty that ruled this part of Orissa, erstwhile Kingdom of Kalinga in one-hundred-fifty BC. It was during my reign that these monastic caves were excavated in the hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri. Hmm! So now you understand why I am so attached to these caves and today after centuries of silence I decided to speak and show the cave complex to this lady.

Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Jaishree – I am coming out of the cave complex tired and exhausted with the continuous up and down in this bee-hive hill-monument. My exhaustion is mental as well. The callous attitude with which we treat our National heritage monuments is deplorable. Probably the charm of these monuments is there when people know about them and are able to connect with them, but lack of any authentic information hugely disappoints me. I have given hopes of finding any knowledgeable person and so I have lost interest in the monument and now I am observing people around me. My favourite pastime. I notice an old tall gentleman with broad forehead, straight white hairs, regal bearings, having an effusive magnetic personality approaching me.

A double storey cave, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

A double storey cave, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

‘Putri, are you visiting this cave complex for the first time.’, the old man is addressing me.

I reply in affirmation and realize that today I have put my natural guards down and I am talking with a stranger. It had to do with his confidence and affection in his voice.

‘You want to know more about them. Right?’

And without waiting for my reply, he continues, “Unfortunately there is not much information from ASI as well. Please allow me to take you around the cave complex again and I promise that you would not be disappointed.”

Jaishree – I am tired, saturated and have no hopes of finding someone who knows about the monument. I reply, “I would have loved but I have already seen the monument”.

‘Putri, what is your good name’

‘Jaishree’ replies me.

‘Jaishree, it is not quite often that I accompany people and take them on a guided tour. Join me.’ He instructs me in his deep throaty soft voice and starts moving up again.

Manish with Tanmay and Rachit, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Manish with Tanmay and Rachit, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Jaishree – With this suggestion, he starts walking up as if he has no doubt about me joining him. I glance at Manish and Chachiji, and see that both of them are busy with kids. In this trip, Tanmay – the younger boy, was confined to limited space, and here at this vast cave complex he is charged with energy and enthusiasm. Manish is running around following him to ensure that he does not lend himself in some misadventure. Mountains! my two kids are born with a natural affection for them. Once on mountain they appear to be on their home front, liberated, energized and challenged to scale the heights.

Playing together at Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Playing together at Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

With these thoughts, I also realize that I have started following the old gentleman almost hypnotically.

Gentleman – (While climbing-up he casually remarks) In the olden days these hills were referred as Kumara and Kumari hill. It is not known at what time these hills were renamed – Udayagiri (the hill of rising sun) and Khandagiri (the broken hill). The Khandagiri hill is around thirteen feet higher than the Udayagiri hill, whose height is one hundred and ten feet. The twin hills have excavated rock-cut caves, the dwelling retreats of the Jain Munis. There are around eighteen such caves in Udayagiri and fifteen caves in Khandagiri hills. Have you already been to Khandagiri or you started with Udayagiri only?

Jaishree – We have not yet been to Khandagiri, we started with Udayagiri only.

Gentleman – You did the right thing taking care of the sun and also Udayagiri caves are more interesting and important. The native legend is that these hills were once part of the Himalayas. Rishis dug caves into these hills to meditate in solitude. When Lord Rama needed stones for building bridge, Hanuman broke a large part of the Himalaya and carried it over along with its inhabitant. Accidentally this part broke further and fell here and remained here from that time.

Jaishree – I smiled forcibly as these are the things Manish enjoy. I am tired and not walking again with the gentleman to listen fictitious stories.

Gentleman – ‘Putri, let me start the tour with a brief history of this beautiful city. The earliest archaeologists findings reveal human settlement dating fourth century BC. At that time the Kalinga dynasty ruled from the fortified city of Shishupalgarh, nine kilometer south-east of Khandagiri. Slowly the ancient kingdom of Kalinga grew powerful and prosperous through trade from its port of Kalinga Nagar and its colonial influence extended as far as modern Indonesia.

Do you have an idea how powerful this kingdom was? Information from the Greek sources of that time reveal that the kingdom of Kalinga had a huge army and possessed a vast elephant force that generated awe and terror in the minds of its enemies. In-fact Chandragupta Maurya brought entire India under his control except for the powerful Kalinga kings. He never dared invading them.

Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, who ruled in 262 BC then decided to conquer this land of fiercely independent people who were never conquered before. He got stiff resistance. It is believed that even women and children of the Kingdom participated in that war and lost their lives.

लाख तलवारें बढ़ी आती हों गर्दन की तरफ
सर झुकाना नही आता तो झुकाएे कैसे|

The monument that houses the famous inscriptions of Ashoka in Dhauli, Near Bhubaneswar, Odisha

The monument that houses the famous inscriptions of Ashoka in Dhauli, Near Bhubaneswar, Odisha

Ashoka finally crushed their crusade of independence at Dhauli, but at what cost? Historians believe that there was so much bloodshed that the water of Daya River turned red. The message from the people of Kalinga to the victorious Ashoka was loud and clear

मैं नही कहता कि तुझे मेरा सर ना मिलेगा
मेरी आँखों में लेकिन तुझे डर ना मिलेगा|

The number of lost lives, that included women and children, had a deep impact on Ashoka. He was victorious, but victory over whom? Whom he would have governed? A sea of dead people. Could he ever got an acceptance among those who were left behind? His remorse was so strong that he decided never to fight another war. He accepted Buddhism and gave up his imperialistic ambitions. I believe, this realization of futility of wars, infused human qualities in him and raised his stature in history, otherwise who would have considered him, Ashoka the Great!

Jaishree – The gentleman stop for a while and look at me.
“I have been to Dhauli a couple of days back and seen his inscription and also the Daya river”, added me.

This river turned red in Kaliga war

Daya River as seen from Stupa

Gentleman – ‘Do you know in those inscriptions, Ashoka remained silent about the Kalinga war, and also about his powerful adversaries against whom he fought such a relentless war. Ashoka chose to omit everything that reminded his brutality and dreadful conduct in that war.’

Inscriptions on the Orissan rock edict, Dhauli, near Bhubaneswar, Odisha

Inscriptions on the Orissan rock edict, Dhauli, near Bhubaneswar, Odisha

Jaishree – ‘I failed to notice it, but as now you are telling me, I remember that it is true. I am finding your description quite insightful.’

Gentleman (smiles and continues) – There was such a disgust over Magadhan rule that within fifty years of that conquest our ancestors overthrew Magadhan yoke and founded Chedi dynasty. The third king of this dynasty, Mahameghwan Kharavela was the most powerful of all. He was a contemporary to Saatvahan dynasty under whom the gateways of Sanchi were constructed.

The ramp to Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

The ramp to Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Jaishree – I didn’t realize how quickly I climb the ramp following that gentleman listening the history of Orissa. I am now standing in front of the inscriptions at Haathi Gumpha. I notice a special pride in his eyes when he mentioned Chedi Dynasty and the Emperor Kharavela.

Entrance of Hathi Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Entrance of Hathi Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Gentleman – (Pointing his finger towards the inscriptions on the brows of Haathi Gumpha) – Probably these caves would not have deserved any special mention apart its size, had these magnificent inscriptions were not here. These inscriptions were first studied by Mr Stirling in 1830 from an incomplete copy made by colonel Mckenzie. Lieutenant Markham Kittoe prepared an eye-copy of it in 1837 with marvellous exactness and from this copy John Princep published a lithography and translation. After having a close look at these inscriptions, John Princep commented, “All who take interest in Indian antiquities will at once see the value of the above record, perhaps the most curious that has yet been disclosed to us and will lament the irretrievable obscurity in which the dilapidation of ages has involved the greater part of its content.” However, even Princep failed to decipher the name of the king who got these inscriptions engraved.

The inscriptions of Hathi Gumpha, Udayagiri, Odisha

The inscriptions of Hathi Gumpha, Udayagiri, Odisha

This inscription in Brahmi script is fourteen feet long, and six feet broad. It is composed of seventeen lines with each letter being about two inches in length. The face of the rock is not smooth but letters are large and are deeply carved. These rocks are fragile and so the inscription is damaged in several places. Its first six lines are well-preserved, and the last four lines are partly so, still enough of it is left for it to claim its position as the world’s oldest engraved document.

It is now proved beyond doubt that these inscriptions belong to Kharavela period. Unfortunately, it is difficult for anyone to determine the exact time when these inscriptions were scribbled, and thus to find out the time when the Emperor Kharavela ruled this place. Some historians believe that he ruled in second century BC and some think he ruled in first century BC. There is a set of another historians who believe that he ruled in the second quarter of the first century AD. However, the most plausible dates for his reign seems to be around one hundred and fifty-nine BC.’

Jaishree – King Kharavela. Hmm I never heard his name. Was he a powerful monarch?
(The gentleman had a sly smile on his face and he started to speak slowly).

Gentleman – You have not heard about this powerful emperor as these caves are the only source of information about him and also about the Chedi dynasty to which he belonged. Kharavela was a devout follower of Jainism and exhibited equal obsession for military conquests. He conducted several successful military campaigns in North, South and central India, and expanded his control over a vast area. These victories provided him enough capital to finance the elaborate and exquisite carvings in this first cave-temple of Odisha.

(He then pointed his finger towards damaged and neglected inscription in Hathi Gumpha and continued…). This inscription starts with Navkar Mantra and then talks about king Kharavela from his birth till thirty-eight years of his life. For the first fifteen years of his life, he led a carefree life of a kid who was engrossed in sports and other amusements. For the next nine years he learnt writing, painting, literature, mathematics, accounts and the laws. In this period, he became Yuvaraja and at the age of twenty-four he ascended to throne and was entrusted with the sovereignty of Kalinga.

Line by line translation of Kharavela's rock book at Udayagiri Cave complex, Odisha

Line by line translation of Kharavela’s rock book at Udayagiri Cave complex, Odisha

In the initial years of his rule, he focused on making his capital strong by repairing gates, ramparts and the palace that suffered weathering. He also trained himself in science of dance and music and delighted citizens of Kalinga by organizing festive parties and gatherings of danseuse, singers and musicians.

The next set of translation of the hathi gumpha inscription, Udayagiri cave complex, Odisha

The next set of translation of the hathi gumpha inscription, Udayagiri cave complex, Odisha

He invaded Saatvahana kingdom and captured its territories. He defeated the Tamil confederacy that existed in that region for more than three-hundred years. A rival king, who earlier killed another king and was harassing the king of Rajagrih, fled away even without any fight just hearing about Kharavela’s attack on him. He successfully encountered invading Greeks and also made two invasions in Magadh. In this inscription he has also mentioned how in one of these raids, he got the possession of a sacred statue of Jain Tirthankara that belonged to Nanda dyanasty, the predecessors of Maurya dynasty. I would say, “The attack was a fitting reply to once powerful dynasty that shattered our lives”.

‘Putri’ along with the text you would observe the Jain religious symbols of Nandipada, Srivatsa, Swastika, Snake and Lotus. Most of these symbols are considered sacred in all ancient religions of India, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Apart from this inscription as there is no other artwork so this cave is believed to be the oldest cave of the complex.

The translation of last lines of Kharavela's Inscriptions at Udayagiri Cave complex, Odisha

The translation of last lines of Kharavela’s Inscriptions at Udayagiri Cave complex, Odisha

Jaishree – (The history was interesting. And, more than the history I am bowled over by the beautiful Hathi Gumpha, a natural cavern that was enlarged and expanded by artificial cutting. I wonder it is probably called hathi-gumpha due to its size. It is huge enough to accommodate a congregation of around sixty or seventy monks. It is a large irregular cave with two small caves of four feet on the two side of the entrance. These two caves have a small entrance that can only admit small size man crawling inside. However there is no sculptures or architectural ornaments to appreciate. The imagination of these caves in the Monsoon season when heavy rain-water fall may act as a curtain mesmerize me. It might be a sight to watch.)

Beautiful Hathi Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Beautiful Hathi Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Is there any mention of Ashoka in these inscriptions? Gentleman’s reference of revenge made me curious about any mention of bitter feelings about Ashoka, in Kharavela’s inscriptions.

Gentleman – There is no mention. However, the proximity of these inscriptions to that of Ashoka, and still no mention of him do generate some speculations among the scholars. The most common belief among these scholars is that these inscriptions were engraved in this hill, which is very close to Dhaulagiri (where Ashoka’s inscriptions are discovered) to prove supremacy of Kharavela over Ashoka and to erase bitter memories of defeat of that bloody war. The deliberate omission of any reference to Kalinga war and Ashoka, was probably intended not to re-open those old wounds of deep hurt and resentment over the bitter memories of cruel Magadhan invasion. In-fact appalled at the carnage, during the reign of Kharavela, Buddhism declined and Jainism became the faith of the people.

The laterite rocks of Udayagiri Hill, Odisha

The laterite rocks of Udayagiri Hill, Odisha

Gentleman – Putri, have you noticed that the excavation of these caves is not done in a planned manner? These caves were dug where the stone permitted and were left uncut where it resisted. Actually, these hills are formed of coarse-grained porous and brittle sandstone that rose over laterite terrain. Sandstone being a soft stone is easy to excavate, but it is brittle and porous. Its brittleness makes it an unfit candidate for intricate carvings and its porosity makes it vulnerable to weathering. You might have noticed that most of the carvings are in bad shape due to weathering.

Pavan Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Pavan Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Jaishree – While listening to the gentleman, I am also looking around. Immediately to the north of elephant cave is the Paavan Gumpha meaning a sacred cave. Around Haathi Gumpha there is another small cave by the name “Baagh Gumpha”. Its exterior is cut into the shape of a tiger’s open mouth. Its distant jaws form the the verendah of the cave and the head is remarkably well-formed by the effect of the excellent chiseling work. The entrance to this cave is carved at the position of the gullet of the tiger. Towards the west of the Hathi Gupmha is a rude carving of the head of a three hooded cobra – The Sarpa Gumpha or the Serpent Gumpha. The cubical cell inside is quite small. The Tiger and Serpent caves are considered the oldest sculpted caves of the complex.

Tiger Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Tiger Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Sarpa Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Sarpa Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Once these caves might have reverberated with the religious chanting of ‘Navkar Mantra’ but at this time it is echoing with the joys and shrills of Tanmay and Rachit. They are entering and sitting in the caves imitating ascetics, sometimes peeping from the small openings of the cave with amazement and appreciation.

Tanmay in Pavan Gumpa, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Tanmay in Pavan Gumpa, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

I wonder, what might have attracted monks to meditate here. Probably such small confined spaces helped them in getting maximum concentration.

Author’s note: As small spaces helps in getting maximum concentration, similarly, writing anything lengthier than the current article may pose a danger of losing you, my readers, so I stop here. I would be taking you to the tour of Rani Cave and Ganesha Cave(the two most beautiful caves of the complex, so remain tuned and do continue the trip in the second and concluding part).

Series NavigationRani Gumpha, Ganesha Gumpha and other caves of Udayagiri, Orissa >>

1 Comment

  1. I read this interesting portion about Ashoka in shiv-visvanathan review of Sanjeev Sanyal’s recent book – “The Ocean Of Churn”

    Looking forward to read the book.
    “Sanyal is devastating in his dismantling of Ashoka as a legend, contending that the construction of an inflated Ashoka is recent nationalist fiction. He also sardonically suggests that historians should visit the places they talk about and read the local edicts more carefully. He argues that Ashoka did not become Buddhist after his genocides in battle but as a tactical political response to his Jain opponents. In fact, he observes that Ashoka proceeded with his brutality long after the battle of Kalinga. The author suggests the edicts were propaganda and adds that none of the texts in Orissa link his conversion to the war.”

    I agree with Sanyal about the missing information about Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism after the war in Orissa, it is not mentioned in the edicts found at Dhaulagiri. Seems strange if it is reality.

    Do I believe in tactical conversion theory?
    History is always about interpretations and sometimes extreme interpretations are countered by other extreme interpretations. The reality may lie in anywhere on the scale or it may be something else as well. Enjoy the counter arguments 🙂

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