Rani Gumpha, Ganesha Gumpha and other caves of Udayagiri, Orissa

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Odisha Odyssey

(In the previous article, you have read how Jaishree’s curiosity to know more about the Udayagiri Cave Complex forced Emperor Kharavela to come out of oblivion and take her to the guided tour of the complex)

Jaishree – From Elephant Cave, we move towards a series of caves. There are rudimentary shelves cut into these caves. The shape of these shelves reflect that probably the monks and used those shelves to pile their sacred scriptures (on palm leaves).The only luxury I notice in these caves is the slightly raised floor towards the rear to give the comfort of a pillow. Even that might not be for a comfort but to avoid any accumulation of rain water in the cells. Some shelves are there in the walls of the verendah, probably to keep the other necessary personal things. There are stone hinges that serve the dual purpose of a curtain rod holders and also helpe in transmitting load of roofs on the pillar. Interiors of most of these caves is stark and plain, only in some caves the outer facade and brackets have carved ornamentation. Most of the caves in this complex consists of a row of cells that open either directly to a verendah or to the open spaces in front. Most of them are single storey, but there are double storey caves as well.

Cave Complex of Udayagiri, Odisha

Cave Complex of Udayagiri, Odisha


The gentleman is allowing me, without any haste, to silently observe and appreciate these caves. We are now around Cave 1 – the Rani-Gumpha and the gentleman starts speaking again.

Cave 1, Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Cave 1, Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Gentleman – This two storey cave complex is the largest and is among the best preserved one. It is also known as Rani’s Naur, Queen’s Palace and as the placard suggests Rani Gumpha. This double-storey monastery consists of a large rectangular courtyard with cells on three sides, the fourth and the south-eastern side is open. The original design included a rail or a small wall with an entrance gate in the middle.

The caves on the three-sides are apparently double storey but they are not built one above the other; the upper floors are pushed slightly backward. This is done to avoid placing the upper structures on the hollows of perforated rocks and to provide them strength and stability of solid foundation. This need was necessitated by the soft and the fragile nature of these rocks.

The ceiling over the verendah in front of the lower floor is slightly arched with a rise of about six inches in the centre . This gives strength to the roof and also prevent any leakage in the centre. The whole surface is cut smooth and there are no ribs, beams or rafters indicating that the architects did not imitate the wooden model. And this is true about all the caves in Udayagiri. On the contrary there are striking similarities with the arched convex ceilings of mud huts of Eastern India. The verendah roofs are supported by non-functional architraves and rested on pillars, similar to bamboo or wooden posts of a hut.

Engravings in Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Engravings in Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Gentleman – This cave has wonderful acoustics(pointing towards a seat excavated from a rock). Possibly king Kharavela sat here along with his queen and enjoyed the performances. Please sit here and listen to me.”

Jaishree – After indicating us to take a rock-seat, the gentleman quickly moves towards the central cell. He recites ‘Navkar Mantra’ there. What a clear sound. I can hear the voice as if someone is reciting the mantra just sitting next to me.

Gentleman returns back and asks, so how do you find the acoustics?

Jaishree – Wonderful. What kind of performances took places here? Any idea?

Gentleman – Difficult to guess. Some people believe that Rani-Gumpha was a venue for festive celebrations, days and nights of dance, music and singing. I find it difficult to imagine that the king watched worldly performance of dance and music here. It seems more natural that the king and the queen arrived here to listen to the sermons of the monks and participated in religious ceremonies.

The lower floor of Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

The lower floor of Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Gentleman – Come close to the central cell Putri. (Pointing towards the relief at the entrance …) These reliefs may not appear attractive to you as they are badly damaged and marred by the centuries of neglect. But remember this was the first time our ancestors started to carve on the stone. According to Heinrich Zimmer, an Indologist and historian of South Asian art, “The beauty of this work is that it does not appear to be a primitive beginning, but a refined style.” He also contrasted this work with that in Sanchi, as according to the historians Sanchi was the place where sculptors were doing similar experiment with stone carvings, and concluded that the work here is much more refined. It appears as if the artisans were not chiselling the stone instead working with paint and brush and carving smoothly with ease and command.

Worship of Bodhi tree, Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Worship of Bodhi tree, Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Look at this relief, it depicts a king, a queen, and two other figures venerating an object upon a pedestal. The object venerated is damaged and its exact form is not known, but it appears like a Bodhi tree. It appears that stupas and bodhi tree worship were common among the Jains as well. It generates a doubt that at that time even in Jainism Tirthankara were worshiped in the symbolic way (like the Hinayana tradition of Buddhism). This opinion is re-enforced because of the absence of anthropomorphic representation of any Tirthankara.

Carvings at Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri hills, Odisha

Carvings at Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri hills, Odisha

In this another figure, you can notice people standing with folded hands, elephants and Vidhyadhars are also seen. Probably this relief shows King Kharvela worshipping after a victorious march.

Carvings on Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Carvings on Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Compex, Odisha (can you see hidden swastika in the top left portion of the picture)

Jaishree – What is depicted in this picture?

Gentleman – This picture is really difficult to make out. There are several versions about it. Some says, it depicts a group of infuriated wild elephants attacking a group of one man and several women in lotus pond. The man is seen counter-attacking them with an enormous club. On his right side is a Yakshini known by her curly looks, and behind her are a number of females either seeking protection behind him or assisting him in repelling the attack.

Some says, it represents victorious march of King Kharavela, and man and woman can be seen dancing in ecstasy, along with their weapons. I am not sure about any of these versions.

Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Rani Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

The verendah in upper storey is sixty-three feet in length, and opens into four cells of irregular shapes from two doors in each. The lower verendah is forty-three feet in length and opens into three cells. In the end of this cave at the lower floor, you can see two stalwart figures dressed in tight-fitting clothes, armed with spears and clubs. They are cut out of the same rock against which they stand. On the top floor two human figures stand as guard to the sanctuary. The right hand figure depicts a pot-bellied Oriya dressed in close tucked dhoti or a wrap-around, but he is without shoes and does not carry any arm. Near to it stands a warrior in full-uniform. Beyond the figure just at the corner is a lion guardian of natural size, mounted by a female figure. Does this idol represents Goddess Ambika?

Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Gentleman – Let me take you to another interesting cave- the Ganesha Gumpha. This is a single storey cave which is divided in two compartments and has a verendah of thirty-by-six feet in front. It was fronted by five massive square pillars of which two have fallen and disappeared. These pillars are of ordinary types, octagonal in center and square at top. The top of the pillars have male and female figurines that afford ornamental support to the eaves of the roof.

Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

The verendah of this cave is flanked by two elephant statues that are carrying a large number of lotus stalks bearing leaves and buds, in their trunk. One of the bud is artistically displayed as an open flower in the center of the bundle.

Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Now let us look at the carvings on the door frames. This kind of ornamentation is similar to Greek and Roman buildings. However, the similarities end here. As in these caves the subject is diversified without any uniformity.

Jaishree – (looking at the carvings) It appears that these carvings narrate some story. Do you know what they depict?

An interesting carving in Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri cave Complex, Odisha

An interesting carving in Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri cave Complex, Odisha

Gentleman – (with a deep sigh) These stories remain unidentified. Some historians find them depicting unconnected events. Some of them believe that these engravings illustrate the Jain stories similar to the stories of Bodhisattva. I don’t agree that these are unconnected engravings.

A close-up of carving on Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

A close-up of carving on Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Jaishree – My eyes are glued to the above carving. The scene opens with armed men following a ravisher with drawn swords. The abductors is shooting arrows on them from the top of his elephant. The lady seated besides him is leaning backward to deliver one of her collaborator a bag or bundle containing some valuables. The soldiers following the two are unsuccessful and the chase proves ineffectual. Later on the abductor / the lover makes his elephant sit down, dismounts himself and leads the nayika in endearing manner. But at the end of tableau she is seen sitting amidst a group of female attendants in a despondent mood with her head resting on the palm of her hand. It appears she is unhappy leaving her close family members, probably her father and brothers, behind.

Gentleman – This tableau might be representing the marriage of Kharavela with the daughter of a conquered hill chief. Tell me, what do you think is represented in this tableau?

Subsequent panel in Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Subsequent panel in Ganesh Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Jaishree – This one is simple. I think this idol represents Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi. It seems this represents a time when Devtas visited him for his help.

Gentleman – It appears so, but if this depiction is related to the previous story, then it may also show a male member in distress reclining on a mattress under a tree in front of a cave. Notice his head resting on his right forearm that serves the purpose of a pillow and his wife is seen sitting next to him, providing comfort and taking his care. The visitors with their halting painful gait reflects their helplessness, probably in not being able to stop the abductor.

Also look at the engravings following it (which makes the story complete).

Jaishree – I am convinced with your argument that it is definitely not Vishnu.

A picture painting from M.Kittoee's hand-drawing (taken from web)

A hand-drawn replica of the Ganesha Gumpha engravings by Markham Kittoee(courtesy web) of

Jaishree – The right hand side engravings of the first picture, appear to narrate a story as well. In the right hand side of the first scene, a female warrior is engraved brandishing her sword in the air. The beauty of the female is evident in all her moves. In the next one, the man can be seen carrying the vanquished female warrior in his hands. What does these scenes reflect?

Gentleman – Some historians believe that these scenes depict the story of Karuvaki and Ashoka. Karuvaki was a fierce sword swaying female warrior, who fought against Ashoka in Kalinga war. She belonged to a local fisher community and was noted for her beauty and valor. She eventually married the prince of Kalinga and fought the war of Kalinga with the prince and the king of Kalinga. Both men were killed but she survived the war, and was captured by the Magadhan army. Ashoka developed a crush on her and proposed to marry her. After Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism Karuvaki accepted his proposal. She then requested Ashoka to immortalize the episode with engravings at Rani Gumpha. You can see yourself that the story has similarities with the relief, but the verification of the same is not possible.

Jaishree – Hmm. Wait a minute. But you said that Kharavela excavated these caves a few centuries after Kalinga war.

Gentleman – (With a graceful smile replies …) You seems to be grasping these historical facts quite nicely. For sure these engravings were not done by Ashoka and hence I don’t think they represent Ashoka and Karuvaki. I just shared one of the beliefs. Some people believe that these carvings represent the story of Shakuntala and some other believe that it reflects the love story of Udayan and Vasavdutta. All these reflections are difficult to verify. This may be one of a forgotten local legend or episode that might be quite popular at that time. We should not forget that so much time has passed that today nobody remembers Emperor Kharavela, and even Ashoka was a non-entity a couple of centuries back.

I observe that woman in these cave carvings are shown engaged in dancing, singing, hunting and even sword-fighting. I wonder, did they enjoy the similar status of equality and independence of the modern woman (though it is also debatable that how much independent and equal modern woman is). Just as these days, financial independence is considered important for independence. Similarly, was martial deftness considered important for a woman to be independent? I feel, it surely might have helped them not to be taken for granted.

Ganesha in Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Ganesha in Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri Hills, Odisha

Inside the cave there are engravings of Lord Ganesha and also of a Tirthankara.

A Tirthankara Carved in Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

A Tirthankara Carved in Ganesha Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Gentleman – Have you noticed the long legs and broad feet of Dwarpals (sentinels). Historians believe that these carvings show the influence of Sunga dynasty, a dynasty that followed the Mauryan.

Dwarpal at Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Dwarpal at Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Jaishree – I notice that almost in all the reliefs elephants are prominently engraved.

Gentleman – You are right. In-fact Chedi dynasty also referred to themselves as Mahameghwan dynasty because of the vehicle they rode i.e elephant, that appeared like large cloud. For a long time, all armies of Odisha had a large number of elephants. There are mind-blowing number of them mentioned in the army records of imperial Ganga dynasty and the Gajapati dynasty. The numbers reaching around 99,000 for the Ganga dynasty and 2,00,000 elephants for the Gajapati dynasty.

Elephant engravings in Udayagiri Cave complex, Odisha

Elephant engravings in Udayagiri Cave complex, Odisha

Chota-Hathi Gumpha, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Chota-Hathi Gumpha Cave-3, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

In-fact apart from Hathi Gumpha there is also Chota Hathi Gumpha (Cave 3) at the entrance, even before you start climbing the ramp. In this cave you can see carvings of elephants coming out from behind a tree.

Moving to the top, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Moving to the top, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

From here, we head left to the top of the hill where a semi-circular part of a base of an apsidal hall was unearthed in 1958. It is a bare rock with nothing at top. A board here indicates that there was an assembly hall. There are holes in the rock indicating that there were pillars that supported a circular roof. In one corner there exists a drain that carried away the water collected from the circular top. It has stupendous views of beautiful surroundings and the Khandagiri hill. This is an oldest apsidal structure unearthed which was meant to provide a place to meditate on the top of khandgiri Hills to the resident monks.

Khandagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Khandagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Rain water drainage system, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Rain water drainage system, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Jaishree – As per my knowledge there is practically no native Jain population in Odisha. Do you have any idea when these caves were abandoned.

He signals and we sit on a nearby rock.

Gentleman – The importance of this monument of kharavela started to wane when the Chedi dynasty declined because of warring factions. God is one. There are many paths to reach him. People following these paths keep on changing their way of worshipping. Buddhism vanished, followers of Jainism in Odisha also waned. There are evidences that Jain pilgrims visited these caves till eleventh century. The last ruler of Somvansi dynasty – Uddyo Takesari restored idols of Tirthankara on these hills. Jains must have been a relatively strong and important community in the medieval period engaging a Somvansi king to restore the statue.

Request to the God, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Request to the God, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

We walk down and notice a tree where people have tied colorful plastics and clothes to request to the almighty to listen to their worries and to bring good-luck to them.

Jaishree – From here we visit the Double storey Jai-Vijai cave with Bodhi tree carved in the central compartment and then we also see the other double storey Swargapuri caves.

The double storey cave, Udayagiri Caves, Odisha

The double storey cave, Udayagiri Caves, Odisha

Another beautiful double storey caves in Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

Another beautiful double storey caves in Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

We then visit Dhanagarh Gumpha (Cave 15).

Dhangarh Cave Complex

Dhangarh Cave Complex, Udayagiri Cave Complex, Odisha

I see, everyone, including my Chachiji, Manish, Rachit and Tanmay resting there and decide to join them.

The Gang at Dhagarh Cave Complex, Udayagiri Caves, Odisha

The Gang at Dhagarh Cave Complex, Udayagiri Caves, Odisha

Gentleman – Putri, I would like to take your leave now. I hope I have not disappointed you and this trip indeed turns out to be what you were looking for.

Jaishree – I realize that I don’t have anything to pay for his services. I am also not sure that is he a guide or a historian? Would I offend him by offering money. Anyway, I feel that let me introduce him to Manish and let him handle it. It will also give me some more time to think how much money I should offer him. I request the gentleman to come along with me so that I can introduce him to my family members and I start to climb-up.

As I reach up, I see that the gentleman is not with me. I try to look around but he is no-where. Where has he gone!

Gentleman – There is no reason for me to accompany you. My job is done. You are no more so disappointed as you were in the beginning. I bless you to share my story with other travelers and to enlighten them about me – The King Kharavela.

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


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