“To the artist or the architect the group of caves situated on the Udayagiri hills in Orissa is perhaps even more interesting than those in Behar just described, but to the archaeologist they are less so, from the difficulty of fixing their dates with the same certainty, and because their forms have not the same direct bearing on the origin or history of the great groups of caves on the western side of India. Notwithstanding this, the picturesqueness of their forms, the richness of their sculptures and architectural details, combined with their acknowledged antiquity, render them one of the most important groups of caves in India, and one that is impossible to pass over in such a work as this,…..” – James Fergusson1
These cave were first noticed and described in 1824 by A Stirling who published his accounts in Asiatic Researches vol. xv. He mentions a legend of origin of these hills, as told by the natives, that these formerly were the part of the Himalayas and inhabited by many sages and ascetics. These sages and ascetics excavated these caves which we see now. The whole mountain was lifted up by Hanuman to build bridge for Rama. However due to some accident, he dropped these here.
The next to visit was Fergusson, in 1836 however was not able to provide ample time to survey each and every cave. In 1838, Kittoe visited these caves and his accounts were published in the same year. J D Beglar, assistant to Alexander Cunningham, visited these in 1874-76 and published his accounts. In 1875, Rajendralala Mitra described these caves in details in his Antiquities of Orissa, published in two volumes.
The fame of the caves, apart from art and architecture, is also because of a solitary inscription, written in seventeen lines, recording career and achievements of king Kharvela, hailing from Chedi dynasty. The first reading of this inscription came in 1827 when Stirling published in Asiatic Researches. Dr. Bhagwanlal Indraji published his reading of the same in 1907 in the Acts du Sixieme Congres International des Orientalistes. The other inscriptions found in these caves were first published in Epigraphia Indica vol. XIII in 1915-16. B M Barua published the edited and modified readings in 1929 in his book Old Brahmi Inscriptions.
The Udayagiri (hill of sunrise) cave complex is one of the earliest rock-cut excavation in India. There are around eighteen caves scattered at different levels of the hillock. Most of these are simple cells preceded with a benched veranda. The cells were mostly meant for dwelling of monks, who took shelter here for solitude and meditation. Though these were residential cells, however few of these are decorated with fine sculptural art. Leoshko2 suggests that these all excavations were done at the same time, around 50 BCE, which is most accepted date.
It is very surprising that expert like Fergusson and Mitra took these caves as of Buddhist origin. Fergusson suggests that the famous tooth-relic, which was safely kept at Danta-puri, was enshrined in the near vicinity of these hills. Though he later points out that the identification of Danta-puri with the city of Puri has gained certain ground. Fergusson assigns all the caves at Udayagiri and Ananta cave at Khandagiri to Buddhist religion. The rest of the caves as Khandagiri, he assigns to Jaina creed.
Mitra3 writes, “I have hitherto accepted the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri to be of Buddhist origin, and from the various relics of Buddhism which have been above noticed, few will be disposed to question the conclusion I have come to”. Mitra ignores all Jain symbols and motif and took them as Buddhist stating that both the religions started from common heritage thus share similar symbolism.
From the famous Kharavela inscription, incised on cave no 14 in the complex, narrates the excavation of these caves in two lines, line 14 and 15. The hills were known as Kumari Parvata during his time, and he excavated a hundred-and-seventeen caves, contributed by his family, relatives and royal servants. The lines translate as below4:
Line 13 – (His Majesty) brought to submission the people of ………… And in the thirteenth year Upasaka Sri Kharavela a devoted worshipper of those, who used to clothe themselves in fine sloth, enjoy royal endowment and take to rainy season retreat, excavated in the Kumari hill, where the wheel of Victory had been well turned, dwelling cells for the resting of the bodies of Yapannapaka Arhats who had renounced their sustenance.
Lines 15-16 – (As desired by) the Queen of Simhapatha, (His Majesty) built (an edifice) in front of and close to the dwellings of the Arhats with thirty-five hundred thousand stone slabs, raised from the best quarries and (brought) from a distance of many yojanas, for the convenience of the honored Sramanas and for the Yatis, for the Rsis and Samghiyanas, who hailed from all directions, and also set up on the pink colored floor, pillars bedecked with emerald at a cost of one hundred and five thousand (coins).
The next chapters of the article describes these caves in details. I have adopted the numbering and naming as currently prevalent and described in guide book by Debala Mitra.
1 Fergusson & Burgess (1880). The Cave Temples of India. Oriental Books Reprints Corporation. Delhi. p 55
2 Leishko, Janice (2010). Artfully Carved: Udayagiri/Khandagiri in Orissa published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 70, No. 1, “To My Mind”: Studies in South Asian Art History in Honor of Joanna Gottfried Williams. Part II, pp. 7-24
3 Mitra, Rajendra Lal (1880). The Antiquities of Orissa vol. II. Indian Studies. Calcutta. p 67
4 Sahu, N K (1984). Kharavela. Orissa State Museum. Bhubaneswar.