Bagh – Mysterious World of Paintings

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    Chapter 1: Introduction & Past Scholarship
    Chapter 2: Bagh Caves
    Chapter 3: Paintings
    Chapter 4: Dating and Epigraphs


    Chapter 2: Bagh Caves

    Of the whole vast galaxy of monuments that antiquity has bequeathed to India, none are more remarkable or more interesting to the archaeologists than her rock-hewn shrines and monasteries. The history of this particular category of monuments extends over to a period of 1800 years, from the 3rd century BCE to the 15th century CE.”1

    Rock-cut shrines or caves have their unique importance in archaeology as unlike the monuments built of perishable materials, these cave shrines have withstood the ravages of the time and still stand as the mute witness to the antiquity and history of bygone times. These have preserved ancient plastic art styles and painting techniques that probably would not have come down to us otherwise. There are nine caves in total at Bagh, however, few scholars have mentioned another tenth cave at the site. The caves are excavated on a sandstone hill, its maximum height reaching some 150 feet, in the Vindhya range on the left bank of river Baghni. The nearby village and the caves derive their name from the river.

    Cave No 1

    Cave No 1: Griha Cave – This is the first cave when you approach the site crossing a bridge over the river Baghni. The major portion of the cave is damaged, it appears a single hall excavation that was once supported on four pillars in the front. The portico that once adorned it, is entirely vanished. The measurements provided by Marshall for this excavation are 23 by 14 feet.2 Meena Talim mentions there was once a stupa at the backside of the hall.3

    Cave No 2

    Naga (?)/Buddha figure in lalitasana-mudra in the left niche
    Modified Ganesha image in the right niche

    Cave No 2: Gussai Gumpha – Marshal names it “Pandavon ki gupha” while Luard “Gonshai Gumpha”. The cave was named “Gonshai Gumpha” as it was occupied by a sadhu or gussai. The cave has a large square hall with cells on its three sides, a shrine in the center of the back wall, and a pillared portico in the front. From the back to the portico, it measures more than 150 feet.4  The roof of the portico has long fallen and stumps of its six pillars have remained. In the right and left lateral sides of the portico provisions for niches have been made. These niches were adorned with images of Buddhist themes. The niche in the northern end carries an image of a male accompanied by female attendants, the former is seated on a simhasana (lion throne) in lalitasana-mudra. Vogel identifies the male as a Naga while Talim identifies him with Buddha. The southern end niche also has an image however its original character is lost and now it houses a modified Ganesha image.5 Assuming symmetry, the southern niche might have similar imagery as that of the northern niche. The cave has five entrances, three in the front and two on the sides. Two windows are provided alternating the three doorways in the front. Decoration at the front is very minimal except for the central doorway which has a band of carving in its lintel and small lions at the base.

    The roof of the inside hall is supported by twenty pillars. All these pillars are square at the base to about 4 feet but the shaft above is treated in different designs. In a few, it is octagonal changing to sixteen-faceted, and in some, it is dodecagonal and changing to twenty-four-sided. The central four pillars are rounded and circular and these may be required for extra support due to the frivolous nature of the rock above. There are a total of twenty cells. All the cells are similar in nature, very moderate in measurements with a provision for a niche for a lamp. Near the north corner, behind the three cells, are a few small chambers at different heights, these chambers belong to a different cave, and a passage was provided for the connection between these two caves. These chambers were the same where Mme Blavatsky6 and her party tried to climb to reach higher levels.

    Stupa Chamber
    Stupa
    Dvarapala on the left

    The shrine at the back wall is entered through a portico supported by two pillars. The stupa chamber entrance is adorned with dvarapalas carved in arched niches on either side. They are about 8 feet high and stand over a lotus. The left-hand side dvarapala wears a jatamukuta over which a miniature Buddha figure is seated in abhaya-mudra. Back of his head is a radiating nimbus and Vogel suggests it to be part of his headdress.7 The dvarapala wears all the regular ornaments and a yajnopavita of three threads fastened on the left side of his chest by means of a large clasp. The right side dvarapala is simple and plain in execution as he is bereft of jewelry.  He wears his matted hair tied up at the top and inside it, a miniature Buddha figure is shown seated in abhaya-mudra. on the right stands on a lotus and also carries Buddha in his headdress. The stupa chamber is 20 by 18 feet and 17 feet high.8 The stupa has a hemispherical dome supporting a harmika and parasol and rests on a cylindrical drum, decorated with a modillion cornice, which in turn is placed on an octagonal plinth with bold moldings. Its total height is about 14.5 feet and its diameter is about 10 feet. The octagonal plinth is 4 feet high.

    Images on the right hand side wall

    On both the lateral walls are carved a group of three images, depicting Buddha with two attendants or Bodhisattvas. The figures on the right side wall are in better-preserved condition. The central figure of Buddha is about 10 feet 4 inches high9 and he stands upon a lotus flower. His left hand grabs the hem of his robe in front of the shoulder while his right hand is in varada-mudra. Buddha is shown with ushnisha, the protuberance of the skull. Attendants on either side are about 9 feet high. They might be identified with Bodhisattvas. The one to the right of Buddha is standing on a lotus and holding a fly whisk in his right hand while his left hand rests on a knot formed by his upper garment. He wears a crown, earrings, necklace, bracelets, and a yajnopavita. The figure to the left of Buddha also stands on a lotus however his attributes are different from the other one. He wears no crown but has other usual ornaments, earrings, a necklace, and bracelets. He is holding a bunch of lotus buds in his right hand while his left hand is resting on a knot of his garments. The group on the left wall is very similar in attributes, the only difference is in the heights of the figures, Buddha is 9 feet 6 inches high and the attendants are 7 feet in height. Vogel10 tells the group of three figures is very frequent in the majority of cases it is Buddha flanked by Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara. However, due to the missing distinctive attributes of Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya in the groups at Bagh, it would be hard to identify them with the regular set of Bodhisattvas. It may be said with certainty that the sculptor wanted to differentiate between the two therefore he provided different features and attributes. Vogel draws parallels from Sarnath and Mathura Buddhist icons and suggests that Bodhisattva in plain attire may represent Maitreya while the more ornate one may be identified with Avalokiteshvara. As there are a total of eight figures inside this shrine, the local people identify these figures with Mahabharata heroes, two dvarapalas as Yudhishthira and Krishna, the two groups of three figures at lateral walls as Kunti with Bhima and Arjuna; and Draupadi with Nakula and Sahadeva.11

    Cave No 3

    Cave No 3: Hathikhana – Marshall calls it “Hathikhana” or elephant stable as was then known locally. The excavation appears to be purely a residential complex as no stupa shrine is present. Cells were excavated in the north-east and south-west sides resulting in two distinct halls, the outer hall supported on eight columns with cells distributed on its two sides, and an inner hall also supported on eight columns, but bereft of any cells. The chamber on the northwest side of the hall is fronted by a pillared vestibule and decorated with a painted figure of Buddha accompanied by kneeling devotees suggesting its prominence and therefore was probably occupied by a superior-rank monk.

    Cave No 4
    Yaksha image on the rock portion between caves 3 & 4
    Central Doorway
    Shalabhankika standing over makara and holding a branch of a tree

    Cave No 4: Rang-Mahal – Cave No 4 is separated from Cave No 3 by a rough cliff of some 250 feet long. A colossal image is carved over this cliff face. The image may be identified with a Yaksha king as suggested by its size, however, its proper identification is not possible due to the fragmentary state of the survived image. Cave No 4 is called Rang-Mahal because of its paintings. In plan and conception, this cave is very similar to Cave No 2. It has three entrances in the front and two intervening windows between the entrances. The entrance doorways are decorated with various motifs. Among all the doorways, the central doorway is given special treatment in decoration. Over a lintel runs a frieze of seated Buddha figures, though only a few have survived. A lintel below the previous one carries chaitya windows inset with human heads. At the terminals of the lintel, on either side, is one female figure, standing above a makara and resting one hand over a dwarf-gana. At the base of the door-jamb are dvarapala figures. The square hall inside has cells on its three sides and a shrine in the center of the back wall. The hall measures 95 square feet, slightly larger than Cave No 2 hall, and is supported on thirty-eight pillars. A total of twenty-eight cells are provisioned inside the hall. The shrine at the rear wall is not as grand as the shrine of Cave No 2. The shrine contains a rock-cut stupa but no imagery or decoration. The grandeur of its portico is enhanced due to a continuous structure connecting this cave with the next one, cave no 5. This portico is about 220 feet in length and is supported by twenty-two pillars. The pillars and the roof have long fallen but the fragments of the paintings on its back walls are still left there as a mute witness of its splendor and riches.

    Stupa Chamber

    The stupa chamber does not fit with the grand plan of the cave as it is devoid of any front portal, relief images, or vestibule. The chamber has a regular stupa of no special attention.

    At the northeast end of the veranda is a small shrine carrying a carved relief at its back wall. The relief panel contains two figures, one male and one female. As the sculpture is preserved in a very bad state, the precise identification of these figures is out of the question. Both figures are shown seated over a bench. The bench, unlike the previous sculptures of Cave No 2, is devoid of any decoration. Vogel12 identifies the male figure with a Naga king and mentions well-preserved seven-fold snakehood over him, however, this hood is no more visible now. The Naga king is seated in lalitasana-mudra with both his hands resting on his thighs. The lady may be the queen of this Naga-king however no snakehood is visible over her head.  Her left-hand rests on her left knee and her right hand is raised in abhaya-mudra. The rock surface above the niche carries a large chaitya window with two celestials carrying garlands placed on either side.

    Joint veranda of Cave 4 & 5
    Cave No 5

    Cave No 5: Shala Cave – This cave is called Shala cave by Luard as it does not have any cells and thus was not used for residential purposes. The cave has an entrance doorway and four windows, two each on either side. Inside it is a rectangular hall, measuring 95 feet by 44 feet.13 Two rows of columns divide the hall into three aisles. All the pillars stand on a common plinth and parallel to it is provided a projection, meant for seats, at each wall. It appears that the cave was used as a refectory or an oratory. The cave is devoid of any decoration. It would have been adorned with paintings on its walls, columns, and ceiling however not much has survived the toll of time. At the south end of the cave, a door, 9 feet by 8 feet, leads to a chamber measuring 18 feet by 13 feet, at the other end of which there is a similar door that leads a visitor to the next cave.

    Cave No 6 – This is a monastic cave as there is no stupa chamber inside. This cave can be entered through a door. There are two windows on its front façade beside the doorway. This façade is now open to the valley however there once stood a portico in front of it. Inside the hall is 46 feet square.14 Five cells are excavated in this hall, two on its southwestern side and three on the rear side. Slight traces of paintings can be seen on its walls. The columns have long fallen, from their remains, it appears that those were of ordinary type without much interest. Marshall15 points to the remains of the pilasters at the entrance to the passage leading to cave 5 having a conventionalized derivative of the ‘pot and foliage’ motif, which came into vogue for a short period during the 7th and 8th centuries CE and this may help in deriving the date of the excavation. Vogel16 mentions in the face of rock intervening between Cave No 5 and 6, there are traces of four figures in a row surviving with nothing more than shoulders and arms.

    Cave No 7 – What we know of this and other following caves is only from its past references as all these caves are no more accessible at present to visitors. Dr. Impey17 writes this cave was situated about 20 yards further from cave 6 and is very similar to the arrangement of cave 2. He mentions its measurements 86 feet square with twenty pillars and twenty cells. The cave can be entered through one main door and four smaller doors. The stupa chamber inside has a vestibule in front. Vogel mentions at the chapel at the southwestern end of the portico of this cave has two damaged figures on its rear wall and a third figure on its left side wall. These figures were very fragmentary and cannot be identified.18

    Cave No 8 – Dr. Impey19 tells that only five cells remain and the hill terminates within a few paces from the extremity of the last cell of this cave. The remains of the cave suggest that it would have been a hall supported on twenty pillars with residential cells and a small stupa chamber. Every part of the cave has fallen including its roof.

    Cave No 9 – This cave is only described by Dr. Impey20, who tells that a quarter of a mile to the north of the first cave is a large Griha high up in the hill, quite isolated, and has two small pillars, opening a single chamber. The later visitors simply write that this cave is now collapsed and is thus blocked by its debris.

    Cave No 10 – This cave is only mentioned by Dr. Impey and Balakrishna Dabhade. The latter tells that he discovered the frontage of another cave no. 10. A door and four windows only exist to trace them by, and a space of 10 feet in their front, the rest being blocked up with earth and rock.21

    Next Chapter – Paintings


    1 Marshall, John, et al (1927). The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 3
    2 Marshall, John, et al (1927). The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 7
    3 Talim, Meena (2014). Bagh Caves: Paintings and Sculptures. Buddhist World Press. Delhi. p. 7
    4 Marshall, John, et al (1927). The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 7
    5 Talim, Meena (2014). Bagh Caves: Paintings and Sculptures. Buddhist World Press. Delhi. p. 7
    6 Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna (1908). From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan. The Theological Publishing Society. London. pp. 234-249
    7 Vogel, J Ph (1927). The Sculpture and Paintings – Iconographical Description in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 33
    8 Talim, Meena (2014). Bagh Caves: Paintings and Sculptures. Buddhist World Press. Delhi. p. 7
    9 Vogel, J Ph (1927). The Sculpture and Paintings – Iconographical Description in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 29
    10 Vogel, J Ph (1927). The Sculpture and Paintings – Iconographical Description in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 31
    11 Vogel, J Ph (1927). The Sculpture and Paintings – Iconographical Description in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 34
    12 Vogel, J Ph (1927). The Sculpture and Paintings – Iconographical Description in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 41
    13 Marshall, John, et al (1927). The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 15
    14 Marshall, John, et al (1927). The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 15
    15 Marshall, John, et al (1927). The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. pp. 15-16
    16 Vogel, J Ph (1927). The Sculpture and Paintings – Iconographical Description in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 45
    17 Impey, E (1857). Description of the Caves of Bagh, in Rath published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. V. p. 560
    18 Vogel, J Ph (1927). The Sculpture and Paintings – Iconographical Description in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. p. 45
    19 Impey, E (1857). Description of the Caves of Bagh, in Rath published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. V. p. 560
    20 Impey, E (1857). Description of the Caves of Bagh, in Rath published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. V. p. 560
    21 Talim, Meena (2014). Bagh Caves: Paintings and Sculptures. Buddhist World Press. Delhi. p. 13

    Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.