In the words of John Marshall, “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. This history of this particular category of monuments extends over to a period of 1800 years, from 3rd century BCE to the 15th century CE”.
Rock-cut shrines or caves have their own unique importance in the archaeology as unlike to the monuments built of perishable materials, these cave shrines have withstood the ravages of the time and still standing as the mute witness to the antiquity and history of bygone times. These have preserved the ancient plastic art styles and painting techniques which probably would not have come down to us otherwise.
There are nine caves in total, however few scholars have mentioned a tenth cave at the site. Out of these nine, only first five are accessible to a visitor. I have taken liberty here by publishing some old pictures from articles of other scholars. The reason is that I am not sure from whom to take permission and how to contact. I believe that the erudite scholar will pardon me in the benefit of the viewers and enthusiasts.
Cave No 1 – This is the first cave when you approach the site from the present day entrance crossing a bridge over the river Baghni. Luard & Marshall refers it as “Griha” cave. Though it is first in line, but the cave is of no particular notice. The portico, which once adorned it, is entirely vanished. The present excavation is in form of a single chamber measuring 23 X 14 feet, as stated by Marshall. It is supported on four pillars which are in dire state of dilapidation. Meena Talim mentions the presence of a stupa at the backside of the cave, however none can be inferred from its present condition.
Cave No 2 – Luard & Haldar refered it as “Gonshai Gumpha”, while Marshall refers it as “Pandavonki gupha” or “Pandava’s Cave”. The name “Gonshai Gumpha” would have been derived because of it being taken up by a sadhu as his residence. This sadhu is also blamed to have converted one Buddha image into an image of Ganesha. A lot of damage to the paintings of the cave was caused by the smoke and soot out of his offerings and incense burning.
This cave is one amongst the best preserved and most elaborate caves. The overall measurement, from front to back, is about 150 feet. However it has suffered a considerable damage and its paintings have long since been obliterated by smoke and bats. This cave would have served as a chaitya cum monastic cave as there are cells inside for monks to reside and it also has an inner chamber housing a stupa.
There would have been a front portico supported on six pillars at one point of time however only the stumps of the pillars have survived. Marshall mentions that from the debris of the fallen roof of the front portico, it can be surmised that it was adorned with a series of the chaitya medallions (dormer windows). These chaitya medallions were adorned with tiger faces alternating with lotus flowers.
A niche is found on the left and right side of the cave’s front façade. The niche on the left (north-east) has an image of a naga or Buddha with attendants. Talim identifies it with Buddha in pralambapada mudra rather than a naga. The niche of the right (south-west) has an image of Ganesha, which is a corruption of the original Buddha image.
The cave can be entered though its three doorways, having two intervening windows. The central doorway is decorated with couchant lions at the base and a band carving on the middle lintel. The inside hall is a square with cells on its three sides and a stupa chamber in the back. This inner hall is supported on twenty pillars and four pilasters at the four corners. All these pillars are in different patterns but all stands on a low square base. The center four round columns seem to be out of place however these were necessary due to the less strong nature of the cave as explained by Marshall.
There are total of eighteen cells inside the hall, including the two at the either side of the front portico, the number goes to twenty. These cells are small chambers of about nine feet long and eight feet high. A lamp niche is provided in each cell. With a cell on the eastern corner are few unfinished excavations. These appear to be the connecting channel with the next cave.
The stupa chamber at the back wall has a vestibule with a portico in front. The portico is supported on two pillars. The left and right wall of this vestibule is decorated with relief figures, depicting Buddha with two attendants. The figures on the right side are in better preserved condition. The central figure of Buddha is about 10 feet high, shown standing on a lotus pedestal. His left hands grabs the hem of his robe in front of the shoulder. His robe is shown with folds and leave his right shoulder bare. His right hand is in abhayamudra. Buddha here is shown with ushnisha, protuberance of his skull to top.
Attendants on his either sides are about 9 feet high. These might be identified with Bodhisattavas. The one on the right of Buddha is standing on a lotus. He holds a chowri in his right hand. He wears a crown, various ornaments and a yajnopavita. The one on the left of Buddha also stands on a lotus however his attributes are different from the other one. He wears no crown but other usual ornaments. He is holding a bunch of lotus-buds in his right hand.
Vogel mentions that with these attributes, it would be hard to identify these two Bodhisattavas. However it is certain that the sculptor wanted to differentiate between these two therefore he provided different features and attributes. It is a regular feature to find Avalokiteshvara (or Padmapani) and Maitreya as two Bodhisattvas as attendants of Buddha. The attendants at Bagh may represent these two icons, however they do not conform to their iconographic characteristics. Vogel draws parallel from Sarnath and Mathura Buddhist icons, and suggests that Bodhisattva in plain attire may represent Maiterya while the more ornate one may be identified with Avalokiteshvara.
The relief sculptures on the left side wall of the vestibule also has three personage, Buddha accompanied with two attendants. The central figure of Buddha is about 9 feet high, while the attendants measure about 7 feet. The attitude and features of the figures is same as of on the right side wall.
The dvarpala figures are standing on the either side of the stupa chamber entrance however these should be identified as Bodhisattvas. They are about 8 feet high. The one on the left has a jatamukuta where a Buddha figure is shown seated. The one on the right stands on a lotus and also carries Buddha in his head-dress. However he is not much decorated as his counterpart. The stupa chamber is 20 X 18 feet and 17 feet high. The stupa is in form of a cylindrical drum supporting a harmika and topped with a parasol. Its total height is about 14.5 feet and diameter is about 10 feet. It is placed on an octagonal plinth of 4 feet high.
Vogel mentions that the local people identify these figures variously with Mahabharata heroes. The two dvarpalas were told to be Yudhishthira and Krishna. The two reliefs were referred as Kunti with Bhima and Arjuna; and Draupadi with Nakula and Sahadeva.
Cave No 3 – Marshall refers it as “Hathikhana” or elephant stable as per local traditions. The present condition of the cave is very much deteriorated and presents a gloomy feeling to the visitor. However from its remains this cave would have been excavated for pure residential or monastic excavation containing a hall with attached cells on its sides. Marshall suggests that as the cells of this cave are elaborately designed and adorned with paintings, therefore it could be meant for the monks of the superior order.
The cave does not seem to have any portico. There are two rows of cells, on its south-west and north-east sides. Thus, the inner hall is divided into two parts, the outer parts supported on eight pillars and containing cells on its sides, and an inner hall, also supported on eight pillars but without any connected cells. Marshall suggests that this inner chamber would have been hewn at a later period as it is left in a rough-hewn state. A chamber on the north-east side has a pillared vestibule and a Buddha figure on its walls with kneeling worshippers. This chamber appears to be the most important one. Outside the wall of another chamber is a painting of a devotee bending in reverence.
From the remains of the paintings, it appears that there was a bold frieze carved in relief above the front façade. This frieze consists of two bands: in the lower a series of elephants alternating with lions, and in the upper a series of lion masks alternating with chaitya windows in which pairs of human busts in inset.
Cave No 4 – Marshall and other previous explorers referred this cave as “Rang Mahal” due to presence of fine paintings. This is the grandest and most exquisite cave in the series. Cave 3 and cave 4 are separated by solid rock for about 250 feet. Haldar mentions that there are chisel marks on this separation which suggests that some excavation was tried but left at very early stages.
The visitor, when approaching this cave, gets bewildered by the grandeur of its portico which is a continuous structure connecting this cave with the next one, cave no 5. This portico is about 220 feet in length and is supported on twenty-two pillars. The pillars and the roof has long fallen but the fragments of the paintings on its back walls are still left there as a mute witness of its splendor and grandeur.
In plan, this cave is excavated in similar manner as of cave no 2 as this is also a monastic cum chaitya cave. At the end of the veranda, a colossal Buddha of about 13 feet height is carved in a recess. The front façade has three entrances, with two intervening windows between these. The central door is about 15 feet high and 8 feet broad. It is decorated on its lintel with rows of nine seated Buddhas and chaitya motif with human heads. The terminals are in form of a standing female figure with her hand resting on a gana (dwarf) emerging from a makara.
A square hall inside has cells on its three sides with a stupa chamber at its rear wall. Though it is same in plan as of cave 2, however in measurements and other aspects it is quite elaborate than the previous one. The central hall is 94 feet square and supported on thirty-eight pillars. The cells around the hall are twenty-eight in numbers. The thirty-eight pillars and the four pilasters on the corners, are diversified in their pattern and styles. Their bracket capitals are either painted or carved with animals, some with riders and some without.
The central part of the square hall has four supplementary pillars as also found in the cave no 2. From this central part, three highly ornate porches are put in front of the cells. These porches are supported on circular columns topped with decorated bands. Over these columns is put an entablature on which are carved seated figures of Buddha with chaitya motifs containing human head in insets.
The stupa chamber does not fit with the grand plan of the cave as it is devoid of any front portal, relief images and vestibule. The chamber has a regular stupa of no special attention.
Cave No 5 – Luard referred it as “shala” or a lecture hall. This cave is connected with the cave no 4 with the joint portico. The cave has an entrance doorway and four windows, two each on its either side. This arrangement is enough to allow adequate light inside the cave. Inside the cave is a rectangular hall, measuring 94 feet by 44 feet. There are no cells and no stupa chamber therefore it suggests that this cave would have served as a refectory or an oratory. Two rows of columns divides 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.
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 which leads a visitor to next cave, cave 6.
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 hall is a 46 feet square. Five cells are excavated in this hall, two on its south-western 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.
Marshall points to the remains of the pilasters at the entrance to the passage leading to cave 5, as these are of interest. He tells that the design is a conventionalized derivative of the ‘pot and foliage’ motif, which came into vogue for a short period during the 7th and 8th century CE. He also tells that this feature also helps in deriving the date of the excavation.
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 for the visitors. Dr. Impey writes this cave is situated about 20 yards from cave 6 and is very similar to the arrangement of cave 2. he mentions it to be 86 feet square with twenty pillars and twenty. The cave can be entered through one main door and four smaller doors. The stupa chamber inside has a vestibule in front.
Major Luard also of the same opinion as of Dr. Impey. Dr. Anupa Pandey, who is one among the recent scholars writing on these caves, mentions this cave to be similar as of the cave 2 and has a fairly large hall with residential cells, pillars and stupa chamber.
Cave No 8 – Dr. Impey tells that only five cells remain and the hill terminates within a few paces from extremity of the last cell of this cave. The remains of the cave suggests 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. Impey. He 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 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.
ASI Museum – There is a small museum at the site where paintings and other findings from Bagh region are displayed. Out of the museum are standing replica statues of the left and right side screens of the cave 2. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed without prior permission from ASI office.