Dhamnar – Harmony in Rocks


Though the monuments are generally known as Dhamnar Buddhist caves and a monolithic Hindu temple by early scholars, however, these fall in the village of Chandwasa in the Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh. The earliest modern reference to these monuments comes from James Tod who visited these in 1821.1 He mentions, “The hill is between two and three miles in circumference, to the north it is bluff, of gradual ascent, and about one hundred and forty feet in height, the summit presenting a bold perpendicular scarp, about thirty feet high. The top is flat, and covered with bar trees. On the south side it has the form of a horse-shoe, or irregular crescent, the horns of which are turned to the south, having the same bold natural rampart running round its crest, pierced throughout with caves, of which I counted one hundred and seventy.”  He also tells about the Hindu temple stating the temple was excavated within an immense square cavity measuring one hundred feet by seventy and about thirty-five feet in height. Tod tells his Jain guru told him all the figures carved in the caves were of Jain pontiffs. He says his team in vain hunted for inscriptions but a few isolated letters of that ancient and yet undeciphered kind which occurs on every monument attributed to the Pandavas were only observed.

Engraving of the cave temples of Dhoomnar in Malwa by Edward Francis Finden (1791-1857) after Patrick Young Waugh (1788-1829) | British Library

James Fergusson, an early doyen on Indian cave temple architecture, visited the site and described it in 1845.2 About the Buddhist caves he writes, “In themselves they are small and comparatively uninteresting, and were it not for the existence of the Brahmanical rock temple behind them, would not deserve much notice.” He tells the rock where these excavations were made is the most unfavorable that can be conceived for the exhibition of sculpture as the whole hill consists of a coarse iron stone or laterite. He describes a few caves naming those Child’s Cave, Bheem Sing ka Bazar, Kutchery, and Ranee’s Abode. He rejects the number of caves as provided by Colonel Tod stating the total number of excavations, counting those that only commenced, comes to sixty to seventy caves together. The next scholar to describe these caves and the temple was Alexander Cunningham who visited the site sometime between 1864-65.3 He agrees with Fergusson in the counting of the caves stating the hill does not have more than seventy excavations. Regarding the dating of these caves, Cunningham tells it is a difficult task due to the absence of inscriptions and the rudeness of all the sculptures and architectural ornaments. Considering a few similarities in some caves at the sites with that of the caves of the Ajanta, Cunningham agrees with Fergusson that the latter dated these to the 7th century CE latest. Henry Cousens4 was the next scholar whose account was published in 1909. Cousens rectified and adjusted a few mistakes or omissions from the previous two scholars, and agrees more or less with Cunningham and Fergusson on the dating of these monuments.

On the etymology of the name, Patil mentions the name Dhamnar is not known from any historical or literary sources.5 The Buddhist establishment at the village was known as Chandananagari-mahavihara as evidenced by a clay seal discovered by A H Khan during the conservation of the monuments at Dhamnar.6 While taking cognizance of this discovery, K C Jain also opines that the present name Dhamnar is a corruption of the Shaivite epithet Dharmanatha which was the name of the linga setup in the rock-cut Vaishnava temple during the medieval period.7

Buddhist Caves – The Dhamnar hill is made of coarse and friable laterite stone and has a flat top. Four groups of caves are excavated on this hill, two in the northwest, one at the point of a spur to the west, and the fourth and the most important group in a bay to the south. Altogether, including small and meager excavations, there are about sixty-seventy caves. The fourteen caves in the south facade of the hill are well described in various accounts, the rest are ignored as those do not offer value due to their condition, size, and style. The measurements provided in the below description are drawn from Cunningham’s report.

Cave No 1

Cave No 1 – This cave has an open porch of 20 feet long with a couple of cells at the rear, each measuring 8 by 7 feet. To reach the cells in the rear, two entrance doorways are provided. To the east of this cave is a flight of steps leading to the top of the hill.

Cave No 2

Cave No 2 – This cave is excavated as a verandah 17.5 feet long and 10 feet wide, with two cells at the rear, each 9 by 7.5 feet. A cell is also provided in the west, measuring 9 by 6 feet.

Cave No 3

Cave No 3 – This cave is not provided with any portico but was excavated as a chamber of 12 feet square. Inside the chamber is a small stupa of a square base carrying a dome of 5.5 feet in diameter.

Cave No 3 & 4
Stupa of Cave No 4

Cave No 4 – This is a small chaitya cave and located adjacent to Cave No 3. It is 20 feet in length and 10.5 feet in width. The end of the cave is rounded and the ceiling is vaulted. It is indeed curious that Caves 3 & 4 are located adjacent and the former has a stupa inside while the latter is modeled as a chaityagrha. The need for a chaityagrha arises for worship purposes however if those purposes were taken care of, why another stupa was chiseled off in Cave No 3? Does it mean that these two stupas are not contemporaneous, and one follows the other?

Cave No 5

Cave No 5 – This cave has an open verandah of 16 by 10 feet opening into a single cell of 16 by 8 feet. Outside the cave, a half stupa is sculpted on the face of the rock.

Cave No 6

Cave No 6 (Badi Kachahari) – The cave is locally known as Badi Kachahari or “large courtroom”. In the front is a portico supported by two pillars and two pilasters. These are raised over a parapet wall that has a decoration of upright railings. The cornice in the front is decorated with chaitya arches or dormer windows. There are a total of six such chaitya arches, three on either side separated by a stupa. From this portico, one can reach the hall through a single central entrance. Two windows flanking the entrance allow provision for sunlight. The hall measures 20 feet square and is supported by four central pillars. It has three rooms on each side, each measuring 7 feet square. It has a chaitya at the rear end and a portico in the front.

Cave No 7 sandwiched between No 6 and No 8

Cave No 7 – This cave is a small room of 8 feet by 7 feet with a porch that is larger than the room.

Cave No 8
Chaitya of Cave No 8

Cave No 8 (Chota Kachahari) – This cave is known as Chota Kacheri or a small courtroom. In the front is a portico supported by two pillars and two pilasters. These pillars and pilasters are raised over a low parapet wall. The chaitya arch decoration over the cornice as seen in Cave No 6 is missing here. The hall inside is an oblong shape excavation with a chaityagrha at the rear end. The hall is 23.5 feet by 15 feet. The chaitya stupa is 9.5 feet square at the base and 16.5 feet high. The roof is domed and ribbed in imitation of wooden prototypes. Two cells are provided inside the cave.

Cave No 8 & 9
Cave No 9

Cave no 9 – This cave has four cells and a half stupa at the rear end. One cell, the largest among the group, has a rock-cut bed with rock-cut pillows at each end.

Cave No 10

Cave No 10 – This was known as Rajlok by Tod and Rani ka makan/Kamaniya-mahal by Cunningham. It has an inner hall of 25 by 23 feet supported on four square pillars. It has a portico in the front.

Cave No 12 – Bhim Bazar

Passage around the cave

Chaitya of Cave No 11
Vaulted Roof

Cave No 11 (Bhim Bazar) – It is known as Bhim’s Bazar and is the most extensive of all the excavations. It has a chaityagrha at the rear end and a portico in the front with an open passage all around it. A pillared cloister runs around the three sides of the passage where the rear walls were provided with a range of cells, central cell in the east has a stupa. The central cell in the rear wall is larger than the rest and has a vaulted roof. Cunningham suggests that it was used by the head monk, however, Cousens disagrees because of its vaulted roof he suggests it was used to hold a movable image rather than for residential purposes. With the provisions of cells, the cave is a combination of a chaitya and a vihara (monastery). The overall measurement of the excavation is 115 by 80 feet. In front of the entrance are two small isolated rock-hewn stupas, both 5 feet in diameter. Six half-stupas are sculpted on the walls of the porch. The roof is domed and punctured with ribbed rafters, 11 in number. In front of the chaitya is a figure of a seated Buddha.

Cave No 12

Cave No 12 – A simple chaitya cave where the stupa is placed such as to support the roof. It is known as Hathi-ka-mekh or elephant’s peg/Hathi-bandhi or elephant’s stable. The doorway height is 16.5 feet which may allow an elephant to enter. The chamber is 25 by 27 feet.

Cave No 13 – Chota Bazar


Seated Buddha

Cave No 13 (Chota Bazar) – It is known as Chota Bazar or Child’s cave. Though small in size, this cave has about 15 sculptures and thus is a very important excavation at the site. The entrance portico is fallen, however, from its remains it appears to be a double-story portico. From the portico, one enters an open courtyard of 15 feet square. The central object here is an open-air stupa mounted on a square base in the middle of the courtyard. On the north side, is a shrine, 15 feet square, in which an 8 feet high colossal Buddha is seated upon a throne, apparently in the teaching attitude. He is known to locals as Bhima. On either side of the doorway of this shrine are images of a Buddha standing over a lotus pedestal, both 10 feet high. This is the principal shrine of the cave. To the left of the central stupa is a small chamber containing another stupa and to the right of the central stupa are three cells, the middle one has a stupa.

Reclining Buddha

The principal shrine has a pradakshinapath (circumambulation). The walls of the same are carved with nine Buddha images. Going around the pradakshinapath are three standing images on the west wall. On the back wall are five images, three seated and two standing. The three seated figures are known by locals as Pandu with his two sons, Arjuna and Nakula. On the east wall is the reclining image of Buddha, 15 feet long. This sleeping Buddha’s figure is locally known as Bhim’s baby. In the two chambers, to the right and left of the small eastern stupa cell, are two seated figures. All the figures are badly preserved and the damage is mostly natural due to the nature of the rock, as laterite stone allows water seepage, etc.

Cave No 14 – This is the last cave on this side of the hill, has an entrance porch opening into two small chambers.

Dharmanatha Temple

Staircase to access the courtyard from the top of the hill

Dharmanatha Temple – The temple is situated about 170 feet away from the north of Cave No 12 of the Buddhist cave group. This impressive rock-cut temple is excavated in a rectangular pit hewn within the hill. The pit or courtyard is 170 feet long, 66 feet broad, and 30 feet deep8, however, the length provided by Cunningham and Dayalan9 is 104 feet. The rock left in the middle of the courtyard has been carved into a temple as well as the corners and sides resulting in a total of eight temples overall. Access to this courtyard is provided through a long and narrow passage of 282 feet long and 13 feet wide is provided to approach this chamber, and this passage is also utilized to allow an exit for rainwater. The courtyard can also be accessed from the top of the hill by the rock-cut stairs provided its longer sides. The rock has been tunneled at three points forming three bridges across the chasm. Two tunnels are 17 feet long and 6 feet wide and the third is 23 feet long. The sides of the third tunnel are further excavated to allow two niches provisioned for sculptures. The sculpture on the south is that of Bhairava and on the north is of Kali. The latter carries an inscription reading Sri Bhala, of the characters of the 8th-9th century CE. Further down from this tunnel is another niche on the north of the passage, having an image of Ganesha.


The temple faces east and consists of a garbha-grha, an antarala, a mandapa and a mukha-mandapa. It is surrounded by seven subsidiary shrines, four on the corner of the courtyard and one each opposite to the bhadra-niche of the temple in the north, west, and south. Thus, the temple falls under the sapta-parivara (family of seven) category that is generally seen in the south of India for Shiva temples. Two corner shrines are square while the rest are oblong. The temple is known as Chaturbhuj temple by the locals due to the image of a four-arm Vishnu installed inside the garbha-grha. The main temple is pancharatha in plan consisting of one bhadra, two prati-ratha, and two karna projections. The vertical elevation has adhishthana (vedibandha), jangha, varandika, and shikhara.  The adhishthana is composed of four moldings, khura, kumbha, kalasa, and kapotika. The bhadra over jangha is provided with a niche topped by a chadhya (awning). All the bhadra-niches are empty at present. The parti-ratha is treated as a pilaster decorated with ghata-pallava motif and on top has a figure of a female nymph. The karna-ratha has niches carrying Ashta-dikpalas arranged as per their prescribed directions. Two bands of varandika moldings separate jangha from the shikhara. The shikhara is latina style of the Nagara type. It consists six bhumis (tiers) marked by bhumi-amalakas at the karna.

Lateral entry into mandapa
Ganesha in the south kapili niche
A goddess in the north kapili niche

The mukha-mandapa provides the main entrance into the temple. Above this entrance is a large chaitya-arch in which a celestial couple is carved along with attendants. As the carving has suffered much damage, therefore the identification of the couple is not problematic, however, from the sitting attitude of the goddess, it appears that they represent Shiva and Parvati rather than Vishnu and Lakshmi. But, this creates a problem as the temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu therefore the couple in this arch should be Vishnu and Lakshmi. The lateral sides of the mukha-mandapa have trellis windows allowing light and air to pass through. The mandapa is a closed hall with two entries provided on its backside near the garbha-grha. These entrances have the figure of river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna, on their doorjamb. These doorways allow a devotee to take a pradakshina (circumambulation) around the garbha-grha. Though a pradakshina around the temple is anyway possible as ample space is left between the main temples and its subsidiary shrines, however, the architects have also provided a provision for the pradakshina of the garbha-grha alone. The mandapa shikhara is in phamsana (pyramidal) style, composed of four tiers.

Yamuna over a tortoise
Ganga over a makara
Lakshmi-Narayana over lalata-bimba
Shivalinga as Dharmanatha and four-armed Vishnu image in black stone in the garbha-grha

The garbha-grha doorway is composed of pancha-shakhas (five jambs). River-goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, are present over the doorjamb. Vishnu with Lashmi is present in the lalata-bimba, and this also suggests that the temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu. The doorway is not carved from the mother rock but is a separate installation. The reason behind would be the issues with fine sculptures on the friable laterite rock and therefore a provision for a separate doorway would have been made by the temple architects. Inside the garbha-grha is a Shivalinga known as Dharmanatha. Placed against the back wall is an image of four-armed Vishnu made of black stone. He is accompanied by two ayudhapurushas, Chakra-purusha and Shankha-purusha, on either side. In the arch around the image are carved ten incarnations of Vishnu.

Vishnu lying over Shesha

Dancing Shiva in the middle, on his right are Maheshwari and Vaishnavi, and on his left are Indrani and Brahmi

Dashavatara panel – from the left, Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Balarama, and Vishnu
From the left – Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Balarama, Vishnu, and Kalki

Among the seven subsidiary shrines, the ones located in the corners are with latina-Nagara shikhara and the ones opposite the garbha-grha are of the phamsana shikhara. The corner shrines are square while the rest are rectangular. The corner shrines do not have their original images inside and have fragments of various sculptures. The shrines facing the temple garbha-grha have sculptural panels inside. The southern shrine has a panel depicting dancing Shiva flanked by four matrkas, two on the left and two on the right. On the right of Shiva are Maheshwari and Vaishvani while on his left are Indrani and Brahmi. All the figures are shown with their vahanas. The shrine in the west has a panel depicting Sheshasayi-Vishnu. Vishnu is four-armed holding shankha (conch), chakra (discus), and a lotus flower. His gada (club) is depicted by the side of his head. He is sleeping under the canopy made of seven heads of Shesha. Goddess Lakshmi is at his feet. Demon Madhu and Kaitabha are at his feet, and to stop their attack are two ayudhapurushas, a female Kaumaudaki (club), and Sudarshana chakrapurusha. In the northern shrine is a panel depicting ten avataras of Vishnu. An interesting feature is the omission of Buddha who is replaced by a figure of Vishnu instead.

The dating of the temple may only be attempted based on the comparative studies of its architecture and sculptural style. There is a label inscription over an image in one of the niches of the passage and its paleography can also help in dating the temple. Taking all these into account, Dayalan has dated the temple to the later half of the 9th century CE.10


  1. Label on the pedestal of an image11 – the beginning of the inscription reads Sribhala

1 Tod, James (1990). Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, Vol. III. Low Price Publications. Delhi. ISBN 8186142444. pp. 1772-1777
2 Fergusson, James (1845). Illustrations of the Rock-cut Temples of India. John Weale. London. pp. 40-44
3 Cunningham, Alexander (1871). Four Reports made during the Years 1862-63-64-65, Vol. II. Government Central Press. Simla. pp. 270-280
4 Cousens, Henry (1909). The Dhamnar Caves and Monolithic Temple of Dharmanatha in Annual Report 190506, Archaeological Survey of India. pp. 110-115
5 Patil, D. R. (1952). The Cultural Heritage of Madhya Bharat. Department of Archaeology. Gwalior. p. 124
6 Indian Archaeology 1960-61. p.60
7 Jain, K. C. (1972). Ancient Cities and Towns of Rajasthan. Motilal Banarasidass. Delhi. pp. 236-237
8 Cousens, Henry (1909). The Dhamnar Caves and Monolithic Temple of Dharmanatha in Annual Report 190506, Archaeological Survey of India. p. 111
9 Dayalan, D (1995). Monolithic Temples of Madhya Pradesh. Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. Delhi. ISBN 8186050019. p. 56
10 Dayalan, D (1995). Monolithic Temples of Madhya Pradesh. Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. Delhi. ISBN 8186050019. p. 69
11 Dayalan, D (1995). Monolithic Temples of Madhya Pradesh. Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. Delhi. ISBN 8186050019. p. 69

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.