Sitabenga & Jogimara Caves – Colors of Drama

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Sitabenga and Jogimara are two caves on the Ramgarh hill located near the Ramgarh village in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh. The hills have many caves at different levels however the most important and frequently visited are the Sitabenga and Jogimara caves. The Jogimara cave is known as the most ancient cave carrying fresco paintings dateable to the 3rd century BCE or earlier as evident from the inscriptions it carries. The Sitabenga cave is popularly known as the earliest theatre cave in India. It is believed that Rama spent time in these hills during his exile with Sita and Lakshmana. The caves are located on the western slope of the northern section of the Ramgarh hills.

Hathipol
Inside the tunnel

To approach these caves, one has to pass through a singular shaped tunnel, locally known as Hathipol. The total length of the tunnel is about 180 feet and its height varies between 15 to 20 feet. At the entrance of the tunnel is a water shoot from the rock and a few scholars took the opinion that the continuous flow of that water caused the peculiar shape of the tunnel. However, this is not the case, the tunnel appears all natural with no signs of any manual activity of excavations or cutting. At the other end of the tunnel are the caves of Sitabenga and Jogimara. The caves are natural and their interior surface is made smooth with a chisel.

Sitabenga Caves

The Sitabenga cave is called so as it was supposedly the residence taken by Sita when she was in her exile with Rama. Benga appears a corruption of bungalow (or bangla). The curious architecture of the cave has left many baffled and various suggestions are thus forwarded in the past. The cave from the inside is in form of a hall, 12 feet wide at the front and 17 feet wide at the rear. The total depth of the cave is about 45 feet while the height varies between 6 and 5.5 feet. In the rear of the cave, recesses have been excavated into the lateral walls. In front of the cave are a row of benches, arranged in tiered terraces, wide enough for seating or sleeping purposes. Gaps run between these rows suggesting a space allowing a person to pass through. The initial assessment from the early explorers was that the cave was used for residential purposes, male occupants taking the benches for sleeping while female occupants take the hall or the recesses for their privacy. However, once the inscriptions were interpreted and translated, a few scholars, started by Lüders and Bloch, identified this cave as the earliest Indian theatre where the setting of the cave provided a space for performances of theatrical activities. The inscriptions were translated in context of poetry and dramas befitting the intended usage of the cave. This opinion of early Indian cave theatre is still controversial as a set of scholars do not agree.

Jogimara Cave
Fresco paintings in the dome

The Jogimara cave are located very near to the Sitabenga cave. The cave is famous for its fresco paintings, suggested to the oldest in India. The paintings are much deteriorated and only fragments can be seen now. The paintings were copied by Asit Kumar Haldar, the best workman of his period, in 1914 and he explains the paintings were carried out in two different phases, the first phase of the 3rd-2nd century BCE identifiable by clever outlines and drawings of superior quality and workmanship and the later phase of many hundred years later showing crude and very inferior quality work. The paintings are found on the ceiling of the cave, the area is divided into different panels separated by red color band. The surface is prepared using white background and painting is executed in three colors, crimson, gray black, and gamboge.

Photograph of the Sita Bangira (Sitabenga) Cave, Ramgarh taken by J D Beglar between 1874 and 1875 | British Library

The first modern account of these hills and antiquity comes from Lieut.-Col. J. R. Ouseley in 1848.1 It was a very short account mentioning the celebrated Ramgarh temple at the top of the hill and a singular tunnel. Ouseley tells the temple was in a ruinous condition sitting at the top of the hill, about 3100 feet high. He also mentions the failed attempt and the disaster that befell Captain Fell when the latter tried to approach the site but failed being attacked with fever and dying on road. The dimensions provided for the singular tunnel were  25 feet in width, 15 or 20 feet high, and 140 or 150 yards long. He did not mention any name for this tunnel. He further mentions that beyond the other end of the tunnel, a few wonderful caves however does not provide any further description except that there were a few stone images inside the caves and wild animals making it their abode. Ouseley concludes his account stating the country of Sarguja was well worth the attention of geologists for its mineral and ore deposits and he hoped that the period was not distant when European colonization was to be attempted. The next account of the hills was from Lt.-Col. T. Dalton who toured the region in 1863-64.2 About the hills he writes, ‘From one distant aspect, the upper portion of the hill alone appearing above the Sal forest, its resemblance to a monster fort with a cupola roof is very striking, so regular is its form and so abruptly precipitous are its sides. Approaching it, however, it is seen to have a variety of outworks of its own.’ He mentions the name of the singular tunnel of Ouseley as Hathphor explaining a man on horseback could ride through it. He further tells, at the end of the tunnel, two caves had been excavated by human labor, the largest can accommodate 40-50 people. He takes the larger cave as a residential cave having recesses at its extremities intended for private quarters for female occupants. As Dalton does not see images inside these caves as told by Ouseley, he concludes that these caves were not meant for worship but for residences.

The next account is from V Ball who visited the region in the capacity of the Geographical Surveyor in 1872.3 He mentions the dilapidated temple at the top of the hill is not been taken care by none of the Rajas (kings) or Zamindars though a fare being held every year. Inside the temple were images of Lakshman, Balsundri, Janki, and Raja Janak. Ball explains the etymology behind the name Hathphor implying ‘made by hand’. However, the editor of the journal suggests that it might be corruption of Hathipola, ‘the elephant gate’. Ball also mentions he did not find any evidence of the tunnel being artificial and explains it was formed due to the trickling of water through the crevices in the sandstone. The stream having found its way through an immense mass of sandstone has been at work for ages enlarging the passage to 160 paces long. He provides the dimensions of the Sitabengra cave as 12 feet wide at the mouth and 17 feet wide at the rear. The total length is said to be 44.5 feet and the height varying from 6 feet to 5.5 feet. He agrees with Dalton stating the stone benches look so eminently suitable for sleeping purposes, while the recess might be so readily shut off for females. No measurements of the Jogimara caves were provided in his account.

J D Beglar4 paid a visit to these hills in 1874-75. Based upon the legends and places in and around the hill being associated with Rama, Sita, and the Ramayana episodes, Beglar identifies this hill and jungles around as the Chitrakuta region where Rama spent a good amount of his exile period with Sita and Lakshmana. Beglar mentions most of the antiquities however he did not go into detail about the purpose of the caves, however, his narrative was in the direction of the legend that the cave was used by Sita as her residence during the exile.  In 1877, W W Hunter5 was next to provide an account however that did not improve much from what was already known at that time.

Based upon the photographs and paper impression of the inscription taken by J D Beglar, Alexander Cunningham6 published the inscriptions of the caves in 1877. Cunningham provides the text of the inscription however he did not propose any translation except a hint that the inscription in the Sitabenga cave was probably engraved by a sculptor named Devadina for a sutranuka named Devadarsin. Hara Prasad Shastri7 provides the first translations of the inscriptions, the Sitabenga cave inscription translating as, “I salute the beautifully-formed one who shows us the gods. I salute the beautiful form that leads us to the gods. He is much in quest at Varanasi. I salute the god-given one for seeing his beautiful form.” and the Jogimara cave inscription translating as, “The heart of a lady living at a distance (from her lover) is set to flames by the following three :- Sadam Bagara and the poet. For her this cave is excavated. Let the god of love look to it.” Shastri’s translations were in line of this thought process that the Ramgarh hills are the Ramagiri hills of the Meghaduta of Kalidasa, the starting point of the cloud-messenger. And thus he interpreted these inscriptions as love songs and these would have inspired Kalidasa to connect the place with the hero of his poem.

The first detailed account from an archaeologist appeared in 1904 when Dr. Theodore Bloch8, the Archaeological Surveyor of the Archaeological Survey, Bengal Circle, visited these caves. He mentions the temple on the top of the hill was a famous pilgrimage spot attracting a good number of people annually. They pay their worship in the temple and sacrifice a goat at a certain place on the way to the hill though no idol of any kind was exhibited there. He mentions various antiquities on the way till the Hathipol tunnel stating that the antiquity was not of much value. He mentions passing the Hathipol riding over a small elephant while the other big elephants could easily walk through the tunnel suggesting the name signifies “an opening so large that an elephant can pass through”. Bloch was able to interpret the meaning of the inscriptions of the Sitabengra cave mentioning, “poets venerable by nature kindle the heart” and based on this he proposed the cave was used as a hall where theatrical plays were acted, poems recited, and similar exhibitions were held. And the style of the cave, with its hemispherical benches cut out of the rock rising in tiers overlooking the platform in front, with small passages made between different rows, holes in the front to hold wooden poles for curtains, all this suggest that the cave was used for such purposes. Similarly, the inscription of the Jogimara cave mentions “Devadatta by name, skilled in rupa” and rupa here should be equated with painting as the cave is adorned with the oldest paintings ever found in India. Among the paintings over the caves, though much deteriorated, Bloch mentions chaitya windows and a two-wheeled carriage drawn by three or four horses.

The inscriptions of the caves were first translated by M. l’Abbé Boyer9 in 1904 based upon the facsimiles published by Cunningham. However, as his article was in French therefore I am not including his translation here to avoid loss of information in translation. Bloch10, takes cognizance of Boyer’s translation and provides his own translation of the Sitabenga inscription as, “Poets venerable by nature kindle the heart, who…. At the swing-festival of vernal full-moon, when frolics and music abound, people thus (?) tie (around their necks garlands) thick with jasmine flowers”. Bloch mentions whatever may be thought of his interpretation of the second line, he is confidant of the reading of the first line and it should be beyond any possible doubt. As the inscription opens with a praise of the charms of poetry, and therefore it can be safely assumed that the cave carrying this inscription was a place where poetry was recited, love songs were sung, and theatrical performances acted. He concludes that we are looking at an Indian theatre of the 3rd century BCE. He supports his theory explaining the plan and setting of the cave where a row of rock-cut benches arranged in terraces in the shape of a crescent serves to seat an audience watching some play acted in front of them. He opines this hemispherical rows of rock-cut seats rising in terraces above each other and with the pathways between them arranged somewhat like concentric circles and radiant, bears a certain resemblances to the plan of a Greek theatre and thus this is an example of adoption of a Greek theatre in an Indian building. He translates the Jogimara cave inscription as, “Sutanuka by name, a Devadasi, made this resting place for girls. Devadinna by name, skilled in painting.”  He explains the Jogimara cave was the resting place for the girls employed in the performances in the nearby Sitabenga cave. On the paintings of the cave, Bloch mentions those were very crude exhibiting no great skill of the painter’s brush. The large portions of the frescos had entirely disappeared due to dampness and the remaining is visible only when the surface is moistened. Bloch describes the four best preserved panels:

  1. In center male figure, seated under a tree, to left dancing girls and musicians, to right procession with an elephant
  2. A number of male figures, a wheel and geometric ornaments
  3. Half of this panel is more or less indistinct and shows merely traces of flowers, houses, and human figures wearing clothes. Then follows a tree with a bird and a human figure, probably a child, in its branches. Around this are a number of other human figures, standing, similar to that upon the tree, all undressed, their head tied into a knot on the left side of the head.
  4. A male figure seated cross-legged, evidently naked, with three attendants standing and wearing clothes. To the side of the group, two similar seated figures with their attendants. Below, a house with a chaitya window, and an elephant and three male figures wearing clothes standing in front. Near this group is seen a chariot drawn by three horses and surmounted by an umbrella; also another elephant with an attendant. A similar series of seated male figures, a house with a chaitya-window and an elephant is repeated in the second half of this panel.

Von R Pischel11 argues against the Greek theatre theory of Bloch and he proposes that such cave theatres were used for paper and puppet shows, chayanataka, where a light was lit behind a screen and the puppet-handler sitting behind the screen narrates the story through puppet movements. J F Blakiston12 visited the site in 1913-14 on the orders from the Director-General of Archaeology on the commission of copying the fresco paintings of the cave. In this commission, he was assisted by Samarendra Nath Gupta and Asit Kumar Haldar. Both the artists were the former students of the Calcutta School of Arta and were instrumental in copying the fresco paintings of the Ajanta caves. The painting surface of the Jogimara cave was about 9 feet long and about 7 feet wide. The background was painted white, and three colors were used to paint the images, crimson, gray black, and gamboge. The paintings were divided into various panels by bands of crimson or gamboge. John Marshall, who received the copies, commented the frescos were executed by two different hands, the first about the first century BCE and the second many hundred years later. The original paintings must have been work of some merit, but very little of it remains, and the restoration or the second work was of some who knew nothing about painting.

Haldar13 does not agree with the theatre setting of the Sitabenga cave as proposed by Bloch stating the rows of the stairs are so arranged that it was impossible for one to have a view of the interior of the cave or to be able to see any performances, and the person would be such as to place the spectator with their backs to the stage. He concludes that this place was never used as a stage. He opines the paintings in the Jogimara cave seem of inferior type and quite crude. While copying the paintings, they saw some clever lines of earlier drawings that had been evidently covered up by the later paintings. The earlier period paintings appear to be of a superior class and were later covered with a thick coating of white color. The first part of the panel from the right side has a few human figures, a figure of an elephant, and a grotesque-looking shark. The subject matter of the fourth panel was very curious, it shows a few Lilliputian doll-like figures entirely without proportions and absolutely wanting in expression. The pose of the figures is rather amusing. In the fifth panel is a lady squatting on the ground and a few musicians engaged in dancing revelry. Haldar mentions this picture appears identical to the one found at Ajanta.  And this was the only painting that interested him. The sixth and seventh panel has much deteriorated however it appears like representation of chaitya temples and ancient Indian chariots.

Sitabenga Inscription
Jogimara Cave Inscription

Inscriptions: Both the caves, Sitabenga and Jogimara, carry inscriptions. Both are written in Brahmi and contemporary, paleographically dateable to the 3rd-2nd century BCE.

  1. Sitabenga Cave Inscription: Written in Prakrit, Surasena dialect, engraved in two lines with letters of equal size
    1. Hara Prasad Shastri14 translates it as below
      1. “I salute the beautifully-formed one who shows us the gods. I salute the beautiful form that leads us to the gods. He is much in quest at Varanasi. I salute the god-given one for seeing his beautiful form.”
    2. Bloch15 translates it as below
      1. “Poets venerable by nature kindle the heart, who….”
      2. “At the swing-festival of vernal full-moon, when frolics and music abound, people thus (?) tie (around their necks garlands) thick with jasmine flowers”
  2. Jogimara Cave Inscription: Written in Prakrit, Magadhi dialect, engraved in five lines with letters of unequal size. Various meanings for words lupa-dakhe and Balanasaye are interpreted by different scholars resulting in different translations
    1. Hara Prasad Shastri16 translates it as below
      1. “The heart of a lady living at a distance (from her lover) is set to flames by the following three :- Sadam Bagara and the poet. For her this cave is excavated. Let the god of love look to it.”
    2. Bloch17 translates it as below
      1. “Sutanuka by name,
      2. a Devadasi,
      3. Sutanuka by name, a Devadasi
      4. The excellent among young men loved her,
      5. Devadinna by name, skilled in sculpture.”
    3. Luders18 translates it as below
      1. “The temple-servant (devadasikyi) Sutanuka (Sutanuki) by name. The copyist (lupadakha), Devadina (Devadatta) by name, the Balanaseya (native from Baranasi), loved her.”
    4. K P Jayaswal19 opines that lupadakhe (=rupadaksha) means city magistrate or some minister. Therefore the inscription is an official order or decree by the officer Rupadaksha in favor of the ascetic woman, and not the love-making Sutanaka. And it related to her worship of Varuna instead of to “the man of benares”. He translates it as below
      1. “In Favour of Satanuka, the devadarsini
      2. (Order) ‘Sutanaka’, by name, devadarsini, of austere life, (is) now in the service of Varuna. – Devadina (=Devadatta) by name, Rupadaksha.”
    5. S N Ghosal20 translates as below
      1. Sutanaka by name, a female attendant (devoted to the service of gods). Her beloved, who came from Benaras, Devadinna by name, skilful in the dramatic performances (i.e.), adept in the historic art).
    6. D R Bhandarkar21 takes rupa-daksha for a banker. In the same context, Chatterji22 mentions the adoption of the word rupa-daksa into Bengali during the early twenties, where the word was taken to mean as “artist”, and it was quite a popular word. However, when it was found that it means “a skilled accountant” then the use of this word was abandoned. Bhandarkar translates it as below
      1. “There was a devadasi Sutanuka by name, who was loved by Devadinna, native of Banarasi and a banker (rupa-daksa) by profession.”
    7. S Settar23 opines that these two private records are evidence of de-linking from the political and ethical philosophy and they open up a new chapter in the history of Indian arts and letters. These private records signify the end of monopoly of royal edicts and beginning of a new era of social communication. Following the translation from Fleet, he interprets as below,
      1. Sutanuka by name, a devadasi
      2. Sutanuka by name, a devadasi
      3. [is] loved by the lupadakhe Devadina,
      4. noblest of the sculptors of Baranasi

After the 1920s many scholars have written and expressed their views about the Sitabenga cave and its intended purpose. The scholar community is divided on the same, however, there are only two possible alternatives. Each of the alternative has to be assessed on three major parameters, first the peculiar setting of the cave, second the holes in the cave floor, and the third the inscription in the cave. The first line of thought is that the cave was used for residential purposes as is the case with many other similar caves across the Indian geography. The scholars taking this view argue that the settings of the cave or arrangement of benches does not suite the purpose of a theatre as people sitting on benches will have their back towards the stage set inside the cave. And these benches suit well for sleeping purpose. By inserting wooden poles in the holes of the cave floor, a partition can be easily created allowing female occupants to take the cave hall while the male occupants taking the outside benches. However, this line of argument fails to explain the context of the inscription in the cave as well as why such a residential cave was required. Was the hill part of an ancient trade route and this spot was a halt for trade caravans? Or, the hill was a famous pilgrimage spot and therefore the caves were required for temporary residence for the pilgrims? Unfortunately, the Ramgarh hill does not fare well on both the points. It was of course not part of any ancient trade route, and though there exists a ruined temple at the hill-top however its antiquity cannot be taken back to the dated period of the cave.

The second line of thought is that the cave represents an ancient Indian theatre where poems were recited and acts were performed. This connects well with the inscriptions as those carry context of poetry and drama. Also, the setting of the cave with its terraced benches gives an appearance of a theatre. Though arguments were raised on seating arrangements and viewer’s back to the stage, however, what if the cave shelter was not used for stage but the front area of the cave was the actual stage where acts were performed. In the case of the latter, the purpose of the holes in the cave floor is defeated, as if the cave interior was used as a stage then these holes were used to hold wooden poles to carry a curtain for the stage. However, an important question to be answered would be why the need of a theatre would have arisen on this hill as as we know the hill was not part of an ancient trade route, the region was not under the direct rule of an influential or a large dynasty and this has been attributed to the general backwardness of the region, etc. If the cultural and political development of the region was kind of stunted during the period when these inscriptions were engraved, either our initial assessment of low cultural development is incorrect or the caves were not intended for the purpose of theatrical performances. Also, to take into account the nature of inscriptions. There are no parallel of such love-notes in the whole Indian epigraphy and this raises doubts if the inscription is indeed a love-note or else. If it is indeed a love-declaration, what reason the engraver would had to engrave this note? It was not a proclamation for sure as that requires an audience, therefore was it a posthumous note to keep alive memories of the immortal love that kindled in these caves a certain time in the past? If it is a love-note, then the latter appears more probable, that it was written posthumously and the characters mentioned in the inscription are long dead. The latest study of the site was done by Susmita Basu Majumdar24 and she states neither the inscriptions can be taken as poetry nor the caves be considered an amphitheater. The riddle of the Ramgarh caves still remains unsolved while we wait for future discoveries and explanations.


1 Ouseley, J R (1848). On the Antiquities of Sarguja and its neighbourhood in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. XVII, part I – January to June, 1848. pp. 65-68
2 Dalton, T (1865). Notes on a Tour made in 1863-64 in the Tributary Mehals under the Commissioner of Chota-Nagpur, Bonai Gangpore, Odeypur and Sirgooja in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. XXXIV. pp. 22-27
3 Ball, V (1873). On the Antiquities of Ramgarh Hill, District of Sarguja in the Indian Antiquary vol. II, September 1873. pp. 243-246
4 Beglar, J D (1882). Report of Tours in the South-Eastern Provinces in 1874-75 and 1875-76, vol. XIII. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp. 31-54
5 Hunter, W W (1877). A Statistical Account of Bengal vol. XVII. Trubner & Co. London. pp. 236-239
6 Cunningham, Alexander (1877). Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, vol. I, Inscriptions of Asoka. p. 33 & p. 105
7 Shastri, H P (1903). The Identification of Ramagiri in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, January-December, 1902. pp. 90-91
8 Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey, Bengal Circle, for the year ending with April, 1904, part II, General Remarks. pp. 12-14
9 Boyer, M. l’Abbé (1904). Inscriptions De Ramgarh Hill in the Journal Asiatique, dixième série, tome III. pp. 478-488
10 Caves and Inscriptions in Ramgarh Hill in the Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, 1903-04. pp. 123-131
11 PIschel, R Von (1906). Das altindische Schattenspiel published in the Sitzungsberichte der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften XXIII. Berlin. pp. 482-502
12 Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey, Eastern Circle for 1913-14. pp. 43-44
13 Haldar, Asit Kumar (1952). Art and Tradition. The Universal Publishers Ltd. Lucknow. pp. 87-97
14 Shastri, H P (1903). The Identification of Ramagiri in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, January-December, 1902. pp. 90-91
15 Caves and Inscriptions in Ramgarh Hill in the Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, 1903-04. pp. 123-131
16 Shastri, H P (1903). The Identification of Ramagiri in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, January-December, 1902. pp. 90-91
17 Caves and Inscriptions in Ramgarh Hill in the Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, 1903-04. pp. 123-131
18 No. 921 of the List of Brahmi Inscriptions from the Earliest Times, Epigraphia Indica vol. X, p. 93 of Appendix
19 Jayaswal, K P (1919). The Jogimara Cave Inscription in the Indian Antiquary vol. XLVIII. p. 131
20 Bandyopadhyay, Samaresh (1960). On the Interpretation of the Jogimara Cave Inscription in the Journal of the Asiatic Society vol. XXI, nos. 3-4. pp. 44-45
21 Bandyopadhyay, Samaresh (1960). On the Interpretation of the Jogimara Cave Inscription in the Journal of the Asiatic Society vol. XXI, nos. 3-4. pp. 44-45
22 Chatterji, S C (1960). Mutual Borrowings in Indo-Aryan in Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Vol. 20, No. ¼. P. 62
23 Settar, S (2003). General President’s Address: Footprints of Artisans in History Some Reflections on Early Artisans of India published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 64. pp. 35-36
24 Majumdar, Susmita Basu (2020). Literary Inscriptions: An Overview published on Sahapedia.org, retrieved on 26-08-2022

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.