The Udaigiri hills, home to early Gupta art, rise like the matted locks of meditating Lord Shiva near the sleepy district headquarters of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh.
The numerous caves in the sandstone display the largest sculptural panel in entire central India as also a general’s salutation to his king. It has everything that would charm art lovers and history students alike.
Udaigiri caves comprise a group of 20 Gupta-era temples and monasteries carved out of a rocky hill. The rock art of Udaigiri mainly dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. The ancient site is just 90 minutes’ drive from the state capital Bhopal.
Through several inscriptions, the caves bear eloquent testimony to the growth of Gupta power, which reached its zenith in the 4th century.
The caves were under the patronage of Chandragupta II, who ruled the Gupta Empire between 380-414 CE. Cave Inscription I has Chandragupta II’s title “Parambhattarak Maharajadhiraj” while Inscription II mentions Sandhivigrahika Virasen, Minister of Peace and War.
“A general of Chandragupta Vikramaditya arrived here with the Emperor and left the two-line epigraph. When Vikramaditya was marching towards Gujarat, his forces must have camped here,” an Archaeological Survey of India official told 30Stades.
Inscription II also contains a reference to the city of Pataliputra -- the seat of the Gupta dynasty -- and tells us about the inheritance of higher administrative posts in the Gupta period.
Anantashayanam Vishnu reclining on Adisesha Naga, Cave 13. Pic: Courtesy Asit C Chandra
Udaigiri or Udaygiri means the ‘sunrise hills'. The caves are set in two low hills near Betwa River that flows northeast through Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and empties into the Yamuna River.
At the entrance to Cave Number 5 is a colossal relief work depicting Vishnu in his Varaha incarnation. The Lord as Narvaraha is shown lifting Bhoodevi from the ocean. The well-muscled abdomen and Herculean limbs give a feeling of sheer strength and the incarnation stands in a posture that conveys movement, with one arm resting on the thigh and the other on the waist even as the left foot tramples a serpent.
The Varaha panel in Cave 5 is one of the most studied reliefs from the Gupta Empire era.
Prof Arthur Llewellyn Basham, an expert on Asian civilisation, writes in his book ‘The Wonder that was India’, “Perhaps the most immediately impressive of all Guptan sculpture is the Great Boar. The body of the god Vishnu, who became a mighty boar to rescue the earth from the cosmic ocean, conveys the impression of a great primeval power working for good against the forces of chaos and destruction, and bears a message of hope, strength and assurance.
“The greatness of the god in comparison with his creation is brought out by the tiny female figure of the personified earth, clinging to his tusk. The deep feeling which inspired the carving of this figure makes it perhaps the only such figure in the world’s art which conveys a truly religious message to modern man.”
Ten-armed Mahishasura Mardini or Navadurga highlights the fact that the concept of Devi or goddess had developed (Cave No. 6). Pic: Courtesy Asit C. Chandra
The two flanking scenes represent the birth of the Ganga and the Yamuna, their confluence and the final merging of their waters with the Bay. As Vishnu performs his feat, a host of demigods and saints look on.
The Varaha became a very popular theme with the Guptas. Absolute power and the idea of conquest seemed attractive to them.
Cave Number 6 depicts the ten-armed Mahishasura Mardini or Navadurga, signifying that the concept of Devi or goddess had developed.
In Cave Number 4, is an Ekmukhi Shivlinga with the god’s countenance carved on the linga.
From the Gupta period onwards, ekmukhi shivlingas have been found. However, the presence of a thick necklace on Shiva, instead of the typically Gupta single-beaded thin one, means this linga belongs to a later period, an expert of the Kashi Prasad Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna, explains.
Cave Number 6 has Kartikeya and Vishnu. While exploring the caves one sees Anantashayanam Vishnu, a huge rock replica of a medallion, Chakrapurush and Gadadevi – weapons were depicted in human form during the Gupta period. More about the ancient caves in pictures here:
The rock art of Udaigiri mainly dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Pic: Courtesy Asit C. Chandra Vishnu as Narvaraha lifts Bhoodevi from the ocean (Cave No. 6). Pic: Courtesy Asit C. Chandra
Ekmukhi Shivlinga with the god’s countenance carved on the linga in Cave No. 4. Pic: Dharma/Wikipedia Lord Vishnu in the Narasimha Avatar, Cave 12. Pic: Courtesy Asit C Chandra
The Sanskrit inscriptions in Udaigiri caves help date it to about 401 CE. Pic: Sarah Welch/Wikipedia The Varaha panel in Cave 5 is one of the most studied reliefs from the Gupta Empire era. Pic: Flickr
(Lede picture through Wikipedia/Asit Jain)
(Abhijit C. Chandra is a Bhopal-resident journalist & teacher)