Allure of Udayagiri Caves Madhya Pradesh

Udayagiri hills

Are Udayagiri Caves really old? Which is the oldest Hindu temple? A quick search of the internet gave me the answer as Mundenshwari Temple in Kaura, Bihar dedicated to the worship of Shiva and Shakti and is supposed to have been built in the year 625 CE! To top it, it is still functional! What if I say we have been to a temple that predates Mundeshwari Temple by a couple of centuries! The rock cut temples of Udayagiri Caves, Madhya Pradesh are one of the oldest temple-complex dedicated to multiple Hindu Gods and Jainism. 

Religion is the frozen thought of man out of which they build temples.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Udayagiri Caves (Udaigiri Caves)

Udayagiri caves complex, the Amazing caves of MP, is at a distance of about 9 km from Sanchi on local roads. At the time of starting from Sanchi I had no idea as to what to expect. Were they going to be the mundane rock-cut sculptures completely disfigured by the ravages of time or were there going to be paintings too (like in Ajanta caves). What I saw was something I could not have imagined!

A short, less than 30 minutes, drive brought us to Udayagiri Caves complex from Sanchi. Initially, all I could see was a sheer sandstone hill about 100m high, in front of me. 

History of Udayagiri Caves

Archaeological analysis of Udayagiri site suggest that the hill served as an astronomical observatory of sorts to study the Sun, the Moon and the stars. The name, Udayagiri, itself means, “sunrise hill”. This is the highest point in the vicinity and the rising sun would light up the hill top first and then the rest. 

Never seen a tree with a white trunk

Secondly, it was said that the Tropic of Cancer cut across the hill and as such would be an interesting place to observe the Sun. Especially during the Summer Solstice when the Sun would have been right above the head at noon. My own calculation says that in the 4th century CE, the Tropic of Cancer would have been a few kilometers further North, but I am ready to accept this theory considering these awesome guys of that era had limited resources but super brains. 

It was during the Gupta empire period, particularly Chandragupta II, who was also known as Chandragupta Vikramaditya must have allowed or ordered to improve upon rock-cut cave temples and build new ones too, in the late 4th century to early 5th century CE. Guptas were ardent followers of Vishnu but allowed other forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism to co-exist. Hence the temples are dedicated to multiple deities. Must have been a wonderful time!

Vishnupadagiri and Astronomy

How many of you have been to Qutub Minar in New Delhi? If you have been, you would not have missed the solid iron pillar weighing around 6,000 KG, literally next door to Qutub Minar. 

So what is the connection between Iron Pillar of Delhi and Udayagiri Caves near Vidisha? 

The inscription on that pillar indicates that the pillar was built during Gupta Empire and more specifically during the reign of Chandragupta II (Chandragupta Vikramaditya) and the place mentioned is Vishnupadagiri. 

Aerial view of Udayagiri looks like a foot. Is that why it is also called Vishnupadagiri?

Vishnu+Paada+Giri = Vishnu+feet+Hill . That is the hill that looks like the foot of Lord Vishnu.

It has been found that Vishnupadagiri was another name for Udayagiri and the iron pillar was once installed at this very place. Was it to study the shadow of the pillar formed by the sun, as in a sundial? Maybe! Or was it just a memorial to the great achievement of Chandragupta Vikramaditya? Jury is still out! 

By the way an aerial shot of Udayagiri hill does look like a foot! 

Rock cut temples at Udayagiri Caves 

We started moving towards the beginning of the rock cut cave temple cluster while Prof KK Muhammed was explaining the history of the place. There are sculptures and bas reliefs depicting gods, goddesses and stories from ancient religious texts.

As per one of the information boards, there are in all 20 caves out of which 18 are dedicated to Hindu Gods and Goddesses and two to Jainism. 

Out of all these caves only some of them are extant and interesting and some of the caves are just niche in the wall. I am also listing them in the order of beauty and not in the order of cave numbers. 

Cave 13 – Sheshsayi Vishnu 

At the end of the natural passage is Cave 13. This is dedicated to Vishnu lying down on a serpent with his head resting on the palm of one of the four hands. The serpent is the  Sheshanaga or Adishesha. This serpent is king of all serpents and is in control of Vishnu. This is said to be one of the oldest idols of Vishnu in this pose. 

Vishnu (Sheshasayi) resting on AdiShesha. His head supported by one of his hands. The little fellow at bottom right is the Emperor Chandragupta Vikramaditya

There is a small sculpture on the bottom below Vishnu’s foot. This could be a depiction of the emperor himself as he was a devotee of Vishnu. 

Cave 12 – Narasimha Avatar

This is just a niche in the rock face which I almost missed seeing. Most temples have a couple of security guards (Door keepers) called Dvarpalas. Here too there are two dvarpalas guarding the niche containing the deity of Narasimha. 

Cave 12 . Narasimha Avatar. This temple is just a niche in the wall.
Cave 12. Narasimha Avatar. A closer view.

Narasimha is Visnhu’s avatar #4 where he has the body of a man and head of a lion ) (Nara – man , Simha – lion). As per Hindu belief, as and when there is disorder in the society, Vishnu will be born as an avatar to restore order.

Cave 8 – Tava (Tawa)

Anyone for Indian bread, roti, roasted on the Indian griddle, the tava?

Cave 8 – Tava (Griddle)

Sir Alexander Cunningham, the super archaeologist of the 19th century, father of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), termed this cave as the Tava cave. The reason is, the flat roof from outside looks like the Tava (Indian griddle). Inside the cave there were supposed to be historical inscriptions dating the visit by Chandragupta Vikramaditya and his minister Virasena. It is conjectured that they were here to pray to their God, before embarking on a campaign to expand the Gupta Empire. 

There was also supposed to be a carved inverted lotus on the ceiling. I missed them both 🙁

It is not marked as a cave or temple and is located near the roof of Tava. One can easily discern the figure of Ganapati, the elephant god.

Cave 6 – Shiva Shambhu

This cave is in the honor of Shiva who is depicted as a lingam on a square base.

Cave 6 Shiva Shambu temple is incomplete

Interesting features are the sculpture of gods on outside walls. On one side is one of the earliest idols of Ganpati (the Elephant god).  

At the left is one of the oldest figures of Vinayaka or Ganapati ever to be found in India. The figure in the middle is Vishnu with his mace and Sudarshana Chakra. Right side figure is that of one of the guards to the incomplete temple of Shiva Shambu

There is also the idol of MahishasuraMardini , where the 10 armed goddess Durga is tearing apart Mahishasur (Buffalo-demon). There are also Idols of Vishnu and Shiva on either side of the door next to the doorkeepers. 

Cave 6 Shiva Shambu Temple out side wall. Ten armed Durga slaying Mahishasur and earns the name Mahishasuramardini. The centre figure is Shiva as Gangadhara.

There is a plaque kind of area where it is written in Brahmi or Gupta script that Chandragupta Vikramaditya and his minister Virasena visited this temple on 401 CE ( 82 Gupta Era).

Inscriptions in Gupta Brahmi script that talks about the visit of Chandragupta II and Virasena

Cave 5 – The showstopper of Udayagiri Caves – Bhu-Varaha Panel

This, truly, is the showstopper and probably the most photographed, analyzed, studied panel of Gupta Period. This panel depicts Vishnu manifesting himself as a wild boar  (Avatar #3) , victorious in his quest to rescue earth and restore peace, once again, in this universe. 

Hiranyaksha , a demon, kidnapped Bhu-devi (Mother earth) and hid her deep under the cosmic ocean. Vishnu, appearing in the form of a wild boar (Varaha), kills Hiranyaksha and rescues Bhudevi by lifting her on his tusks straight out of the waters puts her in her rightful place in the universe.

The exquisite panel display the Varaha Avatar. The numbers denote who’s who! read on:)

In the panel  Varaha is shown many times the size of others because as per mythology Varaha assumed a gigantic form before rescuing Bhudevi (Mother earth). The panel is quite complex. We see folks from heaven, gods, goddesses, sages, rivers witnessing and applauding this event, while Bhudevi appears to cling from the tusks of Varaha. Bhudevi marries Varaha and so another name for Vishnu is Bhuvarahan (Bhuvaraha). 

Next few photos are slices of the panel describing who’s who! Don’t miss Emperor Vikramaditya and his minister on their knees, praying  with folded hands! 

Cave 5 – Varaha Panel. 1. Sages
Cave 5 – Varaha Panel. 2. Varaha Avatar depicted here as Man’s body and Boars face. 3. Adishesha , Vishnu’s serpent.
Cave 5 – Varaha Panel. 4. It is supposed to be the figure of Brahma based on some of the older picture. Now it is not so clear. It is said that Varaha jumped out of Brahma’s nostril .
Cave 5 – Varaha Panel. 5. Bhudevi (Earth goddess)hanging from one of the tusks of the wild boar. 6. Shiva on his mount Nandi.
Cave 5 – Varaha Panel . ther gods like aditya is with haloes, agni , Rudras, AshtaVasus etc.
Cave 5 – Varaha Panel. 8 is the group of Rishis, sages and other wise people
Cave 5 – Varaha Panel . 9 and 10 are Chandragupta and Virasena respectively. 11. is the God of Oceans Varuna
Cave 5 – Varaha Panel. 12. Lakshmi , the Goddess of wealth is one of the eternal consorts of Vishnu
Cave 5 Varaha Panel Side wall . Ganga is on her mount , the makara. Loosle it may be translated to a crocodile. On her right is River Yamuna on her mount , the tortoise.

Other Caves 

There are many other caves, some of them closed, others in ruins but may be explored if one has time. Cave 1 and 2 are not part of this cluster but a bit further down south. On top of the hill Cave 19 and 20 are supposed to be interesting. Cave 20 is pertaining to Jainism. For want of time I could not explore them all. 

Going the Ta Prohm way? Still a long way to go!

Tidbits

  • There is another Udayagiri Caves in Odisha state (Orissa). So when you have the GPS on, get to the right one. 🙂
  • Mundeshwari temple in Bihar continues to be the oldest functional temple!
  • There was a much older temple dedicated to Vishnu (or Krishna perhaps)  about 5 km east of Udayagiri caves and where Heliodorus Pillar (dated 113 BCE) was found. Heliodorus was the ambassador from the Greek kingdom of Taxila (Takshashila) to the Gupta Empire and had apparently converted to Vaishnavism. (Thanks to Prof KK Muhammed for this information) 🙂  One of the pillars is still standing. That’s, however, a different story for another day! 🙂

Useful Information and FAQ

How to Reach Udayagiri Caves, Madhya Pradesh

Sanchi to Udayagiri is 9 KM
Vidisha to Udayagiri is 5 KM
Bhopal to Udayagiri is 60 KM

Tips

  • Wear light clothes and a hat. It could get hot when the rocks radiate heat. 
  • Combine visit to Udayagiri Caves with Sanchi which is just 9 KM away.
  • Carry some drinking water.
  • There is a ‘chaiwalla‘ near the gate who makes excellent tea.

Best time to visit Udayagiri Caves, Madhya Pradesh

Udayagiri Caves Complex, MP, is a 365 days destination. However Summers will feel hotter when you walk among rocks and stones. Winter and Spring are undeniably the best time to visit Udayagiri Caves..

Udayagiri Caves complex Entrance fees

INR 25 for Indians and INR 300 for foreigners
There is an additional Video Camera fee of INR 25 

Udayagiri Caves complex opening time

9:00AM to 6:00PM on all days

Resorts and Hotels Near Udayagiri Caves

Udayagiri is a small village. So best places to stay is Vidisha, Sanchi or Do a day trip from Bhopal.
Places to stay in Sanchi
Places to stay in Vidisha
Places to stay in Bhopal

Photograph Copyright

All the photographs used in this article belong to the owners of this website www.lemonicks.com. Copying or using them without explicit permission is prohibited and will amount to copyright infringement.

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Read other articles on Madhya Pradesh below.
Exploring Orchha Fort Complex
Top Things to do in Chanderi

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P.S.- This article, Allure of Udayagiri Caves Madhya Pradesh  belongs to Le Monde, the Poetic Travels, an Indian Travel Blog, published by the traveling couple, Nisha & Vasudevan. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited. If you are viewing this on another website other than the RSS feed reader or www.lemonicks.com itself, then that website is guilty of stealing our content. Kindly do us a favour by letting us know via Contact Us. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Our trip was in collaboration with Times Passion Trail and Madhya Pradesh Tourism. The opinions, as always, are our own.

21 thoughts on “Allure of Udayagiri Caves Madhya Pradesh”

  1. OMG! Exploring places like this is on my top 5 list of favorite things to do!!! I love it and I am envious that you got to go! When we can travel again, I will 100% be making sure I get to awesome places like this!

  2. It’s amazing how many places there are on Earth that I haven’t heard of before. I’d love to be able to see the Udayagiri Caves in-person, especially the Bhu-Varaha panel. It’s very interesting that the site may have been used as an astronomical observatory back in those times. There’s so much that we may never know about just how rich human history actually is.

  3. What a neat place to visit. It would be interesting to see all the different carvings. I love visiting historical places and learning more about history.

  4. Kuntala Bhattacharya

    I am from India and I feel great when someone talks about the tourist destinations in my country which uplift the ancient rich heritage and history. I have not yet visited the caves but have read about it. Caves are really fascinating, especially the carvings proof the talent and skill of the early artists and craftsmen

  5. Those caves must have been a sight to see in earlier times. I mean, even to the present day, the sculptures are impressive! I wish I could visit this place and see these caves in person.

  6. those pics are amazing! i would so love to visit this in person some day! for now i’ll just live through your photos.

  7. I loved the introductory quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti. Lord Vishu’s face is missing in that sculpture where he is lying down on Sheshnagas’ head.

    Pictures are great… Thanks.

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