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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 🙁
Cave 6 – Shiva Shambhu
This cave is in the honor of Shiva who is depicted as a lingam on a square base.
Interesting features are the sculpture of gods on outside walls. On one side is one of the earliest idols of Ganpati (the Elephant god).
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
- 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
- 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
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