More than two thousand years ago, caves chiselled out of the malleable yellow sandstone of a pair of low hills 6km west of Bhubaneswar were home to a community of Jain monks. Nowadays, they’re clambered over by langur monkeys and occasional parties of tourists. Though by no means in the same league as the caves of the Deccan, Udaigiri and Khandagiri rank among Odisha’s foremost historical monuments.
Inscriptions show that the Chedi dynasty, which ruled ancient Kalinga from the first century BC, was responsible for the bulk of the work. There are simple monk’s cells, as well as royal chambers where the hallways, verandas and facades are encrusted with sculpture depicting court scenes, lavish processions, hunting expeditions, battles and dances. The later additions (from medieval times, when Jainism no longer enjoyed royal patronage in the region) are more austere, showing the 24 heroic Jain prophet-teachers, or tirthankaras.
From Bhubaneswar, the caves are approached via a road that follows the route of an ancient pilgrimage path. As you face the hills with the highway behind you, Khandagiri (“Broken Hill”) is on your left and Udaigiri (“Sunrise Hill”) is on your right.