Six kilometres west of Bhubaneswar, a pair of low hills rises from the coastal plain. More than two thousand years ago, caves chiselled out of their malleable yellow sandstone 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 Orissa’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 twenty-four 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.
The Udaigiri caves occupy a fairly compact area around the south slope of the hill. Cave 1 (Rani Gumpha or “Queen’s Cave”), off the main pathway to the right, is the largest and most impressive of the group. A long frieze across the back wall shows rampaging elephants, panicking monkeys, sword fights and the abduction of a woman, perhaps illustrating episodes from the life of Kalinga’s King Kharavela. Caves 3 and 4 contain sculptures of a lion holding its prey and elephants with snakes wrapped around them, and pillars topped by pairs of peculiar winged animals. Cave 9, up the hill and around to the right, houses a damaged relief of figures worshipping a long-vanished Jain symbol. The crowned figure is thought to be the Chedi king, Vakradeva, whose donative inscription can still be made out near the roof. Inside the sleeping cells of all the caves, deep grooves in the stone wall at the back and in the floor were designed to carry rainwater down from the roof as an early air-conditioning system.
To reach Cave 10, return to the main steps and climb towards the top of the hill. Its popular name, “Ganesh Gumpha”, is derived from the elephant-headed Ganesh carved on the rear wall of the cell on the right. From here, follow the path up to the ledge at the very top of Udaigiri hill for good views and the ruins of an old chaitya hall, probably the main place of worship for the Jain monks who lived below.
Below the ruins are Cave 12, shaped like the head of a tiger, and Cave 14, the Hathi Gumpha, known for the long inscription in ancient Magadhi carved onto its overhang. This relates in glowing terms the life history of King Kharavela, whose exploits brought in the fortune needed to finance the cave excavation.
The caves on the opposite hill, Khandagiri, can be reached either by the long flight of steps leading from the road, or by cutting directly across from Hathi Gumpha via the steps that drop down from Cave 17. The latter route brings you out at Caves 1 and 2, known as Tatowa Gumpha (“Parrot Caves”) for the carvings of birds on their doorway-arches. Cave 2, excavated in the first century BC, is the larger and more interesting. On the back wall of one of its cells, a few faint lines in red Brahmi script are thought to have been scrawled two thousand years ago by a monk practising his handwriting. The reliefs in Cave 3, the Ananta Gumpha (“Snake Cave”), contain the best of the sculpture on Khandagiri hill, albeit badly vandalized in places. Caves 7 and 8, left of the main steps, were former sleeping quarters, remodelled in the eleventh century as sanctuaries. Both house reliefs of tirthankaras on their walls as well as Hindu deities which had become part of the Jain pantheon by the time conversion work was done. From the nineteenth-century Jain temple at the top of the hill there are clear views across the sprawl of Bhubaneswar to the white dome of Dhauli.