Caves of contrast

One of the earliest groups of Jain rock-carved shelters, Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves, were built as austere cells for monks, but the caves have many beautiful sculptures of dancing girls, exotic paintings and carvings of second century BC, writes Tanushree Podder

Although Orissa has some beautiful beaches at Puri, the Jagannath Temple and the exotic architectural beauty of Konark Sun Temple, there are many unexplored ancient monuments in Orissa, which have not been eulogised in the media. So it was a casual conversation with a co-passenger in the bus that took me to Udayagiri and Khandagiri, just across the highway to Bhubaneswar, very accessible and very historical.

One of the caves at Udayagiri
One of the caves at Udayagiri

A cave at Khandagiri
A cave at Khandagiri

Any auto-rickshaw can take you to Udayagiri, from where these peaks can be spotted easily. One of them is Udayagiri and the other Khandagiri.

Udayagiri means the hill of sunrise and Khandagiri means a broken hill. Once upon a time, the hills must have existed in a continuous range. These hills belong to a series of Jain caves still existing in the eastern part of the country. The caves, cut into the sandstone, are a revelation of the Jain culture that existed during the ancient times.

Many Hindi movies, including Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Asoka, were shot here.

A double-storey cave has been carved out of the rocks at Udaygiri. It is adorned with exquisite wall carvings and pillars. Two-stone dwara pals guard its entrance. Arches hewn out of stone, contain friezes that depict dancing girls and musicians. This was the Queen’s Palace though the queen didn’t stay here. This was meant for Jain monks.

The two floors are arrayed with tiny cells. Most of the cells are bare with just enough space for movement. These cells are similar as Jain cells elsewhere in the country. Geographical distance did not change the strictures of a Jain monk’s dwelling.

Adornment came in the form of sculptures that illustrated the court scenes, royal pageants and musicians. Obviously, the royalty had a part to play in preserving the religion.

The double-storey Queen's cave at Udayagiri Photos by the writer
The double-storey Queen's cave at Udayagiri Photos by the writer

The Elephant Cave, locally known as Hathi Gufa, has an exquisite series of six beautiful elephants at the entrance. Within the cave are the remnants of inscription belonging to an era that had seen the proliferation of Jainism in the region. The inscriptions in Magadhi relate to King Kharavel and his victories and bravery.

Exotic winged animals adorn the pillars of another cave, while a Bodhi tree topped with an umbrella is etched out in another cell. Surprisingly, there is also the figure of Ganesha carved in the Ganesha Gufa. Legends and tales are depicted on the rocky walls throwing light on the lifestyle of a bygone era.

An entrance of a cave that looks like the open mouth of a tiger is called Bagh Gufa.

From the Tiger Cave a little distance further is the next series of caves in Khandagiri. There is the Parrot Cave, so named because of the parrot figurines carved on the arches that adorn the entrance. Beyond it is the Snake Cave with twin serpents on the arches of its doorway. There is a beautiful series of wall friezes depicted there. There are men running behind bulls, a swan with a lotus bud in its beak. It is an astounding world of ascetic life interspersed with beauty and art.

Ornamentation in some of the caves, especially the cave numbers eight, 9 and 15 of the Khandagiri series had been redone. With the relief of tirthankaras carved in them, they illustrate the creativity of the monks who stayed in them. Some of the work is quite crude but a few of them exhibit the skill of talented sculptors.

The lives of the ascetics, who had once occupied these caves, might have lacked colour but they had toiled to create a world of beauty around them by sculpting and painting their caves.


Reaching there: Orissa’s capital, Bhubaneswar is well connected by air, road and railways. The Khandagiri and Udaygiri caves are very close to the city and auto-rickshaws are easily available.

Staying there: Bhubaneswar has a wide range of hotels and guesthouses to suit all pockets. Orissa Tourism Department’s Panthanivas has clean and affordable rooms.

Shopping: The famous Pipli garden umbrellas and patachitra are must-buys. Also the shell artefacts and filigree silver jewellery.

Eating: With sea nearby, Bhubaneswar has a plethora of delectable fish dishes and the wide range of must-try desserts.

Timings: The caves are open from dawn to dusk.