Udayagiri-Khandagiri Caves – Syncretism of Indic religions

The harmonious co-existence of different Indic faiths depicted on the Udayagiri-Khandagiri Caves is a sight to behold.

Udayagiri-Khandagiri Caves – Syncretism of Indic religions

Bhubaneswar and its surrounding areas are replete with ancient sites that date back to the 3rd century BCE, as it was here that the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka captured Kalinga and got his edicts inscribed on a boulder in Dhauli. The trend of inscribing on rocks continued in this area by later kings too. The ancient Indian history that we study has a lot of dependency on the inscriptions and rock art of this era. It was the period of societal flux with the new Indic Religions – Buddhism and Jainism as well as the Ajivika sect (to a lesser extent) establishing their foothold. Hinduism was still the religion practiced by the majority of the people although the rulers had shifted towards one of the new faiths/sects.

The Mauryan Empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BCE which he ruled from Patliputra. Chandragupta Maurya later became a Jain monk and abdicated the throne. He was succeeded by his son Bindusara in 297 BCE. Bindusara who followed the Ajivika sect, extended the vast Mauryan Empire to further include Southern parts of India till Karnataka. Ashoka succeeded the Mauryan throne upon his father’s death after a bloody internecine war with his brothers and after suppressing revolts from various parts of the kingdom, he consolidated his power and was crowned emperor in 270 BCE. The region of Kalinga (present day Odisha) seems to have been outside the control of Ashoka when he finally ascended the throne. Ashoka led the conquest of Kalinga in which it is said that over a 100,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives. Our history books taught us that this war changed Ashoka and he felt remorse for his actions and thereafter renounced war and converted to Buddhism. Kalinga was made a part of his empire. It is at this juncture that the Ashokan edicts (imperial decrees) were inscribed on rock/boulders at various places in his empire. It was through these edicts that Ashoka laid out ’Dharma’ and a standard of instructions to be followed by all.

The Dhauli hills are located on the banks of the river Daya, 8kms south of the city of Bhubaneswar. The Dhauli rock Inscription of Ashokan fame has Major Edicts Inscribed on a mass of rock by the side of the road that leads to a modern-day Buddhist stupa. Not many tourists visit this spot. There is a rock-cut elephant above the inscribed edicts which is the earliest Buddhist sculpture and one of the rare examples of Mauryan era art in Odisha. The elephant is said to represent the enlightenment of Buddha.

This Dhauli rock has Ashokan Edict  1 – 10, number 14 and two special rock edicts. The language is in Prakrit (vernacular) and the script is Brahmi. These edicts extol the virtues of ‘Dharma” (Buddhist laws) and decree subjects and officials to behave in accordance with its precepts. A succinct understanding of the contents of the Edicts are as follows:

1 – Prohibition of the killing of animals in the kingdom and imposition of restrictions on festive occasions.

2 – Medical treatment to humans and animals and planting of medicinal herbs, planting of trees and digging of wells.

3 – Officials to set out on tours every 5 years to propagate moral codes amongst subjects.

4 – Officials to promote the practice of morality and compassion among his subjects.

5 – Appointed Mahamantras from all sets to establish and promote morality.

6 – Ordered his officers to report regularly on matters of administration and subjects.

7 – Self-control and purity of mind and objects of attachment.

8 – On the tenth year of his anointment he went out on Sambodhi…

9 – Recommended practice of morality towards slaves, servants, elders, animals, Brahmans and Sramanas

10 – Morality is the only act of fame and glory

14 – Inscribed way of morality at various places in his vast empire.

What is to be noted is that Edict 13 (mentioned in other places) which elaborates the bloodshed that Ashoka’s conquest inflicted in the region of Kalinga does not find a place in the Dhauli Inscriptions.

Ashoka, through these edicts, disclosed that he wanted his subjects including those in Kalinga to follow the decrees. There are no signs of repentance and the edicts state codes of morality after the entire kingdom has been consolidated by all means possible.

An interesting point to be noted with regards to the Ashokan Edicts is that nowhere is it mentioned that Ashoka converted to Buddhism after the Kalinga war. What is evident is that Ashoka became an ardent follower of the tenets of Buddhism after the war and wanted the spread of ‘Dharma” throughout his empire. Some scholars claim, based on some ancient Buddhist texts and wordings of minor edicts, that Ashoka may have converted to Buddhism a few years before the Kalinga war.

What is definitely conclusive is that Ashoka had converted to Buddhism but it took time for him to follow the tenets zealously. Buddhism laid down the precepts of morality and peace but Ashoka enforced these principles only after he was done with wars, bloodshed and there was nothing more for him to conquer. (Ashoka is said to have persecuted followers of Jainism and Ajivika sect. There seems to have been serious power struggle for dominance among the new Indic faiths that had its roots in East India, more particularly in the areas covered by current state of Bihar). 

Udaygiri (Hills of sunrise) and Khandgiri (Broken hills) Caves

The Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves are located just a few kilometers away from Bhubaneswar town. These caves are situated on two adjacent hills – Udayagiri and Khandagiri that have been mentioned as Kumari Parvat in the Hathigumpha inscriptions found on the Udayagiri hills. These caves were dug out on these hills in the 2nd century BCE during the reign of Kharavela, the then ruler of kalinga. These caves were for Jain monks for the purpose of their residence and meditation. The common word used for a cave at that time was Gumpha and this word is still used for caves.

The Udayagiri Caves: Udayagiri has 18 caves. Many of these caves have paintings, motifs and carvings of court scenes, royal processions, nature, subjects, mystical animals, etc. The important caves here are the Hathigumpha, Ganesha Gumpha, Bagh Gumpha, Mancapuri Gumpha, Alkapuri Gumpha and Rani Gumpha.

Hathi Gumpha (cave No.14): Historically this is the most important cave here as the inscriptions incised over the entrance is the main source of information about the reign of King Kharavela. There are 17 lines of Prakrit incised in Brahmi script. It is considered to be one of the most archaic forms of Kalinga alphabets. The Hathi Gumpha cave looks down upon the Ashokan Dhauli inscription that is situated about 9 km away. The inscriptions of two great kings face each other.

The Mauryan hold over its large empire was withering during the 2ndCentury BCE. Kalinga rebelled against the Mauryans, after which Kharavela got the throne of Kalinga in 193 BCE. The Hathi Gumpha inscription gives a lot of information about King Kharavela and his victorious military pursuits.

[The Hathi Gumpha cave. Pillars have been placed in order to give support to this ancient treasure]

King Kharavela may have been a follower of the Jain dharma as the inscriptions start with the Jain Namokar Mantra. It also states that Kharavela was the worshipper of all religious orders, the repairer of all shrines of gods. The inscription mentions that Kharavela repaired forts and old temples, built aqueducts, reservoirs and managed economic matters. It also mentions the various conquests of the king starting with the war against Satakarni, the powerful Satavahana King on the western front. In 185 BCE, Kharavela attacked Rajagriha in Magadha and forced out a Yavana (Greek) king. He then attacked the Mauryan capital of Patliputra and gained control of the region. Kharavela has been mentioned as ‘Chakravartin’ (universal) emperor. Despite the exaggeration, it is clear that he became the ruler of Odisha, and large parts of eastern and central India, becoming the most important ruler of the Indian subcontinent in his times. He brought back respect to the people of Kalinga.

(Sadly he had no place in the History books that I read in school or even while doing graduation in History. Why have the 20th-century Indian historians not given Kharavela the respectful place he deserves in Indian history and therefore in the hearts of Indians is quite a mystery?)

[The inscriptions by Kharavela]

There are sights that display early attempts to carve the rocks into suitable resting or dwelling places for monks. These caves are small and randomly dug out in rocks and boulders.

[The small cave dwellings]

Cave 1 or the Rani Gumpha is the most striking feature of this cave complex. It is a double storied structure with three wings. Central portion has 7 doorways on the ground floor and 9 doorways on the upper floor where there are carvings depicting the victory march of kings.

[The double-storey cave dwellings with eyecatching carvings]

The ground floor doorways have elaborate carvings that give an arched effect above each rectangular entrance. Beautiful pillars have been carved onto the rock face to demarcate each doorway.

[The artistic doorways]

One artistic frieze displays scenes from a royal procession with a horse and foot soldiers. We also see commoners going about their daily routine.

[Another frieze depicts people dancing and merrymaking]

[Carved doorways at Rani Gumpha]

On both the extreme ends of the ground floor corridor there are detailed carvings showing a jumble of disparate images merged together. One panel has images of elephants frolicking and women going about their day to day activities. The other side has a life-size Dwarpal, a lot of fruit-laden trees, elephants and a woman playing a musical instrument. The artists have tried to carve as much as possible in these corner niches.

[The left end of the corridor]

[The right side panel, Dwarpal is majestic in form here]

The Alkapuri Gumpha (cave 4): These are rather well developed caves dug out into the rock face. The caves are double storied with pillars or columns that give support to the roof of the caves along with the accompanying corridors. This gives the caves a rather inviting appeal. The pillars have occasional carvings of animals, mystical creatures and people.

[The Alkapuri Gumpha]

A mystical animal has been carved into the capital of the column. It is an intriguing animal that has the body of a lion, beak of a bird along with wings.

Some caves are on the verge of collapsing and stone pillars have been erected to ensure the structural integrity of these ancient structures. One such cave has beautiful elephants carved over the arched gateway.

[Stone pillars as Conservation efforts]

Cave 10 is more popularly called the Ganesha Gumpha: As it has a relief of Ganesha carved on its rear wall in the cell (most probably carved at a later point of time). It has two elephants in front of it. They are shown carrying garlands as if ready to welcome the visitors. The relief above the entrance door to the cell shows the famous story of King Udayan running away with Princess Vasavdutta. This is a real historical episode from the time of Buddha when Udayan was the king of Vatsa and Vasavdutta was the daughter of the king of Avanti. Elephants played a major part in this story as Udayan was supposed to have the power of controlling the behaviour of elephants through music on his Veena.

[Ganesh Gumpha with the welcoming elephants]

The Mancapuri and Swargapuri Gumphas are double storied. The ground level has a corridor leading to the chambers inside. There are some inscriptions mentioning the chief Queen of Kharavela and his successor, Kudepasri.

[Mancapuri and Swargapuri Caves]

A closer look inside the cave reveals artistic carvings on the area above the lintel of the doors. The doorways are low in height. Semicircular horseshoe-shaped carved borders adorn the entrance ways. One relief depicts people with folded hands as if worshipping a deity. An elephant is in front of them over which there is a divine being floating in the air. The carvings are damaged but still eye-catching. The pillars that support the corridor roof have very artistic and majestic creatures that connect the pillar to the inner roof. Humans are shown riding these mystical creatures. The artisans have let their vivid imagination flow into creating such lovely works on stone.

[Corridor of Mancapuri Cave]

The Bagh Gumpha (cave No.12): The Bagh Gumpha or Tiger cave has an artistic entrance as it has been carved to look like the mouth of a Tiger. This cave attracts a lot of tourists due to its unique facade. It acts like the prime location to pose for photos and almost all visitors end up posing for a few photos at this location.

[The tiger mouth of the Bagh Gumpha]

Khandagiri Caves: These caves are on the hillside just opposite the Udayagiri hills, There are supposed to be 15 caves but only a few of them are noteworthy.

Cave number 2 is called Tatowa Gumpha: It is a basic cave with a pillared corridor and a cell with three arched doorways. The doorways have carvings of rudimentary floral motifs. The surfaces are defaced by unseemly graffiti by visitors, who have no sense of historicity of the site or respect for ancient art.

[Tatowa Cave]

Cave number 3 is called Ananta Gumpha: This is the cave with the best carvings over the gateways. To safeguard the caves from vandalism, the access to the inner cave area has been barred. It is an unfortunate commentary on the civic sense of society, where the visitors can not be trusted to keep the sanctity of the place intact.

[Ananta Gumpha]

The gateways are shown flanked by the multiheaded serpent figures which are ubiquitous in Indian iconography. One doorway has a representation of Gajalakshmi, with lotus flowers around her and she is flanked by two elephants pouring holy water over her. This is one of the earliest such iconographic depictions of Gajalakshmi, which later became the standard iconography. On closer inspection, an image of a Jain Teerthankara is visible on the inner wall of the cell. Remember that these caves were meant for Jain monks and even then Hindu deities were a part of the motifs carved onto these rocks.

The other image shows people worshipping a tree/plant. The arch is surrounded by a flight of geese. This frieze shows nature worship, which in turn depicts the reverence that society had for their environment. The photographs below have been taken with a lot of effort as the entrance has a mesh barring access.

[Carved gateways of Ananta cave]

Cave number 7 is called Navamani Gumpha: Probably referring to the carved images of nine Jain Tirthanars on its walls. The most interesting aspect is that there are seven images of female deities (locally known as Sasana devis) carved along with the Tirthankara images. These Devi images show every image with different symbolic attributes in their hands. Animals are carved below every image, probably associated with their mounts. These images may be representative of continued worship of female divinity in the form of Durga or Lakshmi. The solitary and incongurous image of Ganesha seems to be a later addition although the styling of other images has been maintained, including the mouse shown as the mount of Lord Ganesha.

[Reliefs in Navamani Gumpha]

One of the female deities is shown with ten hands, The quality of carvings is astonishing with very fine detailing. The anthropomorphic bird shown below is very intriguing as it may have been an attempt to show Garuda or even an Owl which is the mount of Lakshmi.

[The iconic Devi (Lakshmi)]

Cave number 9 has numerous carvings of Jain Teerthankaras. There are seated images in the meditating pose representing the 24 Teerthankars of Jainism. Three standing images are also there which probably represent Mahaveer (the last, 24th Teerthankar) , Parsvanath(23rd) and Rishabh Dev (1st).

One standing image has a seven-headed Naga providing a protective hood over the Tirthankara’s head. We see a fusion of different styles of Indic iconography here.

Cave number 10 has three intriguing images carved on the outer wall area. Despite being exposed to the elements across millennia, these carvings are still in great shape. The serene smile on the faces of Teerthankaras continues to signify everlasting divine benevolence.

[Teerthankaras bas-reliefs]

Cave number 8 which was called Barahbhuji Gumpha, has been converted into a functional temple. It has two reliefs of 12 armed Sasana Devi (hence the name of cave) which are now worshipped as Goddess Durga. There are images of Jain Teerthankaras also in this cave.

These caves are examples of extensive syncretism of the Indic religions in this area. Even in a predominantly Jain site, Hinduism related motifs are intermingled and Buddhist influence is never far away. The decorative arches over the doorways in these caves are examples of Buddhist Chaitya influence.

On top of the Khandagiri hills there is a Jain temple constructed in modern times which attracts a lot of devotees. This Jain temple is an eye-catching site when viewed in the evening from the Udayagiri caves.

[Sunset at Khandgiri]

Vishwa Shanti Stupa at Dhauli hillock: This is a modern-day Buddhist stupa that has been built with Japanese funding. It is on the summit of the Dhauli hills that host the Ashokan Dhauli Edicts. It is one of a series of such Peace Stupas established across the country.

[Shanti Stupa – Dhauli]


Kalinga is known as the defeated kingdom of the Kalinga – Ashoka war in the history textbooks. The presence of Dhauli inscriptions indicates that this was the site of the famous Kalinga war. The Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves show the developments made by the Kalinga society during the post Mauryan era. This was a flourishing society with religion and art at the forefront. The coexistence of different religions at such close proximity is the most distinguishing aspect of this wonderful cultural heritage site.

About Author: Ruchi Pritam

Ruchi is a History and Law Graduate from Delhi University with an MBA from Madras University. She is a Bank-empaneled lawyer and has taught at several MBA institutions as a visiting faculty. She has always had a fascination for Indian art, temples and culture that has led her to travel and write on the various architectural wonders of India. She has authored the book - Journey Through India’s Heritage. She can be followed on @RuchiPritam.

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