In the city of Bhubaneswar, well known as a city of temples, there are two hills rising amidst the wide flat lands. Nestled in these hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri are 32 caves which are unique as they are among the earliest Jain rock-cut shelters.
The caves at Udayagiri and Khandagiri were excavated by King Kharavela (2nd – 1st century BCE) of the Mahamegavahana dynasty, which ruled the ancient kingdom of Kalinga (modern day Odisha state) from 2nd century BCE to 5th century CE.
The caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri were made for Jain ascetics. The caves are so small that a person can’t stand straight. This is in keeping with Jainism’s insistence on great austerity which clearly reflected in the architecture here. Some of the caves rebuilt during the medieval period between 7th-11th CE are larger.
There are 18 caves in Udayagiri, Cave No 1 is the Rani Gumpha. This is the largest and most beautiful in the complex . It is believed that this cave was occupied by the Queen of Lalatendukesari. It is a double storeyed structure with 32 cells. In the verandah there are two carved dwarapalas (guards).
The main wing of the lower storey depicts the story of the victory march of King Kharavela after a war. The relief shows people gazing from their houses.
This cave is the Ganesha Gumpha, so named because it has an idol of Ganesha carved on the back of one of the cells. The verandah has two detached elephants; each holding branches of a mango-tree over a lotus. The Ganesha idol and elephants were added in the later period during 11th century to the original cave.
Bagha Gumpha is a small cave whose entrance is in shape of the head of a tiger with the upper jaw forming the root of the verandah and the neck forming the entrance opening.
The architecture of Hathi Gumpha is insignificant but its importance lies in the inscription carved on the brow of the cave. This famous inscription is the only source of information on King Kharavela. The inscription contains 17 lines and starts with Jain Namokara Mantra, the religious mantra recited even today giving salutations to Arihanthas (twenty-four Tirthankaras who have attained Nirvana) and Siddha (liberated souls) confirming that Jainism was the state religion during Kharavela’s reign. The inscription also gives accounts of his successful military campaigns.
The adjoining hill to Udayagiri is Khandagiri and it has 15 caves. The caves of Khandagiri are simple rock cut caves with medieval carvings of the twenty-four Jain Thirthankars.
Noteworthy among the caves is the Ananta Gumpha (cave no. 3) named after the figure of twin serpents on the door-arches. The interesting feature of this cave is that the Gaja-Lakshmi (Goddess Lakshmi with elephants) is in a Lotus Lake with stalks of lotus around her arms carved on the arch of the door. The Jains regards Gaja-Lakshmi an auspicious symbol of prosperity.
The Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves are significant and a must visit because these are among the very few ancient Jain rock cut caves in the Indian subcontinent.