Udayagiri Caves




The Udayagiri Caves are twenty rock-cut caves near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh from the early years of the 5th century CE. They contain some of the oldest surviving Hindu temples and iconography in India. They are the only site that can be verifiably associated with a Gupta period monarch from its inscriptions. One of India’s most important archaeological sites, the Udayagiri hills and its caves are protected monuments managed by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Udayagiri caves contain iconography of Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaktism (Durga and Matrikas) and Shaivism (Shiva). They are notable for the ancient monumental relief sculpture of Vishnu in his incarnation as the man-boar Varaha, rescuing the earth symbolically represented by Bhudevi clinging to the boar’s tusk as described in Hindu mythology. The site has important inscriptions of the Gupta dynasty belonging to the reigns of Chandragupta II (c. 375-415) and Kumaragupta I (c. 415-55). In addition to these, Udayagiri has a series of rock-shelters and petroglyphs, ruined buildings, inscriptions, water systems, fortifications and habitation mounds, all of which remain a subject of continuing archaeological studies. The Udayagiri Caves complex consists of twenty caves, of which one is dedicated to Jainism and all others to Hinduism. The Jain cave is notable for one of the oldest known Jaina inscriptions from 425 CE, while the Hindu Caves feature inscriptions from 401 CE.

There are a number of places in India with the same name, the most notable being the mountain called Udayagiri at Rajgir in Bihar and the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves in Odisha.
The site at Udayagiri Caves was the patronage of Chandragupta II, who is widely accepted by scholars to have ruled the Gupta Empire in central India between c. 380-414 CE. The Udayagiri Caves were created in final decades of the 4th-century, and consecrated in 401 CE. This is based on three inscriptions:

A post-consecration Sanskrit inscription in Cave 6 by a Vaishnava minister, the inscription mentions Chandragupta II and “year 82” (old Indian Gupta calendar, c. 401 CE). This is sometimes referred to as the “inscription in Chandragupta cave” or the “Chandragupta inscription of Udayagiri”.
A Shaiva devotee’s Sanskrit inscription on the back wall of Cave 7, which does not mention a date but the information therein suggests it too is from 5th-century.
A Sanskrit inscription in Cave 20 by a Jainism devotee dated 425 CE. This is sometimes referred to as the “Kumaragupta inscription of Udayagiri”.
These inscriptions are not isolated. There are a number of additional stone inscriptions elsewhere at the Udayagiri site and nearby which mention court officials and Chandragupta II. Further the site also contains inscriptions from later centuries providing a firm fluorit for historical events, religious beliefs and the development of Indian script. For example, a Sanskrit inscription found on the left pillar at the entrance of Cave 19 states a date of Vikrama 1093 (c. 1037 CE), mentions the word Visnupada, states that this temple that was made by Chandragupta, and its script is Nagari both for alphabet and numerals. Many of the early inscriptions in this region is in Sankha Lipi, yet to be deciphered in a way that a majority of scholars would accept it.

Archaeological excavations of the 20th century on mounds between Vidisha rampart and Udayagiri have yielded evidence that suggests that Udayagiri and Vidisha formed a contiguous human settlement zone in the ancient times. Udayagiri hills would have been the suburb of Vidisha located near the confluence of two rivers The Udayagiri Caves are likely euphemistically mentioned in Kalidasa text Meghduta in section 1.25 as the “Silavesma on the Nicaih hill”, or the pleasure spot of Vidisha elites on the caves filled hill.

Between the 5th-century and the 12th-century, the Udayagiri site remained important to Hindu pilgrims as sacred geography. This is evidenced by a number of inscriptions in scripts that have been deciphered. Some inscriptions between the 9th and the 12th centuries, for example, mention land grants to the temple, an ancient tradition that provided resources for the maintenance and operation of significant temples. These do not mention famous kings. Some of these inscriptions mention grant from people who may have been regional chiefs, while others read like common people who cannot be traced to any text or other inscriptions in Central India. One Sanskrit inscription, for example, is a pilgrim named Damodara’s record from 1179 CE who made a donation to the temple.

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