Literally meaning “sunrise mountain,” the Udayagiri caves are a group of twenty rock-cut temples near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh. The majority of caves contain relief sculptures of Hindu deities, with the exception of Cave 20, which is a Jain temple. Excavated and carved in the fifth century CE, the site was a major pilgrimage destination and received regular patronage for maintenance and other services up until the twelfth century.
Many caves at Udayagiri seem to have been natural formations, which were then expanded by excavation projects in the early fifth century. The clearly defined style employed in sculptures at the caves suggests that these forms for Hindu gods had been in widely accepted use — both artistically and religiously — for a substantial amount of time prior to the fifth century.
Several inscriptions found across the caves provide information about their history and patronage. Cave 5 is particularly notable for the a large, anthropomorphic sculpture of Varaha and depictions of myths associated with him. An inscription outside Cave 6 states that it was consecrated in the eighty-second year of the Gupta calendar, or 401 CE, in the presence of then emperor Chandragupta II. Archaeological studies have suggested that the Varaha shrine was closely associated with the Guptas, and that the statue of the god may be interpreted as an allusion to the Gupta rulers Samudragupta and Chandragupta II.
The Jain cave, or Cave 20, bears a later consecration date of 425 CE, as well as further inscriptions expressing gratitude to the Gupta kings. A partially erased and undated Sanskrit poem in praise of Chandragupta II and his minister Virasena is inscribed on the back wall of Cave 8. Several inscriptions at the site are written in the undeciphered Shanka Lipi script, particularly in the passageway outside Cave 8. These may predate the cave’s consecration, as stone beams have been placed over some parts of the Shanka Lipi inscriptions.
While multiple deities and sects within Hinduism are represented among the caves, Vishnu appears most frequently, with Caves 5, 6 and 13 prominently featuring the myths of Varaha and Anantashayana. Shaivite imagery – including sculptures of Shiva, Paravati, Ganesh and Kartikeya – is central to three caves: Cave 3, which contains a damaged statue of Kartikeya; Cave 4, where the main idol is an ekamukhalinga; and Cave 19, the largest cave at the site, which contains another ekamukhalinga, a relief depicting the Samudra Manthan, and a second lingam that is now housed at the nearby Sanchi Archaeological Museum. Cave 6 is dedicated to Shakti worship, prominently featuring images of the matrikas as well as depictions of Durga slaying Mahishasura. Image of Shakti is also visible in Cave 4 and the heavily damaged Cave 7. Cave 20 contains a relief of Parshvanatha, the twenty third Jain tirthankara, with images of other tirthankaras inside it. Images of Ganesh are also commonplace at these caves, including an image within Cave 20, suggesting that he was also a significant deity in the region.
The first ten caves were documented by Alexander Cunningham in 1875 – although other British officers had undertaken cursory visits since 1819 – and various other scholars examined and wrote on the remaining ten in the following years. After the discovery of a broken lion capital at the site (since shifted to the State Archaeological Museum, Gwalior), it was theorised that an older Mauryan-era Buddhist stupa may have been built over or its parts reused for nearby structures, and that this capital may be a Mauryan work and part of the stupa, or a Gupta imitation.
Dass, Meera and Michael Willis. “The Lion Capital from Udayagiri and the Antiquity of Sun Worship in Central India.” South Asian Studies 18, no. 1 (2002): 25–45. doi:10.1080/02666030.2002.9628605.
Huntington, Susan L. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New York: Weatherhill, 1985.
Safvi, Rana. "Where Varaha saves the Earth." The Hindu, February 4, 2018. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/where-varaha-saves-the-earth/article22645921.ece.
Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. New Delhi: Pearson India Education Services, 2016.