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History’s Hideouts

Reprinted with permission from India Perspectives Email Reprinted with permission from India Perspectives
July 2014
History’s Hideouts

Caves can be dark, mysterious, even frightening. But surely, as windows to bygone eras, they are also thrilling. History meets myth and legend in these natural passages. To step into these amazing caves is to step back in time and rediscover India.




An Indian state known most for its caves is Maharashtra. Dating back to as early as the 1st century BC and artistically built over a few centuries, its caves have an extraordinary appeal and aura. Nestled in the formidable Sahyadri Mountain Range, these caves have been home to monks of different religions. Most of the caves here are viharas (halls) and chaityas (pillared religious caves) and showcase the fine art heritage of India.

Be it the paintings in the Ajanta caves or the sculptures of the Ellora and the Elephanta caves, visitors have always been spellbound by these wonders. These caves promise a truly unforgettable visit, which will induce a sense of discovery, of the self and of the divine.



Fresco painting at Ajanta Caves.

Kailasa Temple at Ellora Caves


Hailed as India’s most magnificent heritage site, the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, were built as places of worship under the patronage of the Chalukya dynasty between the 2nd century BC and the 6th century AD. The series of exquisite cave fresco paintings (in Ajanta), the sculptures, murals, and mammoth rock-cut shrines are considered to be some of the finest expressions of Indian medieval art and architecture. Whether it is the unique construction of the Kailasa temple in Ellora, or the life-size statue of the Buddha that gives an illusion of three expressions when viewed from different angles, or the colorful pictorial display of Jataka tales in Ajanta, each of these pieces of art has earned for itself a place in the glorious history of art in India. 


The cave temples of Ellora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are the finest examples of Deccan rock-cut architecture. From the 6th to the 10th century, many generations of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain monks carved chapels, monasteries, and temples from a two-kilometer-long escarpment and decorated them with a profusion of sculptures that were precise to the last detail. The 34 caves at Ellora represent the renaissance of Hinduism under the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasties, the subsequent decline of Indian Buddhism, and a brief resurgence of Jainism. The sculptures show the increasing influence of tantric elements in India’s three great religions. In fact, their coexistence at one site indicates a prolonged period of religious acceptance. The masterpiece is the Kailasa temple, which is considered to be the world’s largest monolithic sculpture, supposed to be made from rock by 7,000 laborers over a 150-year period.


(Left) Elephanta Caves.

The other prominent caves of Maharashtra are the Elephanta, Kanheri, Karla, and Bhaja, Pandavleni, and Pitalkhora. The caves at Elephanta Island, located 11 km from Mumbai, have beautiful carvings, sculptures and a temple of Lord Shiva. The Kanheri caves have an advantage of location. Just 42 km from Mumbai, the place is green with wooded hills and valleys, and with architecture regarded as one of the finest in India. The Karla and Bhaja caves are located near Lonavala in Maharashtra. A set of 22 rock-cut caves dating back to 200 BC, the Bhaja caves are a representation of the Hinayana sect and showcase the early phase of Buddhist architecture. The Pandavleni caves, built by the Jain kings, is a group of 24 Hinayana Buddhist caves dating back to between the 3rd century BC and 2nd century AD. The Pitalkhora caves, which date back to 2nd century BC, are only 40 km from the Ellora caves at Aurangabad. Here one can see many unusual sculptures that resemble Yaksha figures. The main entrance has a wide terrace.

—Khursheed Dinshaw and Madhulika Dash




Meghalaya is another Indian state blessed with pristine caves. Over 700 natural caves—including the subcontinent’s longest cave system (22 km in length)— are located throughout its East Khasi, Jaintia, and to South Garo Hills. The prime caves are Mawsmai, Krem Dam, Krem Liat Prah, Siju, Krem Um-Lawan, and Krem Umshangktat.


(Left) Mawsmai Cave.

The attractions of the Khasi Hills are the Krem Mawmluh, Krem Dam, Krem Lymput, Krem Mawjymbuin, and Mawsmai caves. The Mawsmai cave, 6 km from Sohra, is a limestone cave known for its stalactites and stalagmites covered with bright crystals. The cave has impressive formations of large passages and chambers.

Krem Liat Prah, located in the Jaintia Hills, is the longest natural cave in India. The cave is one of approximately 150 known caves in the Shnongrim Ridge of the district. Its foremost feature is its enormous trunk passage, the Aircraft Hangar. Another amazing cave is the Krem Chympe, situated at a walking distance along the track from the village of Khaddum to Sielkan. A river cave, the Krem Chympe would require swimming over a series of large and deep lakes, formed by over 50 natural dams. The cave is also known for a large colony of bats and possibly cave-adapted fish.


(Left) Siju Cave.

The Garo Hills have the Tetengkol Balwakol, a delight for spelunkers. Located north of Nengkhong village are two adjacent circular entrances that lead to a 5-kmlong dendritic river cave blessed with a maze of stooping-size to walking-size passages. A sizeable cave behind a small entrance surprises just anyone getting in!

Siju cave, located on the bank of the Simsang River, is another cave famous for impressive limestone formations and bats.




(Left) Ardha-Naarishvara sculpture at Badami Caves.


For anyone who is a lover of nature and its many hidden secrets, the Badami cave complex is a mustvisit. Situated in the Bagalkot district of north Karnataka, the virtuoso sculptures and breathtaking vistas of the monument appeal to both learned and regular tourists. Badami was the capital of the early Chalukyas who ruled from the 6th to 8th centuries. The rulers Mawsmai Cave, Meghalaya Siju Cave, Meghalaya built several fascinating temples in Badami, between the mountains and the lakes. The Chalukyan king Mangalesa (598-610 AD) was responsible for the completion of these cave temples. The complex has four caves, all carved out of the soft Badami sandstone on a hill cliff in the late 6th to 7th centuries. Rich and intricate, the architecture of the caves is most admired for its artistic adoption of stylistic elements from north Indian and Dravidian styles. These cave temples consist of a rectangular pillared verandah (mukha mandapa), a square pillared hall (maha mandapa), and a sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha), all in an axial plane and cut from rock, constituting the flat-roofed mandapa type of temples. Two of the temple caves are dedicated to Lord Vishnu, and one to Lord Shiva, while the fourth is a Jain temple. One has to climb about 2000 steps to reach the cave. The engraved pillars and ceilings have beautifully crafted figures of Nataraja (Lord Shiva) in 91 imposing dancing poses. Other deities seen are Mahishasuramardini (Goddess Durga), Sheshanaga (serpent deity), Ardhanareshwari (half man-half woman), Vishnu in his Varaha and Narasimha incarnations, and 24 Jain tirthankaras.

Come out of the caves to see the Bhuthanatha temple on the opposite hill across the tank, Agasthya Tirtha, and a fort built by King Tipu Sultan of Mysore, who visited Badami in the 18th century.


Bhutanatha Temple across the Badami Caves.


Fort atop a mountain at Badami Caves.




Elephant bas-relief.

Tamil Nadu


Mamallapuram is among the most outstanding examples of Dravidian art and architecture. With its antecedents rooted in legends and history, the port city represents the beginning of the architectural supremacy of South India. Historically, the city was founded by the great Pallava ruler Narasimha Varman I, sometime in the 7th century. The king was a great wrestler—or a maha malla—and so the city came to be named after him as Mamallapuram.


(Left) Rathas at Mamallapuram.


While most of the architectural work at the city was left incomplete, and time and nature eroded the remains of this once great port, Mamallapuram is still known for its amazing rock-cut cave temples. Also called mandapas, they are sanctuaries covered with bas-reliefs. The earliest use of these caves as sanctuaries is traced to Buddhist and Jain periods. The famous 8th- century, pagoda-shaped shore temple has served as the benchmark of Dravidian architecture. It is the lone survivor of a group of seven temples that once graced the seashores. The Five Rathas (chariots of the five Pandavas) reflect the Pallava style of architecture in their variety of ornamentation and carved panels, besides a Buddhist influence. The Mahishasuramardini Cave (depicting the demon-slaying Goddess Durga), the supine figure of Vishnu, the Krishna Mandapam (carved with tales from Krishna’s life), and Krishna’s Butter Ball (a balancing rock) are stunning. Another attraction is the huge bas-relief panel known as Arjuna’s Penance (photo at left,  Arjuna’s Penance relief).

Every year during December-January, this UNESCO World Heritage Site hosts a dance festival, resurrecting to life the graceful poise of the figures carved in stone.

—Uttara Gangopadhyay



Madhya Pradesh


Rock painting on the walls of Bhimbetka Caves.

Think of a time thousands of years ago when you could not buy paints off the shelf, when there were no easels, and there was nothing called commissioned art. But then, when did art need such paraphernalia to survive? The Bhimbetka rock shelters have the answer. On their walls and ceilings are stunning line drawings of animals and motifs, all abstract, but stylish and graceful. What fascinates is the thought that there were no patrons and these were not drawn as paeans to the ruler; these were made by ordinary people depicting everyday lives. Moreover, it was not just one artist poring over it for that one special moment; it is a continuum of everyday people painting everyday life over hundreds of years. Archaeologists say it belongs to the Stone Age; there are 642 rock shelters of which 400 have paintings. At some places you see layers of color because something new has been painted over an older drawing. These layers add up to present a very fascinating documentation of eras.


Bhimbetka Caves.

Located in Madhya Pradesh, Bhimbetka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The caves comprise a rocky projection in the midst of green fields on the edge of the Vindhya mountain range. There are around 500 paintings, in ochre or white, with an occasional splash of green or yellow. The style indicates that these paintings have not been completed over a definite period, but across several centuries. The fact that there are images of elephants and horses existing in the region belies the theory that horses were not endemic to the Indian subcontinent. Since the paintings are believed to belong to an era between 25,000 BC and 10,000 BC, researchers may perhaps be able to decode many such mysteries.

—Nandu Manjeshwar





Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves.

Just 6 km from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, stand two barren, small hills facing each other across the serpentine road. Legend says that the Udayagiri and Khandagiri hills—as these hillocks are known—were first used for carving out dwellings and retreats for Jain ascetics during the 3rd century BC. The caves saw their glorious period during the rule of Kharavela, the ruler of Kalinga, and of the Mahameghavahana Chedi dynasty.

Kharavela rebuilt Kalinga, which according to inscriptions became “a city of joy” under his rule. He built palaces, roads, resthouses, canals, hospitals, and every utility, besides repairing and rebuilding the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves for Jain ascetics. According to a legend, Rani Gumpha, the two-storied spectacular cave in Udayagiri, became the site of many artistic performances by singers and dancers.


Hathi Gumpha, Khandagiri.

Though time has wiped off many of the original sculptures and inscriptions, Udayagiri still has 18 caves, while Khandagiri has 15. Carved friezes show scenes of war, the surrender of the Nanda king Bahasatimita, and the love stories of Vasavadatta-Udayan and Shakuntala-Dushyant. In several caves, the friezes also showcase many holy Jain symbols. Probably the most important feature of the Udayagiri caves is the Hathi Gumpha inscription. In its 13 lines, it describes the life and career of Emperor Kharavela. The inscription, written in Brahmi, is one of the oldest stone edicts in the historical records of India. In Khandagiri, three caves show the sculptures of the 24 Jain tirthankaras, with their symbolic animals and Sasan Devis. They comprise the complete pantheon of the Jain religion. Up on the top is a Jain temple built in 1837, on the site of an ancient temple.



Andhra Pradesh


(Left) Sculptures at Undavalli Caves.

The southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has an interesting case when it comes to caves. A few of its caverns are as long as those found in Meghalaya, a few as ancient as those in Madhya Pradesh, and a few as scenic as those in Karnataka. Evolved over a period of several centuries, the Andhra caves have been a subject of interest among archeologists the world over. The Borra, Undavalli, Belum, and Yaganti caves are the main halts for anyone interested in the subject.


(Left) Undavalli Caves.

The Belum caves are natural underground passageways known for being second to the Meghalaya caves with respect to their length. The Borra caves, near the river of Gosthani, are built from limestone deposits, and bear a past of around one million years. A natural splendor by the side of the Krishna River are the Undavalli caves, believed to be discovered in the early periods of 4th and 5th centuries. These caves possess a sculpture of Lord Buddha in the sitting posture (believed to be built between 4th and 5th centuries AD), and another of Lord Vishnu made up of only one block of granite. The rock on which these caves are found gives an incredible view of other equally riveting rock-cut structures.


(Left) Borra Caves.

Known for their beauty and serenity, the holy, natural caves at Yaganti are famous for being the place where the 17th-century saint Potuluri Veera Brahmam wrote his monumental work, Kaala Gnanam, a collection of chanting poems with predictions about the future. Located about 100 km from Kurnool, the caves encompass the Sanka, Venkateswara, Rokalla, and Veera Brahman caves. Yaganti is a splendid conglomeration of subterranean passageways originated from various actions and reactions of nature over a sizeable span of time. Its stunning chambers and natural cavities capture the imagination of anyone stepping in.

Reprinted with permission from India Perspectives.

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