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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Udaigiri Caves, Heliodorus Pillar & Bijamandal in Vidhisha

Vidhisha was an important city in ancient India. It stood on the trade route connecting the north and south India. It finds mention in many ancient stories, especially the stories of the traders. Besides the popular Sanchi Stupa there are many important and interesting places to explore in Vidhisha like Udaigiri Caves.

Udaigiri Caves

Cave temples are the first temples that used to exist before the temples were built on the land and on raised platforms. Later, these evolved into various styles of temple architecture.

Udaigiri Caves in Vidisha

Udaigiri Caves are about 20 Hindu and a Jain cave temple on a hill. They were built sometime in the late 4th and early 5th century by Chandragupta II during the early Gupta period as per the inscription in Cave 6. This makes these caves the earliest known and dated Hindu Temples. It is sometimes also called Vishnupadagiri.

Udaigiri literally means the hill of rising sun. We see similar hills at Rajgir in Bihar and in Odisha near Bhubaneshwar. Does this mean it was a center of Sun worship at some point in time? Probably yes. It is also located almost on the Tropic of Cancer which means it was aligned to the movement of the Sun.

Located close to the confluence of Bes river with Betwa, this may have been a part of Vidhisha that is referred to in Kalidasa’s Meghdoota. It may have been a sacred pilgrimage with so many temples located on a hill. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was a city as far back as 6th BCE.

It is believed that the Iron Pillar, an engineering marvel, at Delhi’s Qutub Minar Complex was originally at Udaigiri.

Cave temples here indicate a square mandapa in front of the garbhagriha. Pillars can be seen in some caves. Reliefs can be seen on doorjambs. There are niches with Murtis carved in the rock.

Cave 5 at Udaigiri Caves

Bhumi Devi & Varaha Avatar at Cave 5 Udaigiri Caves

Cave 5 is the most important piece of work that you notice here. It has a giant sculpture of Vishnu’s Varaha Avatar on the wall. It is the signature sculpture of these caves.

Vishnu as Varaha can be seen holding the earth as a woman. Surrounding him are all the deities like:

Brahma on a lotus and Shiva on Nandi just above the earth

12 Adityas, 8 Vasus, 11 Rudras, Agni, Vayu and Rishis in the panels on the right of Varaha

Gupta kings and their ministers can be seen closer to the ocean at the bottom

On Varaha’s left feet is Shesha and on the right is Lakshmi

On the top left are many sages led by Narada who is seen with his Vina.

Other Temples and Caves at Udaigiri Caves

Cave 6 was called Vina cave by Cunningham as it has the sculpture of a man playing Vina. Ganga and Yamuna can be seen on the door leading to this cave. Inside you can see an Ekmukhalinga or Shivalinga with one face carved on it.

Vishnu Sculpture at Udaigiri Caves
Vishnu at Udaigiri Caves

Cave 13 has a 3.66-meter-long sculpture of Sheshashayee Vishnu. You see something similar in Undavalli Caves in Andhra Pradesh.

Cave 19 has the scene of Sagar manthan carved on it.

Apart from that, there are temples devoted to many Hindu deities, most of which have been destroyed. Other caves are rather plain, but some of them have reliefs of Mahishasurmardini, Ganesha and Matrikas.

Figures here have Greek features. So, either there was a lot of Greek influence in India at that point in time or the artists were Greek so the influence. It is also possible that these were the general features and our current-day features have evolved from there.

On top of the hill are ruins of a temple that appears to be from the Gupta period. Again, a huge pillar was found there, like the Ashoka pillar at Sanchi. On your way down you can see a rest house which was built by the king of Gwalior about 100 years ago.

Tropic Of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer is a virtual line that divides the northern hemisphere into two parts. It passes through the North of Bhopal. You can cross it as you travel between Vidisha and Bhopal. I want to see the equator also sometime.

Heliodorus Pillar

Heliodorus pillar is located between Vidisha and Udaigiri caves. It’s a small spot and many locals would not know about its exact location. But they may tell you about it if you ask for ‘Khamb baba’. This is how the pillar is worshiped locally today.

Heliodorus Pillar at Vidisha
Heliodorus Pillar

Heliodorus pillar is a Garuda Stambh ie a pillar carrying the Garuda symbol on top, the vehicle of Sri Vishnu. The legend is that the pillar was erected by a Greek scholar named Heliodorus, who adopted Hinduism while living here. He was the Greek ambassador in the court of king Bhagabhadra of Vidhisha.

The pillar dates to 150 BC as per the Brahmi inscription on it. Inscription also refers to Vasudeva as God of the Gods. A later discovered inscription from the pillar mentions a verse from the Mahabharata.

The pillar seems to be standing all alone in an enclosed ground. When we spoke to the people around the area, we heard some interesting stories.

Stories on Heliodorus Pillar

There is no way to validate these stories, but one person told us that the pillar is as much inside the ground as you see outside. They also say that this piece of land is continuously going inside. It is believed that there is a temple made of gold under the pillar. The place, however, cannot be excavated. Whenever there has been an attempt to excavate the place, the place was filled with Snakes and Scorpios, making it impossible to excavate.

Now, I cannot rule out beneath a temple, as Garuda Stambha usually stands taller than the temple, outside a Vishnu temple. In fact, when you look at the small part of it jetting out of the earth, you wonder if it was installed to tell us about the temple close by. Only time and maybe some excavations would tell us someday.

Mysterious Tree

There is a mysterious tree close to the pillar. If you notice closely, there are a lot of nails that are stuck in the trunk. A villager told us that the place is used for a lot of Tantrik rituals. There are at least a ton of nails inside the tree. The bark keeps covering the nails and people keep putting the nails there.

Sati Sculptures

There were stone sculptures depicting the Sati. For the first time, I saw the significance of Agni or fire in the marital relationship. The sculpture depicted that it’s the fire in which the couples commit to each other. It is in the fire that they leave the world together. There can be many questions around it, but an interesting perspective.

Beejamandal Temple Complex

Beejamandal is a temple complex right in the town of Vidisha. Not many people know about it. There are no boards guiding you to this ancient site.

Varaha Sculpture at Vidisha Museum
Varaha sculpture at the museum

It was constructed as a temple dedicated to Charchika Devi, an avatar of Durga or some say Saraswati. Parmar King Navbarman built it in the 11th century. Aurangzeb destroyed it and converted it into a mosque. After independence, it was taken over by ASI. It is just a monument since then.

It’s a temple built on a huge platform like the one at Bhojpur. The broken sculptures have Hindu deities on them. The remains of the temple are lying around the platform, broken and disfigured, thousands of them.

Beejamandal
Beejamandal in Vidisha

Other sources also call it a Surya Temple that was dedicated to Sun God or a Vijaya Mandir that was built to celebrate a conquest in war.

Stepwell

Stepwell at Bejamandal
Stepwell at Bejamandal

There is a stepped well and a Bawdi near the temple which is said to be dating back to the 8th century. Two pillars near the Bawdi depict Krishna Leela or the stories from Lord Krishna’s life. It leads to a circular well at the end just like Rani Ki Vav at Patan.

The Bawdi is supposed to have a water source beneath it and is said to maintain a constant level of water.

The site has a pathetic state both inside and outside the monument.

Vidisha Museum

The museum at Vidisha houses a lot of artifacts and sculptures. Most of these have been found at various excavation sites in and around Vidisha. There is a huge statue of Kuber and a Yakshi.

Manibhadra Yaksha and Yakshi at Vidisha
Manibhadra Yaksha and Yakshi at Vidisha Museum

There are pieces scattered all over the museum. You can buy the plaster of Paris versions of the sculptures along with a few books at the museum shop.

Visiting this heritage place is like visiting a piece of history. Which thrived at some point in time, and was lost in another. Only to be rediscovered by later generations, looking for their heritage.

Travel Tips for Vidisha

Udaigiri caves are about 16 km from Sanchi.

Vidhisha is another 6-8 Kms from Udaigiri.

You can either stay at Sanchi or Bhopal and do it as a day trip from there.

You can visit Bhojpur Shiva Temple and Bhimbetka Caves on the same trip.

At most of these places, guides are not easily available. So, we recommend reading up before visiting.

There is nominal or no entrance fee at most places.

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