Bagh Caves had been on my wishlist to visit since the time I studied Indian Art at the National Museum in Delhi. I still remember petite Dr. Anupa Pande explaining to us How to Read Ajanta Paintings one day with her focus on the important paintings and Jataka tales. The next day she spoke about these caves while also telling us that nothing remains on the walls of the caves now. However, the paintings have been carefully removed and preserved at the site museum. I have visited Ajanta a few times, but these caves always remained elusive.
I wanted to visit them last time when I was traveling on the Queen’s Trail in MP but could not fit them in the itinerary. This time while attending Mandu Festival, I did not even plan it but the time to meet Bagh Caves had come. So, in a matter of seconds, I was asked if I wanted to visit and my answer was an instant ‘Yes’. Within the next 10 minutes, I was in the car heading towards Dhar, the closest town to the caves.
History of Bagh Caves
The cave paintings here are contemporary to Ajanta Caves. They are about 300 KMs apart but their topography is not very different. These caves are also man-made caves on the banks of the Bhagini River. These caves are a fine example of the rock-cut architecture of India that probably began with Barabar caves in Bihar.
They are carved in 5-6th CE which can be called a late Buddhist period in India, making them some of the youngest Buddhist caves. Satvahanas were ruling the region then. A copper plate inscription of 416-17 CE by Maharaja Subandhu of Mahishmati, which is identified as the modern Maheshwar, talks about a grant for this Vihara. It is called Kalyana Vihara in the inscription. It is believed that a Buddhist monk named Dataka established Bagh Caves.
The caves were probably abandoned with the fall of Buddhism, by 10th CE or so. After this these became the abode of tigers of the region, hence getting the name Bagh.
These caves are carved high up on a tall sandstone rock in a neat row. I understand that this is the only rock in sandstone in the area while most other rocks are hard basalt rocks. We can now reach this using the staircase, I wonder how did they reach it when it was first carved.
Visiting Bagh Caves
The premises of the caves are well preserved with reasonably well-maintained lawns. You can enter it after buying the ticket at the ticket counter. A well-laid-out path takes you to the caves. You cross a small bridge over the Baghini River before you reach the base of the caves. The river had little water but this is January, the time when rivers are not really full. This must have been the reason to excavate caves here – the ready availability of freshwater.
After climbing the staircase that takes you to the caves, the first thing I saw was a Shivalinga carved on the ground on my right. A pair of feet were carved next to it. Fresh flowers on the linga told me that it is still being worshipped. It is difficult to say if it has existed since the initial days of caves or was carved later. What is important is that it is the living part of these ancient caves.
Cave 2 or Pandava Cave
The looked at the cave in front of me, and in front of it, I could see the bases of massive pillars that would have held the weight of the rock above. Caves on the sides of these pillar bases had huge figurines. The one on the left is difficult to decipher, the one right is Ganesha.
I stepped inside the cave and found myself surrounded by 24 massive circular pillars with parallel slanting grooves on them. The bottom parts of many of them show clear signs of restoration. The top parts touching the ceiling have floral patterns carved on some of them. Overall, the pillars are relatively simple and broad, occupying a major part of the cave.
At the back of the cave is a Chaitya Griha with a narrow tall stupa inside it. Stupa almost touches the ceiling making me wonder if the ceiling has come down or stupa has been raised later. The walls outside the Chaitya have large figurines that are difficult to figure out. You can make out a rough outline of a Buddha-like figure but without the finer details, it could be a Bodhisattva too.
On the far-right wall, I could get a glimpse of a faded painting. It must have been colorful at some point in time, but now it is not even a glimpse of what it may have been. I could see a floral pattern at best. Most of the rest of the wall is patched up around it.
On the left are ruins of another cave that is difficult to step into. However, you do see the pillars as they would have been in the original caves.
Bagh Caves 3-4
These are a bit better preserved, but just a bit. You can see the figures on the outer walls though they are heavily eroded with time. Some carvings on the doorjamb of the main door. A row of pillars covers the front of these caves but they are clearly recent, maybe replacing the older ones from earlier times.
The texture on the rock face shows the water levels it must have seen over the ages. Inside, the water was still dripping everywhere in the cave.
In these caves, some of the pillars and one wall have some remains of the paintings. Paintings on the walls are colorful, while those on the pillars are in black and white and have only geometric shapes. Honestly, I have never seen geometric shapes inside the ancient Indian caves and these looked like a recent work to me. There was no one to confirm or oppose this though.
Stupa here too was in a Chaitya Griha like a room at the back again was touching the ceiling. Stupas at Bagh caves are narrow and tall, with a hexagonal bottom and a spherical top, while those at Ajanta or Sanchi are more like inverted semi-hemisphere.
Many of the smaller rooms around the main hall are empty. These could be meditation caves or maybe they had some images that have been removed.
Cave 4 is sometimes called the Rang Mahal for its colorful paintings.
This is a narrow long cave with two rows of pillars facing each other. Pillars dominate the space again. In this cave, I saw an underground water channel. I wonder where it links to, and if it is an old channel or a recently made one.
There are 3 more caves numbered 7-9 but due to their collapse, it is not possible to see them.
Bagh Paintings at Site Museum
As you come down from the caves and cross the Bhagini River, you will see a small museum housed in a simple concrete building. Inside, there are original paintings taken from the walls of the caves and preserved. Some more paintings are in the Archaeological Museum at Gwalior.
Here, there is a bit of information available about the paintings.
Bagh painters used the Tempera technique which uses a lime coating on top of a mud + vegetable fiber layer that covers the rock face. The same technique and similar colors have been used at Ajanta.
The boards in English and Hindi explain the paintings on display with a small note on the painting technique.
I could see Bodhisattva Padmapani, geometric patterns, Jataka tales like Vidura Pandita Jataka, and flora, and fauna paintings. It would have been great if a guide could explain these ancient and exquisite paintings. A rust-red tone dominates the Bagh paintings here.
Total Lack of Information
I wish there was some documentation of the caves available at the site or at the site museum. The guide who came with us from Mandu did not know anything beyond the fact that these are Buddhist caves. Local guides were not available. The ticket counter had no booklet. The museum had signs explaining the paintings displayed there but no booklet to take back.
Lighting inside caves is almost not there. Most people were using their mobile torch lights to navigate the uneven surface of the caves.
Bagheshwari Devi Mandir
In the town of Bagh, on a small hillock stands the temple of Bagheshwari Devi – the Gram Devi of town.
We had our lunch next to it at the shop of Ganpat Halwai. Food was as close to home-cooked food as it can be.
Bagh Block Prints
On our way to Bagh, we passed by a lot of cotton fields, full of cotton, ready to be plucked. In fact, cotton was being plucked everywhere and transported to the Mandi close by. It was a pleasure to visit a field, meet the cotton farmers and pluck a bit of cotton with them. You feel the cotton seed inside the cotton that must be taken out before you can make a yarn out of it, which is then woven to make a fabric.
While I was keen on caves and their paintings, having studied about them, my fellow travelers were keen on meeting the block printers of Bagh. We expected to meet some local weavers but it seems there are not many of them around. Bagh Printing is what is famous and something that I have been wearing for a long time.
After a long search, we reach the workshop of Khatri Block Printers. The delicate Saris in beige, black, and red color were lying all around their compound, drying up the sun. They very kindly showed us the whole process of printing as we walked through a pile of wooden blocks. Each big and small is a wooden block, which is the currency of a Bagh printer.
Fabrics are delicately but firmly painted by hand, joining pattern by pattern and creating a new pattern every time. The fabric then goes through the boiling and drying process that firms up the colors. Only three colors can be seen on fabrics hand-printed in Bagh – Beige, Red, and Black.
My fellow travelers got busy buying Saris, scarves, and dress materials, while I sat back and enjoyed the prints that reflected the invisible thread of ancient technique used on a local fabric. The printers though traced their lineage from the Marwar region of Rajasthan.
- These caves are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
- The ticket is Rs 25/- for Indians and Rs 300/- for foreigners. Children below 15 can visit free of cost. The ticket includes the site museum visit.
- You need about an hour or so to see the caves. The caves are open to the public from 9 AM to 5 PM.
- There are no hotels or even restaurants in and around Bagh, so carry your food and water.
- You can do it as a day trip from Mandu or Dhar or Indore.
Read more: Pre-historic cave paintings in Chhattisgarh