Monolithic Undavalli Caves At Guntur, Andhra Pradesh

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Undavalli Caves - Andhra Pradesh
Undavalli Caves – Andhra Pradesh

Undavalli Caves are one of the many rock-cut caves that India has. I am not sure if any other place had the culture of scooped out caves on large rocks. We, of course, know about the famous caves like Ajanta, Ellora & Elephanta. There are lesser known ones like Bagh Caves, Kanheri Caves in Mumbai, Udaygiri & Khandagiri in Odisha, Badami Caves in Karnataka and Udaygiri in Vidhisha. There are of course pre-historic caves with rock paintings like Bhimbetka and some in Chhattisgarh.

I was in Amaravati for the global music and dance festival and to do participate in some aerial adventures like Hot Air Ballooning and Paragliding. You can not keep a culture vulture away from heritage. So on a short trip, I ended up exploring Kuchipudi Village, Kondapalli, and Undavalli Caves.

Undavalli caves are like many other caves across India but they are as unique as well. There are many small caves located on the banks of Krishna River. Technically, they are a part of Guntur district but they are closer to the city of Vijayawada or the newly formed capital of Andhra Pradesh – Amaravati.

When were Undavalli Caves Excavated?

Smaller Caves at Undavalli Caves
Smaller Caves at Undavalli Caves

It is estimated Undavalli Caves were excavated sometime in 4-5th CE during the reign of King Vishnukundi. They were under royal patronage till about 16th CE after which they lie unused. Now, of course, they are a part of ASI assets and a national heritage.

Monolithic Undavalli Caves

These are a set of caves excavated on a rocky hill overlooking the surrounding lush green fields. However, the main cave is a four-story cave with neatly carved chambers with pillars. It is this cave that most of us explore.

When I reached Undavalli, I first saw a smaller cave with three openings and a carved panel on top of it. There are elephants and lions carved on the panel. Above it is an alcove with a carved statue of Vishnu and another one that is unfinished. So, to begin with, I learned that this cave group was also a work in progress and never finished.

Undavalli Caves - Pillars and corridors
Undavalli Caves – Pillars and corridors

After a few steps, the huge 4 story caves makes an appearance. The top part of the caves was painted – I am sure this is a recent act. What strikes you first is the life-size idols of 4 saints sitting on the 3rd-floor balcony. One of them is playing a Tanpura-like instrument and is surrounded by two lion sculptures. I wonder what is these idols depicting? Are they depicting a Guru with three Shishyas or disciples? They do not look like Jain or Buddhist Monks but most likely some Rishi Muni. There is nothing much written about them anywhere.

Sage Sculptures at Undavalli Caves
Sage Sculptures at Undavalli Caves

Tiered Undavalli Caves

Anyway, the tiered cave looks beautiful in totality. Each level is clearly visible. The base level is incomplete and tells you a bit about how caves used to be excavated. Standing there you wonder if some architect planned to make it this way or it was built over generations – one building on the other. Caves must have been painted once upon a time as you can see at some of the ceilings.

The pillars show a stylistic similarity with Vijayanagar style but these caves are said to have inspired the excavation of Mahabalipuram caves.

Sculptures at Undavalli Caves

Sheshashayee Vishnu at Undavalli Caves
Sheshashayee Vishnu at Undavalli Caves

Sheshashayee Vishnu – This is the primary sculpture of the Undavalli caves and the one that established that these are Vaishnavite Cave Temples. A giant Garuda sculpture is sitting on the top of Vishnu sculpture as if keeping an eye on Vishnu as he sleeps. The giant Naga acts as a pillow as the other deities look upon from the sky.

Garuda & Vishnu - Undavalli Caves
Garuda & Vishnu – Undavalli Caves

Elephant uprooting the tree – Elephant is a key motif in many sculptures at the Undavalli Caves

Standing Vishnu – This sculpture is standing in an alcove

Sitting Ganesha - Undavalli Caves
Sitting Ganesha – Undavalli Caves

Sitting Ganesha – This Ganesha in granite is still worshipped as you can see from the fresh flowers and colors on the idol.

Narasimha Avatar Sculpture

The Narasimha Avatar of Vishnu - Undavalli Caves
The Narasimha Avatar of Vishnu – Undavalli Caves

Narasimha Avatar – This sculpture appears many times at Undavalli caves. There is a standing sculpture and the Narasimha is also carved on the medallions on the pillars. I am not surprised to see Narasimha sculptures as Andhra has a tradition of Narasimha worship. You see many big temples in Andhra dedicate to this avatar of Vishnu like Simhachalam near Vizag. The only other place where I found Narasimha worship was in parts of Himachal Pradesh like Sarahan.

Read More – Narsimha Swamy Temple at Yadagirigutta

Standing Brahma with 3 heads

Hanuman – There are multiple Hanuman Murtis at Undavalli Caves. Even the Ramayana scenes I saw there were those from the Hanuman episodes in the epic.

Ramayana Panel at Undavalli Caves
Ramayana Panel at Undavalli Caves

Scenes from Ramayana – There are few scenes from the epic Ramayana carved on the pillars of Undavalli Caves. Look at this scene depicting Hanuman meeting Sita in Ashok Vatika in Sri Lanka.

Read More – Ramayana Temples in Sri Lanka

Dwarpalas – where there is a temple, there is bound to be Dwarpalas with their maces prominently showing.

Apart from these Lotus flower can be seen everywhere.

Lush Green Landscape around Undavalli Caves
Lush Green Landscape around Undavalli Caves

There are a labyrinth and some board games engraved on the floor of the caves – indicating it was a social space as well where people met and played games.

The idols are carved in black granite stone while the caves are excavated from the sandstone hill.

Buddhist or Jain or Hindu Caves

View from inside the Caves at Undavalli
View from inside the Caves at Undavalli

The design of the second floor has the trademark Chaitya design on them indicating that at some point in time these would have been Buddhist caves. Some people opine that these were originally Jain caves that gave way to Buddhist, which in time became Hindu Vaishnava caves.

In my personal opinion, Jainism and Buddhism are two of the many paths of Hinduism.

Visiting these caves is to relive the journey of these caves through the small signs that each era has left behind.

I walked around the hill to see other smaller caves. Carvings and sculptures of most of them have eroded with time and weather. It is a good walk from one cave to another – looking at the lovely green views around.

35 COMMENTS

  1. WONDERFUL WORK KEEP IT UP
    NOT QUITE CLOSE, YET IN AP, I WONDER AT THE HUGE BOULDERS STREWN ACROSS THE VAST PLANES AS THE TRAIN CROSSES THE KRISHNA RIVER IN THE ADONI-GUNTAKAL SECTOR. COULD U PERHAPS THROW SOME LIGHT ON THEE INTRIGUING GEOLOGICAL PHENOMENA AND THEIR FORMATION?

  2. The Garuda looks perfect. They do look like angel beings or the Sumerian winged gods. I am not sure if I saw something similar in Ajanta, it was a painting and the needing had a comic-like smile, almost unreal. These stones are witness to another time, I wish they could speak to us.

    • Helene – no this is not similar to Ajanta although these caves are contemporary of Ajanta caves. Yes, these stones were actually sculpted to tell us stories. Each scene is a story from our scriptures.

  3. I lived in that vicinity for 20 years but visited the cave only once as part of a school excursion. Thanks for sharing the pics.

  4. What an amazing place. I love the Sheshashayee Vishnu and the Sitting Ganesha – it would be fascinating to see it in real life. I’ve only been to India once and what really struck me was how many heritage temples are still very much in use.

    • Fiona, unfortunately, what survives today is just an iota of what used to be there about 1000 years ago. I can not even imagine how beautiful the country looked when every stone was carved to tell a story.

  5. India never ceases to amaze me with its diverse yet rich culture. Visiting caves and temples in india had been on my list, ill be adding this to my list. I wish I was born in the age of creative. The sculptures who beautified the Undavalli Cave are geniuses. And your pictures arr clear and so detailed

  6. Wow these caves and the sculptures look amazing! India, especially the south, has so much history and so many places to explore, it’s overwhelming. I have not heard about Undavalli caves but would love to visit one day. Thanks for this informative post!

    • Medha – all of India had such lovely history, but South has been fortunate that some of them escaped vandalism. Imagine when the whole country was full of such sculptures. A story wherever you look.

  7. ‘Culture vulture’ love it! I too am fascinated by culture and heritage, but wow these caves are absolutely amazing! It would be a lot to absorb in one visit. It truly boggles my mind seeing so much detail and design and knowing they were all created by ‘hand’ (many hands). People were obviously very dedicated and passionate back in the day.

    • Vanessa – going by the no of caves and temples we have – all sculpted on every inch of the wall – I think we had some amazing technology that we have completely lost now. There were hands involved for sure but not without the technique to so finely sculpt the hard stones like granite.

  8. I have never heard of this place. It looks like a really incredible site. India has so many sites to discover. One can spend a year there only to visit this beautiful country.

  9. Legendary! These temples seems to have so much of culture and history in their premises. I have not heard of Undavalli but have heard or been to all the places you mention. There are some buddhist caves near Pune called the Karla Caves, Masroor temple in HP and of course Mahabalipuram Near Chennai are also fine examples of rock-cut monuments. I have not heard of any such thing outside of India though I am sure there must be.

    • Nisha, I do not think I have seen anything like this outside the Indian subcontinent. Yes, I have been to Karla Caves but yet to explore the Masroor temples in HP. Hopefully, there would be some opportunity soon to explore them.

  10. I heard about the rock cut caves in India earlier in the year, well, last year now!!! And I’m absolutely amazed by the construction of them. I hadn’t heard of Undavalli Caves though, amazing to know that there are so many which are relatively lesser known as well as the more famous spots. To think that something is as old as 4-5th CE is quite incredible – especially to think of the skill in carving out such intricate decoration, and structurally sound to be standing to this day!

    What an opportunity to see the sculptures, idols and walk through the caves. Sculptures like the Sitting Ganesha truly astound me as to how they carved it!

    • Megan – there are rock-cut caves in most of Indian Subcontinent. Some of them are well developed, some are not. Some like Ajanta and Ellora are very popular but some like Undavalli are not so well know. It is amazing how the hard rocks were all covered with sculpture. Don’t know when and where we lost this aesthetic sense for glass and steel buildings.

  11. The caves and the sculptures look fascinating and it is amazing how old they are. It surprises me how much was carved by hand in these times, people had so much more patience than now. Every time I read one of your blog posts you give me more reasons to explore India!

  12. I must say Undavalli Caves is another hidden gem. We were completely stunned seeing Mahabalipuram caves and knowing they too are monolithic. These to look quite huge and covered in sculptures. Would love to visit and explore this someday. Great pictures Anuradha.

  13. What wonderful detailed photos and write up. You are right. One lifetime is not enough to see all the wonderful treasures of India. I have just been to Ajanta Ellora recently but realised my limitation due to health. I eagerly look forward to your blogs. I feel I am there with you as I read them. Thank you 👍😊

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