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.
These 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?
It is estimated that these 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 there, 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.
After a few steps, the huge 4 story caves make 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.
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.
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.
Elephant uprooting the tree – Elephant is a key motif in many sculptures here.
Standing Vishnu – This sculpture is standing in an alcove
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
Narasimha Avatar – This sculpture appears many times here. 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 here. Even the Ramayana scenes I saw there were those from the Hanuman episodes in the epic.
Scenes from Ramayana – There are few scenes from the epic Ramayana carved on the pillars here. 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.
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
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 in the campus. 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.