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Vidisha: Udaygiri Caves and More

The Udaygiri Caves were really caves, like Ajanta, Ellora and Badami; not overhangs of rock, like Bhimbetka. There were large caves and small caves, and some caves that were no more than niches in the rock. They stretched across perhaps 500 m of rocky outcrop. There were 20 caves in all. No. 1 was somewhat distant from the rest and I did not go there in the interests of time. The ASI guide guarding one end was initially quite eager to open the gates on some of the caves and let me inside. Then some senior fellows come along and start giving him beans for some matter totally unrelated, and I realize that it would be best for me not to hang around and embarrass him, so I made myself scarce.

The terrain was impressive. It was not altogether isolated – there were huts, farms, and a playing field within stone’s throw. Despite these signs of civilization, the dark rock with its craggy folds and steep face was beautiful. Two, or possibly three of the caves here were Jain shrines, and the rest were Hindu. Not all had sculptures, but many did. Two large representation of Vishnu were particularly arresting.

The path led to and over the top of the rock face. Most of the caves were scattered near the foot of the rock, but at the top there were the remains of an ancient temple and cave 18 also lay somewhere in the middle, a little below the temple. Cave 20 looked very interesting – a steep flight of steps descending into what was evidently a hollow block of stone. But entry to this cave had been deemed dangerous and was not allowed.

Looking around it was hard to imagine that these caves had existed since the 4th or 5th century AD. Some of the rocks were so precariously perched that it seemed they might come crashing down any time. I got out of their way rather hurriedly.

My limo was waiting at the agreed rendezvous, though my driver was playing hookey, watching a game of cricket in the maidan. I clapped thrice, and like a genie, he appeared. Bija Mandal, I commanded, and he obediently drove me there.

Bija Mandal belonged to a completely different era. This mosque was built around the 1700s by Aurangzeb. Built on the site of an earlier temple of the eleventh century (Paramara dynasty), it used pillars of the earlier structure and looks too square and not arched or domed enough for a mosque of that era. The interior was caged off and locked: it evidently served as a workshop cum office of the ASI. Through the grill, I could see one mihrab, with its characteristic carving and in the centre a stepped platform, like the pulpit of a church.

There was a stepped well, or baoli, in the same enclosure, which had exquisitely caved pillars that dated back to the eighth century, indicating that there may have been an even earlier temple at this site. Remnants of sculpture were neatly arrayed all around the lawns and some of the pieces were highly ornate.

The ASI guide told me that this structure had been excavated only recently (that is, 30-odd years ago) and more excavation still needed to be done. The back of the temple was buried in a mound of earth covered with grass and weeds.

I went back to my waiting auto. Like Cinderella at midnight, I knew my time was up, but unlike Cinderella, my auto remained an auto and did not turn into a pumpkin, so I was driven back to the station without further ado. (Unfortunately, I had no glass slipper, only sneakers; and no prince charming either, to scour the countryside looking for me.)

I spent a few hours in Vidisha, walking around the crowded and noisy bazaar; debating going up the neighbouring hill and deciding against it; walking into the museum to the astonishment of all who watched; and finally waiting on the platform for the afternoon train to take me back to Sanchi.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.