Ranigumpha – Rock-cut Romance

From Mughal-E-Azam to Bajirao Mastani, most of Bollywood’s period movies are romantic sagas replete with tales of unbridled passion and supreme sacrifice. Indian history, especially oral history, is a rich repository of such tales vivid in their description and varied in their situations and contexts. If there is one thread that is common to all such tales then it is the struggle of the lover to capture the heart of the beloved. Merely on hearing or reading how the love story unfolds and what happens next keeps us glued. So how would be the experience of seeing it unfold in the form of friezes in a cave. Delightfully overwhelming. That is exactly how I felt at the Ranigumpha Cave situated atop the Udayagiri Hill.

The Ranigumpha Cave is one among a cluster of 33 caves situated atop the Udayagiri Hill. Earlier known as the Kumari Parvat, Udayagiri Hill is located in a busy suburb of Bhubaneswar city in Odisha. It is here that one can see the earliest depiction of romance, that between Emperor Kharavela of the mighty kingdom of Kalinga and Princess Vajiragharavathi, who eventually became his second wife.

After the decline of the Mauryan Empire in the 2nd century BCE, caves were hewn out of solid rocks atop hillocks in parts of Maharashtra and Odisha. While in Western Maharashtra, the caves were meant for Buddhist monks to live and meditate, the caves in Odisha were meant for Jain ascetics. Among the early caves of Odisha, the most prominent are the rock-cut caves atop the twin hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri. The caves that are partially natural and partially rock-cut were carved as residential blocks for Jain monks during the reign of Emperor Kharavela in 2nd-1st century BCE. Inscription present in these caves say that Kharavela’s first wife, Queen Sindhula was a great believer and the patron of Jain monks. It is she who got these caves cut and carved and yet the friezes tell the tale of the King’s romance with his second wife. Quiet unseen and unheard of.

Ranigumpha or the cave of the Queen, is the largest and most elaborate of the Udayagiri caves with cells on three sides and an open courtyard in the front. The arrangement of courtyard and terraces of Ranigumpha suggest that it also served as an open air theatre. The courtyard was used as a stage by the actors and the spectators most likely sat in the galleries. The rock-cut throne might have been first used by the Emperor Kharavela himself.

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The open-air theatre like setting of the Ranigumpha complete with a rock-cut throne for the King

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The most engaging part of the Ranigumpha is its beautifully carved panels.

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On the first floor, the story begins with a flying gandharva wearing dhoti, turban, scarf and jewels. The narration continues in the second frame depicting a disturbed herd of wild elephants as their favourite lotus pond in the forest was intruded upon by a group of 10 girls, actually a princess and her friends

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One woman, who is most likely the princess, shows great courage and stands resolutely in the front of the wild elephants. She defends herself and the group by throwing a ring like object, perhaps a heavy ornament or anklet. The man who is escorting the group is also seen fighting here while the rest of the women are nervous and in a state of panic.

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The next scene opens near a rock-cut cave in the forest. A wounded man is under the nursing care of a woman, who seems to be none other than the brave princess of the previous frame. The scene continues with the arrival of another woman with a rapacious looking warrior, who kills the wounded man and attempts to abduct the princess. The brave princess takes out her sword and fights vigorously with the warrior, but is overpowered by the latter who forcibly carries her away through the forest tract infested with lions.

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The next frieze presents King Kharavel hunting in the forest. Among the attendants of the king, one carries an umbrella and a fly-whisk. The other holds a sword and the third a pot suspended from a rod over his left shoulder. The king wears a bejeweled tiara, long necklace, large size ear-rings and heavy bracelets. He carries a sword in an archer’s pose flexing the left leg and straightening the right one. The warrior, who abducted the brave princess in the previous scene, on seeing the hunting party led by the king himself approaching towards them, runs away leaving behind the brave lady in the lurch. It is a happy coincidence that the deer stuck with the arrow of the king runs for life and finally falls near the tree where the brave princess has taken shelter. On seeing the King, the princess asks him for protection by stretching her right hand. The king shows compassion, rescues her and takes her to his palace.

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The next frieze depicts a dance performance by two girls. The performance is witnessed by the king, his queen and another woman, the one rescued by the king, the brave princess. Unfortunately the rest of the friezes are badly damaged making it difficult to interpret how the love story evolved. But eventually she ends up as Kharavel’s second wife.

The story is undoubtedly one of the oldest pictorial narrations of royal romance in Indian history, but unfortunately most of the visitors are not told about it by the guides. Even I would have missed it had I not read N K Sahu’s book ‘Kharavel’ before going to these caves. The purpose of this post is to bring out a fresh perspective for common people on how to infer ideas depicted in sculptural panels of early Indian art that are full of stories of love, sacrifice and elements that have been favorite subjects among Bollywood film makers for decades.

 Author : Jitu Mishra

The author can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

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