Rani Gumpha in Bhubaneswar – a Journey through India’s First Jungle Book

Remember the Jungle Book story by Rudyard Kipling, about a baby boy who was found abandoned in the jungle of Central India by Bagheera, the panther.

Bagheera carried the baby to his friends, the wolves. They named him Mowgli and raised him with the utmost care. The growing Mowgli started developing skills of survival of his own but under the protection of Bagheera. Elephants of the jungle including their leader, Colonel Hati became Mowgli’s friends.

However, not everyone in the jungle was Mowgli’s friend. His most dangerous enemy was Sher Khan, the man-eating tiger. Sher Khan had determined to kill Mowgli before his turning into an adult.

The story goes on! A century after the fictional jungle plot visualized by Kipling was cinematized by Walt Disney and its release in 2016 brought a sensation among kids world over.

However, much before Kipling, even before the birth of the Christ, the storytellers of Odisha had visualized similar jungle stories and brought into life using the canvas of rock-cut panels in Rani Gumpha, the iconic heritage site of Udayagiri Hill in Bhubaneswar.

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A local myth goes: when the army of Lord Rama had invaded Lanka, once while fighting with Indrajeet, Ravana’s fearsome son, Lakshman fell unconscious in the battlefield.

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Hanuman flew over to Gandhamardan Hills to bring the roots of Sanjivani tree for Lakshman’s healing. Hanuman tried his best of ability to spot the tree but was unsuccessful. As he did not find any solution, he uprooted the entire hill and flew it to Lanka. On his way, a few drops of rocks and trees fell and became Khandagiri and Udayagiri Hills.

Keeping the myth aside, the sandstone hills of Khandagiri and Udayagiri Hills (historically known as Kumara and Kumari Parvata) have been part of Chandka Forest range, a major elephant corridor of Odisha. The hills before their excavation in 1st century BCE had much natural cave formation, which had attracted the prehistoric people to use as shelters. Here we trace Bhubaneswar’s earliest art the painting of a man and woman in ochre red colour at Hatigumpha, a natural cave that also has Emperor Kharavela’s 13 lines inscriptions, a major primary source of Ancient Indian History.

Travel Tips

Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves are located in a western suburb of Bhubaneswar at a distance of 10 km from the city centre. The caves are well connected by public transport. Udayagiri cave is a ticketed monument. It remains open from sunrise to sunset. However, for a better appreciation of the monument, the best timing to visit is in the early morning hours when there is less crowd.

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During my childhood in the 1980s, the surrounding of Khandagiri-Udayagiri Hills was a dense jungle. People would fear to venture its territory by the time late afternoon/early evening. I would hear scores of stories of elephants intruding the nearby settlements by the nightfall.

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Today, it seems like a fairytale. In the last two decades, the entire area has been transformed into a progressive urban sprawl.

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Depiction of wild elephants and forest dominant the art panels of Rani Gumpha Cave in Bhubaneswar.

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As you climb the first floor the second panel draws your attention of an interesting episode, 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. One woman, who is most likely the princess shows great courage and stands resolutely in the front of wild elephants. She defends herself 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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In the art tradition of this period, we see human figures and forms together with trees, creepers, animals, etc. The vegetal world too is intimately rendered in sculptures.

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In yet another panel there is a depiction of a hunting scene. Wearing a bejewelled tiara, long necklace, large size earrings and heavy bracelets, Emperor Kharavela is shown in the forest along with his attendants. The forest is full of wild animals including snakes, hyenas, geese, monkeys, deer, rabbits and many more.

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Kharavela shown as an archer is succeeded in his mission of hunting a deer. The wounded deer runs for life and finally falls near the tree where the brave princess has taken shelter.

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The forest scene in the lower storey of Rani Gumpha is one of the earliest engravings of such landscape in Indian art. We find here an intricate pattern of a dense forest filled with trees, a wild elephant herd, a crocodile and a porcupine. The animals are treated with both artistic and natural grace, bringing out their inherent natural quality. The elephant, in particular, are shown in various settings as ferocious fighters.

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The Rani Gumpha in Udayagiri Hill has the depiction of an abundance plant and animal kingdom revealing a jubilant world of hunting and chasing animals as well as fighting and frolicking. We don’t know in particular about their creators, but undoubtedly they visualized in artistic form one of India’s earliest jungle books.

Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

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