The Rāmāyaṇa at Undavalli

The first port of call after arriving in India was to the rock-cut caves at Undavalli near Vijayawada (ancient Bezawada), Andhra Pradesh. The caves are situated in a picturesque rural locale in close proximity to a tributary of the vast Krishna River which flows nearby.

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These caves have often been described by scholars as home to 4th century CE relief carvings depicting scenes from the epic Rāmāyaṇa, alongside images of other Vaiṣṇava deities such as Varāha (Viṣṇu in his boar incarnation). The presence of such early Rāmāyaṇa images here has long struck me as odd, both for temporal and geographic reasons, since, to the best of my knowledge, the corpus of pre-seventh century Rāmāyaṇa images is otherwise entirely North Indian. Importantly too, there is plentiful evidence to suggest that scenes from the Rāmāyaṇa were included in temple iconography only from the fifth century CE onwards, commencing under Gupta rule. So how to explain the Undavalli anomaly?

The first clue comes as we pass signs to the caves which variously describe them as 4th century and 6th/7th century. As it turns out, the caves are thought to have been excavated by Jains in circa the fifth century CE under the Vishnukundins, or a little earlier. Then, in the seventh century (on the basis of style) the caves were converted to a Hindu place of worship, possibly developed under the Pericchedi kings who founded Vijayawada in 626 CE.

The Rāmāyaṇa reliefs, which are few and simple in composition, are situated on the third storey, in a pillared hall leading to a monumental granite image of Viṣṇu Anantaśayana (Viṣṇu sleeping on the serpent Ananta), still under active worship.



Sītā with Hanumān in Lanka


Two further bas-reliefs of Hanumān are carved on a rock wall leading towards the main cave temple. These are later in date, possibly circa fourteenth or fifteenth century as they bear an iconographic similitude to Vijayanagara period depictions of Hanumān, who is at this point in time, usually depicted with his tail aloft, forming an arc over his head.



The Rāmāyaṇa reliefs at Undavalli, then, do not pre-date the seventh century CE. Happily, this removes the confusion about the spread of early Rāmāyaṇa temple imagery, which otherwise has a fairly clear trajectory, with its naissance being in the region now encompassing Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. It was in the seventh century that visual renderings of the epic reached South India, initially championed by the great Early Chalukya and Pallava kings.


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