I had a late flight back home. And I had ample time to tour nearby places on my last day. Then our Mandu tour guide advised us to visit the Bagh caves- famous for wall painting. We booked a touring car – an air-conditioned Santro hired for 3000 rupees which will drop off us at the airport post covering chosen destination. We set out our trip early morning, as we had 123 km to cover, a driving time of 2 hours, 27 minutes approx. The road was smooth to Bagh caves, southern slopes of the Vindhya ranges could be reckoned along the drive with lush greenery to dry patches of the cotton field.
It is an example of ancient Buddhist art found in remote, collapsing Bagh Caves. They are a group of nine rock-cut monuments, from a sandstone cliff – where major found is basalt. Bhag Caves is located at a distance of 97 km from Dhar town amidst the forest in the vicinities, with the river winding below, & the traditional rural landscape. The cave paintings here are contemporary of Ajanta Caves, an acceptable illustration of rock-cut human-made caves on the banks of the Bhagini river.
The Bagh caves date back to 5th-6th AD, which was the late Buddhist period in India. It was conceived that the Satavahana dynasty builds these caves during the 5-7th century. ASI has restored these caves in 1982, & of the nine caves, only five have survived. There is a belief that a Buddhist monk named Dataka established Bagh Caves, which are known as ‘viharas’ or resting places of monks & a small room, usually at the back, forms the ‘chaitya’, the prayer hall. With the fall in Buddhism, by 10th CE or so these caves were abandoned. After this these became the abode of tigers of the region, thus getting the name Bagh.
Walking across the bridge over Bahgini, which was constructed to ease the year-round access to the caves, I was amused to see caves carved high up on a tall sandstone rock in a neat row. As I mount the stairs to reach the cave, the first thing that caught my attention was the Shivalinga carved on the ground on my right & a pair of feet next to it. It is hard to say if it exists since the initial days of caves or sculptured later, the critical fact is its a living part of these ancient caves. And it’s still worshipped as I saw fresh flowers on them. Walking past the caves I realized, the reason to excavate these caves was the quick availability of freshwater.
The use of tempera technique is the prominent feature of wall paintings & frescoes in the Bagh caves. The walls & Ceilings were firstly covered with a thick mud plaster in brownish-orange colour; later, lime-priming with a vegetable fibre layer was done before the painting was laid. The murals of Bagh expressed vivid imagination and talent of creative people being lively & beautiful. These paintings are materialistic rather than spiritualistic. The sophistication and richness of these paintings surpass even the images in Ajanta, Ellora and Karla Caves. Murals of Bagh indeed represent “golden years” of Indian classical art. A similar technique utilized in Armamalai Cave in Tamil Nadu.
I commenced with my tour, with cave two, also known as Pandava cave which is the largest & best preserved. I saw the base of the massive pillar that would have carried the weight of the rock. Along the right side of these pillars is Ganesha, & the left side is challenging to decipher. As I stepped inside the cave, I was surrounded by 24 substantial circular columns in a parallel line, with a floral design carved on the ceiling & bottom showing signs of restoration. The lighting inside the cave is negligible; you require to use the mobile torchlight to navigate through the uneven surface of the cave.
Due to no light or dim light, I happen to fall on the firm, the rough surface of the cave injuring my ankle. And this happened as I was busy identifying the figure on the wall as Buddha in origin or Bodhisattva too. So suggested carrying torches in the cave to avoid such an accident. Well, at the back of these caves is a Chaitya Griha with a narrow, tall stupa touching the roof of the cave. You get to see a glimpse of the pattern of the paintings on the caves, but most of the walls they are patched up. An inscribed copper plate was found in this cave, that mention the donation made in the 5th century AD for the repair work of these Viharas by Maharaja Subandhu.
The cave three also known as the Hathyakana is a bit better preserved, as figures can be witnessed on the outer wall, though it’s been eroded with time. I discovered a row of a restored pillar at the entryway of the cave, along with some carving on the doorknob & remains of painting on the walls & columns. I saw a varied contrast in the paintings, one of the walls are colourful, but on pillars, dark & white geometric shapes are carved. The geometric pattern in Buddha caves seems out of place, but there was no one to confirm or contradict. Considerably, there was similar Stupa in the Chaitya Griha, as in cave 2.
Yet, the exciting fact of the Stupa in the caves is these are narrow & ceiling touch tall, with hexagonal base & rounded top, unlike the inverted semi hemisphere Stupa in Sanchi & Ajanta. There were several small empty rooms around the principal hall, which might have been used for meditation. I discovered water dripping in & around the cave, which can be the significant reason for decay & erosion of the texture of the cave. The most crucial cave is the fourth cave, known as RangMahal, as the wall been decorated with beautiful murals. It includes paintings of Bodhisattva Padmapani, Mushroom paintings which are a feeble glimpse of vibrant frescoes embossed in the cave. But the sad part is, there is information or documentation about these murals & frescoes. No Local guides are available, nor any booklet at the ticket counter.
The 5 & 6 caves are long & narrow, generally used as a discussion chamber by the monks. The caves together now constitute a single cave, dominated with two rows of pillars facing each other. I also found an underground water channel, clueless of its source, even if recently made or an old one. The 7, 8 and 9 caves were in dilapidated condition due to their collapse & could not be visited. While crossing back the bridge, I saw an arrow directing towards the modest museum. The museum takes in some mural & paintings of the cave preserved & displayed, while few are in the Archaeological Museum at Gwalior.
The museum shares factual information about the images. Like Bagh paintings, are dominated with the rust-red tone, as seen Bodhisattva Padmapani. Some have geometric patterns, Jataka tales, flora and fauna paintings also. Only it would have been great if a guide explained these ancient and exquisite paintings. While driving towards Maheshwar, we ran, by many cotton fields. Also saw the Bagheshwari Devi temple on a small hilltop. The Bagh is also a paradise of hand block printing, where still ancient techniques are practised. Since there were no hotels or eating houses in & around Bagh. So we had to wait for lunch till we reached our next point Maheswar. Though we were lucky to get a cup of tea & some biscuits.
How to reach :
The nearest airport Indore is the nearest airport for Bagh Caves; 151.6 km away. This airport is connected to many cities in India so that they can take a cab after that. Indore Airport is well connected with other major cities of India.
Bagh Caves around 97 km from Dhar and hence, are easily accessible by road. Several buses services that connect Indore plies on frequent. You can drive too, and the distance is 880km from Gurgaon.
The direct train is only to Indore Junction. From Indore can hire a cab to Bagh Caves. Its 160 km from the railway’s station or take private buses for Dhar. Then pick the option of a private taxi from Dhar to Bagh caves. As there is no public transport available for caves separately. Indore junction is well connected with other major cities of India.