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Gujarati Caves Embellished With Buddhist Architecture Are a Marvel of Craftsmanship

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

Caves have always fascinated me. With their texture and architecture, they are a marvel of centuries-old craftsmanship. Calm and serene, the ruins inhabit a deep silence that soothes my mind. I can feel the peace — a kind of spiritual vibration permeates the atmosphere.

Caves seem to be so well-planned that once entering them, you realize that every structure was laid with thought. Every stone, every wall, even the foundation was built according to the need of the monks, who used to meditate in solace. 

When the situation was favorable, I got the chance to visit such caves in Gujarat, India. Actually, these caves come under the Buddhist circuit of this state. The remains of Buddhist establishments have been found in almost every region of Gujarat in the form of rock-cut caves. The coastal region of Gujarat, stretching from Kachchh to Saurashtra and up to Bharuch, is dotted with several such caves. These caves were excavated between the 2nd century B.C. and 6th century A.D. 

Buddhism had led the way for Indian art by encouraging the veneration of the symbols. The famous Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsiang, had visited the stupendous Buddist caves of Baba Pyare, Khapra Kodia, and Uperkot of Junagadh during his travel in India in the early seventh century A.D. 

Khapra Kodiya Caves

My very first visit was to the Khapra Kodiya caves at Junagadh, Gujarat. The oldest, the Khapara Kodia caves are the plainest of all cave groups and belong to the 3rd-4th century AD. These caves are situated along the edge of the ancient Sudarshan Lake (which no longer exists) and the northern side of Uparkot. Cut into a ridge of trap rock in an east-west direction, all the chambers of this group of caves are rather plain.

The central part is somewhat narrow, which provides an approach to the caves, facing a kind of broad U-shaped quadrangle formed by rock excavation on the southern side. The two prominent wings of the caves comprise of an oblique oblong western wing provided with a great pattern of water tanks within having rock-cut steps for harnessing and storage of rainwater, and a wing-shaped ‘L’ shaped wing fashioned to serve as a dwelling campus for Buddhist monks. There are many scribbling and short cursive letters on the walls of some of the chambers and their corridors. These caves were carved into living rock during the reign of Emperor Ashoka and are considered the earliest monastic settlement in the area. The Khapra Kodiya caves are the most unadorned of the Junagarh caves.

Uparkot Caves

This important rock-cut group of caves is located at the Uparkot ridge across an eastward slope. These caves are scooped out in three tiers from the surface downwards, with all members of each gallery shown in semi-relief. There are three rock-hewn chambers’, each open to the skies. A winding flight of steps from the south leads into the first chamber, which is a pond with a covered corridor around it. The pond got water directly from the rains as well as from an elaborate system of vertically cut drains and cisterns on the top surface. 

The three-tiered Uparkot caves are justly famous for their exquisite art. Its lower floor has a corridor and six ornate pillars. The large hall is decorated with Chaitya motif with female figures in them. At the entrance is a raised square platform with a pair of short thin pillars supporting a framework that projects down from the roof. Base shaft and capital of pillars are decorated with a unique design with traces of Satvahana art and exotic Greaco-Scythian trends. The body of the capital is divided into eight denoting breaks in the ledge at the base, each section carries a group of women, and some of them have multiple Cobra hoods and are lightly clad and attended by dwarf attendants. The larger columns are decorated with exuberant chain and festoon designs in the main body of its flattened pot-form. The pillars are stylistically dateable to the 2nd century A.D. 

Khambhalida Caves

Khambhalida Caves (Image by Kaushik Patel/Flickr)
Khambhalida Caves (Image by Kaushik Patel/Flickr)

Located in Gondal taluka of the Rajkot district, Khambhalida caves have five groups of caves in limestone rock. The first group consists of seven caves of varying dimensions and were probably Viharas for monks to stay. A second of three caves is the most important, having a Chaitya hall in the center, Padmapani Avlokiteshwara and Vajrapani grace the entrance of Chaitya hall. Undoubtedly, these caves are indicative of belonging to a Mahayana order. The Chaitya has an apsidal end with the free-standing rock-cut worn-out Stupa. The Vihara caves have plain interiors. On the basis of structural style, the caves believed to be of the third century A.D.

Kadia Dungar Caves

Kadia Dungar Caves
Kadia Dungar Caves

Located between Jaghadia and Netrang of the Bharuch district, Kadia Dungar caves are also called Vaghandevi caves as a monolithic lion pillar stands at the base of the Kadia hills. These seven rock-cut caves suggest that they were viharas. A Brick stupa was also found in the foothills. The caves are the first of their kind to be found in the region of south Gujarat and are said to be of the Kshatrap period (1-3 century AD). People of that area believe that these caves were made by the Pandavas during their period of exile, and the legend of Bhima’s marriage with Hidimba is also associated there. 

Amidst their tiresome journey, wandering Buddhist monks were granted these caves as shelter. While building these caves, the ancient architectural skills utilized are also notable. Since, its discovery in the modern era, these caverns have been a holy shrine for Buddhists. 

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi. 


Dhokra art

Dhokra Art is a Sustainable Tribal Legacy

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

When we talk about Mohenjo-Daro, immediately the famous statue of the dancing girl appears in front of our eyes. It is one of the earliest known ‘lost wax casting’ artifacts and this technique of non-ferrous metal casting, known as Dhokra (or Dokra) is 4,000 years old and still popular and in use. 

Influence of Tribal Themes

Dhokra art is the famous art of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, a state of east-central India, whose rich tradition of craft and culture has always attracted art lovers from all over the world. This art is influenced by tribal themes related to animals, mythical and human creatures, and nature. The folk characters used to make the artifacts make this handicraft more valuable and that is the reason in every household or office, we find these pieces decorated as a pride possession. Dhokra artists make each piece with delicate attention to retaining its authenticity. The process involves manually casting brass and bronze metal with the help of a wax varnishing technique. 

The unknown beauty of this art, in which metal crafts are made through wax casting techniques, is that it is eco-friendly! Most pieces are made with waste and scrap metal. 

Dhokra art (Image from Wikimedia Commons and under Creative Commons Licence 4.0)
Dhokra art (Image from Wikimedia Commons and under Creative Commons Licence 4.0)

History Tells a Tale 

The Dhokra craft has been discovered in the relics of the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappan civilizations and is proof of its historical and traditional importance as an art form.

Today in Bastar region, the small artisan group of the Ghadwas produces brass or bell metal objects. In Bastar, many folk stories are told about the origins of the Ghadwas. According to one most popular story some three hundred years ago, the ruler of Bastar, Bhan Chand, was presented a gift, a necklace crafted in Dhokra craft, for his beloved wife. He was so mesmerized with the beauty of craft that to honor the craftsman, he decided to bestow the title of Ghadwa on him. Ghadwa, derived from the word Ghalna, means to melt and work with wax. 

Fascinating Process

Natural raw materials are used in the process of making Dhokra pieces. The famous Dhokra artist Rajender Baghel explains that the basic mold is made with fine sand and clay. Goat and cow dung or husk is added to it, which is then layered with pure beeswax found in the jungle. Then wax threads are prepared and wound around the clay mold until its entire surface is covered uniformly. Then it is cooked over a furnace while the wax is drained via ducts. The wax burns in the furnace leaving a free channel for the metal to flow. Molten metal (mainly brass and bronze) is poured inside the mold. The molds are taken out and water is sprinkled to cool them, once the metal is melted. By breaking them the cast figures are removed. It can take up to nine days to complete a three-foot-high sculpture.

Dhokra art styles
Dhokra art styles

Themes and Inspirations 

This art is unique, not only because of its process or intricacy, but because no two Dhokra artworks are alike. Every single sculpture is crafted to be different from another and exquisite. Inspiration and themes generally come from mythology, nature, and day-to-day traditions and rituals. Intricate works of the local deities, sun, moon, jungle, flora, and fauna are used to give a decorative look to it.

One of the popular themes is the local deities – Jhitku-Mitki and an interesting story accompanies these characters. Jhitku-Mitki were deeply in love with each other but their families were against their relationship. As a result, Jhitku was killed by Mitki’s brothers, when she refused to stay away from him. The people of Chhattisgarh worship them and usually make their figures.

Tribal Legacy

Dhokra Jewelry, which is crafted using motifs of gods and goddesses, floral shapes, and rustic designs, is a creative and contemporary expression of an ancient technique. These days Dhokra artists are experimenting with designs to give it a stylish and international look. A woman can match it with her both ethnic and international styles.

Not only jewelry, items like decorative platters, containers, vases, photo frames, tea light candle holders, wall hangings, dining accessories, and cutlery and sculptures are also in trend. These objects are a smart mix of tribal designs and contemporary styles – each piece tells the enchanting story of the tribal legacy, culture, daily lives, and environment-friendly orientation.

Each Piece is Unique 

Dhokra art is also practiced by the artists of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal also. No one can make the same Dhokra piece as every object is exclusive because each artisan of each state, creates it in his distinct way. Thin hands, legs, and a slender body – if you look closely, you will find that this tribal art is not perfect, body parts aren’t proportionate but it reflects its own history. Simplicity mixed with intricate work and tribal designs are the beauty of this art form.

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi. 


Chamba Rumal: Paintings in Embroidery

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

When we say Rumal, a small square piece of cloth or handkerchief, an everyday use item, flashes in front of our eyes. Rumal is the Persian word for kerchief…but this Chamba Rumal is not used for wiping hands and faces; it is a pure form of art, culture, and heritage — a perfect display of Himalayan embroidery and crafts traditions. ’The Chamba Rumal gets its name from Chamba, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, where it has been practiced for centuries and patronized by the kings of Himachal Pradesh. This region is also known for its miniature Pahari (mountain) paintings.

Originating from the Chamba Valley, a flourishing 18th and early 20th-century mountainous region of North India, the Chamba Rumal is a form of hand embroidery.  Due to the theme being similar to those painted on miniature paintings, it has also been called ‘Paintings in Embroidery’.

Chamba Rumal embroidery process (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)
Chamba Rumal embroidery process (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)

The History 

Queens and ladies of royal families use to do Chamba Rumal embroidery in the 17th century for wedding dowries, important gifts, and ceremonial coverings. It was a tradition in the Royal houses that as a gesture of goodwill, the bride and groom’s families would gift it to each other. Gradually local craft people, especially women, began practicing the art and it transitioned outside the palace walls.  

In the 16th century, Bebe Nanki, sister of the Sikh spiritual leader Guru Nanak, reportedly embroidered a Chumba Rumal and that piece was preserved in the state’s Hoshiarpur shrine. Another exquisite piece of this embroidery made its way to Britain in 1883 when Raja Gopal Singh presented a Chamba Rumal embroidered with a scene from the Mahabharata to the British and it was later added to the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Stich Is Key

Flawless needlework on the Chamba Rumals is derived from the art movement of combining miniature art with embroidery. They are usually made in square or rectangular fabric of different sizes. The base art, characterized by intricate lines, is drawn by miniature art experts. Once the art is complete, the embroidery—usually done by women—is accurately completed on the fabric. A fabric used is mostly naturally dyed silk floss on unbleached muslin or khaddar. National Award winner, Lalita Vakil says, “the picture on both sides of the fabric is almost the same. The drawing is done in outline with fine charcoal or with a fine brush. The embroidery is done using a double satin stitch carried forward and backward alternately in a variety of colors. Simultaneously both sides of the cloth are stitched so that the space on both sides is filled up making the design on both sides look equally effective and similar in content, thus this technique is called dorukha (two-faced).”

Chamba Rumal Stories (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)
Chamba Rumal Stories (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)

The stitch is carried both backward and forward and covers both sides of the cloth, giving it a smooth finish that is flat and gives the impression as if colors filled into a miniature painting. The best part is that the embroidered Rumal can be viewed from both sides and not a single knot is visible, and so it can be used from both sides. The embroidery is primarily done with a double satin stitch. The background is hardly visible but, it is very difficult to identify the right side. 

Over time, this embroidery has been done on coverings, belts, blouses, caps, scarves, pillow covers, household accessories, chaupar (a game of dice) cloths, bedstead, wall hangings, chandwas (ceiling covers), and pankhas (fans). 

Vibrant Colours Makes Lively

Very bright, vibrant, and bold colors of threads are used and the thread is untwisted silk floss, more commonly known as ‘Pat’. The colors which are mainly used are purple, pink, orange, carmine, deep red-brown, lemon and deep yellow, dark green, parrot green, ultramarine, and Persian blue, black and white. Silver wire (tilla) known as badla, is also used on the old Chamba Rumals.

Motifs and Themes

The motifs on these big-size Rumals have traditionally drawn from the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata,  figures of Krishna, his Gopis, scenes from the Bhagavad Puranas, nature, the daily life of Chamba, folk stories of the region, floral designs, etc. In the beginning, Raasmandala (an episode of the dance of Krishna) was the most popular design, followed by Gaddi Gaddan (man and woman of a shepherding tribe that resides in the hills of Himachal Pradesh). You’ll find themes like Kaliya Daman, Rukmini Haran, Ragas, Ashta Nayak, which depict the mood swings of the relationship between a male and a female as part of this art form. This art, where miniature painting meets weaving, opens up a world of stories carried through generations and traditions that speak of nature, faith, and life – thus, it functions as a piece of literature. 

Post-independence, freedom fighter and crafts revivalist, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, revived this art which was on the verge of death due to lack of patronage.

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi.