Ever since I studied Indian art at the National Museum of Delhi, visiting the tiger caves of Madhya Pradesh was high on my travel priority. I still remember, Dr. Anupa Pandey first taught us to ‘read’ the frescoes of Ajanta. He gave us information about the major graffiti and Jataka tales. The second day he told us about these tiger caves. They told us that there are no frescoes in those caves anymore. But those paintings have been carefully extracted and preserved in the museum area there. I have visited Ajanta Caves many times but tiger caves remained out of my reach even after many attempts.
Some time ago, when I was visiting Madhya Pradesh ‘Cities of queens’, I still wanted to visit these caves but once again got disappointed due to my limited time schedule. At this time when I went to Madhya Pradesh to participate in the Mandu festival, I did not plan to visit the tiger caves even in my dream. But perhaps the time had come for me to visit these caves. So, as soon as I was asked if I wanted to see tiger caves, I immediately said ‘yes’ without losing a single moment. Moreover, within 10 minutes I was sitting in the car and going towards Dhar. The city closest to the tiger caves is Dhar.
History of tiger caves
The frescoes of these caves are contemporary to Ajanta caves. Although there is a difference of 300 km in these two caves, yet there is not much difference in the geographical location of both. These caves at the arrow of the river Baghini are also man-made. The tiger caves are another unequaled example of India’s famous rock-cut architectural technique, namely the rock cut structure, which originated from the equal caves located in Bihar.
These caves have been built by cutting the rocks in about 5-7th century. This last period of the Buddhist period makes these caves one of the most budding caves. At that time the Satavahanas ruled the region. A grant made to this Buddhist Vihara is mentioned in a copper vessel dated 814-18 AD by Mahishmati i.e. Maharaj Subandhu of Maheshwar. In this inscription this vihara is called Kalyan Vihar. It is believed that the Buddhist monk Datak created tiger caves.
These caves were probably abandoned after the fall of Buddhism around the 10th century. After that, these caves were converted into tiger habitats. Since then, these caves are also called tiger caves.
The tiger caves are engraved in a row atop a high sandstone. I was told that this rock is the only sandstone rock in the region. Otherwise most rocks are hard basalt rocks. Today, we climb the stairs and reach this huge rock. Sometimes I read in thought, when the work of this cave was started, how did the artisans reach here at that time!
Visit to tiger cave
The complex of the caves is highly protected and ornamented by beautiful gardens. You can enter inside by purchasing tickets from the ticket window. A paved trail will lead you to the caves. You will reach the base of the caves through a small bridge located over the river Tigini. There was not much water in the river. Anyway, I came here in January when there is not much water in the rivers. Looking at the river, I speculated that its presence may have been the reason for excavating the caves here. Drinking water is easily available.
Climbing the steps leading up to the caves, when I reached there, my eyesight first fell on the Shivling engraved on the earth on the right. Signs of two legs were also engraved near him. The flowers offered on the penis were told that it is still worshiped. Seeing them it was difficult to say whether they were from the time of construction of the caves or they have been built over time. More important, it is the awakened part of this ancient cave complex.
Cave 2 means Pandava Cave
I cast my curious gaze upon the caves in front of me. In front of me were huge pillars carrying the weight of rocks. The caves on one side of these pillars had huge sculptures. The statue on the left was difficult to identify. The idol on the right was that of Ganesha.
I entered the cave. Upon entering, I found myself surrounded by 24 huge pillars which were circular and had parallel slanted lines carved on them. Many of them had visible signs of renovation on the lower portions of the pillars. Florals were engraved on the upper parts touching the ceiling of some pillars. In a way, all the pillars were relatively plain and wide. Most of the cave was filled with these pillars.
In the inner part of the cave is the Chaitya Griha within which is a narrow high stupa. The height of the stupa is almost to the ceiling. It seems as if the roof has come down or the height of the stupa has been increased over time. There are huge statues on the outer reefs of Chaitya, but it is difficult to know whose idols are there. From the outer lines of a statue he looks like a Buddha, but in the absence of subtle signs it is difficult to tell whether he is a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.
There was some misty graffiti on a mural located on the far right. At some time, these must have been bright colored pictures, but now what is left is not even a glimpse of their original form. On looking carefully, I did catch a glimpse of some florals. Most of the surrounding parts have been repaired.
To the left were the remains of another cave that was difficult to get into. But you can see similar columns there which are in the main cave.
Tiger Caves 3 and 4
These caves are slightly more protected. There are some statues on the outer reefs which are extremely cut over time. There are some engraving on the main door frame. The front of the cave is covered by a row of pillars. These pillars appear to be relatively new. Perhaps they have been replaced by ancient pillars.
How many water surfaces these rocks have seen in these years, it shows the composition of the surface of these rocks. You can still see the leakage of water everywhere inside the cave.
Within the cave, a mural and some pillars still have some remnants of graffiti. The paintings on the mural are colorful, but the columns only have geometric figures, that too black and white. Frankly, I have not seen geometric figures within any ancient Indian cave till now. These figures appeared to me to be new artwork. There was no official source present to verify this.
Here too there is a stupa in a chamber like Chaitya Griha which is touching the roof once again. The stupas of the tiger caves are narrow and high, the upper part is circular and the lower part is hexagon shaped. While the stupas of Ajanta and Sanchi are inverted hemispheres.
There are several small chambers around the main hall, most of which are vacant. Either these were meditation halls at some time or the idols inside them have been removed from there.
The fourth cave is sometimes called Rang Mahal because of the bright colors of the murals in it.
Tiger caves 5 and 4
It is a long narrow cave. Within it, two rows of columns stand face to face. Here too, the maximum part of the cave is surrounded by these pillars. In this cave I saw a stream of underground water. Can’t say where this stream is coming from, where it is going, it has been since ancient times or it has been built over time?
There are also three more tiger caves which are numbered from 8 to 4. But due to collapses, observation of them is not possible.
Tiger painting in the cave area museum
As you come down from the cave and cross the Tigini river, you will see a simple concrete building within which there is a small museum. In this museum, you will see the original pictures which have been preserved from the caves of the caves. Apart from these, some other paintings are also kept in the archaeological museum of Gwalior.
Here some information about these paintings is available.
The tiger painting uses the Tempera painting technique. A layer is first formed on the surface of the silo consisting of fibers of soil and plants. After that, lime is fed on it. Painting is done on this surface with colors. Similar techniques and colors have also been used in Ajanta caves.
Information about the pictures displayed in English and Hindi language and techniques used is given on the information boards.
I saw here the Jataka tales like Bodhisattva Padmapani, geometric figures, Vidur Pandit Jataka, paintings of flora and fauna. If a guide were available to give me detailed information about these ancient and unique paintings, I would be very happy. The tiger painting here has the predominance of ocher red color.
Lack of information
I have a strong desire that detailed information about these caves should be available in caves or museums. The guide who came with us from Mandu had only such information that these are Buddhist caves. Local guides were not available. No information book was available at the ticket window. There was definitely some information about these paintings in the museum, but the related booklet was not available to be taken along.
No lighting is provided within the caves. Most of the tourists were using their mobile light to find a way out of the uneven surface of the caves.
Bagheshwari Devi Temple
There is a temple of Bageshwari Devi on a small hill in Bagh Nagari. She is the village goddess of the tiger town.
There is a Ganpat confectionery near the temple where we had lunch. This meal was almost like our home meal.
Tiger stamp printing
On our way to the tiger, we crossed several cotton fields. These fields were filled with cotton and offered for harvesting. Farmers were plucking cotton docks all around and taking them to the market for sale. Going to the cotton fields, talking to the farmers and breaking some dodas, I enjoyed it all. Experienced the seeds within these dodas with their own hands. These seeds must be removed and separated before spinning. After that, clothes are woven from them.
Since I had studied the caves and the frescoes within them, I was keen to observe them. Similarly my fellow tourists were eager to meet the tiger stamp printing artisans. We wanted to meet some local weavers, but it seems that now weavers are mostly unavailable. Now only tiger printing is famous which I have been wearing since a long time.
After a long search we arrived at the Khatri Thappa printing workshop. Soft saris of many colors were spread to dry in her yard. He showed us each step of printing with full devotion. On one side there was a pile of printing stamps. Each small piece was of wood. These wood pieces are actually a treasure of tiger printing artisans.
Each cloth is printed with soft hands and carefully using slaps. The tape is pressed on the garment, carefully attaching the shapes. In this way the complete shape is drawn. Now this cloth is cooked in boiling water and then dried. This makes the color firm. These robes of tiger printing have a predominance of three colors, red, black and biscuity.
My fellow tourists got busy purchasing saris, dupattas and clothes while I sat quietly enjoying the look at the printing figures. The invisible connection between local textiles and ancient printing techniques was lively before me. Printing artisans link the lineage of this technique to the Marwar region of Rajasthan.
Travel tips for tiger
• These caves are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.
• The entry fee is Rs 25 for Indians and Rs 250 for foreigners. Tourists under 15 years of age can enter for free. Ticket includes museum entrance fee.
• One hour is sufficient to visit these caves. These caves are open from 6 am to 5 pm.
• No snacks or eateries are available in and around the tiger. So take your food items with you.
• You can visit the tiger caves from Mandu, Dhar or Indore as a day trip.
Translation: Madhumita Tamhane