One of the earliest of Jain rock-cut shelters, the caves of Udayagiri command a unique position in eastern India in the fields of history, rock-cut architecture, art and religion.
The records, found incised on the walls of some of these caves, furnish the supreme evidence of the existence of a powerful dynasty, the 'Chetis' (Chedis). They reveal that some time in the 1st century B.C. or slightly earlier, the rulers of the Cheti dynasty, who called themselves 'Mahameghavahanas', came into power in Kalinga.
Of the rulers of the dynasty, only the names of 'Kharavela' and 'Kudepasiri' or 'Vakradeva', together with that of a prince, 'Vadukha', are known from the inscriptions in the Udayagiri caves, though their mutual relationship is not known.
While Kudepasiri and Vadukha are known only as the donors of two of the cells of the lower storey of Cave-9 (Manchapuri) of Udayagiri, many details are available about Kharavela from his famous inscription engraved on the brow of the rock over Cave-14 (Hathi-gumpha) of the same hill. The inscription, in seventeen lines, is largely defaced and indistinct, with the result that its full text cannot be made out and its interpretation is not always above doubt. But the following facts seem to be well-established.
The third king of his dynasty, Kharavela was a powerful ruler. As a prince, he acquired great proficiency in games and received good education. He was installed as 'Yuvaraja' (crown prince) when he was sixteen and succeeded to the throne when he was twenty-five. Almost immediately thereafter he launched Kalinga on an ambitious career of conquest, leading expeditions far and wide. In the second year of his rule he led his troops to the west without caring for the Satavahana king 'Satakarni' and reached the river Krishna, where he threatened the city of Asika.
In his fourth year he captured the capital of a prince named 'Vidyadhara' and subdued the 'Rashtrikas' and 'Bhojakas' in the north Deccan. Four years later, he stormed 'Gorathagiri' (Barabar hills, District Gaya) and harassed the ruler of 'Rajagriha' (Rajgir, District Nalanda). A 'Yavana' (Indo-Greek) king is said to have fled to Mathura out of fear.
In his eleventh year he destroyed the city of 'Pithuda' (Masulipatam region) and next year threatened the rulers of 'Uttarapatha' (north India) and defeated King 'Bahasatimita' of Magadha (south Bihar). He brought back with him booty from Ariga (east Bihar) and Magadha, including a Jain-cult object (Kalinga-fina), which had been taken away long ago by 'Nanda', the ruler of Magadha. Next he snatched treasures from the 'Pandyan' king in the extreme south. Thus, the brunt of Kharavela's sword was felt throughout a large part of India.
Kharavela was as great in peace as in war. In the first year of his rule he rebuilt the gates and walls of 'Kalinganagara', his capital, which had been devastated by a cyclone. In the fifth year he enlarged a canal, said to have been excavated by a Nanda king three hundred years ago. In the 'Kumari-Parvata' (Udayagiri Khandagiri) he excavated, in the thirteenth year, caves for Jain ascetics and erected at an enormous cost, on the 'Pragbhara' in the neighbourhood of the monastic retreats, a certain structure with hundreds of stones collected from different quarries and pillars with core of cat's eye gem. No doubt Kharavela was a ruler of great accomplishments.
In spite of his claiming an eclectic attitude by honouring all sects and repairing temples of all gods, Kharavela was undoubtedly a Jain and espoused with great zeal the cause of his faith, which appeared to have been the state religion of Kalinga and which had received a set-back not only when the Nandas of Magadha (4th century B C) carried away the 'fina' of Kalinga, probably as a trophy, but also with Buddhism gaining foothold under the Mauryan king Asoka (circa 273-36 B C) when he annexed Kalinga to his empire.
It is obvious that during the rule of the Mahameghavahanas the hills were honeycombed with caves. In addition, Kharavela's chief queen is known to have been the donor of the upper storey of Cave-9 ('Svargapuri') of Udayagiri. It is also almost certain that the majority of the caves originated during this period. At the same time, an earlier origin of the Jain establishment on the hills is not entirely ruled out. It is also not unlikely that the Kalinga-fina removed by the Nanda king and recovered by Kharavela had its original enshrinement on the hills and was reinstalled here by Kharavela.
After the fall of the Mahameghavahana dynasty, Jainism is not known to have enjoyed royal patronage, but the religion doubtless continued to have its stronghold on the hills, despite the political vicissitudes, through which the country passed. The rise of the 'Lakulisa-Pasupata' sect, which transformed Bhubaneswar into a 'Saiva' centre and the growing influence of which was ultimately responsible for the decline of Buddhism in that city and its surroundings, hardly affected this Jain centre, whose inscriptions show that it continued to be inhabited under the 'Bhaumas' and their successors, the 'Somavamsis'.
However, during the rule of the latter, Khandagiri, called Kumaraparvata in an inscription of the fifth year of 'Udyotakesari' (11th century) in Cave-11, acquired greater prominence and a few of the old cells were converted into sanctuaries by the carving of reliefs of Tirthankaras and the Sasana-devis on the walls. This period also saw the construction of structural temples, suggested not only by the above-mentioned inscription recording the setting up of the images of twenty-four Tirthankaras, but also by the discovery of a large number of nude chlorite images of different Tirthankaras and enormous numbers of architectural fragments lying in some areas on the hill.
The prolonged Digambara association of the Khandagiri caves during the reign of the 'Gangas' and their successors, the 'Gajapatis', is proved by the crude reliefs of the Tirthankaras on the walls of Cave-9 (Trisula-gumpha) of Khandagiri, which are not earlier in date than the 15th century and may be even later. Evidence regarding the cells being tenanted in this period by the monastic fraternities is, however, lacking.
The period thereafter is blank in the history of Khandagiri till the construction of the temple on the crest. Stirling, who noticed the temple in 1825, noted it as "a neat stone temple of modern construction". He does not make any mention of Jain monks living in the caves, though the place was 'frequented by the Jain or Parwar merchants of Cuttack, who assemble here in numbers, once every year, to hold a festival of their religion'. It is thus evident that the Jain occupation of the hill was continuous, if with occasional breaks from even before the time of Kharavela down to the present day.