The caves of this group are not in themselves of any great interest, but the locality in which they are situated was one of great importance in early Buddhist times. It was in fact, so far as we at present know, the only place in South India where the Buddhists had any important establishments, or, at all events, no Buddhist remains have been found south of Orissa (ancient Kalinga), except those in this neighborhood. This was probably owing to the fact, that it was from some port in the vicinity of the mouth of the Krishna and Godavari that Java and Cambodia were colonized by Buddhists and we know from classical authorities that the communication was kept up.
The existence of stupas at Amaravati, Ghantasala, Bhattiprolu etc. are quite sufficient to prove how numerous and wealthy the Buddhist community must have been in the fourth and fifth century. While the account given by Hiuen Tsang in the seventh shows how much of its previous importance, in Buddhist eyes, it retained even then.
Vijayawada was the capital of the country of Dhanyakataka when Hiuen Tsang visited the place in 637 AD and he describes two great Buddhist establishments as existing in its immediate neighborhood. One, the Purvasila Sangarama (probably Ghantasala), as situated on a hill to the east of the city, where its remains can still be traced. To the westward of the city he describes the Avarasila monastery, in his eyes a far more important establishment, and by which there seems little doubt he intended to designate the Amaravati stupa situated on the opposite bank of Krishna 17 miles higher up.
Now coming to the Undavalli cave temple. this is situated in a small hill outside the town of Vijayawada (earlier called Bejawada, Bejwara or Bezwara) and is a four or rather five storeyed Vaishnava temple, dedicated to Ananthasayana or Narayana. Here you can see a picture of the cave as it was immediately after it was discovered and excavated. It has been suspected of having been originally excavated as a Buddhist vihara; but there is certainly no sufficient evidence to justify such a supposition. It is entirely Brahmanical in all its arrangements, and very similar to the caves at Badami or Ellora, and can from the character of the sculptures hardly date back than the 7th or 8th centuries. It was initially attributed to some of the Chalukya kings of Vengi, who like the earlier branch of that family which ruled at Badami, and later at Kalyana, were worshippers of Vishnu. However, later investigations and some inscriptions attribute these caves to the Vishnukundins.
The name Vishnukundin is probably derived from the original home-land of the dynasty which may be identified with modern Vinukonda. A king of this dynasty named Madhavavarma I, claims to have performed eleven Asvamedha sacrifices, one thousand other rituals. The Vishnukundins were powerful rulers and fought successfully with the Gangas of Kalinga (modern Orissa). Their kingdom, at its greatest extent, comprised Guntur, Krishna, Godavari and Visakhapatnam districts of Andhra Pradesh. There is sharp difference of opinion among the scholars regarding the genealogy and chronology of the seven or eight kings of this dynasty. The kingdom was probably founded in the second half of the fifth century AD and continued till it was conquered by Chalukya Pulakesi II about 624 AD.
We will go into further details of the cave in the next post.