Struck by lightning

TRAVEL

Struck by lightning

 Temple of Mahakoota. Photo by the author

Prehistoric man could not have asked for a better shelter. The wide arch of rock between two sandstone boulders served as a roof that protected him from the sun and rain. The boulders absorbed all the heat and kept the early man’s home unaffected by scorching summer temperatures. Large, gaping holes in the arch allowed sunlight to filter in, providing ample light in the shaded interiors. The shrub jungle in the periphery might have provided abundant number of prey for hunting.
The rock shelter, locally called Sidlaphadi, is hidden in the middle of a shrub jungle near the historic town of Badami. I was first introduced to it when I saw a replica of it in the town’s archaeological museum. A large room in the museum was dedicated to recreate Sidlaphadi, which was surrounded by posters that provided information about the evolution of man. The caretaker of the museum informed me about the evidence available to prove that Sidlaphadi was a dwelling of prehistoric man and urged me to make a visit.

Climbing up the sandstone hills on the long walk from Badami to Sidlaphadi, I walked past colourful sandstone formations and a few puddles with crystal clear water. Rocks on the way formed curious structures, like small caves and some unusual protrusions. We occasionally saw deep holes in the earth, now filled with water, which my guide Maruth claimed, to be deep enough to sink a man.

Rock of lightning
Sidlaphadi, roughly translated as lightning rock, derives its name from gaping holes in the arch, which were formed when lightning struck. This natural rock bridge was first discovered by archaeologist A Sundar, who identified the fading paintings on the roof of the arch. The blunt weapons of stone discovered in the premises have affirmed the findings. Similar paintings and weaponry have been found in many locations across the rocky surroundings of Badami.

I walked further to Mahakoota, passing through stretches of greenery interspersed with the rocky terrain. Descending from the rocks into a small valley that looked like a green oasis in this parched land, I sighted an array of temple towers barely visible amidst a cluster of fig trees.

An oasis in the desert
Mahakoota appears like a green island in an ocean of parched land surrounding it. Next to the temple is a sacred grove with thick greenery that creates a cooler local climate that contrasts the scorching weather in the region. The courtyard of the temple is under the shade of large ficus trees. Roots hanging from the trees, gopuras hidden behind the leaves and the silence in the shade bring a calm and soothing feel to the temple surroundings.

It must be this charm of Mahakoota that provoked Chalukya kings to choose the location to build one of the largest temples in the region. The Mahakooteshwara temple was built by King Ranaraga who ruled from Badami in the middle of the sixth century. Inscriptions dating to 602 CE found in the temple premises, attributed to King Mangalesha, has provided valuable information on the lineage of the Chalukya dynasty. The pillar is now preserved in the archaeological museum in Bijapur.
Unlike the Chalukyan temples in the region which are small, isolated structures built in red sandstone, the temple in Mahakoota is a complex of shrines built with black stone. The main shrine of Mahakooteshwara is built in the vesara style of architecture with a multi-tier gopura above the sanctum. Smaller shrines with curved pyramidal gopuras carved in northern nagara architecture surround the temple courtyard with a small tank at the centre.

The tank is fed by a perennial spring that keeps its water fresh and clean. At the edge of the tank is a small shrine with a unique five-faced linga, four to the sides and one face on the top. In a corner of the tank is an underground shrine that can be approached only by an underwater tunnel.

Mythology says so...
Legends say that sage Agastya lived within the temple premises during his journey south of the Vindhyas. He was determined to establish one crore lingas on the periphery of Mahakoota, but the number fell short by just one despite all his efforts. He prayed to Lord Shiva and pleaded with him to come and live in Mahakoota to make up for the shortfall. He also asked the lord to make a spring emerge from the place where a drop of water had fallen from his bowl. The lord accepted his request, inhabited Mahakoota and made a perennial sprint flow out from the temple.
The tank was occupied by a bunch of ebullient children on a school tour when I arrived at the temple. Silence prevailed after they left, when I jumped into the fresh water pool and had it for myself for more than an hour.

Unlike the monuments in Badami, which are visited by droves of tourists every day, Mahakoota has remained a calm and undiscovered location. Its green surroundings are home to some birds unlikely in this habitat, like a Ticket’s Blue Flycatcher that I found on one of the ficus trees. Sidlaphadi and Mahakoota are not far from the Chalukyan masterpieces in the neighbourhood, and yet, they remain outside the itinerary of most travellers who visit Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal.

Getting there
Sidlaphadi is a four-km walk from the town of Badami. There is no demarcated path to reach the place, so it is recommended to hire a guide from Badami.
Mahakoota is another hour’s walk from Sidlaphadi. It can also be accessed by road from Badami. You can hire an auto-rickshaw for yourself or take one of the shared vehicles leaving from the town bus stand.

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