Ingenuity, carved in stone

Ingenuity, carved in stone

landscape of dreams: A panoramic view of Badami; (below) the open mantapas at Badami; a closer view of the mantapas. photos by author

The first thing that one notices when one enters Badami is sandstone. The hulking mass of sandstone looming over this dusty little town in Bagalkot district of Karnataka is an overwhelming presence virtually everywhere in Badami. The modern township of Badami is situated more or less at the same place as ancient Vatapi – the capital of the Early Chalukyan Empire, from where they ruled over a large part of southern India between the 6th and 8th centuries CE. The founder of Vatapi – Pulakeshin I, situated the city to the west of Agastya Tirtha, a tank constructed by erecting a bund across the mouth of a horseshoe-shaped massif of sandstone.

The Early Chalukyas were the patrons of the earliest architecture in stone in south India, as were the Pallava rulers of Kanchi. Badami, along with Aihole, Pattadakallu and other sites in the valley of River Malaprabha, represents an early laboratory of Indian temple forms, with monuments in the southern Dravida idiom, as well as the northern Nagara idiom, rubbing shoulders with each other. The first monuments of Badami were rock-cut temples, scooped out of the cliffs to the south of Agastya Tirtha in the 6th century. Early structural temples – assembled from dressed blocks of sandstone, were also erected in the second half of the sixth century, mostly on the cliffs to the north of Agastya Tirtha. Among this profusion of spectacular monuments are two striking but enigmatic structures – two open, pillared pavilions (mantapas), prominently located atop a large boulder.

The purpose which these mantapas might have served is unclear. Surprisingly, despite their conspicuous nature, not much scholarly attention has been focused on them. Whatever hypotheses have been advanced about their purpose are anecdotal, suggesting that they were secular structures, possibly associated with courtly rituals or for ministerial discussions. The local residents of Badami, however, prefer the name gaali mantapas (breeze pavilions) and are fond of taking a nap in their shade, with an ever-present stiff breeze which is a perfect respite from the heat. The current dilapidated state of the structures has been attributed to vandalism during the Pallava invasion and subsequent occupation of Badami for over a decade during the seventh century.

Treading their footsteps

I have been fascinated by these structures right from my first visit in 2008. Getting to these pavilions is a bit of a task in itself. Access to these mantapas is by means of an inconspicuous diversion to the left from the trail to North Fort beyond the Archaeological Museum, and through a narrow cleft between two boulders. Negotiating this cleft is no easy matter — it is a mere 40 cm at the narrowest and the bounding edges of the passage are tilted from the vertical, forcing one to edge sideways, in a leaning position. A question that bothered me whenever I performed this undignified feat was — how did they manage to get building materials up there? There was no way anything could be carried through this entry and hoisting materials from the base of the cliff is also not easy.

As one emerges at the levelled top of the boulder where these pavilions are erected, one can see that the bases of the pavilions are partly rock-cut and partly made of sandstone blocks. The terrace is bounded on two sides by a parapet created when rock was removed, and on the other two sides by fortification walls. Looking at this, an idea struck me — could the two mantapas have been built entirely of components fashioned from rock quarried off the top of the boulder? One could, in principle, work this out if one could estimate the amount of rock quarried from the top of the boulder and compare with the quantity of rock locked up in the constituent parts of the mantapas.

So when Kadambari Komandur, a student of architecture, approached me for an internship, I thought this would be an ideal problem to tackle together. We estimated the minimum amount of rock which would have been quarried, which was in excess of the amount of rock needed to carve the columns, beams and slabs of the structures. Even accounting for the wastage involved in carving, there would have been a sufficient amount of rock to account for a good part of the fortification walls.

While examining these structures, we grew increasingly convinced that the monuments were unfinished, rather than vandalised. The mostly well-finished surfaces of the beam ends, the incomplete carving of base mouldings and even the inconvenient entry suggest that the monuments were incomplete. Had the monuments been finished, the architects would have enlarged the entry and made it easier to use, given that even royalty would have visited. Further proof of this can be seen in the workmen’s steps cut into the cliffs bounding the cleft, which are typically made for use of the artisans while the monument is being carved.

But why were these monuments left unfinished? We cannot say for sure, but the columns of the upper storey of the western mantapa certainly appear to be made of poor quality sandstone. Perhaps, they ran out of good quality stone towards the end. It also appears probable that the rock-cut bases of the monuments were carved in the sixth century, and the later additions were made at least a century later; so it is likely that the later architects were as confused about the intent of their predecessors as we are.

West of the two-storeyed pavilion, there is an extension of the rock-cut plinth, hinting that the monument was meant to be a larger, more elaborate structure. Another breakthrough was made when we spied nested square niches in the floor of the inaccessible upper story of the western mantapa, which resembled niches to house deities in temples. This strongly suggested that the structures were meant to be a temple, after all.

Finishing the unfinished

We were now possessed by the idea of reconstructing virtually how the completed monument might have looked like. It would be exciting to walk in the footsteps of those illustrious artisans who pioneered monumental architecture in this land.

Our initial reconstruction, based on detailed documentation of the existing structures on site, resembled a two-storied car park more than a Chalukyan monument! On the advice of scholar Prof Shrinivas Padigar, we modified our proposed design in the manner of other Chalukyan monuments.

Apart from the Dravida and Nagara monuments of the region, there is a very local idiom of monument-building, termed the Malaprabha idiom by the celebrated architectural historian George Michell. The Lad Khan Temple at Aihole is the most popular example of this. This style, probably inspired by earlier wooden construction in the region, is what the existing mantapas seemed to belong to. Using the example of Lad Khan and other structures built in the Malaprabha idiom, we prepared two alternatives for how the finished monuments might have looked like. The larger building must have been a Shiva Temple, in all probability, with the smaller structure being the Nandi Mantapa.

During this study, we had ample time and opportunities to understand the construction techniques of the Early Chalukyan artisans in detail, hunting for clues in finished monuments as well as several unfinished structures they left behind. These open mantapas of Badami are a testimony to the ingenuity of these skilled builders, who merely rearranged sandstone to create majestic monuments which laid the foundation for a long and glorious tradition of architecture in the subcontinent. And as we took but a few faltering steps down the trail they had blazed, our awe for these early architects grew many-fold.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

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