Past preserved

Past preserved

Badami, the capital of the Chalukya kingdom, is rich in the ancient cultural artefacts left behind by this and subsequent dynasties. Apart from Badami’s famous rock-cut and structural temples, the Archaeological Museum at Badami is an educational resource. Located at the foot of the northern hill, the museum displays ancient temple architectural parts, sculptures, inscriptions, tools and hero stones datable from the 6th to the 16th century as well as prehistoric materials.

The museum’s red collonaded façade imitates that of the nearby excavated cave temples on the South Hill. There are four galleries inside the building, as well as an open gallery on the veranda and an open-air gallery in the front. One of the galleries houses a scaled model of a prehistoric rock shelter (known as Sidilephadi), with displays of stone artefacts and prehistoric art. Text panels posted outside the museum summarise Chalukyan legacy and the site history succinctly.

The sculptural masterpieces in the collection include Lajja Gauri, a Makara Torana carved on both sides, Kalantaka Shiva and Shiva Tripurantaka panels originally found in temple wall niches. It also houses fine images of door guardians, narrative panels with intricate relief carvings, figures of lions, elephants, and the Nandi. There are also a number of interesting hero stones.

Somewhat isolated in rural northern Karnataka, Badami is certainly one of the most beautiful places in India. No doubt, the first Chalukya king chose this location for his capital because of its natural beauty and great defensive potential. A horseshoe of dramatic red sandstone cliffs provided locations for temples to honour the gods and forts for defence. The Agastya tank built between the horseshoe of cliffs collected rainwater. In fact, the king had a channel built to guide water from the centre back cliff top to create a stunning waterfall into the tank which, however, is only active during monsoon. If you want to see the 360-degree divine view of the site and fortifications, you have to climb the stairs of the North Hill to the Upper Shivalaya, Lower Shivalaya, and the two-storeyed temple.

Local area sculptures

But the museum, mercifully, is at the foot of the North Hill on the side of the tank visible across the way from Cave IV which is cut into cliffs of the South Hill. To get from the caves to the museum, the best route is a short walk across the dam through the narrow street of villagers’ homes, on a path marked with directional signs by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Buses cannot get there. The road to the museum from town for cars or rickshaws is currently being paved. Tourists visiting Badami must visit the Archaeological Museum, though it might be easily missed.

This museum was set up by the ASI in 1979 and was initially used for preserving inscriptions and sculptures dislodged from temples. In 1982, it was converted into the current museum that exhibits a unique group of local area sculptures. Not all are Early Chalukya because the site was also embellished by later dynasties: Rashtrakuta, Later Chalukya and Vijayanagara. The pieces are also not all from Badami, but from nearby Early Chalukya temple sites of Naganathakolla, Pattadakal, Aihole and others.

More information on individual objects in the form of labels would be welcome for identifying their original site and date of creation. One hopes that records were kept of the findspots of the stone sculptures. It would be good to see conjectural restorations of some monuments, which should be possible. There seems to be an excessive number of loose sculptures now protected in the museum compared to the number of surviving and partially standing temples.

To see the high classical sculpture and architecture of the Early Chalukya dynasty, which is the earliest large body of temple art preserved in South India, rivalling that of the contemporary Gupta dynasty of the north and far more intact, you have to go to the temple sites and museums. In addition to visiting Badami, one also needs to visit temples at nearby Aihole, Pattadakal and Mahakuta and would include a visit to Alampur in Andhra Pradesh where there are also many Early Chalukya temples. In the National Museum, New Delhi there are three examples of Early Chalukya images and a few are in the museum in Kittur in Karnataka. Outside India, there are, unfortunately, no examples of Early Chalukya sculpture. 


In the Badami Archaeological Museum, there is one sculpture which is the showstopper and masterpiece of the whole collection. That is the initially shocking life-size red sandstone image of Goddess Lajja Gauri. In the form of a nude, supine woman, with a lotus instead of a human head, she is a fertility goddess very popular in the Chalukya period. Although she was worshipped elsewhere much earlier and later, the Chalukyans carved many images of her and many were life-size. She was worshipped by barren couples in sub-shrines of often remotely located Shaiva temples along with images of the Saptamatrikas. The practice continues today at the living Chalukya temple site of Siddanakolla remotely located on a mountain at the site of a natural spring outside Aihole.

The piece is intact and it’s carving fresh, it is supple and sensitive, delicate and feminine. Once there were three nearly identical ancient copies of this image that we know of. They exist today in fragments in the closeby Mahakuta, Chikkamahakuta temples, and in Bala Brahma Temple at Alampur, Telangana. Another, very damaged, is seen in the Archaeological Museum, Aihole. The symbolism of the image engaging ancient Indian fertility associations of the lotus is brilliantly incorporated into this figure. In fact, of all fertility images created around the world by artists, this one is, in my opinion, the most inspired.

The museum offers a free pamphlet in both Kannada and English versions to visitors to explain this image. It includes a photo of another 6th century Lajja Gauri from Mahurjhari now displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. That lovely stone-relief carved image, however, is only 4 inches square and perhaps from the Vakataka period. The museum is open between 10 am and 5 pm from Saturday to Thursday. Photography is not allowed.

(The writer is former curator, National Museum of Asian Art of the Smithsonian Institution. She is one of the early researchers to study the Malaprabha Valley)