The transient cascade of Badami

Badami waterfalls

It was a sweltering hot day at Badami in May 2018, when a few of us were engaged in a study of the fortification walls of this Early Medieval capital city of the Chalukyas. When the sun descended towards the western horizon, we headed out to the Bhutanatha Temple on the eastern bank of Agastya Teertha Lake, which is an ideal spot to view the sunset from.

As we walked towards Bhutanatha, we were appalled to see that the entire north-eastern part of the tank had dried up, as a consequence of indifferent monsoons in the last few years. The sky had turned overcast, in the meantime, and prospects for a spectacular sunset appeared rather dim. As we entered the outer mantapa of the temple, the sky was streaked with flashes of lightning, and soon, accompanied by a low growl of thunder, fat raindrops splattered onto the dry bed of the tank.

The drizzle developed into an intense downpour, and soon the atmosphere at Badami underwent a total transformation from that of the morning. Our travails in the heat of the morning seemed a distant memory, as lightning flashed at regular intervals, and peals of thunder rang out like staccato bursts of gunfire. Visibility was reduced greatly as the rain descended in impenetrable sheets. The sandstone monuments of the Bhutanatha group glistened wetly in the gloaming. As the rain went on for over an hour, it suddenly struck me that it might be time for one of the rare spectacles that Badami puts on when it rains. Calling out to my friends, I hurried to the southern side of the mantapa, from where the cliffs to the southeast of the temple were visible. The crowd which had gathered in the mantapa to shelter from the rain let out a collective gasp of wonder as they witnessed one of the most dramatic sights in Badami — the short-lived cascade that spills over the lip of the sandstone massif that forms the backdrop to the Bhutanatha group of temples.

Splendid backdrop

The twin streams of this cascade form a splendid backdrop to the temples of the Bhutanatha group, including the two tiny tenth-century shrines perched atop a large detached boulder, to the south of the group. Formed purely of the storm-water runoff from the plateau on top of the cliffs, the magnitude of the falls depends on the intensity and duration of rainfall. Most of the hotels in Badami display posters of this cataract at its glorious best during some plentiful monsoon in the past, gushing forth in full force over the cliff, while the overfull Agastya Teertha submerged even the plinths of the Bhutanatha group of temples. However, this waterfall is a transient phenomenon, dwindling to just a few drops dripping off the top within 45 minutes to an hour after the rain stops.

Badami was the capital of the Early Chalukya dynasty, established by Pulakeshi I in the year 543 CE. An inscription in Early Kannada script on a cliff face north of the archaeological museum at Badami records the establishment of the capital at Vatapi by fortifying the hill to be “unconquerable from the top as well as the bottom.” This is widely regarded by scholars as to the construction of the upper and lower fortifications. Along with these fortifications, Pulakeshi is believed to have constructed a bund across the horseshoe-shaped formation of sandstone cliffs, thus creating the artificial reservoir called Agastya Teertha. The storm-water runoff from the hills on three sides flow into the tank, and the ancient settlement at Vatapi is believed to have existed where the modern town of Badami is located, to the west of Agastya Teertha.

The sandstone cliff which forms the backdrop to the Bhutanatha group of temples holds enormous potential for rock climbers. Gerhard Schaar, an Austrian climber who has climbed extensively in Badami, has nicknamed this vertical cliff face as the “Hermit Wall” and has identified no less than fourteen lines varying in severity from 6a to 7b+ on it. Fortunately, for the rest of us who wish to experience the view from the top, there is another, less severe, route, which is more of a scramble than a climb.

The day after the storm, we were up early, trying to catch Badami in the golden rays of the morning sun. I had photographed this view many times in the past, but it never ceases to exhilarate. We were standing close to the place where the water had cascaded over the cliffs the previous evening. Gleaming lines of wetness streaked the plateau above the cliffs, converging towards us, demonstrating how the water accumulates at this point to go tumbling over the edge of the cliff.

All of a sudden, I noticed that the basin from where the water toppled over the cliff edge seemed to be artificially cut out. The vertical, smooth walls of this roughly semi-circular excavation were clearly hewn out of the top of the sandstone. So the transient waterfall of Badami is actually a human-made cascade!

The question remains whether the excavation was made by the Early Chalukyan engineers or those of the subsequent dynasties which governed the place. Though we can never say for sure, it does seem highly likely that the Early Chalukyan artisans created this, opines Shrinivas Padigar, who has studied Badami and surroundings for decades.

Purpose

Supporting this conjecture is the fact that, though subsequent dynasties did build the odd structure at Badami during their reigns, Badami ceased to be a capital city after the end of Chalukyan rule, and never again witnessed the kind of intensity of monument-building which prevailed when it was the seat of the Early Chalukyas. But why did those intrepid artisans engineer this waterfall, nearly one and a half millennia ago? Did they wish to create a dramatic backdrop for the Bhutanatha temples? Or was it merely utilitarian, just channelling the water over the cliff at one point, so that the runoff could wind its way into the reservoir eventually?

The water from the foot of the falls wends its way through the chaos of tumbled boulders at the base and flows into the Agastya Teertha, suggesting a case for the latter view. However, having journeyed in the footsteps of Early Chalukyan artisans for over a decade, I would definitely plump for the former view.

The local landscape of sandstone sculpted by wind, water and sun over the millennia is full of dramatic formations, and the Early Chalukyan artisans seem to have imbibed some of this sense of visual drama and incorporated it enthusiastically into their creations.

How else does one explain the scenic location of the Bhutanatha Temple on a terrace jutting into the Agastya Teertha, or the audacious siting of the Upper Shivalaya on the lip of a steep drop or the seemingly precarious placement of the Malegitti Shivalaya on a large boulder?

The greatest feats of architecture are arguably those which integrate seamlessly into the context of the site, and in that sense, the creations of the Early Chalukyan architects, which are some of the earliest examples of monumental architecture in stone in the subcontinent, have truly achieved the greatness which is timeless. And this waterfall which they engineered as a backdrop to one of their creations, merely underlines the intensity of their preoccupation with the context of their monuments.

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

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