Bewitching Badami

Bewitching Badami

Hiding behind the urban chaos of Badami are age-old rock-cut cave temples that leave Ramakrishna Upadhya mesmerised

Bhutanatha Temple & Agasthya Lake

The rise of Chalukyas in the sixth century marks an important milestone in the history of the dynasties of South India, and a golden age in the development of art and architecture in the region. The areas south of Vindhyas were largely ruled by a smattering of chieftains and small kingdoms, until the Chalukyas of Badami, also known as Vaatapi, conquered vast tracts of land and consolidated their position. For the first time in history, a South Indian kingdom took control of the region between the Narmada and Krishna rivers and established an empire.

The early Chalukyans ruled in the area comprising the present Indian states of southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka for over two centuries and had unified a vast, socio-culturally diverse land. Badami, situated in the present-day Bagalkot district, was the capital of the great kingdom, whose rule was known for harmony, prosperity, peace and stability.

Syncretic culture

The greatness of Badami and its people’s creative genius is encapsulated in the astounding cave temples carved out of red sandstone rocks. The four-storied temples are built over a period of time; three temples are dedicated to Hindu deities, and remarkably, the fourth one is dedicated to Jain tirthankaras — a fine example of the syncretic culture that the kingdom fostered.

Contemporary Badami, with its dusty roads, haphazardly lined shops and unregulated traffic of smoke-spewing, overaged vehicles has the look and feel of a degenerated urban life, which, unfortunately, is the fate of most of our historic places. There is not even a proper signboard to show the way to the magnificent monument hidden behind this urban chaos.

But, as you enter the lane leading to the hill-caves, it is a different world altogether. Just as one cranes one’s neck and soaks in the majesty of those rock-cut temples from a distance, the wind blowing across Agasthya Theertha, a picturesque lake at the foot of the hill, has a soothing effect on the mind. 

Stunning works of art

In Cave I, which is said to be the oldest, among various sculptures of the Hindu divinities depicted here, the most prominent carving is that of the tandava-dancing Shiva as Nataraja. With 18 arms, some expressing natya mudras, and others holding objects such as drums, a flaming torch, a serpent, a trident, an axe and so on, the 15-ft-tall Nataraja is truly stunning and you never tire of gazing at it in awe. While Nataraja has Ganesha and Nandi on either side, the adjoining wall showcases a carving of Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura. Another interesting carving inside is that of Harihara, half-Shiva and half-Vishnu, flanked on either side by Parvathi and Lakshmi.

A sculpture in a cave temple in Badami
A sculpture in a cave temple in Badami

Climbing another 30-40 giant steps, one reaches Cave II, which is even more elaborate. The pillars have decorative carvings with dwarf figures of ganas, and on the two sides of the entrance are dwarapalakas, holding flowers, not any weapons.

The legend of Vishnu transforming as Trivikrama is beautifully conveyed in stone here. Having covered the earth and the heaven with his two steps, Trivikrama is shown with a raised leg, ready to place the third step on King Mahabali. There is also Vishnu in varaha (boar) avatar, rescuing earth (Bhoodevi). There are figures of samudra manthan, Vishnu sleeping in sheshanaaga, stories from the Bhagavata Purana and others.

Cave III is the largest cave in the complex, hosting sculptures of Varaha, Vasudeva, Trivikrama, Ananthashayana, Harihara and Narasimha. It also has some fresco paintings on the ceiling, including that of Brahma on hamsa vaahana and the grand wedding of Shiva and Parvathi, with several Hindu deities in attendance.

Cave IV, which came much later, is dedicated to the thirthankaras, the revered figures of Jainism. There are stunning carvings of Bahubali, Parshvanatha and Mahaveera; Bahubali is in the traditional meditating posture with vines around his legs, Parshvanatha is shown with a five-headed cobra hood, and Mahaveera is sitting on a lion-throne. All this goes to demonstrate that the Hindu kings had great reverence for Jainism as well.

Beyond the caves

Apart from the numbered caves, Badami is home to many lesser-known monuments and medieval-era temples. The most prominent among them is Bhutanatha Temple, facing Agasthya Lake, dating back to the 5th century AD.

Most visitors leave after seeing the cave temples, but the nearby Badami Fort is not to be missed. Other than scenic viewpoints, it has many temple carvings and sculptures which really stand out and remain distinct from the figures in the caves. The hill-top fort also boasts of a granary and a mysterious-looking underground chamber. A 16th-century cannon that has been placed on the fort stands like a sentinel looking at the town below.

Badami Cave Complex is part of the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, which includes Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal, which are distributed in a 100-km radius of Malaprabha Valley.

Historians and archaeologists reckon that the three exquisitely planned and executed complexes followed one after the other. While Badami and Aihole bore the setting for formative stages in experimentation with cave-carving, the monuments at Pattadakal demonstrate the finale in the evolution of cave temples, art and architecture.

On leaving Badami, one feels a sense of sadness as the town has abysmal facilities and attracts fewer tourists as the state government has failed to promote it adequately.