Secrets in stone

In Badami, one can stumble upon ancient Chalukyan remnants in the form of stunning sandstone wonders

Bhutanatha Temple Complex, Badami

There is something special about a road trip in the monsoons. The skies open up and the dusty villages around me suddenly morph into lush fields. Streams join rivers that are chattering around rocks and pebbles found strewn on the banks. The sun peeps in as the downpour turns into a drizzle and the sunflowers look up to it, nodding in the breeze. I stop for a few moments just to take in the scenery.

I am on a road trip to Badami, or Vatapi as it was called during the sixth century when it was the capital of the Chalukya Empire. Many dynasties left their stamps on this ancient town but it was the Chalukyas who gave it an identity. As the sun plays hide and seek, my memories travel to my first trip here, when I was a student on a study tour. Badami was just a village then with monuments scattered around it and was hardly known to the world of tourists. Two decades later, I realise that it is still lost in a world of sandstone boulders blushing in the warmth of the sun.

Rocky tales

Badami’s secret lies inside deep crevices. The moment you step inside these dark caves, they turn into a veritable art gallery with carvings greeting you from every inch of the rocks. The Badami Caves are, however, not the only star attractions of the town. Nestled inside the rugged outcrop of sandstone are forts, shrines and rock-cut cave temples carved by the Chalukyas.

The rains take a break and the sun is back in its abode. Agastya Lake, tinged in shades of emerald green, looks greener in the warm light. The fort towers above me with canons guarding the town. The rocky hills surround me as the sandstone blushes a deep red. A few tourists and locals scamper their way up the hills towards the caves.

I stand there taking in the scene for a moment. A troop of monkeys saunter in, looking out for tourists with bags. I slowly trudge my way up the caves. There are four of them and the oldest and the first cave is dedicated to Shiva. A guide takes a group of foreign tourists around, explaining the architecture. Every cave temple is designed similarly with a verandah with pillars, a columned hall and small square-like cells cut in the rock. But it is the towering sculptures that take my breath away.

I stand transfixed as Shiva with 18 arms, carved in different dance poses, greet me. The other carvings around include the entire family of Shiva with sons Ganesha and Karthikeya, besides his consort Parvathy. I look up to see the ceiling of the cave which is just sheer poetry in stone, filled with sculptures.

Where gods reside

The next cave is another masterpiece with larger than life carvings of Vishnu in various forms like Trivikrama, Varaha and Krishna. Suddenly the cave is taken over by a group of school children who are more interested in the monkeys around than in the carvings.

I have now entered an art gallery with massive sculptures of Vishnu. Walking around the 70-feet-wide cave, I see a mammoth Vishnu sitting on a coiled serpent, while carvings of Harihara and Narasimha are looking down at me. This is, perhaps, the most beautiful of all the rock-cut cave temples as I am in awe of the sculptors who have crafted magic on the rocks.

Finally, I am alone in a cave as all the school children have left. It is the last and is dedicated to the Jains. The Agasthya Lake dazzles in green. Besides Mahaveera and Parshavnatha, one can see carvings of tirthankaras, yakshas and yakshis here.

The archaeological museum is closing and I head there to see several sculptures and some of the oldest inscriptions. There are totally 18 inscriptions scattered around in this town, one of them being an old Sanskrit inscription, while another is one of the earliest evidences of poetry written in old Kannada.

There are several structural temples in the town but an unchartered course leads me atop the hill to the oldest shivalaya — Malegitti Shivalaya. There are three temples in all and the rocks and the boulders are my companions. Even the monkeys avoid this terrain. The silence speaks to me. The winds blow the dead leaves away as they whistle among themselves. The town seems far away as I stand on top of the rocky outcrop and get drenched in the hues of a crimson sunset.

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Secrets in stone

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