Badami: A Story in Stone



The city of Badami in Northern Karnataka, formerly known as Vatapi, was the capital of one of the greatest and most enduring dynasties in Southern India – the Chalukyas. There were three branches of the Chalukyas, the first of them being the ‘Badami Chalukyas’, who reigned from here from 543-753 CE.

The valleys of the Mallaprabha (where Badami lies) and the Ghataprabha (both tributaries of the Krishna River) formed the very fertile heart of the farm-based economy of this early empire. Nestled in an imposing ravine that cuts through the heart of the sandstone landscape by the Mallaprabha, the site is graced by some beautiful rock-cut temples that are remnants of a bygone era.

The story of Badami goes back hundreds of thousands of years, to when early humans using chopper-chopping tools of the Lower Palaeolithic period lived here. But it was in the early Iron Age that Megalithic peoples really settled in this region, which is dotted with a number of their burial sites. These are primarily stone dolmens or funerary monuments in stone.

Badami Caves
Badami Caves|Wikimedia Commons

There are, of course, legends woven around the region too. According to Puranic literature, the site of Vatapi was named after a demon of the same name who was killed here by the sage Agastya. This legend is retold in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well. According to the legend, the demon would take the form of a goat and his brother would cook him and feed him to unsuspecting travellers. Vatapi would then reassemble himself and tear out of the bodies of those who had eaten him, and he and his brother Illava would then feast on their corpses. They tried the same with Agastya, not knowing that the sage had a prodigious appetite and Vatapi was digested immediately and thus unable to reassemble.

The Badami Chalukyas reigned from Vatapi for two centuries. The earliest inscription dates back to 544 CE and the founder of the dynasty, Pulakeshin I (540 – 567 CE). The inscription deals with the fortifications here and makes it very clear that the selection was based on the site's defensive nature. Pulakeshin’s descendants enlarged the empire and his grandson, Pulakeshin II (610-642 CE), defeated the Pallavas of Kanchipuram and went on to fight Harshavardhana of Thanesar (in modern-day Haryana) up North. The Chalukyan kings adorned the capital with a number of beautiful rock-cut temples. These temples, dating between the 6th and 8th centuries CE, are a timeless monument to this dynasty.

Extent of the Badami Chalukyas empire
Extent of the Badami Chalukyas empire|Wikimedia Commons

The cave temples of Badami along with the temples at Aihole and Pattadakal form one of the epicentres of Brahmanical/Hindu temple architecture in the Deccan. These three cities form a triumvirate of urban centres of the Badami Chalukyan dynasty. Pattadakal was where the kings were crowned, Aihole became a major religious centre (it has over 100 temples) and Badami was the capital city. Together, these cities formed the heart of the Chalukyan Empire. Some of these monuments are dedicated to Jainas too.  There are four main caves, many lesser caves and other monuments from later times including the imposing Bhutanatha Temple. Adjacent to the Bhutanatha Temple is one of the most enigmatic and controversial caves at Badami.

Caves 1 to 4

The four most important and spectacular caves at Badami are Caves 1 to 4, and these are situated in a soft sandstone escarpment in the hill at Badami. The sandstone is very fine quality banded yellow to red sandstone, with very fine banding, and is very amenable to carving and polishing. This has resulted in a high degree of detail and an exquisite finish. Caves 1 to 3 are Brahmanical Caves and Cave 4 is a Jain Cave. The caves were sculpted between the 6th and 8th centuries CE.

Shiva sculpture and engraved pillars in Cave 1
Shiva sculpture and engraved pillars in Cave 1|Wikimedia Commons

Cave 1

Cave 1 has an imposing entrance that is cut 18 metres above the surface and has a steep flight of stairs leading up to it. The verandah of the cave has two wings cut into the rock, and on the right (as you face the cave from the outside) is a fantastic, 18-armed image of Shiva dancing the tandava with his son Ganesh to his left and Nandi behind him. He is accompanied by a seated drummer.

Nataraja in Cave 1
Nataraja in Cave 1|Wikimedia Commons

The wing on the cave’s right is short and has a trident-bearing Shaivite dwarapala (doorkeeper) portrayed there. The entire verandah sits on a plinth with ganas frolicking below.  Two square-sectioned columns flank each side of the entrance. Inside the cave are some very interesting images. One of the most prominent ones is that of Harihara (half Vishnu and half Shiva) flanked by their respective spouses, Laxmi and Parvati. There are also images of Ganesh and Kartikeya, the sons of Shiva, as well as other deities. The inner pillars are square-sectioned with cushion capitals and are reminiscent of the caves at Dharashiv and Elephanta.

The entrance of Cave 2
The entrance of Cave 2|Wikimedia Commons

Cave 2

Cave 2 lies above and to the east of Cave 1. It faces north and was made some time between the 6th and 7th century CE. There are 64 steps that lead up to the cave (64 is a very auspicious Vaishnavite number), which is dedicated to Vishnu. Images of Trivikrama and Varaha dominate this cave, with gana panels seen below both images.

Vishnu as Vamana and Varaha in Cave 2
Vishnu as Vamana and Varaha in Cave 2|Wikimedia Commons

The Trivikrama panel has an image of Vishnu as Vamana, the form taken by him before he reveals himself as Trivikrama. There are also many friezes from important Hindu texts, which include the Samudramanthana (churning of the ocean for ambrosia); the Birth of Krishna; and Krishna playing a flute.

Old Kannada inscription of Chalukya King Mangalesha dated 578 CE at Badami Cave 3 
Old Kannada inscription of Chalukya King Mangalesha dated 578 CE at Badami Cave 3 |Wikimedia Commons

Cave 3

Cave 3 is probably the oldest and was built between 575 and 585 CE. It bears an inscription of Mangalesha, the third ruler of the Chalukyan dynasty. The inscription is dated 578 CE. It is a simple, rectangular cave with a courtyard, which is reached after climbing a broad flight of 60 stairs. The cave ‘sits’ on a raised pedestal, which has pairs of ganas carved into it. These ganas are reminiscent of the ganas seen at the Vakataka temples at Ramtek near Nagpur in Maharashtra. The outer column of pillars has a simple square section with elaborate capitals. It has a narrow verandah (7 feet wide) and a main pillared hall with a recessed sanctum. The pillars within are fluted with cushion capitals.

Brahma on Hamsa in Cave 3 ceiling
Brahma on Hamsa in Cave 3 ceiling|Ms. Sarah Welch

The cave is dedicated, in all probability, to Vishnu as most of the shrines within it are Vaishnavite. There are images of the Trivikrama, Varaha and Narasimha avatars of Vishnu; a half Vishnu, half Shiva Harihara image; there is also an image of the wedding of Shiva and Parvati and the central mandapa (porch or assembly hall) has eight images of gods carved into the ceiling. One of the most impressive images here is that of a four-armed Vishnu seated on Sheshanaga. This is a very rare depiction.

Seated Vishnu on Sheshanaga, the most famous Badami sculpture 
Seated Vishnu on Sheshanaga, the most famous Badami sculpture |Wikimedia Commons

There are a few traces of fresco paintings telling us that, at one time, the sculptures, walls, ceilings and pillars were all covered in painted plaster. This is some of the earliest evidence of Brahmanical cave frescos in India. The paint in the ceiling panels of the verandah is still very fresh and a number of deities are seen within them. Many of the pillars depict erotic couples. The cave is exquisitely carved with painstakingly detailed sculptures.

Cave 4 with a sculpture of Bahubali
Cave 4 with a sculpture of Bahubali|Wikimedia Commons

Cave 4

Cave 4 is without doubt a Jain cave as can be seen from the Jaina icons in it. It is the last cave built in the complex and was built in the late 7th/early 8th century CE. It was possibly further embellished in the 11th century CE. It has elaborately carved pillars with recessed images on all four sides. The pillars are lavishly decorated with ornamental carvings.

Images of Mahavira and Parshvanatha in Cave 4
Images of Mahavira and Parshvanatha in Cave 4|Wikimedia Commons

Images of Mahavira, Parshvanatha and Bahubali are seen here. Mahavira is shown sitting on a lion throne and is flanked by chauri-bearers (attendants holding fly whisks). The sanctum has a Mahavira image bearing a 12th century CE Kannada inscription. The cave also has numerous yakshas and yakshis carved in it.

The controversial image
The controversial image|Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Buddhist’ Cave or Cave 5

Not far is one of the most controversial structures in Badami. It is a rock-cut cave with an image that looks like a seated Buddha, but adorned with jewellery, a yagnopavita (sacred thread) and with the Vaishnavite symbols of the conch and wheel. A pipal tree is also seen behind the image, which sits on a throne with chauri bearers around him. Sadly, the face is badly damaged and a positive identification is impossible.

Scholars have debated that the image is Buddhist, Vaishnavite Buddha (Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu as per the Dasavatara legend), a Chalukyan king. The king theory has gained much ground after Dr A Sundara, a noted archaeologist, proposed it, backed by local legends. Also, there is an old picture of the image before it was destroyed, which clearly shows the absence of an ushnisha (protuberance on the head) seen in all Buddha images. This enigmatic image continues to befuddle experts.

Adjacent to this cave is a small, rock-cut shrine with an image of the reclining Vishnu with Laxmi and Garuda, above which are depicted the 10 Avatars of the Dasavatara legend. To the left is the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and to the right a human (donor?) couple with a cow feeding its calf. This cow and calf image is usually the iconic representation of a (land) grant.

Bhutanatha temple complex during monsoon
Bhutanatha temple complex during monsoon|Wikimedia Commons

Bhutanatha Temple

This temple complex is at the Agastya Lake to the east of Badami. The temples are made of the same fine-grained red sandstone as their surroundings. The most interesting of these extends into the lake on a squarish plinth and is called the Bhutanatha Temple. The temple plinth has a series of stepped ghats that lead to the lake. The spot is incredibly picturesque and in the rains, it is a major tourist attraction.

The temple consists of an elaborate, large, square mandapa attached at one end to a rectangular garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum), and at the other to a smaller, square, entrance verandah. The sanctum and its tower were built in the 7th century CE and the mandapa and entrance verandah were added in the 11th century CE.

The temple appears to have been unfinished in both periods and the original temple may even have been a Jain temple as seen from certain unfinished traces of sculpture. The temple was taken over much later by the Lingayat sect, who built an outer hall and installed a Nandi and a Shiva Linga in the sanctum.

Panoramic view of Agastya lake
Panoramic view of Agastya lake|Wikimedia Commons

Kappe Arabhatta

On the cliff overlooking the man-made Agastya Lake is an inscription with the oldest-known Kannada poem in tripadi, a Kannada verse metre. It is dedicated to the memory of an 8th century CE warrior named Kappe Arabhatta. He is likened to Vishnu himself and is eulogised here in verse.

The Northern (upper) temple
The Northern (upper) temple|Wikimedia Commons

The Northern Group of Shiva Temples

On the northern fortifications at Badami are two Shiva temples. The lower temple stands on a small terrace and the upper temple stands on the ridge above. The temples were probably built during the 7th century CE but were probably destroyed by Pallava besiegers. Not much is left of these shrines.

Not far from them is the Malegetti Shiva temple. It is in a very good state of preservation and is considered the oldest Dravida-style temple in Early Chalukyan architecture. It consists of a garbha griha, which opens into a triple-aisled mandapa with three projections. There is a Dravida-style mandapa (tower) rising above the sanctuary (sanctum sanctorum) and is very similar to the upper Shiva temple mentioned above.

In the 10th century CE, the Chalukyan Empire had a second inning. This dynasty is known as the Western Chalukyas or the Kalyani Chalukyas, after their new capital city of Kalyani (modern-day Bassavakalyan in Karnataka). This dynasty ruled from 957 to 1189 CE, before they were defeated and their empire absorbed by the Hoysalas (10th to 14th century CE). They built a number of monuments and influenced the temple architecture of the whole of Western India.

The Eastern Chalukyas are a cadet branch from the times of Pulakeshin II, and they ruled a separate empire in the eastern Deccan from their capital in the Vengi region of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The first ruler was Kubja Vishnuvardhana, the brother of Pulakeshin II. This dynasty ruled from 624 to 1189 CE. They were initially a province of the Badami Chalukyan Empire, later independent kings and finally vassals of the Imperial Cholas. They were responsible for much of the early efflorescence of Telugu culture, literature, poetry and art.

The caves, temples, lake and fort of ancient Vatapi offer a very picturesque series of Chalukyan monuments and are part of one of the most popular tourist circuits in the Deccan. The Badami-Aihole-Pattadakkal circuit is a high priority circuit, both with foreign and domestic tourists. The site is on a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Monuments and all the monuments are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The Badami monuments are incredibly important markers of the evolution of temple architecture in India and are also the most important remnant of Early Chalukyan art and architecture.

Cover photo: Ashwin Kumar via Flickr Commons

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