As I approached Badami, the rust red sandstone facades, nestling at the foot of a precipitous escarpment, loomed into view. They reminded me of the dramatic red sand stone temples and tombs of Petra, which were used as a key location in Steven Spielbergâ€™s blockbuster movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I clambered up a flight of steps to reach the four ancient rock-cut caves replete with carved pillars and bracket figures, all hewn out of red sandstone on the precipice of a hill. Punctuated with breathtaking caves, rock-cut temples, ruined forts and sculptures, Badami continues to draw connoisseurs of fine art and heritage from across the world in the modern era.
Badami or Vatapi was founded by the mighty Chalukya King Pulakesi I in the 6th century. The capital of the early Chalukyas, Badami is picturesquely situated at the mouth of a ravine between two rocky hills. While the first three caves are dedicated to the gods of the Hindu pantheon, the last cave is a Jain temple which has carvings and sculptures of Jain deities. The interior hall and pillars are luxuriously carved, in stark contrast to the almost spartan exteriors.
The first cave is dedicated to Shiva and has, like the other three caves, a verandah, a pillared hall and a sanctum sanctorum. Enter the first cave temple-- past Shivaâ€™s door keepers-- and there he is! The first sculptural embellishment to dazzle the eye is the magnificently sculpted 18-armed Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva, striking 81 simultaneous dance poses in the first cave. It sets the tone for the entire Badami experience. Other important carvings in this cave are a two-handed Ganesha, Mahishasuramardhini, Ardhanariswara and Sankaranarayana. The ceiling is adorned with a serpent and other carved figures.
The 18-armed dancing figure of Nataraja
The second cave, much smaller in comparison, is dedicated to Vishnu. His dwarapalakas, Jay and Vijay, herald a welcome into the veranda. Inside, a Dashavatara panel, depicting 10 incarnations of Vishnu and four ornate pillars with carvings of the mythical yalis support the temple. There are other mythical creatures carved into the structure â€“ pot-bellied figures gambolling on the plinths, the boar-headed creature Varaha, the coiled serpent Naga and Vishnu astride the mythical Garuda. The ceiling, adorned with images of soaring celestial couples and the lotus motif encircled by fish and symbols of the swastika, caught my attention.
The third cave temple, also dedicated to Vishnu, is the largest and most ornamental of the four caves. It has a large image of Lord Vishnu seated on a coiled serpent, Adisesha, accompanied by smaller carved images of Indra on his elephant, Brahma on a swan and Shiva riding the bull, on the ceiling.
An intricately carved figure at the temple
The last of the caves is also the smallest. Dedicated to the Jain religion, it was carved somewhere between 7th and 8th century AD. Its walls are covered with standing and seated tirthankaras and the sanctum holds a sculpture of Adinath, the first Jain tirthankara.
From the courtyards of the third and fourth caves, I had a splendid view of the Agasthya Tirtha Tank, its banks dotted with a cluster of Bhuthanatha and Yellamma temples. The tank is known for its curative powers. During the monsoon, water plunges from a rocky ledge into the tank named after the sage Agastya Muni, who is said to have once meditated by a sacred pond on the cliffs above. It is said to have curative powers and was revered for supposedly curing a kingâ€™s leprosy. The Bhuthanatha temple on the lakeside is best seen in the light of the setting sun.
A view of the Agasthya Theertha from the fourth cave
Beyond the caves, past the jade green Agasthya Theertha Lake stands the Archaeological Museum with unusual exhibits. It has a collection of sculptures from Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal. Equally impressive are the rare and perfectly preserved panels of the Krishna Leela. We took some time to admire the sculpted panels depicting scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagvad Gita. The piece de resistance is the Lajja-Gauri, a fertility cult which flourished in the area.
An arduous climb through the path behind the museum brought me to a sandstone chasm and fortified gateways. The first halt is the 7th century Buddhist single-storied ruin. From here, I had a breathtaking view of the town and the Malegitti Shivalaya temple, regarded as one of the best examples of temple architecture in Badami.
The Bhoothanatha Temple, built amidst a pond
A little further up is the Lower Shivalaya, dedicated to Ganesha. From there, we moved towards the circular watchtower, a storeroom for ammunition and towering rows of granaries. Built by Pulakeshi II, a devout Viashnavite, the Upper Shivalaya is capped by a Dravidian pyramidal tower. Stone elephants and lion heads adorn the corner pieces of the temple steps and the outer walls are replete with carvings telling mythological stories.
We culminated our trip with a leisurely stroll through the busy bazaar and meandering by lanes. We walked past Tipu Sultanâ€™s mosque built in the 18th century, the scattered ruins, and the quaint, flat-topped houses with a hoard of farm animals. As we returned at sunset, we could see in the distance the rust-red tints of the sandstone hills.
All pictures by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is an Independent Food, Travel & Lifestyle Writer & Photographer contributing articles, content and images to several publications, travel portals, guide books, brochures and coffee table books.