The legend of Vatapi and magnificent rock cut shrines of Badami Chalukyas

Badami is home to a complex of four rock cut shrines, carved into imposing sandstone cliffs that tower above the small town.
The legend of Vatapi and magnificent rock cut shrines of Badami Chalukyas
The legend of Vatapi and magnificent rock cut shrines of Badami Chalukyas

The Chalukyas were a powerful dynasty in the Deccan that ruled between the 6th and 12th centuries. The first Chalukya ruler was a former chieftain named Pulakeshin I, who overthrew the Kadamba dynasty, establishing his kingdom with its capital in Badami in northern Karnataka. His lineage came to be known as the Badami Chalukyas, and they ruled between the 6th and 8th centuries. There were two other branches of the Chalukyas - the Eastern Chalukyas, whose capital was in Vengi (near Eluru in Andhra Pradesh), and the Kalyani Chalukyas of Basavakalyan (near Bidar in Karnataka).

Badami, originally called Vatapi, about 150km from the World Heritage Site of Hampi, was the capital of the Badami Chalukyas for 3 centuries. There’s a story behind the name Vatapi. It is believed that a demon called Ilvala lived here with his brother Vatapi. Vatapi would disguise himself as an animal, and Ilvala would offer his meat to weary, unsuspecting travelers. Vatapi had the power to come back to life after he’d been eaten. Ilvala would call out to Vatapi, and he would burst out of the guest’s stomach, killing him in the process. This went on until the great sage Agastya visited them. He ate the food that Ilvala offered him, but immediately said “Vatapi, be digested”, before the demon could spring back to life. And that was the end of Vatapi, and the menace he and his brother were causing in the region.

Badami is home to a complex of four rock cut shrines, carved into imposing sandstone cliffs that tower above the small town. This almond-coloured rock is believed to give Badami its present name. The Chalukyas probably chose this site for the relative ease of carving that sandstone offered.

The cave shrines are carved into a sandstone cliff

The front of each cave has a pillared verandah, and at the back, a dark and cool sanctum. The walls are adorned with exquisite sculptures depicting various deities. The caves are numbered 1 to 4 as you climb up the cliff.

The first and lowest cave on the way up is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The most striking carved panel here is that of Shiva in the form of Nataraja, performing his cosmic dance. He is shown with 9 pairs of arms, and a young Ganesha stands by his side. Other panels in the cave show him as Harihara, who is half Shiva and half Vishnu, and as Ardhanarishvara, who is half Shiva and half Parvati.

Shiva performing his cosmic dance in the first cave

Ardhanarishvara - half Shiva and half Parvati

The second cave is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, and has rich carvings featuring him in his Vamana and Varaha avatars. In his Vamana avatar, Vishnu went to the king Mahabali in the form of a dwarf, and requested three pieces of land. On being granted his request, he assumed a giant form called Trivikrama, and covered the three worlds in three steps. This giant form is depicted in this cave. In his Varaha avatar, he is shown in the form of a boar, rescuing Bhudevi, or the earth, from the ocean.

Vishnu depicted as Trivikrama

The third cave is also dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is the oldest of the caves, and also the largest. It is believed to have been built during the reign of the king Mangalesha. Besides reappearances of the Trivikrama and Harihara forms seen in the lower caves, Vishnu is also shown in his Narasimha or lion avatar in this one. The most beautiful panel here shows a relaxed Vishnu seated on a coiled serpent, facing the pillared corridor ahead.

Vishnu seated on a coiled serpent

The Bhootanatha group of temples by the Agastya Lake

The topmost Jain cave is the newest one, excavated almost a century after the rest. The columns in this cave feature carved Jain tirthankaras. Inside the sanctum, Lord Mahavira is seated in deep meditation. Also depicted are Parshvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara, and Bahubali, the son of the 1st Tirthankara.

The cliff with the caves overlooks the sparkling Agastya lake, with the beautiful Bhootanatha group of temples across it. There are two clusters of temples - one built in the 7th century by the Badami Chalukyas, and the other built a few centuries later by the Kalyani Chalukyas.

By road, Badami is about 3 hours from Hampi, and can be combined with visits to Aihole, an iconic centre of Chalukya architecture, and Pattadakal, a World Heritage Site. The entire region bears testimony to the incredible art and architecture that evolved under the patronage of the Badami Chalukya rulers.

Images by Madhumita Gopalan

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