Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Frieze of Varaha, the boar-headed incarnation of Vishnu, holding his consort Bhudevi in one of the cave temples of Badami. The story behind this carving is that the demon Hiranyaksha, the beheaded corpse of whom Varaha is standing on in this depiction, kidnapped the Earth, as personified in Bhudevi, and took her to the bottom of a cosmic ocean, whereupon Vishnu sent his boar incarnation to slay the demon and take her back.

So, this is back in Karnataka, during the trip I took in October of 2012.

For me, visiting Badami was a trip into Terra Incognita: Whereas most of the historical sites that I visited in Karnataka were from a period that I was at least nominally familiar with, the great cave temples and temple architecture of Badami were mostly from a much earlier time, before the advent of Islam in South India. What's more, though I had been to a number of old Hindu sites before, most were in Assam, a place extremely culturally different from Karnataka. 

 Badami is a small, dusty, though fairly friendly town. It's certainly not cosmopolitan, and has thankfully yet to develop a grungy backpackers ghetto. It has something of the feel of an overgrown village. Yet this scruffy little settlement was once the capital of nearly all of South India. 

In the first half of the 6th century, king Pulakesi I established the Chalukya Dynasty in present day Badami. The Chalukyas were among India's greatest builders, and from the 5th to 8th centuries developed their own, distinctive architectural style. However, despite the fact that their empire was at one point the largest in all of India, most of their monuments are concentrated in a very small area in the Bagalkot district of central Karnataka. Over the space of around 40 Kilometers, concentrated in a few incredibly dense sites, one can easily see four hundred years architectural development in two days. 

Yet the area has more to offer than just ruins. The landscape around Badami consists of a number of valleys enclosed by rocky escarpments composed of an ancient red sedimentary rock that wouldn't look out of place in Southwestern Utah (except, of course, for the Hindu temples). The rock itself is beautiful, and the great outcroppings, which fracture into interconnected networks of narrow canyons, are fantastic places to explore. The Chalukyas built exclusively in this rather wonderful sandstone, and the natural quality of the rock adds immeasurably to the overall appeal of their monuments. Badami, like Hampi a few hours further south, is a place where natural wonders combine perfectly with incredible artistic achievements.    

A rather stylish poster for Rowdy Rathore, the exquisitely silly though thoroughly enjoyable Hindi remake of a Telugu super-hit called Vikramarkudu, which was also made in Tamil, Malayalam, Bhojpuri, and I think Bengali. The climax of the film, which involves a big, typically insane South Indian style fight among sandstone chasms was filmed in Badami. I looked up where it was filmed, and decided I just had to go there. It's thanks to Rowdy Rathore that I learned about Badami, and decided to go to Karnataka...incidentally, this poster was on the side of a large public urinal on the side of the street...perhaps the person who put it there didn't like the movie...or isn't an Akshay Kumar fan...

I managed to reach Badami fairly early in the day, after leaving Bijapur at around 6 in the morning. I would ultimately spend three nights based in the town. Now, I have to admit, I think I could have done a better job on Badami itself (I think I did a fairly good job exploring it's environs, however). I wound up visiting Badami's most famous attraction, its four Chalukyan cave temples, right in the middle of the day, when it was packed with people...hence, my treatment of thr caves here is a tad on the perfunctory side, and I hope one day to return and visit them properly, ideally right after opening...someday, perhaps...  

Small house under huge red sandstone boulders, in the middle of Badami. 

The temples and monuments in Badami are all clustered on and around two large sandstone outcroppings and a man-made reservoir called Agastya Lake, which lies in the valley between the rock formations. Most of the accommodations in the town, along with the majority of its newer buildings, are clustered along its chaotic  main street. Between the main street and the foot of the outcroppings is the older part of Badami, which is full of open sewers, unplanned streets, and the ruins of thousand year old temples. Getting from the main street to the sandstone is a confusing, though certainly interesting, ramble through a dusty village that was once the capital of a pan-South Indian empire.

Badami Crazy Kids Welcoming Committee. Usually taking pictures of and hanging around with random little kids in India is fun, but sometimes they go completely insane...like in this picture. Once I had clicked the photo, they started dancing around and making weird noises and trying to reach into my pockets, all while yelling "School Pen! School Pen!" I found myself totally encircled, and it was the middle of the day...I really didn't have the energy to deal with such hooliganism at the time, though a local passerby took pity on me and chased the horde off.

The four cave temples of Badami were all carved between the 6th and 8th centuries. Caves one through three are dedicated to Hindu deities, while cave number four is Jain. There is also a large, non-manmade overhang, sometimes referred to as the Natural Cave, which has a few Buddhist carvings. 

Looking out from the Natural Cave, across manmade Agastya Lake, towards another red Sandstone outcropping across the way.  The large building on top of the opposite escarpment is the Upper Shivalaya Temple,  which I climbed up to later in the day.

Columns. Evidently the interiors of the Badami Cave Temples were once painted in bright, garish colors, which have since largely faded away. I suspect that the interiors of the caves actually look much better now.

Perhaps Badami's most iconic carving, the seated Vishnu in Cave 2. Vishnu is often depicted as either sitting or reclining on Shesha, the king of the snake deities, who sometimes has five heads, sometimes seven, and sometimes thousands. Each of Shesha's heads are said to hold up one of the planets.

Carved brackets at the top of a column.

Frieze of Vishnu Trivikrama in Cave 2. No, he's not goose-stepping, but rather measuring out the whole of the universe in three very long strides.Trivikrama means three steps. Vishnu Trivikrama is, rather unexpectedly, a form of Vishnu in his dwarf incarnation Vamana. The story behind Vishnu Trivikrama is that once a demon named Bali established himself on earth and then became so powerful that he threatened the whole cosmos. God then asked Vishnu to deal with the problem, whereupon Vishnu sent his dwarf incarnation Vamana to earth. Vamana then appealed to Bali for a land grant, asking only for the amount of land he could measure out in three steps. Bali, not suspecting that Vamana had been sent by Vishnu, granted Vamana's request, whereupon Vamana grew suddenly from dwarf into the cosmic giant Trivikrama, and in three steps claimed the entire world, in the process restoring order to the universe.  

The Bhutanatha Temple Complex and a red rock wall, as viewed from across Agastya Lake. The towers and the inner halls of the temples were built by the Badami Chalukyas, the same rulers who carved the cave temples and the majority of the famous monuments around Badami, in the 7th century. The temples were also added to in the 11th century by a later group of rulers known as the Western Chalukyas.

A close view on a typical south Indian Sikhara, or temple tower, in the Bhutanatha temple complex. What mainly differentiates South Indian Sikharas from their North Indian counterparts is their triangular shape. North Indian temple towers tend to look rather like great big beehives, with curved tops, while South Indian temple towers generally consist of a series of progressively smaller and smaller stories, rather like stepped pyramids.

An inquisitive Nandi peers into one of the Bhutanatha Temples. Nandi is said to be Shiva's mount and doorkeeper. The temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu, and the Nandi Bull was added several centuries later, when the Badami area was ruled by the Western Chalukyas, who adhered to a Shiva-centric Hindu tradition.

A rock-cut reclining Vishnu, in a small shrine near the Bhutanatha Temple complex. Here Vishnu is resting on  his cosmic snake Shesha, in this form known as Ananta, with his consort Lakshmi massaging his feet and various other deities in attendance. 

Buddhist Cave Temple, behind the Bhutanatha complex. He seems to have had his face removed. I had to crawl into this particular cave on my hands and knees. 

On the opposite side of Agastya Lake from the four main Badami cave temples, behind the local Archaeological Museum, a paved path leads up into a maze of narrow sandstone canyons. These cut into a large redrock outcropping that the Chalukyas once fortified, and built a number of structural, rather than carved, temples on. 

The sandstone formations in the Badami area are oddly reminiscent of the rocks in the Colorado Plateau region. The narrow chasms in the Badami outcroppings would fit right in at Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The rock in both regions is relatively soft, allowing it to be weathered into fantastic natural features, and it's for the same reason that the Badami sandstone can be so easily carved into temples and friezes of gods and goddesses. The rock in Badami, with its dark red coloration and it's layered, swirly appearance, is very aesthetic entirely on it's own terms. Hence the Badami sandstone has many of the features that one rather misses in Himalayan rocks, which, until you get to the truly high ranges, tend to be rather crumbly and nondescript. 

The canyons in the Badami area were one of the things which drew me this particular corner of Karnataka. Unfortunately, most of them are inaccessible, at least without climbing gear, and I must admit that I was a bit disappointed by that.  Still, the path starting behind the Archeological Museum goes along the bottom of one of the canyons, and there are a few other accessible redrock chasms that one can explore while taking the route up to the top of the outcropping. 

The path up through the Badami redrock. 

Looking back through a chasm, towards a small pavilion.

A rather spectacular four-way intersection in the redrock outcropping. The way that the outcropping is eroding, with straight walled fissures opening up at various angles to each other, has produced something of a huge sandstone maze.

Looking up at the mid 7th century Upper Shivalaya Temple, which crowns the redrock outcropping and was once enclosed in defensive walls. The Chalukyas shifted from mostly cave temples to structural temples sometime around the beginning of the 7th century, making this a fairly early example.

A view of the Malegitti Shivalaya Temple, which, built around the year 600, is one of the very earliest structural temples in the Badami area.

Around sunset, looking from the Upper Shivalaya Temple, across Agastya Lake, towards the red-rock outcropping with the four famous cave temples. You can see caves One and Two, along with the natural cave to the left. Note the fortifications on top of the hill. These were built in the 18th century by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, a thousand years after the youngest of the cave temples was carved. Unfortunately, the fortifications are closed off to visitors. I've heard that this is because the top of the walls were becoming a popular suicide spot. 

I spent three nights and most of three days in Badami. On my second day, to which I'm going to devote an entire blog post, I travelled rather more far afield, to the three other great centers of Chalukyan building activity. On the third day, I had planned to take it fairly easy, and perhaps revisit and do a better job photographing the four cave temples. However, I got sidetracked into a rather an adventure, and the day turned out quite differently than I had expected.

I needed to arrange onward travel to Hampi, and as I was sick of riding around in buses, I thought of taking the train. The station is about 3km from the center of Badami, so I decided to walk out and make an inquiry. It turned out that taking a train from Badami to Hospet (where you get off for Hampi), was fairly inconvenient. But the trip wasn't wasted.

As I walked along the road, out in the heat, about 2km from my hotel, I saw a sign pointing to the right, which said Sidlaphadi Cave. In the general direction that it pointed there was a rough dirt track that wound up into the red hills. I had visited the Badami Archeological Museum the day before, and it had an exhibit on the cave, though it gave no indication as to how to get there.

The information on the cave that the museum provided, despite the resources lavished by the Archeological Survey of India on constructing a large three dimensional model, was fairly sketchy. The cave isn't included in any of my guidebooks, and what little information I could dig up online didn't illuminate much of anything. All that I can really say about the site is that it was occupied by human beings in prehistoric times. There are ancient paintings inside the cave, though the truly prehistoric paintings seem to have been drawn over by scribblers down the ages, from early historical time, to the last few years. The result of this is that there are numerous drawings inside the cave, but it's hard to be sure what's ancient and what's graffiti.

Turning off on the road where the sign had indicated, I found myself wandering up into the red rocky hills along a road that appeared to have once been paved, perhaps forty or fifty years ago. To get up it now you would need pretty serious four wheel drive. As it was, the dirt track led on and on, past a cell phone tower and ever deeper and higher into the rocky, lonely, semi-arid hills. Again, the experience was rather more like hiking out in the American West than it was like visiting a typical Indian Tourist attraction. I went the entire middle part of the day without seeing another soul.

Still, the sign on the main road didn't tell me how far it was to the cave, and as I was heading further and further out into the wilderness, the thought of turning back crossed my mind a few times. But after walking about ninety minutes out from the road, I suddenly found myself at my objective. 

Sidlaphadi Cave. It's actually a huge natural bridge. The whole time I was there, which was quite a while as I decided to sit out the heat of the day in the shade the cave provided, I never saw another soul. There was also a noticeable lack of litter, and the trails through the grass and undergrowth were quite faint. I don't think Sidlaphadi Cave, despite being one of the most striking natural features in the area, gets very many visitors. 

Looking under the span of the natural bridge.

A view of the two skylights in the roof of Sidlaphadi Cave. The local explanation for the holes in the roof is that the natural bridge was struck by lightening. The name Sidlaphadi translates roughly to "Lightening Cave." However, the holes were almost certainly caused by typical erosion.

A large panel of assorted scribblings...some of which may be ancient cave paintings...In the description of the cave paintings given in the Badami Archeological Museum, they say that there are red and white ochre  depictions of people, reptiles, and birds, along with some writing from the historical era...though they weren't so helpful as to provide pictures of the paintings that were the genuine article, so it's hard to say what's an ancient cave painting and what isn't. Here, there are obviously lots of scribblings which are just modern graffiti (anything green or black can be immediately discounted). However, the scribblings that are clearly paintings rather than just some jerk with a pen or a knife, are a bit harder to discount...though they still might have been painted there two hundred years ago rather than two millennia ago.

Sidlaphadi Cave Painting. Even with all the fiddling I did with the contrast, it's still not easy to make out. But it seems to be a bird. It's actually much more distinct in this picture than it is in real life. I walked by it a couple of times before I even noticed it. This was what I thought was the best candidate for an actual prehistoric cave painting. I'll give four reasons for thinking that: First the sign in the Museum said that there were pictures of birds in the cave.Second, every other layer of scribbling seems to be on top of the bird, so it has to at least be older than all of the other scribblings. Third, the paint is very faded and does not look recent. And fourth, the design simply looks like a prehistoric cave painting of a bird...that all being said, I'm still not one hundred percent certain it's  not a hoax...there were a couple of other pictures in the cave that were obviously painted recently and were intended to fool people...still, if it is genuine, these are, to my knowledge, the only pictures of the Sidlaphadi Cave paintings on the internet.

The lonely road to nowheresville Karnataka, while walking back from the cave.

Judging from the few other accounts I've read from people who had actually gone to visit Sidlaphadi Cave, I think it usually proves something of a disappointment.  They go in expecting cave paintings, but instead wind up seeing little more than a bit of scribbling on the wall (I never read an account of visiting the cave where the person actually thought they had seen cave paintings).

Still, the cave, or rather natural bridge, is well worth the hike out to see it, if just as much for the rock formation's natural aesthetic appeal as for its anthropological interest. It's an example of Badami's ancient sandstone at it's finest.

Badami Sunset. 

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