Out of Bangalore (185 km)
Words AMRITA LALL
Photographs VINOBHA NATHAN
Badami, the second capital of the early Chalukya rulers, lies deep in the heart of South India, in a river valley between rocky red hills that have seen the rise and fall of many kings from medieval times. They are home to stories carved into ancient rock-cut caves and sandstone temples built between the 6th and 8th centuries CE. As architects, the Chalukyas were experimental. Case in point: Durg Temple in their first capital, the sleepy village of Aihole nearby. The temple, home to intricate sculptures of gods and goddesses and celestial couples locked in embrace, is one of the earliest examples of apsidal Hindu temple design. On its weathered but sturdy pillars, you’ll spot lion-headed Narasimha (an avatar of Lord Vishnu), the tiger skin-clad Shiva, and celestial couples locked in embrace.
When the Chalukyas moved their capital to Badami, the stonemasons followed, and set to work on the four striking cave temples that have, over time, become synonymous with Badami. The name ‘Badami’ itself means almond-coloured or reddish brown, the same colour as the gorgeous cave temples. When you stand before the graceful, elaborately- crafted sculptures of an 18-armed Nataraja (dancing Shiva), demon-killing Durga, and Harihara (Shiva and Vishnu combined), you will admire the ancient artists and their abilities to create magic on stone.
The temple complex at Pattadakal is further evidence of the artists’ prowess and how their technique improved over generations. In the complex, you’ll spot both the South Indian ‘Dravida’ and the North Indian ‘Nagara’ architectural styles. The Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples in the complex, built in honour of the military victories of Chalukya king Vikramaditya-II, depict scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, but they’re not the only kind of carvings you’ll spot on the hefty pillars. Some carvings will remind you that the medieval world had both beautiful and brutal customs. For instance, there’s one panel that illustrates a woman being thrown under an elephant’s foot as punishment for writing letters to a lover. Take your time gazing at and poring over all that’s on offer – the contrasting images of love and war frozen in stone are bound to keep you occupied for a long time.
History is literally etched onto the walls – there are ancient Kannada inscriptions describing matters such as how courtesans paid for constructions in times of war.
While the Badami Chalukya treasury and its borders shrank under assault from the Pallavas, and the dynasty was finally overthrown in 757 AD, the Malaprabha River and its well-nourished banks continued to offer refuge to powerful men for centuries. Tipu Sultan rebuilt the walls of Badami Fort in the 18th century, and fortified it with cannons that face the town till this day. There’s an unmarked path that takes you up to the fort over steep boulders, and, from the top, you’re offered panoramic views of the town below. You’ll also spot the Agasthya Tirtha Tank, a spring-fed lake that stretches out below. As you gaze at the red cliffs, and listen to the children’s shouts floating up from a sea of mud-roofed houses, you will certainly think of how a once-thriving seat of power has, over the years, turned into a quiet time capsule.