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Romancing the stone in Badami

 Suprakash Ghosh |  2016-06-12 18:52:07.0  |  New Delhi

Romancing the stone in Badami

Winter mornings in Chennai are nothing special for people like us who love the chilly air and colourful woollens. But passions die hard and so the heart goes off into a holiday mood as soon as the calender page turns to the last month of the year. Memories crowd the mind, nostalgia bites hard and I try to relive those golden days.

 It’s difficult, very difficult, rather impossible to go back to those old days. But the heart breaks free and crosses the barriers of daily life. Last December, I was bitten by this deadly virus called nostalgia and went that extra mile to have a holiday all by myself. Denying all invitations from friends, I ventured out alone, destined for a place where I could go back in time and have some dreams of my own. Badami. Aihole. Pattadakal.

 For a long time the names had rung in my ears like a cadence. I packed my bags and boarded an early morning bus out of Chennai to Bangalore. By mid-noon I reached there and finished my official commitments, before boarding the night train to my ultimate destination with nostalgic memories safely packed away. 

On a bright winter morning I finally reached Badami, near Bangalore, the capital of the early 
Chalukyas, who ruled much of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh between the sixth and eighth centuries. It was founded in 540 AD by Pulakesi I (535-566 AD), an early king of the Chalukyas. 

Badami, formerly known as Vatapi, is a town and headquarters of a taluk by the same name, in Bagalkot Karnataka. It is famous for its rock-cut and other structural temples. Badami is picturesquely situated at the mouth of a ravine between two rocky hills and famous for its four cave temples, all hewn out of sandstone on the precipice of a hill.

 The ravine is at the foot of a rugged, red sandstone outcrop that surrounds Agastya lake. Badami’s name may have come from the colour of its stone, badam or Almond.The temples were sculpted mostly between the sixth and eighth centuries. The four cave temples represent the secular nature of the rulers, with tolerance for all and a bent towards Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. 

Each of the caves have huge sculptures, with fine details. These artisans were experimenting with the shapes of the gods, and you will find one shape which is half Shiva half Parvati (half man, half woman), another which is half Shiva, half Vishnu, an animal which is half elephant, half buffalo, and a strange conglomeration of heads and bodies of two babies which can be viewed in various permutations and combinations. The very first sculpture to greet the visitor is the spectacular 18-armed Nataraj, which can be seen striking 81 dance poses. This temple is the oldest one from the lot in Badami.

The Cave temple complex is situated on the banks of  the beautiful Agasthya lake. On the opposite side of the lake lies Badami Fort atop a cliff. The entrance to this is through the Badami museum. The archaeological museum houses superb examples of local sculpture, including a remarkably explicit Lajja-Gauri image of a fertility cult that once flourished in the area. 

It is a steep climb with many viewpoints and dotted with little shrines. The path is laid with neatly cut stones, the same that adorns the architecture.
On the western side of this cliff  is Bhutanatha, a group of temples facing the Agasythya Tank, a cluster of sandstone shrines dedicated to the deity Bhutanatha. There are two major temples here. The first one lies on the east side of the lake and is called the Bhutanatha temple. It has a superstructure that resembles early south Indian or north Indian styles, with its open mantapa (hall or veranda) extending into the lake, while the smaller temple, the second one, is on the north-eastern side of the lake and is sometimes called as Mallikarjuna group of temples. It has a stepped superstructure, found in Kalyani Chalukya constructions. 

I spent the first day in and around the Cave Temple and Bhutnath Temple complex. My childhood came alive with schoolchildren thronging the cave complex throughout the day. Nostalgia nestled deep inside my heart, wanted to burst out with every passing hour. I found the Upper and Lower Shivalaya temples. There is not much to see in them, but the walk was fascinating. For a while we were walking alongside a deep and long chasm in the rock.

 There is an island of rock, just a hop, skip and jump away, and beyond that, another chasm, and then more rock. You wonder how you get across it, and how are you ever going to get back, but the path meanders the way and through the rocks, downhill now, and emerges at length into the museum forecourt. My meanderings led me across an open slope of rough ground, and then through tunnels of towering rock which were sometimes barren and sometimes dominating the landscape, an almost indistinguishable merging of the fortifications of man and nature.

 At the end of the day, I climbed down the steps of Agasthya lake and sat next to the water. The setting sun was casting its magical spell, everything on the planet was getting ready for another night and suddenly I felt my nostalgia, my muse, my passionate love descending on me with its usual charm. For a moment I was possessed by the feeling and when I came out of the trance everything vanished.

 I returned to my hotel and discovered that I had taken many pictures not only during the day but also in the magical evening. My favourite image of the day was the picture of a Buddhist cave which can be entered only by crawling in on one’s knees. Non-pushy and informed guides ask Rs 200 for a tour of the caves, or Rs 300 for the whole site. Watch out for the pesky monkeys, who love being fed.

Apart from its historical cache, Badami is also famous for its red sandstone cliffs, which are popular amongst local and international climbers. This is a great location for free and climbing and bouldering. There are over 150 bolted routes and multiple routes for free climbing. 

The next day, very early in the morning, I started off for Aihole and Pattadakal, the two other prominent cities of the Chalukya dynasty. Aihole hosted the earliest Chalukya capital; later the site was moved to Badami, with a secondary capital in Pattadakal. Famous as the “Cradle of Indian Architecture”, Aihole has over a hundred temples scattered around its village. Although I reached the famous Aihole Durga temple complex before sunrise, I had to wait for the official opening time before I was allowed in.

Aihole is one of the most notable places in the history of art in Karnataka. It is known as Ayyavole and Aryapura in its inscriptions. The village has 125 temples divided into 22 groups by the archaeological department. Aihole has been described as one of the cradles of temple architecture. It was also a great ancient city and commercial centre, headquarters of the federation of trade guilds.

According to mythology, Aihole is the place where Parashuram washed the blood off his axe after killing the Kshatriyas.

Aihole was the first capital of the early Chalukyas. Here they built over 125 temples in various styles and it was said to be a laboratory of experiments in rock-cut architecture. Pulakesi I, one of the greatest rulers of this dynasty, moved the capital to Badami. The first phase of temple building in Aihole dates back to the 6th century, and the second phase up to the 12th century.

 Some temples were built as early as the 5th century. The Durga temple or fortress temple is the best known of the Aihole temples and is very photogenic. It is along the lines of a Buddhist chaitya, with a high moulded adisthana and a curvilinear shikhara. A pillared corridor runs around the temple, enveloping the shrine. All through the temple, there are beautiful carvings. I was there when the rising sun was painting the planet with its magical light. The carvings of the temple seemed to come alive in the touch of those first rays of the sun and I remained the only witness to the drama and tried my best to capture it on camera.  

My next destination was Pattadakal, a 45-minute bus ride away from Badami. It lies on the banks of the Malaprabha River, 22 km from Badami and about 10 km from Aihole. There is no place to stay here overnight but there is a small resthouse in Aihole. Be warned, buses between Aihole and Pattadakal stop running by 4 pm. 

The group of 8th century monuments in Pattadakal are the culmination of the earliest experiments in the vesara style of Hindu temple architecture. The town displays both Dravidian (southern) and the Nagara (northern, Indo-Aryan) styles. UNESCO in 1987 included Pattadakal in its list of World Heritage sites. Manicured lawns, neatly laid pathways, ever-present security, lengthy explanatory notes for each monument, drinking water and toilets are all provided. I found this enclosure a most delightful place. 

The ruins are in reasonably good shape, the crowds are conspicuous by their absence, and there is quiet, greenery, and sunlight surrounding the temples. Pattadakal and Aihole are both historically important as the playground of the first Hindu temple architects. Here they experimented with shapes, plans, ideas. From here evolved the various types of shikaras; perhaps even the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho were born here, for there are a few of these to be found here.

 It is a great centre of Chalukyan art. The place continued to be an important centre under the Rashtrakutas and the Kalyana Chalukyas. There are 10 major temples here, nine Shiva and one Jaina, situated along the northern course of the River, very auspicious according to Holy Scriptures. 
Finally, I just sat in the shade and watched the stillness. I returned to Badami in the late afternoon. 

I spent the evening on the banks of Agasthya lake and tried a few moonlit frames. On my last day, I took little time off and visited the famous Banashankari Amman Temple, a little out of the city.

Suprakash Ghosh

Suprakash Ghosh

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