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Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal

By Anamika Mukherjee

Badami. Aihole. Pattadakal. For a long time the names had rung in my ears like a cadence. The names conjured up images of sculptures, of temples, of rock-cut caves richly carved out of rugged red stone.

Amit had never been too eager to cover this circuit, until he saw promotional photos put out by Karnataka Tourism. Only a few days later, we talked of going, and did some research in the Lonely Planet Guide. The next day, Thursday, he organised bus tickets. And Friday evening we set off to catch an overnight bus for the 11-hour, 480-odd km journey.

Bed, Breakfast and a Morning Walk

Badami arrived at eight in the morning. It is a small town, with a main road and a bazaar road which gives into lots of tiny residential streets. There is an 'upmarket' hotel 5 km from town centre, and a 'deluxe' hotel right opposite the bus stand. KSTDC runs a guest house somewhat removed from town center (20 minutes walk) but it was so deserted and lifeless that we opted not to spend time rousing out the establishment. When we stopped there at 8.30 a m, the remains of the previous night's (or some night's) revelry were richly strewn around the hall that served as dining room. Some signs of sluggish life were shown, when we demanded breakfast, and feeble efforts were made to clear the mess, so we decided it would be a long time before anything edible emerged; we left, never to return.

Badami has caves and here I am describing its hotels at length. Let's just gloss over the breakfast and brief toilette at the 'deluxe' hotel, Mookambika, and arrive at the caves. We chose to walk, since distances are not very great. We assayed first the route through the village, with the help of our Lonely Planet map, and promptly got lost in the maze of lanes. Next we tried the more direct route via the main road, and reached the caves without incident, bought tickets, and reluctantly engaged the services of a guide. We are always reluctant to have a guide tagging along, but sometimes they are informative. This one was informative, but not always accurate, and somewhat prone to chivvying us around, which was irritating. When he realised that chivvying us was getting him nowhere fast, he relented and allowed us to take our time, so we got along better after that.

The Caves

There are only four caves at Badami, all close together. They are approached by a neat set of steps, no clambering over rocky paths involved, which is somewhat of a disappointment, but a great convenience. The rock soars high above the caves, and, seen in profile, has a definite tilt forward, making one fearful that it will one day come crashing down, or else, it will slowly lean further and further forward, till the caves are crushed under its weight. But the caves, excavated in the fifth and sixth centuries are 1500 years old and still withstanding the rock, so the ancients must have got their calculations right somehow.

The very first sculpture to greet the visitor is the spectacular 18-armed Nataraj. We had already read that this divine fellow can be seen striking 81 dance poses, and now the guide explained that, if you consider any one of his left arms and combine it with any one of his right arms, it is one pose. Hence, 9x9=81 poses. Thus explained, it loses its mystery, but it is still a very striking sculpture.

Each of the caves has 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 third cave is the largest, and the most spectacular. There are remnants of colour on the paintings on the walls. According to the guide, the oval, footstep-sized depressions in the ground were used as the colour palettes by the artists of old, but I am sure they would have come up with some more ingenious method of mixing colour than sculpting their palettes into the ground. Specially since the palettes are free of all vestiges of colour.

To stand in the pillared corridor, with carvings at each end, daylight coming in from outside, and darkness encroaching from inside, and the towering weight of the rock above you always on your mind - it is quite an awesome experience.

The first cave is dedicated to Shiva and caves two and three are dedicated to Vishnu, while the fourth, the highest and the latest to be excavated, is a Jain cave. The difference in style is immediately noticeable: more sculpture, but more plain, far less ornamented, much simpler.

Above and Beyond the Caves

Between caves two and three is a set of steps leading into a barred-off passage. Here, says the Lonely Planet guide, is a path giving access to the fort at the top of the rock. But our guide said that it has been permanently barred by the authorities: too many people had taken that path as the easy way out, heading uphill to jump off.

From the caves you get a pleasant view of the man-made lake (or tank?) below, and the low hill beyond, both dotted with temples, and the latter topped with the crumbling remains of a fort wall. The fort, which is only some 500 years old, is far more ruined than the temples which are so much older. So, the residences of the kings decay and fall, while the residences of the gods withstand the ravages of time.

We headed across the lake now, stopping briefly at the Yellamma Temple, and the two Bhutanath temples around the lake. Then we headed uphill, following a steep but broad, paved path. Eventually we reached a small, modern temple, under the rock, and from here on, the path is more difficult to find. If it had not been for our guide, we should undoubtedly have turned back here. But he lead us on, across an open slope of rough ground, and then on through tunnels of towering rock, over sometimes barren sometimes dominating landscape. There is here at times an almost indistinguishable merging of the fortifications of man and nature.

We 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 got across it, and how you are ever going to get back, but the path meanders this way and that through the rocks, downhill now, and emerges at length into the Museum forecourt.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.