The Remarkable Cave Temples of Southern India

February 4, 2016

As an architecture student in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1960s, I’d hardly ever seen a building older than a hundred years, let alone confronted a civilization of any antiquity. That changed resoundingly when I traveled to India while still at college.

During my wanderings in the subcontinent, I somehow got to hear of a remote town called Badami with wonderful temples, just the sort of place worth seeking out, though I’d never read anything about it. I checked, and there it was on the map; there was even a train connection.

Taking a pony cart from Badami station into town, I marveled at the dramatic landscape of the Deccan region. Red sandstone cliffs, shattered by deep fissures into rugged profiles, reared over mud-walled houses splashed with ocher paint.

After dropping my luggage at the local rest house, I wandered through the town and came upon a vast reservoir filled with vividly green water. At one end, women washed clothes by beating them on stone steps; at the other, a small temple with a veranda jutted invitingly into the water. High above the tank were cliffs punctuated with grottoes; I later realized these were artificial cave temples cut into the rock.

On the summit of the cliffs opposite rose a freestanding temple fashioned out of the same sandstone as the rock itself, perfectly blending into its natural setting. Quite simply, this was the most intriguingly beautiful place I’d ever seen; 50 years later, having traveled to so many places around India, I haven’t changed my mind.

The trip to Badami contributed to a life-changing decision: to move to London and study Indian art and archaeology. Only then did I learn that Badami had been the capital of the Chalukyas, a line of kings who ruled over most of the Deccan for almost 200 years between the sixth and eighth centuries. One of a succession of dynasties in this part of India, the Chalukyas attracted my attention because they were great patrons of architecture and art, overseeing a transition from rock-cut architecture to freestanding, structural architecture, all embellished with magnificent carvings.

No one in London in the early 1970s had much idea about the Chalukyas and their art. This was hardly surprising since no example of Chalukya sculpture had found its way into a European or American collection. The same is largely true today. Only by making a journey to Badami (about 300 miles from the city of Bangalore) and nearby sites can the outstanding contribution of Chalukya architects and sculptors be appreciated.

Any exploration of Chalukya art best begins in Badami, still the only town in this part of the Deccan with acceptable accommodations. Following the route that skirts the maze of streets and houses, you arrive at a stepped path built into the cliffs on the south side of the reservoir. Dodging the resident monkeys if possible, you can climb to the top and enjoy a spectacular panorama across the water. Opening to one side of the steps are four cave temples.

The lowest is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, as is evident from a majestic image of the eighteen-armed, dancing god carved onto the cliff face immediately outside. Once inside, you may think you’ve entered an actual structure, with lines of columns and beams supporting a flat ceiling. But this impression is deceptive; all these features are monolithic, hewn deeply into the cliff. A tiny chamber cut into the rear of the hall has an altar with a lingam, the phallic emblem of Shiva. A stone representation of Nandi, the bull that served as the god’s mount, is placed in front.

Up the steps is the largest of the cave temples, also furnished with columns and beams, as in a constructed hall. This is consecrated to Vishnu, who is depicted in various forms in magnificent panels carved onto the end walls of the front veranda: The god is seated on the cosmic serpent; he appears in his man-lion incarnation, with the head of a ferocious animal, leaning on a club; and in yet a third appearance the god is shown with one leg kicked high, pacing out the three steps of cosmic creation.

Angled brackets “supporting” the beams have reliefs of human couples in tender embrace, posed beneath flowering trees. This auspicious motif was evidently intended to provide Vishnu’s home with magical protection. An inscription engraved on an interior column explains that the temple was commissioned by a Chalukya prince in 578, making it the earliest dated Hindu cave temple in India.

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