Photos by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra
Badami was the capital of the early Chalukyas who ruled much of Karnataka during the 6th to 8th centuries. Situated on the banks of a beautiful man-made lake named after one of India’s greatest rishis, Rishi Agastya, the ancient cave temples of Badami carved out of the sandstone hills are bound to leave anyone completely awed.
During the reign of the Chalukyas the entire region surrounding Badami saw great temple building activity. Sculptors, architects, engineers, artisans traveled long distances from various parts of Indian sub-continent to offer their expertise and talent to the grand architectural innovation and experimentation happening there.
While the rock-cut Badami temples themselves have some magnificent sculptural gems, the grand surroundings of these caves keeps one mesmerized as one slowly walks up the stone steps from one cave to the next.
The magnificent sculptures with their life-like expressions and subtle details in the Badami caves bear testimony to the great advancement that had been made in the art of temple sculpture.
“The art of sculpture has indeed flourished supremely only in ancient countries where it was conceived against its natural background and support, a great architecture.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 20: 287)
The four cave temples carved out of the soft Badami sandstone date back to 6th and 7th century. Assimilating aspects from the Nagara and Dravidian styles, all these cave temples share a similar plan. As you enter the cave, you step into a veranda, the mukhamandapa, which is supported by stone pillars and brackets, a distinctive feature of these caves. This leads you to another columned mandapa or main hall, the mahamandapa, from where you can reach the small, square shrine, the garbhagrihya, cut deep inside the cave.
The first and the oldest of these caves (cave 1) is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The cave has a number of pillars and fine carvings of Lord Shiva and Parvati in various poses. The walls, pillars and ceiling are highly ornamental and are decorated with motifs often seen on intricate jewelry till today. Some faint paintings on the ceiling are also visible, though much damaged.
At the entrance, on the right hand side, is the eighteen-armed dancing Shiva depicted in the atibhanga pose. While the various arms of the Lord are spread wide on all sides and his hands hold numerous weapons and objects (including a trident, a snake and a musical instrument), representative of different natya mudras and depicting the grand cosmic activity of transformation that the Lord is constantly engaged in, the serenity of deep concentration and calm equanimity on his facial expression reminds one of the adiyogi that is Shiva.
It appears that Ganesha standing nearby is perhaps trying to emulate his father’s moves while the standing Nandi and the drummer are thoroughly enjoying the spectacular cosmic dance of the Lord.
On the opposite side of the entrance facing the Nataraja stands a two-handed Shaiva dvarapala who holds a trident. Beneath him is a fantastic image where the head of a bull and that of an elephant have been fused together; seen from left it is an elephant and from right a bull. While on the top of the dvarapala are Parvati and Shiva riding the Nandi.
“Vision and experience are the creative elements of Indian art.” (Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, p. 224)
Once you have had your fill of the grand Nataraja, your eyes slowly take in Ma Mahishasuramardini standing nearby. This four-armed Devi is perhaps the earliest image of Mahishsuramardini found in Karnataka. The Mother is seen picking up the buffalo demon by his tail and slaughtering him with her trident. The fearless and serene expression on her face is meditative, while the eyes of the buffalo are wide open and full of fear.
Imagine for a second the physical strength it takes to lift approximately 450 kg (average weight of a buffalo) with one hand, while with the other hand piercing it with a trident. This is what the great Goddess is depicted as doing here! Could it be that such supra-human physical strength as ‘seen’ in this sculptor’s vision is perhaps one of the infinite ways the Devi’s Divinity is expressed through stone?
“Mother Durga! Rider on the lion, giver of all strength,… we, born from thy parts of Power, we the youth of India, are seated here in thy temple. Listen, O Mother, descend upon earth, make thyself manifest in this land of India.
“Mother Durga! Giver of force and love and knowledge, terrible art thou in thy own self of might, Mother beautiful and fierce. In the battle of life, in India’s battle, we are warriors commissioned by thee; Mother, give to our heart and mind a titan’s energy, to our soul and intelligence a god’s character and knowledge.
“Mother Durga! India, world’s noblest race, lay whelmed in darkness. Mother, thou risest on the eastern horizon, the dawn comes with the glow of thy divine limbs scattering the darkness. Spread thy light, Mother, destroy the darkness.
“Mother Durga! We are thy children, through thy grace, by thy influence may we become fit for the great work, for the great Ideal. Mother, destroy our smallness, our selfishness, our fear.
“Mother Durga! Thou art Kali… sword in hand, thou slayest the Asura. Goddess, do thou slay with thy pitiless cry the enemies who dwell within us, may none remain alive there, not one. May we become pure and spotless, this is our prayer, O Mother, make thyself manifest.
“Mother Durga! India lies low in selfishness and fearfulness and littleness. Make us great, make our efforts great, our hearts vast, make us true to our resolve. May we no longer desire the small, void of energy, given to laziness, stricken with fear.
“Mother Durga! Extend wide the power of Yoga. We are thy Aryan children, develop in us again the lost teaching, character, strength of intelligence, faith and devotion, force of austerity, power of chastity and true knowledge, bestow all that upon the world. To help mankind, appear, O Mother of the world, dispel all ills.
“Mother Durga! Slay the enemy within, then root out all obstacles abroad. May the noble heroic mighty Indian race, supreme in love and unity, truth and strength, arts and letters, force and knowledge, ever dwell in its holy woodlands, its fertile fields, under its sky-scraping hills, along the banks of its pure streaming rivers. This is our prayer at the feet of the Mother. Make thyself manifest.
“Mother Durga! Enter our bodies in thy Yogic strength. We shall become thy instruments, thy sword slaying all evil, thy lamp dispelling all ignorance. Fulfil this yearning of thy young children, O Mother. Be the master and drive thy instrument, wield thy sword and slay the evil, hold up the lamp and spread the light of knowledge. Make thyself manifest.”
Hymn to Durga
(translated by Nolini Kanta Gupta from Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali original)
On the right side of Mahishasuramardini is seated Kartikeya on his vāhana, peacock, and opposite to him is Ganesha. This Ganapati is seen holding a small bowl full of his favourite sweet, modaka. His tummy is also a bit flatter than typically portrayed. Nearby are Parvati and Shiva riding on the Nandi, thus completing the family group.
Inside the mandapa facing the garbhagriha is Nandi in his seated pose. But the way his head is mutilated it definitely looks as if it has been chopped off with a sharp object. One of the countless reminders of the savage iconoclasm and destruction faced by countless Hindu temples at the hands of Islamic invaders.
“…the decline of art has always followed the decline of love and faith.” (Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Siva and Fourteen Indian Essays)
Inside the garbhagriha, a dark chamber cut deep in the cave, is the sacred Shivalingam.
“The Hindu is no idolater; he does not worship stocks or stones, the tree as tree or the stone as stone or the idol as a material thing, but he worships the presence of the Lord which fills & surrounds the tree, stone or idol, and of which the tree, stone or idol is merely a manifestation or seeming receptacle. We say for the convenience of language and mental realization that God is in His creature, but really it is the creature who is in God, न त्वहं तेषु ते मयि. “I am not in them, they are in Me.”…The presence of the Lord who is infinite, must be thought of as surrounding each object and not confined to the limits of the object,…. When we see the tree, we do not say, “This is the Lord”, but we say “Here is the Lord”. The tree exists only in Him & by Him; He is in it and around it, even as the ether is. (CWSA 17: 178-9)
In the columned mandapa we meet Harihara, representing Vishnu and Shiva in one form. Shiva is represented on the right side and Vishnu on the left of this magnificent 7.75-foot-high (2.36 metre) sculpture. Next to Shiva is a much smaller standing Nandi holding the Lord’s trident and next to him is Ma Parvati. On Vishnu’s side is his consort, Ma Lakshmi. The ganas in different dancing poses at the feet of the Lord Harihara complete this beautiful relief.
“When we look beyond our first exclusively concentrated vision, we see behind Vishnu all the personality of Shiva and behind Shiva all the personality of Vishnu. He is the Ananta-guna, infinite quality and the infinite divine Personality which manifests itself through it.” (CWSA 24: 586)
Next on the same wall is another magnificent relief of four-armed Ardhanarishvara, Shiva and his consort Parvati merged into One Form. Next to the half representing Parvati stands an attendant carrying what looks like a tray of jewels. On the side representing Shiva stands Nandi and sage Bhringi, an ardent devotee of Shiva, who is often represented only in a skeleton form because of his single-minded devotion for only Shiva and to the exclusion of his Shakti, Ma Parvati. What is unique about this Ardhanarishvara is that the Shiva-Shakti here are holding veena by each of their hands. The other hand of Shiva holds a parasu while Parvati’s hand gently holds a lotus.
The artwork throughout Cave 1 is astonishing and rich in variety. In fact, no two pillars are identical. The top end of some pillars are cylindrical with intricate and detailed carvings. One is left absolutely in admiration of the great craftsmanship that went into carving these pillars. The ceiling is also decorated with reliefs.
There is much more that awaits us in rest of the caves, so let us come out of cave 1 and proceed slowly to cave 2.
Coming up next….Cave 2, Badami on Chalukya Temple Trail