Photos by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra
Continued from Part 2
We continue our exploration of the famous Badami cave temples carved out of the soft red sandstone atop a hill. After exploring caves 1 and 2 we now climb up to cave 3, and the exterior view itself makes us stop and sit for a while. The rich, grainy texture of the natural sandstone is a showstopper in itself.
The cave temple sits on a raised platform and a short flight of stairs leads to the large open verandah. In between the raised platform and the ground we see a frieze of dwarfs, but unlike cave 1 here they are in small groupings and are not continuous.
“… mere intention to create beauty is not sufficient: there must exist an object of devotion. ” (Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva and Fourteen Indian Essays, 2013 edition, p. 34)
Cave 3 is the largest and most ornate and grandest of all Badami caves. Like cave 2, this one is also dedicated to Bhagwān Vishnu and was excavated in 578 CE under the patronage of Chalukya king Kirtivarma I. The inscriptions found both outside and inside the cave verify this. A Sanskrit inscription carved beside the relief of the great Varaha as well as some inscriptions in Kannada detail the date of a gift and dedication of a village named Lanjisvara for the excavation and upkeep of this cave temple.
Similar to cave 1 and 2, the layout of cave 3 comprises of an open verandah, a pillared mandapam with sanctum sanctorum cut into its rear wall. The cave front has six square columns. The temple has north-south orientation providing maximum amount of sunlight in winter. The verandah and the hall dig up to 14.5 m deep into the mountain and the innermost sanctuary or garbhagriha extends the cave by an additional 4m deep. The hall or mandapam reaches up to 4m high.
The following illustration gives an overall layout of this cave temple, with the numbers pointing to the location of various deities.
In the above figure, number 1 indicates the place of a standing Lord Vishnu, and 2 is where we meet Lord Vishnu in his Trivikrama form. At number 3 is seated the Mahavishnu on Shesha Naga while at 4 is Vishnu in his Varaha avatār with Ma Bhudevi. Harihara, the half Shiva and half Vishnu form is at location number 5, and at 6 we see Vishnu standing in his Narasimha avatār. The garbhagriha at number 7 has no deity at present — a sad reminder of the savage destruction and pillage suffered by countless Hindu temples at the hands of Islamic invaders and rulers.
The blue coloured O’s in the above illustration indicate the ceiling carvings where we find Vedic and Paurānic gods and goddesses including Indra, Agni, Varuna, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati. The enclosed squares mark the carved pillars which represent scenes from social life, women with various expressions, as well as amorous couples.
Meet the Gods
“Vishnu is the Eternal’s Personality of Consciousness; in him all is supported, in his wideness, in his stability, in his substance.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 12: 208)
This larger-than-life eight-armed Lord Vishnu stands near the temple entrance. He wears a tall crown and carries numerous weapons, including bow in his middle left hand and arrow in middle right hand in addition to his usual shankha in upper left hand and chakra in upper right hand. His lower right hand holds the hilt of a sword which is broken in the middle. Notice that the upper part of the blade extends past the right side of his face. Such a warrior rupam of the Lord seems appropriate for the royal dedication of this cave temple.
By the early medieval period, Lord Vishnu had come to be considered and worshipped as the Divine King par excellence. Depicted iconographically as a mighty king dwelling in the heavenly court, Vaikuntha, his primary role was to execute and maintain a dharmic order in the entire creation. It was believed that Bhagwān Vishnu is present wherever righteous kings on earth rule to protect and preserve dharma.
The great dynasts and kings invoked and worshipped the kingly aspects of Bhagwān Vishnu and aspired to be like him or rule as his representatives on the earth. Proclaiming this also helped them to assert their authority and power. This may be one reason why in many temples patronised by the mighty kings in the past, we see the depictions of Bhagwān Vishnu as Divine King — perhaps as a reminder for the people that they too are living in a kingdom protected by an earthly king with similar qualities and power.
On the opposite side we meet Vishnu again in the eight-armed form of Trivikrama holding various āyudha-s including chakra, shankha, Nandaka sword, Kaumodaki mace, arrow, Sharanga bow, and shield. To the bottom right stands a group consisting of Vamana (the sculpture is either uncarved or destroyed, but one can see the umbrella of Vamana) receiving alms from king Bali and his wife, preceded by Rishi Shukracarya. Some suggest that the use of a Buddha-like head for the figure of Shukracharya might have been a means to symbolise the growing sway of Vedic religion in comparison to Buddhism.
In the previous feature on cave 2, we looked at the inner Vedic symbolism behind this Trivikrama form of Lord Vishnu. Here it suffices to invoke the words of the great connosieur of Indian art, Ananda Coomaraswmy who cautions that failing to truly appreciate the deeper cultural and spiritual significance behind the outer form results in a complete misunderstanding or non-understanding of Indian art. He writes:
“To appreciate any art,… we ought not to concentrate our attention upon its peculiarities—ethical or formal—but should endeavour to take for granted whatever the artist takes for granted. No motif appears bizarre to those who have been familiar with it for generations: and in the last analysis it must remain beyond the reach of all others so long as it remains in their eyes primarily bizarre.
“If circumstances then compel the philologist and the historian to classify the extant materials for the study of Indian art, their studies will be more valuable the more strictly they are confined to the archaeological point of view. For those should not air their likes and dislikes in Oriental art, who when they speak of art mean mere illustration: for there they will rarely meet with what they seek, and the expression of their disappointment becomes wearisome.” (Ananda Coomaraswamy, p. 93)
Characteristic of several Chalukyan temples where the mukhamandapam is filled with large reliefs of Lord Vishnu in his various avatār-s, in cave 3 at Badami also we find a spot exclusively reserved for a majestic relief of Vaikuntha Narayana. Bhagwān Vishnu here is seated in royal ease on the coils of the cosmic serpent, Ananta, who is guarding the Lord with his five-headed cobra hood. Depicted as having four arms, the Lord holds his chakra and shankha in the upper two hands. A nagadevi stands on either side, while Garuda is seated at his right along with Ma Laksmi.
“It may perhaps be objected that the Puranas were written by superstitious Hindu priests or poets who believed that eclipses were caused by a dragon eating the sun and moon and could easily believe that during the periods of non-creation the supreme Deity in a physical body went to sleep on a physical snake upon a material ocean of real milk and that therefore it is a vain ingenuity to seek for a spiritual meaning in these fables. My reply would be that there is in fact no need to seek for such meanings; for these very superstitious poets have put them there plainly on the very surface of the fable for everybody to see who does not choose to be blind. For they have given a name to Vishnu’s snake, the name Ananta, and Ananta means the Infinite; therefore they have told us plainly enough that the image is an allegory and that Vishnu, the all pervading Deity, sleeps in the periods of non-creation on the coils of the Infinite. As for the ocean, the Vedic imagery shows us that it must be the ocean of eternal existence and this ocean of eternal existence is an ocean of absolute sweetness, in other words, of pure Bliss. For the sweet milk (itself a Vedic image) has, evidently, a sense not essentially different from the madhu, honey or sweetness, of Vamadeva’s hymn.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 15:107)
Next to the Asana murti of Bhagwān Vishnu, we meet him again in his Varaha avatār. This relief is quite similar to the one in cave 2, the only difference being in the treatment of the left arms. The left arm curving behind the earth goddess, Bhudevi, holds the shankha more explicitly than what we see in the panel in cave 2. The second left arm is not shown at all, but is only indicated by a hand appearing out of the natural space of the panel to support the padmapitham, the lotus-pedestal where the goddess is standing. The expression on the face of Lord Varaha in cave 3 suggests tranquility, triumph and tenderness whereas in the cave 2 panel we sense greater dynamism and action.
The Varaha avatār of Sri Vishnu symbolises the eternal truth that every time the Mother Earth, the daughter of the Supreme, cries out in pain, the Supreme answers and an Avatār descends. Sri Aurobindo explains the very purpose of avatārhood:
“Surely for the earth consciousness it is so. Consider the obscurity here and what it would be if the Divine did not directly intervene and the Light of Lights did not break out of the obscurity—for that is the meaning of the manifestation.” (CWSA 28: 471)
Harihara, the harmonised representation of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara), also known as Shankaranarayana, is revered by both Vaishnavites and Shaivites as a form of the Supreme Being. The cave temples of Badami include some of the earliest representations of Harihara indicating Vishnu and Shiva as different aspects of the One Brahman. The majestic standing image of Harihara in cave 3 is one of the most beautiful sculptural reliefs carved in all of the Badami caves. Adding to its beauty is the texture of the sandstone.
The origin of the ‘two-in-one’ form of Harihara can be traced back to the Veda itself. As M.P. Pandit explains:
“Vishnu the all-pervading has, in the Rigveda, a close but covert connection and almost an identity with the other deity exalted in the later religion, Rudra. Rudra is a fierce and violent godhead with a beneficent aspect which approaches the supreme blissful reality of Vishnu ; Vishnu’s constant friendliness to man and his helping gods is shadowed by an aspect of formidable violence. Rudra is the father of the vehemently-battling Maruts ; Vishnu is hymned under the name of Evaya Marut as the source from which they sprang, that which they become, and himself identical with the unity and totality of their embattling forces. Rudra is the Deva or Deity ascending in the cosmos, Vishnu the same Deva or Deity helping and evoking the powers of the ascent.” (Vedic Symbolism, 2001, p. 90)
Turning around the corner slightly, we meet the Lord again, standing in a dvibhanga pose, in his four-armed Narasimha avatar, with Garuda and Prahlada standing below and celestial couples flying above. Naramsimha here is represented in his benevolent rather than the aggressive (ugra) form. His lower right hand holds a lotus, and his lower left arm leans on a broken club. The Lord here is crowned with a lotus flower. Interestingly, the Chalukyan kings aspired to have the strength of a lion, as can be seen from their coronation names — Jayasimha which means victorious lion, and Pulakesin which means hairy lion or tiger.
“The Avatar is necessary when a special work is to be done and in crises of the evolution.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 28: 485)
God is in Details Too: Carved Brackets and Pillars
Another remarkable features of cave 3 are its finely carved pillars and brackets. Highlighting the auspicious theme of fertility most of the brackets are decorated with two main motifs – a) celestial couples often with a female dwarf attendant, and b) maidens beneath flowering trees.
As seen in one of the couple images above, traces of coloured panels in the ceilings indicate that mural paintings were also present in this cave. Faint traces of scenes from a king’s court can be seen in such paintings.
The excavated pillars in the cave are also carved with intricate decorative designs.
Standing quietly in the middle of the cave, in whichever direction you turn your eyes — up toward the ceiling, down toward the floor and around you in any direction, beauty awaits you, greets you. The ones who worked on this cave knew that beauty can be a powerful medium to help elevate an aspiring soul, bring deep delight to a thirsty heart and a tranquil relief to a seeking mind.
“Art is a thing of beauty and beauty and Ananda are closely connected—they go together. If the Ananda is there, then the beauty comes out more easily—if not, it has to struggle out painfully and slowly. That is quite natural.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 27: 699-700)
There is even a chessboard carved on the floor, in case you feel like having a game when visiting the temple.
While the details in each corner can leave you mesmerised, as you step back and take in the larger view of where you are standing, you are left awestruck once again with the majesty of the whole temple. It is truly a ‘whole’ which is designed to bring you in touch with the wholeness inside.
One more long look, and once again a great sense of gratitude rises from some place deep within — gratitude toward the ancestors who have left behind such works for us to discover. Discovering these works can become a means, provide some form of an opening toward the discovery of one’s own self — our ancestors knew this, and perhaps wanted us also to know this through our own seeking, our own inquiry. Because this is the way of India — to seek, to carve out one’s own path.
Moments pass as you stand quietly taking it all in. And many more moments later, you realise that there is still one more cave to explore. But before going further, time to take in some more views from the outside.
Coming up next… Cave 4, Badami on Chalukya Temple Trail