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They may not have built in the monumental scale of the Cholas nor with the same stunningly intricate stonework of the Hoysalas but the Chalukyas were certainly an important chapter in the history of Indian temple building and architecture. Last weekend, I finally put into action my North Karnataka itinerary and visited Badami, Pattadakal, and Aihole, the three most famous examples of Chalukya temple complexes.

It goes without saying that the value of any trip is enhanced by reading up on your destination; conversely, one could just travel with knowledgeable companions! It is useful to note that the Chalukyas were a prosperous dynasty that ruled southern and central India for six centuries from the 6th century to the 12th century. However, the dynasty was split into three branches – the Badami Chalukyas who rose to power with the fall of the Kadambas and ruled from Vatapi, the Vengi Chalukyas who broke off from the Badami Chalukyas to become a separate kingdom after the death of Pulakesi II, and the Kalyani Chalukyas who rekindled Chalukya hegemony in the western Deccan in the 10th century after it had been eclipsed by the Rashtrakutas some 200 years earlier. For such a long-lasting dynasty, the Chalukyas have remained one of the most underrated dynasties of Indian history.

Bangalore to BadamiDespite the central role the Chalukyas played in the history of Karnataka, I was shocked to find that there the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) did not run a bus service between Bangalore and Badami. After the Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid and the Vijayanagara capital of Hampi, the cave temples of Badami are easily the most prominent on the map of Karnataka tourism and yet the state tourism development board remains nonplussed. We finally found private carriers to transport us.

Badami is about 470 kms north of Bangalore, about the same distance it is south of Pune in Maharashtra; it is slightly closer – 420 kms – to Hyderabad in one of those Gult states, I can’t remember which. If there are no direct buses to Badami from your city, consider connecting via Bagalkot, Hubli, Hospet, Dharwad, Bijapur, or Belgaum. For tourists living further away, train might be more suitable – Badami itself has a train station but the nearest major hub is Hubli, though Bijapur, Solapur, and Gadag may better suit your itinerary. For tourists living even further away, the nearest airports to Badami are Belgaum and Hubli.

Our hotelOur hotel in Badami was just outside the town and the bus driver allowed us to get off right in front of it instead of dragging us to the nearest scheduled stop. It was a very comfortable place and the manager was very helpful. Luckily for us, the hotel was a bare two kilometres away from the site of the Badami caves and we did not need to rent a car that day. The bus journey from Bangalore was about nine hours and so to save the productive daylight hours, we had taken the night bus. After checking in, a shower, and breakfast at our hotel, we chose to walk to the Badami caves.

Temple on the way to the fort in Badami 1Rather than simply enter through the main entrance and see the Bhoothnatha temple complex and the caves alone, we found a backdoor which let us access the fortress walls and the few temples interspersed around the keeps. Some of these spots are inaccessible by path and one would have to brave rocks, gravel, thorns, and short yet steep inclines to reach them. Our efforts not only yielded man-made structures but also a beautiful view of Agastya lake by the banks of which the rest of the historical site was situated. If one is inclined to use the proper channels to explore the fort, access to stone walkways can be gained by the small museum the Archaeological Survey of India has built.

Temple on the way to the fort in Badami 2The Badami museum probably does not have anything spectacular and houses only broken remains from the nearby temples. We could not visit it as the museum is closed on Fridays. Our next stop was the Bhoothanatha temple complex but on the way, we stopped by the famous Kappe Arabhatta inscription close by. It is dated to about 700 CE, and what makes it interesting is that it is in Kannada. By no means is it the oldest Kannada inscription but I am told it is a poem written in metre.

Bhoothanatha temple

The Bhoothanatha temple complex consists of two parts, usually referred to as the Upper and Lower compexes. The Upper part has several elements of Kalyani Chalukya architecture and was built in the 11th century while the more famous Lower complex is located most picturesquely on the banks of Lake Agastya and was built by the Badami Chalukyas in the 7th century. There is a path leading behind this temple where you’ll find a very small structure in which Vishnu is carved in the Ananthashayana form with Lakshmi in attendance.

Agastya Lake

Finally, we headed to the caves which are located on the other side of the lake maybe a kilometre away. They are four in number, and honestly, after Ellora, they appeared rather bland. However, such impossible yardsticks would require us to disregard the overwhelming majority of artistic endeavours worldwide and is neither fair nor fruitful. The caves were quite marvelous nonetheless. The first cave as you enter has a beautiful Mahishasuramardini on the right. The third cave is the biggest and is dedicated to Vishnu. Thanks to an inscription in it, we are quite certain it was created in 578 CE by King Mangalesha, uncle of Pulakeshi II. The final cave is a Jain cave, complete with its statue of Mahavira and one of Parshvananth.

The route from the temple complexes to the caves is absolutely filthy along the lake. It passes by houses with garbage liberally strewn around them, dirty water whose origins we would rather not contemplate upon, and pigsties. There may be a route from the main street, and it may be the advisable one.

The caves at Badami could be a little strenuous for some – there are quite a few steps which may be tiring. However, nothing stops one from taking a break in the middle and ascending in intervals. Beware not to carry anything you want to keep – there are quite a few monkeys at the site and they will most likely snatch any food or drink in your hand; one woman lost her handbag in front of us.

In the Badami fort walkwaysBefore returning to the hotel, we thought it might be time for some food again, seeing as we were totally lost in the beauty of the Badami monuments and had not eaten anything for about seven hours save a glass of sugarcane juice. Yet before food, we visited the famous Banashankari temple near Badami. The shrine is supposed to date back to the 6th century but the idol was replaced in the 17th century by a wealthy merchant. This sparked off a short conversation about “lived culture” and its potential drawbacks – because Hinduism is the oldest continuous culture, every generation that comes feels ownership of the temples built by their forefathers. Unfortunately, from a historical perspective, later generations may seek to renovate or improve upon older work. In the example of Banashankari temple, we are still left with a 400-year-old statue but the historian in me cringes at having missed a 1,500-year-old statue. The merchant was only trying to show his devotion and perhaps his gratitude for his success but that devotion and gratitude inadvertently came in the way of historical value.

One last point about Badami – as most people know, the town was called Vatapi in earlier times and was the capital of the Chalukya kingdom. Muthuswami Dikshitar was inspired by the Ganapati statue in Tiruchenkaatankudi (near Thanjavur) to compose his famous Carnatic music piece, Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje. From the name of the statue, one can surmise that it originally resided in the Chalukya capital of Vatapi. However, Badami fell to the Pallava king Narasimha Varma in one of the many wars between the Chalukyas and the Pallavas. After the victory, a Pallava general named Paranjyoti carried away the Ganapati statue and had it installed in his hometown where it resides to this day.

Mallikarjuna temple at MahakutaOn the second day of our trip, we visited Mahakuta, Pattadakal, and Aihole. Each are about 15 kms from each other and our first destination, Mahakuta, about the same from Badami. Instead of hiring a car, we opted for one of those three wheeler auto rickshaws. Unlike their urban cousins, the rickshaws in Badami were built to carry more than three passengers.

Banyan tree at MahakutaThe Mahakuta temple complex is a set of small Shiva temples built in the 6th century. There are two main temples – Mahakuteshwara and Mallikarjuna – in the complex, the remainder of the nearly two dozen or so structures being smaller shrines. While the temples maintain the traditional lingam depiction of Shiva, there are several other depictions in the various shrines. Some are quite rare, like the urdhwaraheteshwara. One lingam is in the pushkarini on site, which serves as a shallow pool as well as a site of worship. What makes this lingam interesting is that it has four faces carved on it. Like at Badami, the Mahakuta temple complex has a couple of important inscriptions that have shed light on the history of the Chalukyas.

Krishna IyerThe complex also had a few ancient sculptures arrayed in a corner. These were probably once a part of the temples and shrines but either broke off or the shrines are standing no more. Nonetheless, any sculpture not damaged had the obligatory Shaivite tripundra smeared on it…including a Krishna statue! Particularly powerful at Mahakuta were the massive banyan trees that lent an air of overwhelming bliss to the place.

From Mahakuta, we proceeded to Pattadakal. The roads were atrocious, almost as bad as in Ladakh. It did not help that we were travelling in a rickshaw but I doubt a car would have made much of a difference. The roads in Badami are quite bad too but failed to make an impression since we had walked to the caves from our hotel. Yet below all the dust and gravel, they were just as bad. Away from national highways, roads in northern Karnataka are as pockmarked as a war zone.

Another thing I noticed was the rampant open defecation in the area. In the south, I had heard horror stories about the lack of development in the north but I never saw it when I occasionally drove from Mangalore to Bombay. Now, staying in the region for three days, the lack of roads, electricity, and sanitation was very apparent. Even the district capital was not free of people relieving themselves in the nearby fields.

Pattadakal 1It is easy to see why the Badami-Pattadakal-Aihole region is called the laboratory of Indian temple architecture. Pattadakal is a splendid complex of about a dozen 8th century temples built by the Badami Chalukyas and a couple added by the Rashtrakutas – the Kashivishwanatha and the Jain temple – a little later. The range of architectural experiments encompasses all three styles of Hindu temple building, the Dravidian, the Nagara, and the Vesara which is a little more than a hybrid of the former two.

Pattadakal 3 Relief at Aihole Pattadakal 4

At Pattadakal, I was quite annoyed by a couple of sets of tourists who clearly had no clue about the historical value of the place. Nor did they display an ability to appreciate the artistic or engineering elements of the site. They were clearly on vacation and the nice lawns seemed like yet another picnic spot for them. However, what annoyed me immensely was that they allowed the children in their groups – some three or four of them – to openly urinate on the lawns. This utter lack of civic responsibility is what hampers much of India’s development efforts, be they the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or simply providing clean train compartments.

Pattadakal 2While I enjoyed Pattadakal immensely, it is not difficult for the ignorant tourist to suffer from an overdose of temples at Pattadakal. Not knowing the significance of the site or unable to distinguish the architectural innovations, engineering skill, and construction material, it is possible that all temples look the same. I overheard one tourist who had bumped into someone from his hotel say that he was done with the place in about 20 minutes! I overheard another tourist debating whether or not to see the entire complex since “it was just one temple after another” – blasphemous words to those interested in identifying every mural and sculpture in each temple!

Aihole Durga TempleFrom Pattadakal we went to Aihole. The temples of Aihole, though impressive, are not considered as magnificent as those at Pattadakal but the several inscriptions found at the site make the site a very important one for Indian history. Furthermore, it was established as the first capital of the Chalukyas in 450, before Pulakeshi I moved his court to Vatapi. The oldest temple at Aihole consequently dates back to the 5th century. Though Aihole has dozens of temples strewn all over the area, the Durga temple is the iconic image of the village.

Abandoned Chalukya templeAs far as I can tell, the main difference between a monument and a forgotten pile of stones in the general Dharwad area is in the attention given to it. There were several temples we could see from the road as we drove by that had simply been abandoned – apparently, India simply has too much heritage to care for it all!

MegutiIt was almost sunset by the time we were done with Aihole. We were a bit rushed at the end because we wanted to catch the sunset from Meguti because the photographers in our group informed me that it was supposed to be stunning from there. Well, the sun sets everyday…whatever! My interest in Meguti, Mahabharata buff that I am, was that it held the famous Aihole inscription on the Jain temple at the spot. The inscription dates the building of the temple (verse 33) in relation to the Great War mentioned in the Mahabharata. As scholars are wont to do, there is some debate over whether the inscription places the war around 3101 BCE or 5376 BCE.

Meguti sits atop a hillock but there are steps to the top. They are not at all difficult but they could be a bit of a run if you are racing against the sun at twilight. Beyond the inscription itself, the spot was quite pleasing with the temple sitting symmetrically in the middle of the tiny fort.

SudiOn the last day of our trip, we wandered off into the unknown. Or rather, I followed my friends who knew a lot more about the region than I did into villages I had never heard of until then. The rich find of temples, wells, and other remnants of the Chalukyas convinced me further about my theory of discards and monuments.

Vandalism at SudiOur first stop was Sudi, where a temple just stood abandoned. According to some young lads playing cricket outside, the ASI had recently sent some stone to the villagers and asked them to renovate it until they could come and grow a lawn around the temple. I was horrified to think that a bunch of untrained villagers had been tasked with restoring a historical site until I saw the vandalism inside the temple. Like many historical and/or abandoned temples around India, this one had lost all its idols too and there were two men sleeping inside – drunks, homeless, or lazy, I could not tell. What was even worse was the graffiti someone had drawn on a slab with inscriptions on it. This, sadly, is not an isolated case – I have seen such cretinism at almost all historical sites around India: Ellora, Hampi, Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Hawa Mahal, and more.

Itagi Mahadeva templeAfter Sudi, we went to Itagi and then to Lakkundi before ending our trip at Dambala. All these places had temples in the Kalyani Chalukya style of architecture unlike most of the ones we saw during the first two days. Despite not making it onto the tourist map, the Mahadeva temple at Itagi was quite exquisite. Lakkundi was a surprise for me because it had over 20 temples scattered around it and some of those temples were quite elaborate. The Brahma Jainalaya was most fascinating, holding the idols of both Mahavira and Brahma. Even more interestingly, the four faces of Brahma depicted a man at different times of his life and mirrored the four ashramas of the Hindus – brahmacharya, grihasta, vanaprastha, and sanyasa.

Brahma Jainalaya, LakkundiOur last day was the only day we had time to stop for lunch at an appropriate hour, and we tried a local Lingayat khanavali. Long story short, there is no food available in even one of the towns and villages we passed through. Not if, that is, words like hygiene and taste mean anything to you. I have noticed that Indians have an uncanny ability to eat anywhere and my companions certainly did not suffer from what I perceived to be a lack of cuisine. However, for the fainthearted, if proper food at regular intervals is a priority for you, I suggest getting it packed at your hotel in the morning or picking up fruits, crisps, biscuits, and sodas in any of the shops and stalls around.

Kashivishweshwara Temple at Lakkundi, with Surya shrine on rightThere were several other temples at Lakkundi such as the Kashivishveshwara, the Nanneshwara, and even a Surya temple, very rare for the South. One thing that really stood out was at the Lakkundi museum near the Brahma Jainalaya temple – an undamaged sculpture of Vishnu and Lakshmi, about a foot in height. Given Indian history and the public disregard for their heritage, one does not come across undamaged sculptures on a day-to-day basis. This one was exquisite but unfortunately, the museum does not allow photography inside.

Doddabasappa Temple at twilightWe reached Dambala late in the evening. However, the Doddabasappa Temple was striking in the twilight. This 12th century Kalyani Chalukya temple in some ways gives an indication of the era of temple building to come under the Hoysalas. It is based on a 24-point stellate plan and constructed out of the softer soapstone the Hoysalas would use a couple of centuries later. However, the Doddabasappa Temple lacks the intricacy of either the future Hoysala temples or even the other Kalyani Chalukya temples contemporaneous to it.

Doddabasappa Temple, DamabalaOur three-day trip to northern Karnataka was truly an enjoyable one. I suppose it is difficult to go wrong in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, especially if one is interested in Indian history, as both states are saturated with jaw-dropping splendour. We were also aided by the beautiful weather; the best time to tour India is from October to February. The Indian summer runs from March to June and the monsoons have their way with the subcontinent from July to September. As much as I love the monsoons, the roads do not and logistics is always a bit harder in those months.

ASI works its magicSomething I noticed throughout the trip was that the ASI seems to have taken on the role of national landscapers. Everywhere we went, the temples that the ASI had adopted were surrounded by well-manicured lawns that brought Lodi Gardens in Delhi to mind. Unfortunately, that seemed to be most of what they did. The restoration work of the temples left much to be desired, not to mention thoughtless markings on the stone and addition of modern structures. There were few signs explaining what each monument was – what precious little explanation we could get was usually one one sign at the entrance that tried to explain everything about the complex. The lighting inside the temples was poor and one would have to be a photographer of at least some talent to capture any shots; furthermore, some temples smelled of bat faeces thanks to decades of neglect.

Mahishasuramardini at PattadakalOur entire trip can be compressed into a day if you are the type to visit places only for the sake of your Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter accounts. However, for those who want to absorb the Chalukyan air, plan for about four hours at Badami (without the fort visit), three to four hours for Pattadakal, and two to three for Aihole. This is assuming you stick only to the main complexes and do not wander into all the smaller temple complexes all over the area. The four villages on our last day are difficult to do as they require a bit of travelling between them. However, if you want to explore each of them properly, they should probably take two days on their own.

All in all, despite the bad roads, filth, virtually non-existent sanitation, and difficulty of procuring food, do not miss out on the splendour of the Chalukyas. It will be a trip well worth the nuisance!

This post first appeared on Swarajya on November 09, 2014.