The Chalukyans may have cut rock like the Titans but they finished it like jewellers. Centuries later, the rock-cut temples of Badami are a testimony to their skills.

It's a back-breaking, dusty drive on pock-marked roads. It takes us through ancient sandstone hills with cowherds silhouetted against thorn trees and scrub. Ochre, pink and brown boulders of various shapes and sizes are perched precariously in a surrealistic landscape of burnished brown. Sprawling fields of bright yellow sunflowers contrast sharply with the sepia background.

Built into a canyon of pinkish brown sandstone reminiscent of Petra, Badami in Northern Karnataka was the magnificent capital of the Chalukyas — a mighty empire which included large parts of South and Central India. It was called Vatapi in ancient times. A favourite Carnatic invocation in the raga Hamsadwani ‘Vatapi Ganapathim Bhaje' rings through my head. This famous idol of Vatapi Ganesha is now in Thanjavur district carried off by the mighty Pallavas who defeated the Chalukyas!

Local legends

Legend goes that two demon siblings Vatapi and Ilvala used to kill ascetics by a grand plan. Ilvala used to turn Vatapi into a ram and offer its meat to a guest. As soon as the guest ate it, Ilvala used to call out to Vatapi, who would rip through the body of the person, killing him. Sage Agastya was the person who thwarted this plan by digesting Vatapi before Ilvala could call him! Two of the hills in Badami are supposed to represent Vatapi and Ilvala.

It's a picturesque living town today built around ancient ruins. Mosques, temples and white-washed, flat-roofed houses lie next to each other. Women wash their clothes the old fashioned way in the ancient Agastyathirtha tank (a brilliant shade of green) dating to the fifth century!

Badami is famous for its richly sculpted rock caves chiselled out of a mammoth monolithic rock with pink striations, reached by a long flight of steps cut into the rock. Some early inscriptions have been found in Badami which have been useful in dating these caves. There is a Sanskrit inscription which dates back to the year 543. The Chalukyas were secular kings — though they were Vaishnavites, they were tolerant of different religions. Though the first three caves have Hindu gods, the fourth cave is a Jain cave.

At the base of this massive structure is a small image of Hanuman smeared by vermilion. We are glad that we offered our prayers there because as we climb the steps to the first cave, we are trailed by lethal marauding monkeys who are known to be ferocious and good snatchers! There are hordes of curious school children ascending the steps with the agility of mountain goats. The first cave (and probably the first to be carved) is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was built by Chalukyan king Pulakesi I. We are shown the carving of a smiling Lord Nataraja with 18 hands, considered to be a masterpiece. Our guide demonstrates how by permutation and combinations 81 dance poses or mudras of Natya Shastra are possible! Lord Ganesha and Karthikeya hold musical instruments on either side. In a niche is the goddess Durga in the incarnation of Mahishasura Mardhini.

Sheer genius

We wonder how somebody could have visualised these temples and carved them out of sheer rock. We marvel at the sheer genius of these unknown carvers and artists. These caves have survived without any protection from the elements of nature for hundreds of years. An art critic once said that the Chalukyans cut rock like Titans but finished like jewellers! Our guide points out the fact that these rulers were spiritual and artistic and perhaps that's why though their residences were destroyed, their abodes of the gods still survive.

We see a carving of Lord Shiva with a Nandi on one side and a Ganesha on the drums. The second cave is dedicated to Vishnu and his avatars — Varaha the boar who rescued earth from the deluge and Vamana the dwarf who dominated the universe to rescue earth from a demon. Interestingly, the Varaha or the boar was the symbol of the Chalukyan kingdom. Since Pulakesi was the first ruler in South India to issue gold coins, in contemporary literature, these coins are referred to as ‘Varahas'.

In the platform in front of the cave is a frieze of pot-bellied dwarfs in various poses. The ceiling has Gandharva couples, swastika symbols and the Matsya Chakra — 16 fishes arranged in a wheel. Our guide shows us religious stories, gods and goddesses, and small puzzles carved into the walls to amuse people. There is a maze of three heads and four arms and he shows us how to make out three unique boys!

It's a steep climb to the third cave hemmed in by vertiginous cliffs. The third cave is by far the most elaborate and majestic. It's a 60-feet deep cave with carved pillars and Vishnu as Narasimha and Hari Hara (half Vishnu and half Shiva).We also see a unique Vishnu who is seated in a meditative slumber (unlike his usual lying pose) on the serpent in a style which is supposed to mimic the Chalukyan king Pulakesi II. There are faded vestiges of vegetable colours which were used to paint frescoes on the walls. There are many carvings on the ceilings and walls of these caves which give us a peep into the religious and social life of the people of those days. We see oval, footstep-sized depressions near the entrance of these caves — our guide suggests they might have been used as colour palettes!

The fourth cave is a Jain shrine with many images of the Tirthankaras and in the sanctum santorum, a seated image of Mahavira. We are now on the higher levels of the bluff and can see the walls of Tipu Sultan's fortress, in ruins above and the manicured lawns maintained by the ASI below. The panoramic view of the ancient Agastyathirtha tank (which was once supposed to have medicinal properties) and the Bhoothanatha temples on the opposite shore are familiar. I remember the wedding scene from Mani Ratnam's ‘Guru' which was shot here! We forget the 21st century for some time, until we are jolted back to reality by the rude horn of a local bus.

Badami is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be a world class destination but the infrastructure in terms of good roads, hotels and public toilets has to be first put in place in order to attract more tourists.

The author is a Japanese Language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.

Quick facts

Getting there: Take an overnight train from Bangalore to Hospet. Badami is around 150 km from Hospet.

When to go: Between September and February.

Things to see: Besides the Rock-cut temples, see the Bhoothanatha temples and the Archaeological Museum.

Essentials: Carry a hat, sunscreen and a bottle of water as it can be very warm. Hire the services of a guide to explain the details and history for a better understanding.

Places to stay: The state-run KSDTC Maurya Chalukya offers budget accommodation. For a more upmarket experience stay at the Hotel Badami Court.

Published in The Hindu Sunday magazine, 2010