Deep in the rocky mountains of Bagalkot district in northern Karnataka, lies an architectural wonder. The tiny town of Badami in Bagalkot district is home to the rock-cut Badami Caves, a complex of Hindu and Jain cave temples. The cave temples in Badami are remnants of the Chalukya dynasty that ruled the town between 540 AD and 757 AD. The popular cave temples surrounding Lake Agastya are an example of Badami Chalukya architecture and Indian rock-cut architecture.

Also Read: 25 of the most famous caves in India to visit

The History Of Badami

According to historical texts, Badami was known by many names. The capital of the Chalukya dynasty was also called Vatapi, Vatapipura, and Vatapinagari. The town is located at the exit point of a ravine between some steep mountains of red sandstone. According to the ‘Puranas’ (Hindu scriptures), the place derived its name from the wicked demon Vatapi. Vatapi and his brother Ilvala had tricked and killed over 9,000 people. So the legendary sage Agastya killed the demon brothers using his dharmic powers.

In 540 CE, Pulakeshi I founded the Chalukya dynasty. The king chose Vatapi (Badami), which was protected on three sides by rugged sandstone cliffs, as his capital. Between the 6th and 8th centuries, the Chalukyas ruled much of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. Pulakeshi I’s sons, Kirtivarman and Mangalesha, constructed the famous temples in the Badami Caves. 

The Temples In The Badami Caves

The temples in the Badami Caves were constructed between the 6th and 8th centuries by the Chalukya Kings, Kirtivarman, and Mangalesha. The cave temples are numbered 1 to 4 according to their creation. However, the exact date of construction is only known for the temple in Cave 3. An inscription in the temple records that King Mangalesha dedicated the temple to Vishnu in Saka 500 (lunar calendar, 578/579 CE). The inscription written in Halegannada (Old Kannada) is proof that it’s the oldest firmly-dated Hindu cave temple in India.

The four cave temples are carved into the steep cliff face, above a man-made lake called Agastya Theertha. The temples are carved into the monolithic stone face of the red sandstone cliff. The cave temples are connected by over 200 steps carved into the mountain. The interconnecting steps have intermediate terraces that overlook the town of Badami and the lake below. The temples in Caves 1 to 3 are dedicated to Hindu gods, whereas Cave 4 is dedicated to Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. 

Each of the Badami Cave temples has an entrance with a mukhamantapa (verandah) that is supported by stone columns and brackets. The mukhamantapa leads to a maha mantapa (main hall), which is also supported by several columns. The main hall leads to the garbha griha (a shrine with an idol of the presiding deity). The cave temples are built in the Nagara and Dravidian styles of architecture. The caves also have superb sculptures and artwork in the Deccan, Nagara, Dravida, and Vesara styles.

Cave 1 Of The Badami Caves: Dedicated To Shiva 

Entrance of cave No.1, Badami caves, Karnataka, India
Entrance of cave No.1, Badami caves, Karnataka, India

The first of the caves in the Badami Cave Temples are built 59 feet above ground level towards the north-western part of the hill. Cave 1 is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum or shrine) has an idol of shiva linga. The walls, ceiling and columns of the cave are covered with sculptures and carvings of Shiva and his sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya. There are several other sculptures of the goddess Parvati (consort of Shiva) and her different avatars. All the sculptures of the gods and goddesses are adorned with carved ornaments. The figures are surrounded by borders with reliefs of floral garlands, animals, and birds.

Cave 2 In The Badami Caves Complex: Dedicated To Vishnu

Carving of Vishnu sitting on Adi-Shesh in one of the Badami cave temples
Carving of Vishnu sitting on Adi-Shesh

The second cave in the Badami Caves complex is towards the east of Cave 1. The second cave temple faces the north and is a mere 64 steps above Cave 1. The temple in Cave 2 is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The floor plan in Cave 2 is similar to the first cave, it has a verandah, a main hall, and a shrine. The walls, ceilings, and pillars in the cave are carved and sculpted like those in Cave 1. 

The sculptures in the cave depict the various avatars of Vishnu. The interior of the cave temple is decorated with friezes that depict stories from Hindu texts, like the ‘Bhagavata Purana’. The friezes depict the legends of the samudra manthan (churning of the cosmic ocean) and the birth of Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) among several others.

Cave 3 In The Badami Cave Temples: The Largest Of The Cave Temples

Entrance to cave 3 - badami caves
Cave 3: Entrance

60 steps away from Cave 2 is the third cave, which is at a higher altitude than the second cave. Cave 3 is the largest of the Badami Cave temples and is also the oldest-dated Hindu temple in the Deccan region. The cave, which faces towards the north, has been carved 60 feet deep into the mountain. The temple in Cave 3 is mainly dedicated to Vishnu, but there are sculptures of different avatars of Shiva as well. So the temple in Cave 3 is important to Shaivism studies too.

Like the other two caves, cave 3 is also decorated extensively with sculptures and frescoes. Some of them are faded and broken, but they are the earliest known proof of fresco painting in Indian art. Some of the artworks in this cave also show the artist’s signatures and other inscriptions. According to the epigraphical evidence in the cave, the temple was possibly inaugurated on a “full moon day, 1 November 578.” 

Cave 4: Dedicated To The Jain Tirthankaras

Jain tirthankara Parshvanatha carving
Jain Tirthankara Parshvanatha, cave No. 4, Badami, Karnataka, India

Cave 4 in the Badami Caves complex is on a slightly lower level than Cave 3. The fourth cave, which is the smallest of the Badami cave temples is located right next to the third cave. This temple is dedicated to the Jain Tirthankaras, the revered figures of Jainism. This temple is believed to have been constructed in the later part of the 7th century by Hindu kings. 

Cave 4 is also decorated with detailed sculptures and a diverse range of motifs. Some of the embellishments in the cave suggest that they were added much later, during the 11th and 12th centuries. The walls of the cave are carved with the figures of Bahubali, Parshvanatha, Mahavira, and several other Jain Tirthankaras. The small shrine inside the temple has an idol of Mahavira resting on a pedestal.

Other Caves In Badami

The Bhutanatha group of temples
The Bhutanatha group of temples

The town of Badami is home to several other cave monuments and temples other than the four cave temples near the fort. Another 7th-8th century cave temple lies on the other side of the Agastya Theertha Lake, near the Bhutanatha Temple. This cave temple from the Chalukya period is much smaller in dimension compared to the temples in the Badami Caves complex. 

The cave has a statue that is carved into the wall, that sits on a carved throne. Next to the statue are carvings of people holding chauris (fans), a pipal tree (ficus religiosa), and elephants and lions. The statue is damaged and missing its face. There are several theories as to the identity of the statue. One suggests that it’s a carving of the Buddha, while another suggests that it depicts Mayamoha or Buddha Avatara Vishnu (the 9th avatar of Vishnu). A third theory claims it’s a Jain figure, while another theory claims it’s the statue of a local king. Unfortunately, the identity and date of the sculpture in this cave still remain an enigma.

Getting To The Badami Caves

The medieval temples and caves in Badami are architectural marvels. It is amazing that civilizations as old as that employed innovative and sophisticated methods to carve into the rocks. The caves are a testament to the knowledge and superb craftsmanship of the artisans and workers who created such beauty from a monolithic rock.

The fort and medieval temples in and around Badami are heritage sites and very popular among tourists. The cave temples are open to tourists from 9 AM to 7 PM every day. The small town in Bagalkot district in North Karnataka is well connected by road and trains. The nearest airport is in Belagavi, a mere 150 kilometres from Badami.

Also Read: Visit these 10 incredible ancient temples in India


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