The erstwhile glorious city of Badami was fought over by the Chalukyas, Pallavas and Rashtrakutas for power and territory. In the18th century, even Tipu Sultan made his presence felt here. It’s now an obscure agrarian village where an Internet café snuggles next to a pigsty. It is so tiny that even the railway station (5 km away) falls out of town! But, for those who appreciate the irony of time’s infinite sense of humour, Badami reveals its wit and wisdom in its many caves, temples, forts and water tanks.

The Chalukya kings were patrons of art, literature and architecture, which probably explains why there are close to a hundred temples (all dating between the 6th and 12th centuries CE) in nearby Aihole alone! They also had an eye for style and innovation. Curiously, some sections of the temples are incomplete, as if someone or something had suddenly intervened.

This is also the place where the height and style of the temple shikhara was defined. It’s a place where the expression ‘God is in the details’ fits perfectly. But, in a region that abounds in centuries-old temples, worship continues in only a handful of them. The rest, carefully restored, stand in solitary splendour.

According to the Puranas, Badami was originally called Vatapi, after a powerful demon who held sway over the region. It is said that Vatapi would offer his flesh to unsuspecting victims, before killing them for his meal. His carnivorous ways ended when sage Agasthya ate the demon’s offering by uttering, “Vatapi, be digested,” and consumed the monstrous fellow.

Badami is also a testament to the ongoing work of the ASI. The ancient sites have been restored to a semblance of their former beauty and glory. While in Pattadakal, 29 km to the north-west, the entire complex of temples has been restored, in Aihole the process is still underway.

Things to See & Do
The entire town of Badami converges on a single road — the State Highway. Nearby is the taxi stand. It’s a warren of tiny village lanes, houses and shops. The cave temples are situated in well-maintained grounds at the southern end of the town.

The Caves

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Magnificently sculpted Nataraja at Cave 1 in Badami
Magnificently sculpted Nataraja at Cave 1 in Badami

Grab a ticket that will allow you to climb the first of the rock-cut cave shrines. The 6th-century Cave 1 is dedicated to Shiva and has — like the other three caves — a verandah, a pillared hall and a sanctum. To the right of the first cave is a magnificently sculpted Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva. The life-sized sculpture depicts 81 Bharatanatyam poses! It sets the tone for the entire Badami experience.

The opposite wall is adorned with the Ardhanarishwara. Shiva sports dreadlocks and the Third Eye, while Parvati wears exquisite jewellery. The Harihara (half-Vishnu, half-Shiva), etched into the walls of the four-pillared verandah, is equally detailed. The ceiling, plinths and pillars are carved with mythological figures. The detailing of the Mahishasuramardhini relief, although eroded, is very fine. The Nandi though, is badly defaced. Entry fee Indians  5, foreigners 100 Timings 6 am-6 pm, open all days Cameras Still free, video  25.

A few rock-hewn stairs lead up to Cave 2, which is much smaller and is dedicated to Vishnu. His dwarapalas, Jay and Vijay, welcome you into the verandah. Inside is a Dashavatara panel, showing the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. According to local guides, the fat dwarfs cavorting on the plinths (with distinctly curly hair) reveal a Greek influence.

Between Cave 1 and Cave 2, there is a natural rock with a sculpture of Padmapani, an incarnation of Buddha. As one approaches the staircase to Cave 3, the biggest cave, one comes across a second set of stairs (barred after people started committing suicide by jumping off it) that leads up to the South Fort.

An elaborate gateway leads to Cave 3. Dedicated to Vishnu, this shrine has the best sculptures in the entire complex and one of the few that are coloured. The impressive façade includes beautifully carved pillars and intricately moulded gandharva (divine beings) and yalli brackets. The threshold has indentations, which the guide explains, held pigments for the painting of the frescoes.

King Kirtivarma’s brother, Mangalesha, had this red-sandstone cave cut into a remarkable temple, immediately after his coronation in 598 CE. The wall on the extreme left has a Sanskrit inscription that details the plan of the temple. On the right wall of the porch stands an impressive sculpture of Varaha (Vishnu’s boar avatar) rescuing Bhudevi. The relief of Narasimha is intriguingly grandiose, with none of the gruesome details associated with it. To the left, Vishnu sits (he does not recline) on a coiled snake.

The last of the caves, Cave 4, is also the smallest. Dedicated to Adinath, the first Jain Tirthankara, it was cut somewhere between the 7th and 8th centuries CE.

From the courtyards of Caves 3 and 4, you get a view of the Agastyatirtha Tank, flanked by the Bhutanatha and Yellamma temples. On the opposite mountain are the two Shivalayas (upper and lower) and the remains of a Buddhist temple set amid the ruins of a fort built by Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. The picturesque Malegitti Shivalaya stands silhouetted on the horizon.

The Archaeological Museum
An ornate and beautifully detailed torana welcomes visitors to a museum that houses some of the region’s finest sculptures. Look out for the rare and perfectly preserved panels of Krishna Leela (life of Krishna) and Tripurantaka Shiva. Take your time to admire the sculpted panels depicting scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagvad Gita.

The prehistoric Sidlaphadi Cave is so realistically recreated that it gives you the incentive to hike to the real thing. But the masterpiece on display is the Lajja Gauri, a fertility symbol. Seated in the birth giving position with a lotus for her face, she was the representative of a cult that existed in several parts of India. Entry fee 5 Timings 10 am-5 pm, Fridays closed Cameras Not allowed. It’s best to spend the morning at the caves and visit the museum in the late afternoon.

Bhuthanatha Temples
Early evening is the best time to visit the Bhuthanatha Temples flanking the water tank known as Agastyatirtha. Birds chirp as the rays of the setting sun bounce off the water, enveloping everything in a magical golden hue. The two Bhuthanatha Temples (built between the 7th and 11th centuries CE) celebrate Shiva as the Lord of Paanch Bhutas, or five elements. The temple to the north-east protrudes into the watertank, and can be accessed only by walking past the other temple in the north. The latter has a distinctive early-Chalukya design — sloping roof with a Kadamba Nagara-style shikhara rising above it. Nearby are huge rocks that bear mythological etchings. Walk a little further to the ancient Jain cave with the idol of Parsvanatha. It is concealed behind a huge overhanging rock. Entry Free Timings 6.30 am-5.30 pm.

Jambulinga & Virupaksha Temples

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Virupakasha Temple as seen from the entrance of Mallikarjuna Temple
Virupakasha Temple as seen from the entrance of Mallikarjuna Temple

The Jambulinga and Virupaksha temples are located just off the main road. The 7th-century CE Jambulinga Temple is one of the first trikutachala garbhagriha (three-celled sanctum) temples in Karnataka. The relief of Shiva and Parvati riding the Nandi is exquisitely executed on the ceiling. It’s one of the few temples frequented by devotees and is worth a visit even though the carved details on the walls, eaves and pillars are obscured by whitewash.

The Virupaksha Temple stands in front of Jambulinga but one has to go around the houses to reach its entrance. This is a simple, small temple built in the 8th century CE. It too is whitewashed. Entry Free Timings 6.30 am-5.30 pm.

Malegitti Shivalaya
Perched atop a jagged sandstone hill, and built in the rounded Dravidian style, the temple, dedicated to Shiva of Flower Sellers, is believed to have been built in the late 7th century CE. A flight of freshly laid steps, with the fort on your right, leads to the temple.

Once on top, you enter a hall with slim pillars. The plinth here is decorated with ganas (dwarfs) and animal motifs. Particularly interesting is the row of geese walking under the eave, jalandhras pierced in geometric and floral patterns, and the makara torana (crocodile-shaped arch) atop the west window. The façade is decorated with large statues of Shiva and Vishnu. Spare a moment for Shiva’s moustached devotee, to the left of the Lord. Entry Free Timings 6.30 am-5.30 pm.

Yellamma Temple
Originally a Vishnu temple, it is now dedicated to Yellamma, an incarnation of Parvati. The Dravidian-style 11th century shrine has steep steps on all four sides. Entry Free Timings 6.30 am-5.30 pm.

Upper & Lower Shivalayas
The two Shivalayas are inside the fort, which is reached via a sandstone chasm cut into the hills behind the Archaeological Museum. While the Chalukya kings were more than happy with the natural sandstone fortification, Tipu Sultan and his minions decided to leave nothing to chance. They built walls to cover the gorges between the hills, many of which were dismantled in 1845. The steady climb up to the fort is eerie with narrow passages sandwiched by stone boulders. Watch out for the small etchings and sculpted panels on the face of the hill.

The first halt is the 7th century CE Buddhist single-storey ruin. It offers a breathtaking view of the town and you can easily spot the Malegitti Shivalaya.

A little further up is the Lower Shivalaya, dedicated to Ganesha. To the north of the temple is a 16th century cannon, pointing to the town. From here, move towards the circular watchtower with high walls and fantastic acoustics. It was probably built in the 14th century by Vijayanagara rulers.

Below the stairs, leading to the tower, is a storeroom for ammunition. It has a trapdoor to hand arms to soldiers in the watchtower. One can actually visualise the frenzy of soldiers under attack. From here to the ruined palace is a few steps through a row of granaries that actually look like small pyramids. This part of the fort is currently under restoration, hence it is out of bounds.

The Upper Shivalaya is situated on the tip of a natural gorge. Built by Pulakeshin II, a devout follower of Vishnu, it is capped by a Dravidian pyramidal tower. Elephants and lion heads adorn the corner pieces of the temple steps and the outer walls are covered with carvings telling mythological stories. From this hill, you can see the fort wall and the path used by pilgrims to reach Mahakuta. Although the main temple complexes are enclosed in a park, a large number of smaller temples falling within the area are unfortunately being used as latrines. Entry Free Timings 6.30 am-5.30 pm.

Sidlaphadi
About 4 km off the main road and the Badami Court Hotel, the pre-historic cave of Sidlaphadi is a must-see. The cave is spectacular in the morning, with sunlight streaking in through the rock formations. Although no signs of cave paintings remain, graffiti professing undying love marks its walls. Local lore claims the cave to be an outcome of a fierce bolt of lightning.

Left from the Badami Court, it’s quite a hike up the hill. Start early morning and wear a pair of sturdy shoes. Carry a bottle of water, a good peaked cap and a stick. Set aside about 3 hours for the entire trip. Tourist authorities and the people at the hotel recommend that you do not venture here alone, especially women.

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At the 7th-century Lad Khan Temple in Aihole
At the 7th-century Lad Khan Temple in Aihole

Shopping
Badami is a small town with little scope for shopping, unless you love sprouts. The primarily vegetarian community here seems to thrive on sprouts and fruits of all kinds, plus a selection of dry fruits. The only indigenous weave comes from nearby Ilkal, famed for its Nawari saris (locally referred to as Ilkalsari), which range from  1,500-6,000. The thick double weave saris come in contrasting bright colours.

Where to Stay
The choice of hotels in Badami is limited. The Badami Court (Tel: 08357-220230-32; Tariff: 4,800-5,800) is a swanky option with AC rooms and TV, clean bathrooms and hot water besides breakfast on the house. Then there are Mookambika Deluxe (Tel: 220067, 220997; Tariff: 750-1,680) and Rajsangam International(Tel: 221991-92; Tariff: 800-3,800). For a cheaper stay, the KSTDC guest house, Hotel Mayura Chalukya (Tel: 220046; Tariff:  600-1,000), is fairly decent and has expansive gardens.

Where to Eat
Badami Court’s multicuisine Pulikeshi Restaurant is open 24 hrs. Mookambika has two restaurants: Vatapi, which serves Indian, Chinese and Continental, and Kanchana Garden. The dhaba food is pretty good — fried avalakki (soaked and dried rice with fried groundnuts) works well with hot tea. Attached to the Hotel Anand Deluxe is the Sanman Bar.There are no hotels in Pattadakal and Aihole, you have to stay in Badami.