The Rock-Cut Badami Caves of Karnataka

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Karnataka | 50

Once the students at Aihole had fine-tuned their art, they graduated from a primary school to a high school. Where Aihole was the primary school of ancient temple architecture, Badami became a high school. Set between the 6th century and 8th century, they carved and chiseled their way through the rocks of Badami to create masterpieces that you can still admire. It is time we shift our base from Aihole to Badami to see these creations. Welcome to the rock-cut Badami Caves in Karnataka.

Badami Caves in Karnataka

In my previous post on the school of Architecture, I mentioned three key places which seem to be where they practiced the temple art of India. Aihole-Badami – Pattadakal is a circuit in Karnataka that brings out the evolution of Indian Temple Art. The Badami Caves were a notch above Aihole in terms of the detailing within. Most of the Aihole temples (except the Durga temple) were a little sparse in terms of the pillar and wall designs while the ones in Badami Caves were a little more ornamental.

Read about the primary school of architecture – ancient architecture at Aihole. Discover how the artisans created different styles of Hindu temples which finally became prototypes for the famous Indian temples.

4 caves – each with a different theme, the Badami cave temples were all stories carved in stone. As gorgeous as they were, they got a bit overwhelming. With this post, I hope to break it all down for you so that when you add them to your list of Places to visit in Badami, you can well decipher them for yourself. In other words, this post is your Badami Caves Guide!

History of Badami Caves

Agastya Lake near Badami Temple Caves

Once the students of Aihole had learned their basic skills, they were passed and promoted to the capital of the Chalukya kingdom. Vatapi – or the present day Badami (so called owing to its badam or almond colored sand) became their next level of education. The students worked their magic in the caves by a man-made lake – Agastya lake. The Badami caves can be dated back to the 6th century. There are inscriptions dating back to then and the 7th century crediting the artists who worked here. There is one that is dedicated to the then King Mangalesha of Chalukya dynasty – who supported the artists of these rock-cut temple caves.

While there is no evidence of this being a higher school than Aihole, given the intricacy of the work here, I tend to agree with the guide who told me so. In fact, the Aihole-Badami-Pattadakkal corridor is a candidate for the UNESCO site on the evolution of Temple Architecture. This further makes me believe my reading of these schools is not wrong. Whatever the case being, there is no denying the magnificence of the work found here.

Bhuthanatha group of temples in Badami

There are four Badami Caves that have so far been found and studied. Recently a fifth one came to the forefront but that one is on the opposite bank of Lake Agastya. More on that when I share my post on Bhuthanatha Temples. These caves have been numbered in the order of their age and each of them has a definite theme. The Cave One is dedicated to Lord Shiva and his stories while Cave Two is all about Lord Vishnu. Cave three is about the various incarnations of Vishnu. The fourth one is related to Jainism. So, let’s go forth on this journey to discovering these cave temples of Badami.

Arriving at the Badami Caves

Adil Shahi Mosque at the base of Badami Caves

I chose a crazy day to visit the Badami Cave temples. The historical site had an influx of kids who were here for a school trip. Hoping to give them a miss, we chose to first explore the other side of Agastya Lake which had the remnants of Badami fort, the gorgeous Bhuthanatha group of temples and a few secret caves. More on that coming up in another post. Though we took our own time to see these sites, we could not really avoid the crazy crowd. With no go, we set forth on our exploration. While hubby got the tickets to the Badami Caves, I explored the old Adil Shahi mosque by its base.

The older part of the mosque next to the more recent part

The mosque is still in use and hence, I could not get in. However, what was surprising is that quite a few people around did not realize the significance of the mosque. They did not know that this was dated to the 14th or the 15th century when the Muslim invaders set up their rule in Bijapur. They plundered the surrounding areas including Badami and Hampi. This mosque was built to take care of their prayer needs when they were stationed here. There seemed to be recent day additions made to the mosque but beyond this, there was little I could gauge by peeping in from the gates.

Cave 1 of Badami Cave Temples

With our tickets in hand, we sliced in and out of the long line of school kids to reach the first Cave of the Badami temples. The first reaction that my dottie had was – “Hey, this is not like Arwah Caves of Meghalaya“. In her support, well, those were her standard of natural caves. 😉 I had to explain to her that these were not natural but heritage man-made caves made by chiseling into the soft Badami Sandstone. They followed a typical layout of a Hindu temple – with a verandah in the front, a set of stone steps leading to the main chamber called Maha Mandapa and finally deep within the main sanctum santorum or the Garbha Griha.

Cave One of Badami Temple Caves

From the entrance itself, I was overwhelmed. I did not know where to start from and am pretty sure that will be the case with you. However, here is what I can do to make it easier for you. Let me share the key things that you need to watch out for in these caves as a list before I go on to explain them. For Cave 1, these would be –

  1. The Nataraja avatar of Shiva
  2. Harihara avatar of Shiva
  3. Ardhanarishvara sculpture
  4. Mahishasura Mardini statue of Durga
  5. Nagaraja carving on the ceiling
  6. Kartikeya on his peacock
Nataraja in his Tandav pose at Cave 1 in Badami

If you are facing the cave, then look to your left and you will see the above carving of Lord Shiva in his Nataraja pose. He is seen doing his Tandava Nritya (Tandava dance). The artist has sculpted 18 arms in this depiction – each showcasing a particular mudra or a dance gesture that is still used in the classical Indian dances. Some of these arms hold certain objects like Shiva’s favorite musical instrument – Damru and his weapon – the Trishul (Trident).

Ganas holding up Badami Caves
Harihara in Badami Caves

Climb up the stairs of a platform held up by the Ganas (Dwarves) and turn left. Facing you will be the Harihara carving. This is a depiction that shows a fusion of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Flanking him on either side are the two consorts of the Lords. On one side you can see Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) and Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge). In case you are curious to know which side is which Lord – then the left would be Lord Shiva 😉

Ardhanarishvara in Badami Cave Temples

Exactly, opposite to the Harihara statue is the Ardhanarishwara (Half a woman Lord) one – with the fusion of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati. A maid holding a tray can be seen on the side of Goddess Parvati while on Shiva’s side is his faithful Nandi. Notice one of the figures with skeleton legs. That is Bhringi – the one who got cursed by Parvati. He was cursed to lose his muscles and thus, could never stand properly.  I have shared this story in my tour of the Lepakshi temple.

Ceiling of Cave One in Badami
Nagaraja carving on the Badami Caves Ceiling

While you are busy studying these carvings, just look up in the corridor to see some gorgeous ceiling carvings. The coiled body of the Snake King – Nagaraja is the one that will stand out prominently. Alongside the same are some celestial couples shown flying.

Mahishasurmardini relief in Cave one of Badami Caves

Before you head towards the Mahamantapa, spare a look for the carving next to the Nataraja one. This is the fifth highlight of this Cave temple. The carving of Goddess Durga in her fierce form slaying the demon Mahishasura. The form is called Mahishasuramardini. It possibly, finds a place in the Shiva temple for Goddess Durga was a form of Parvati – the consort of the Lord.

Gana carved on a bracket of Badami Cave

Within the inner chambers, you will see a Shiva Linga with a Nandi facing it. While you traverse in and out of the floral patterned pillars, spare a look at the brackets. You will find a depiction of a dwarf holding it up.

Spot the Kartikeya riding his peacock in Cave One of Badami Caves

There are several other carvings of Lord Ganesha and other celestial creatures on the walls. However, try to spot one of Kartikeya riding on his Peacock. This is quite an important one for it was the family deity of the then ruling dynasty – the Chalukyas.

Cave 2 of Badami Caves

Admiring the beautiful view of the Agastya Lake, we walked up the steep stairs to the next Cave. Cave Two of Badami was all about Lord Vishnu and here is what you need to try and find –

  1. Trivikrama avatar of Vishnu
  2. The Swastika on the ceiling
  3. Varaha Avatar of Vishnu
Trivikrama in Cave 2

Trivikrama Avatar of Vishnu is the elaborate sculpture that you will find to your left when you enter Cave Two. The piece is a story in itself. Lord Vishnu is depicted here as Trivikrama – a giant who takes one step on earth to claim it. At the same time, you will see a dwarf next to the picture, who is none other than the Lord himself – disguised as Vamana. As the legend goes, to free the world of Demon Mahabali, the Lord took the form of Vamana. He sought three paces of land from the king so that he could own it. In his arrogance, the King granted it. Vamana turned into the giant Trivikrama and took the first step on the entire earth, the 2nd on heaven and the third on the head of Lord Mahabali, pushing him to hell. If you look at the carvings carefully, you can see the whole story here.

Swastika design on the ceiling of Badami Caves

As you cross over the corridor to the other side of this sculpture, spare a glimpse at the ornate pillars with delicate floral motifs. Follow them right up to the ceiling where you will see the 2nd of my highlights. The Swastika has erotic couples carved around its corners. You will also, see several other deities like Lord Brahma carved onto the ceiling.

Varaha in Cave 2 of Badami rock cut temples

A little within the Mahamandapa or the hall is yet another ceiling with 16 fish as spokes of a wheel. Sadly, owing to the crowd pushing me around, I could not capture it well. You should try and spot it for it is close to the wall with my third highlight. The Varaha Avatar of Vishnu with its boar face is yet another seven feet something on the right-hand side of the Cave. This is yet another fascinating story where Varaha rescues the earth – depicted here as a woman Goddess – Bhudevi. I have a feeling that the artist who made this fine-tuned it later at the Halebid temple. Take a look here

Badami Cave 3 with its mythological tales

The largest of all Badami Caves - Cave 3

60 steps above Cave 2 is the biggest cave of this series. Quite unlike the earlier two caves which were made in a typical Dravidian style, this one has a bit of the south Karnataka (Dravidian) and north Karnataka (Nagara) style. Cave 3 with its long verandah, has multiple stories such as these for you to see

  1. Narasimha & Harihara
  2. Trivikrama
  3. Varaha
  4. Vishnu on Sheshnag
  5. Ceiling with frescos
  6. Pillar statues
Narasimha straight ahead with Harihara on the left.

Let’s begin by going right after you climb to Cave three. Here actually you will see three different images. A gigantic one of Vishnu in his lion-avatar – Narasimha is a new one that you will encounter. The story of Narasimha has Vishnu taking an avatar of a half man and half beast to slay a demon. The demon had a boon that he could be killed neither during the day nor night, neither inside the house nor outside and neither by a beast of a man. Vishnu in this avatar slew the demon at his doorstep (neither in nor out) at dusk (neither morning nor night). 🙂

Next to this is a carving of Harihara – quite like the first cave and at the far end is the Trivikrama – similar to Cave two.

Lord Vishnu sitting on his seat - Sheshnag

On the left-hand side of the cave are two other interesting sculptures. The first one being that of Lord Vishnu seated on his favorite place – The Sheshnag. The other one is that of Varaha rescuing earth.

The ceiling of Cave 3
Ceiling with Lord Indra's relief on it

What is fascinating is the ceiling of Cave 3. Look carefully and you will see faded frescoes along of gorgeous carvings of various celestial beings. One interesting one depicts the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvati. You can also, spot Lord Indra on his elephant along with Lord Brahma on his Swan vehicle.

Bracket with the carving of an amorous couple

The pillars of Cave 3 of Badami have brackets that are filled with statues from the Kamasutra. Amorous couples including one of Kama and Rati occupy the space bring out the best of Indian art in these Badami Caves.

Lotus carved on the floor of Badami Cave 3

The main idol within the Sanctum Santorum is missing – possibly plundered by the invaders. However, while you are here, notice the Lotus flower on the floor. Right above that in the dark cave is a carving of Lord Brahma. A bonus highlight for you that you must not miss!

Badami Cave 4 of Jainism theme

Possibly the smallest of the Badami caves, Cave no. 4 is all about Jainism. Various idols of the Jain Tirthankaras adorn these caves. My highlights that you need to treasure hunt out –

  1. Statue of Lord Mahavira
  2. Lord Parshvanath with his Sheshnag
  3. Lord Bahubali
  4. Lord Adinath
  5. 24 Tirthankaras of Jainism
Lord Bahubali in meditation - Cave 4 of Badami

Inscriptions in the caves date these back to the late 7th century and early 8th century. Being a Jain myself, I found a connection here with the various reliefs. Once you enter the Verandah, on the left-hand side is a large statue of Lord Bahubali. He is said to have attained Nirvana after severe penance – one where he is said to have stood for an entire year. You can see the details of his story in the little details like the creepers twining the Lord.

It almost got the title of Wonder of the World. The Ranakpur Jain temple with its 1000 + pillars in marble is worth a visit, especially when you discover that no two are alike. Discover Ranakpur Jain Temple

On the other side of the Verandah is the statue of Lord Parshvanath with a hooded serpent. As the legend goes, the Lord saved two snakes and they repaid their debt by protecting him when he was meditating. Not just from the harsh weather conditions but also the enemy beasts. If you think I have missed adding the picture here, well it is much worse than that. I accidentally deleted it. 🙁

Lord Mahavira in the inner sanctum of Badami Caves

The inner sanctum has a statue of Lord Mahavira – the last Tirthankara of Jains. You will find him in a Dhyana or a meditative pose along with his disciples around it. You will find one more of that near the entrance of the Cave – albeit a smaller one.

Lord Adinath in Cave 4 of Badami

In another groove, you will find a large statue of Lord Adinath along with various Tirthankaras carved around the main image.  Take a note of the delicate work around the main statue – a perfect example of how the delicate work of the later temples in India evolved.

Tirthankaras carved along the walls of Badami Caves
Jain Carvings in Badami Caves

The most fascinating part of the 4th Badami Cave Temple is its pillars and the walls. Not only are they decorated with pretty motifs, but most of them have the 24 Tirthankaras inscribed on them – making the Jainism theme evident in this cavern. In fact, they say that this was replicated later in the Ellora Caves of Aurangabad.

Can you spot the ruins of Badami Fort ?

While I conclude my highlights of this college of architecture, I am sure your exploration is not complete. Badami caves can really enthrall you with the tiny features it has in its nooks and corners. You are likely to get so immersed in those that you just might miss the lovely landscape across the lake. Keep an eye out for the ruins of the Badami fort and the magical colors of the lake that are offset by the contrasting shades of Bhuthanatha temples.

With that, I leave you dreaming about Badami Caves. Pin this to your board and get ready to graduate to the college of ancient architecture at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pattadakkal in my next post!

How to reach Badami Caves?

  • Badami falls in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka. The closest airport to it is at Hubli at 105 km. The other airport that you can consider is Belgaum at 150 km.
  • There are regular buses from these two towns to Badami. You can even hire a private cab to get you to Badami from here.
  • Badami has its own railway station and is well connected to the key cities of Karnataka.
  • The best way to get to Badami from Bengaluru is by road or rail. The roads are in a pretty good condition and the drive quite scenic.
  • Once in Badami, click this link to get Badami Caves on your mobile map. Any auto rickshaw can also, get you here.

Where to stay in Badami?

  • There are limited hotels in Badami. If you are headed there during a vacation season, make sure you book them well in advance.
  • We stayed at Hotel Badami Court . The rooms were decent but the food there was not very satisfactory.

Best time to visit Badami Caves

  • The best time to visit Badami caves is during Winter. From October to February would be the right time as the heat here is pretty bearable.
  • Badami caves are best-visited post noontime. The sun rays entering the caves light up the various Indian art reliefs giving you the best view of them.

Travel Tips

  • The entrance tickets to the Badami caves cost INR 15 for Indians and INR 200 for foreigners. There are no still camera charges here. However, if you have a video camera, you will have to shell out INR 25. Cards are accepted at the booking counter.
  • The timings for Badami Caves are from 9 am to 6 pm every day.
  • The steps along Badami Caves are quite uneven. Given the amount of walking, it is best to wear trekking shoes or sports shoes here.
  • It does get a little dark within the caves. For a few of the nooks within the caves, you will need to use the flashlight of your mobile.
  • There are guides available by the caves. They do not have a standard rate.
  • Beside each of the caves, there is a detailed board explaining the history and details within that cave.
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