The historic significance and the architectural splendour of the Chalukyas' erstwhile capital Vatapi is spellbinding

‘Beware of Monkeys' cautions a rickety board. ‘Beware, about to walk into a time warp' would have been more appropriate, we feel, as we step — consciously onto the imposing hillock, and unwittingly into a forgotten past. We are at Badami, Vatapi of yore, the regal capital of the mighty Chalukyas now reduced to a sleepy little town in northern Karnataka.

The name Vatapi could evoke memories of the bloody battle between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas in any history buff. To most others, it's the land of breathtaking architectural and sculptural splendour, whose dusty lanes and bylanes turned to be the stage for nimble footed danseuse Sivakami, the memorable creation from master storyteller Kalki's “Sivakamiyin Sabatham”.

Divine grace

Mountainous cliffs of reddish hue, on either side of the serene Agastya Theertham (legend has it that sage Agastya was the bête noir of demon Vatapi) tower over the chaotic town, and houses four exquisitely carved cave temples, excavated as early as the 6th Century. Vibrant, vigorous and larger-than-life sandstone images of the likes of Ardhanareeswara, Bhoo Varaha, Trivikrama, Hari Hara, a standing and, for a change, smiling Narasimha, Paramapadha Natha, and Jaina Mahavira exude a divine grace in all their reddish glory. Finely carved bracket figures on the piers with a somewhat glamorous name Madanikas are as ubiquitous as the mischievous monkeys that hop around, offering a feast nonpareil to our aesthetic senses. Rudra Thandava Shiva in the first cave, with his 18 arms held in various mudras, accounts for as many as 81 Bharathanatya poses, avers our guide, as he strikes one of the poses himself, to the amusement of the visitors around!

While the setting of the caves in the recess of the hills reminds one of the more famous Ajantha, the cave temples remind us of the Pallava creation of Mamallapuram.

Sworn enemies they indeed were, but that didn't seem to have stopped the Pallavas and the Chalukyas from having immense cross cultural exchanges. How else can one explain the Pallavas replicating at Mamallapuram in hard granite, Vatapi's masterly cave temples of softer sandstone?

The inspiration

Or for that matter, Chalukya Vikramaditya, who overran the Pallava capital Kanchi to avenge Vatapi Pulikesi's defeat earlier at the hands of Narasimha Pallava, taking the architects who raised the Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple, all the way to his kingdom to erect the beautiful Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal, which was the inspiration for the internationally renowned monolith, the Kailash Temple at Ellora.

While the Bhuthanatha group of temples on the banks of the placid Agastya Theertham remains one of the many richly carved structures of the town, one finds the dilapidated fort perched precariously atop the cliff, on the other side of the tank, right opposite to the caves.

Pattadakal and Aihole are the other two pieces that complete the famous Chalukya trilogy of sorts, along with Badami. Pattadakal, a World Heritage Site, about 22 km from Badami, used to be the place of coronation of the Chalukya rulers.

The sprawling complex, set on the banks of the soft flowing Malaprabha river and dotted with structural masterpieces, in the form of temples named after Virupaksha, Sangameshwara, Mallikarjuna, Kashiviswanatha etc, all dedicated to Lord Shiva and endowed with beautiful sculptures and remarkable Dravidian and Nagara (North Indian) style Vimanas, was shimmering majestically in the evening sun, looking simply divine.

‘The cradle of ancient Hindu Temple Architecture' is how scholars have referred to Aihole. And they seem to be right. While there are monuments amidst residential and commercial areas in the other two places, it seemed just the other way out here at Aihole!

Aihole, the first capital of the early Chalukyas, was where Chalukya artisans cut their teeth working on the earliest rock cut shrines, graduating over the years to a full-fledged classical style that later became the hallmark of Chalukya architecture.

Ancient laboratory

While innumerable temple structures such as Lad Khan Temple, Suryanarayana Temple and Huchimalli Temple abound this ancient laboratory of sorts, the photogenic Durga Temple (nothing to do with goddess Durga, but named so only due to its proximity to Durg, the fort, explains our guide) apsidal in plan and style, evokes comparison with the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha of Mamallapuram.

True, its days of pre-eminence are long gone and its celebrated rulers swept away in the tide of the merciless time. But this Chalukya domain does still overwhelm one, with lasting emotions and a sheer sense of exhilaration.