This post had better be titled: "Badami Rocks!" or better, "Badami On The Rocks" (for reasons which will be presently revealed) but for the sake of continuity, I am going with the more prosaic "Impressions".
Koodalasangama, the meeting point of Krishna and Malaprabha rivers lies on a vast black soil flat that is typical of most of the old Bijapur district. From near here, we take a turn westward off the Chitradurga highway. As we approach Amingad, a blighted cattle-trading village, the landscape slowly changes - the soil turns red and the terrain begins to undulate; past Aihole and then Pattadakal, occasional hills appear, covered with scrub and studded with sandstone boulders; the odd boulders grow into imposing clusters and fantastically eroded cliffs and monoliths as we near Badami, our destination.
Badami is a large village strung out along a main road that runs towards bigger towns to the west and south. 'Development' also fans out a bit into the flat farmlands to the west. The eastern limits are set by two massive sandstone hillocks which rise abruptly a good 200 feet above the town. A largeish lake nestles between these hills. On approaching, one sees that each hillock has narrow gullies and gorges cut into it by erosion - these gullies also provide steep paths for reaching their flat tops, both of which have man-made fortifications and bastions (perhaps medieval, Islamic additions; an old mosque stands near the lake). Close to the top of the northern hill stands an ancient temple. There are more free-standing temples on the far (eastern) shore of the lake; but what most folks come to see are the 6th-7th century cave temples
- these lie half-way up the southern hill.
The caves are reminiscent, stylistically, of those at Mahabalipuram (which were approximately excavated at the same time) and Ellora (which were done a little later). Many of the themes are also common; but the reddish brown of the sandstone that takes on a golden glow in the slanting late afternoon sunshine invests on the carvings here a very unique 'Badami flavor'. And the rock, at places, has striations in a lighter yellowish color - they have been used in the Jain temple (cave 4) to give an impression of of shafts of light radiating from the principal Tirthankara image. The 'Hindu' carvings which impressed me most are: a Nataraja image with an attending Ganapati figure mimicking the boss's pose; a placid 'Narasimha'; Vishnu as 'Trivikrama', the one who measured the whole world in three steps (a theme which one can see at Ellora also) - rendered somewhat unusual by the presence of a Buddha-like figure among the divinities watching the miracle; 'Vaikuntha Murti', Vishnu seated (not reclining) on the serpent Shesha who has arranged himself like a sofa for his master - by the way, this is almost the form of the Vishnu idol at Tripunithura temple in Kerala - and I have not seen such a form anywhere else.
In antiquity, Badami used to be called 'Vatapi' and apparently, it used to have a famous 'Ganapati' idol, celebrated in a Dikshitar 'kriti'. The Pallavas are said to have conquered the place and made off with this idol. I don't know its present whereabouts.
We came here sort of mentally prepared to be impressed by the art, but not for the interplay of light and shadow among the rocks. While working our way up a ravine that runs thru the northern hill, we see a towering rock face lit by the evening sunlight pouring in thru another gorge - the illuminated portion stands like a golden pillar among the darker rocks - a sight like none else I have seen before!
Over dinner, we encounter an unusual traveler. He looks, racially, South Asian, is well-built, has matted locks and beard but is otherwise smartly turned out; he spikes his beer with what looks like coffee powder (a mix I am not adventurous enough to try!); and he is polite to a fault and very apologetic about intruding into our conversation with an "are you guys camping here long?" query.
The traveler says he has been to Pune ("or is it Poonah?" he asks with what sounds like an American accent) and has visited the Osho Ashram and found it 'strange'. When I say I work in Software he remarks: "at least you learned something that can help you earn a living; I did philosophy and it has not given me a job! At least in Canada, you don't get to do much with philosophy" (I resist the temptation to ask him more questions about his past; neither party asks the other's name).
He goes on to complain about Badami not having any internet cafes or proper money changers ("these guys, you know, charge ten rupees a dollar as their cut; and I have given away two thousand Indian rupees, you know, just like that!" he snaps his fingers).
Then he asks: "I shall be going further south. How are Belur, Halebid, Swana... what is that, I'm sorry, my pronunciation is no good!"; "they are impressive places, but if you ask me, Badami is better, this place really rocks, literally!" I say expansively, still under the spell of sandstone. "Oh yeah, the landscape!" he remarks and turns back to his drink. Not much more is said. He eventually rises, wishes us a "safe trip" with a polite bow and retires to his room with a fresh can of beer. We don't see him again.
Daybreak. We drive around the town, looking for rock formations to snap, in their morning glory. Many of the rocks are bustling with life - sparrows, pigeons and parakeets dart around busily; their cries fill the crisp morning air. I also note happily that Badami does not seem to be under threat from quarrying; there also does not seem to be much competition among religions and political parties, which has led to silly slogans and fervent declarations 'uglifying' the rockfaces in so many other places.
As we leave, I regret not having planned for a longer stay here. Maybe one should come again, perhaps during the Monsoon when the lake is full and waterfalls are said to cascade down those cliffs into its limpid waters; or better still, during a full-moon in winter and go walkabout in moonlight - I am told there is a lonely trail winding past the lake and up among the boulders towards the sylvan precincts of the ancient Mahakuta temple...