The Badami Cave Temples, also known as the South Fort Cave Temples, are a series of four rock-cut temples that date back to the height of the Chalukya Empire. They are the finest and best known cave temples in south India, and are arguably third in popularity in the entire country after the cave temples in Ajanta and Elora. Long abandoned, the caves of Badami have been ‘rediscovered’ in recent decades and are quickly becoming one of Karnataka’s must-see off the beaten path sites.
Badami is one of the oldest major settlements in Southern India, dating back perhaps two thousand years or possibly longer. In ancient legends, Badami was the location of a titanic battle between two semi-legendary figures, Agastya and Vatapi. At this early date Badami went by the name Vatapi, suggesting that Agastya not only defeated his enemy but overthrew the small city-state, setting the stage for the beginning of the Chalukya kingdom.
The Chalukya dynasty was established at Vatapi/Badami early in the sixth century, and for the next few hundred years it was the capital of a steadily increasing empire. By the middle of the seventh century it was a fairly thriving metropolis, with a dynasty that was by then strongly entrenched.
As the empire grew, Badami and its environs became one of the most developed and important centers of population and commerce in India. Two other important cities grew up in the area around this time, Aihole and Pattadakal, and together this trio became the major cultural center of the Subcontinent. Not surprisingly, one of the major culturual achievements was the construction of dozens upon dozens of temples in these three cities, many of which survive to the present day.
The earliest of the Chalukya temples were constructed in the caves at Badami, and though they were more rudimentary than the later temples at Aihole and Patrtadakal, they are nevertheless the best preserved and arguably the most historic and interesting to visit. The last of the temples was completed in the 8th century, right around the time that the Chalukya Empire was reaching its peak.
The South Fort Cave Temples, so called because of their proximity to the old Badami Fort, are carved into a dramatic outcropping of sandstone rock that towers of themodern day town of Badami and the nearby lake. The overall effect is quite spectacular, and may have been an inspiration for the Ray Harryhausen film The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. There are four temples in all, each carved directly into the rockface, with wide, easily identified entranceways interconnected by stone paths up the mountainside.
The caves are simply numbered one through four. The first and oldest is dedicated to the deity Shiva. The second and third caves are dedicated to the deity Vishnu. Cave three is arguably the best, most interesting and most popular of the four caves. The largest of the four, it features fantastic artwork and sculptures depicting Vishnu chumming it up with a serpent. The fourth cave, also popular, is actually a Jain temple.
The South Fort Cave Temples overlook the Agasthya Lake, on the eastern outskirts of Badami, approximately 900 miles south of New Delhi. The cave temples are open every day from 6:00am-6:00pm. The cost of admission is Rs2. Web: www.karnataka.com/badami (official tourism website of Badami).
While Badami’s cave temples dominate local tourism, there are a few other temples in the town worth seeing, notably the impressive Malegetti Temple. The Upper Shivalaya Temple is Badami’s oldest.