Badami Fort, a 6th-century architectural marvel in Karnataka


The road from Bijapur to Rona in Karnataka winds through an expanse of green-stalked onion fields. The air here is filled with the smell of the fertile red soil. The country road off the highway is shaded by Mayflower trees.

A market place bustling with activity and looking not unlike a cinema set of the 1980s is filled with men and women in their traditional gear. Beyond this, the terrain rises. Cut right into the rocky face of these hills are forts which, with their dreamlike surroundings, look straight out of mythology.

This is Badami. Badami is not just a name. It is the identity of the redoubtable Chalukya Dynasty for the past 1400 years. The two forts here were built by the Chalukya King Pulikesh in the 2nd in the 6th Century CE. These hill forts, rearing proudly above a large lake are still at their majestic best 1400 years on.

There is a pathway, paved with red sandstone and smoothed to a marble finish, cut right through the rock formation. On either side of the pathway, steep rocks rise to more than a hundred feet. The entire pathway is thus shaded and even the breeze around the fort is slightly nippy. The way upward is fringed with several cellars and prisons. The twin forts stand tall at around 50 ft each and the clear lake in-between make it a picture-book location.

The forts have many cave temples within them. The rooms and corridors are carved out of big rocks and clad with red sandstone. There are watchtowers, tunnels, prisons, bedchambers and temples within the forts. Caves, some of which are 10 feet high are supported by ornate black granite pillars.

Many of these caves were used as places of worship dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha. The pillars and walls are richly decorated with statues of an assortment of celestial beings, seemingly to appease the countless gods of the mythology. That these temples were carved out of 100 odd feet of rock is something of an engineering marvel of the era. Even with the availability of the advanced technology of today, nothing similar to the Badami Fort complex had been replicated anywhere.

Chalukyas of Badami constructed gloriously on rock and stone. Many of these are rock-cut cave temples. Some, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, are richly embellished with black granite statues of the deity in various avatars. Some statues also celebrate the myth surrounding Krishna with his entourage of cattle and Gopa maidens. Another temple, dedicated to Nandikeswara is thought to have been a place of worship for the king and the royal women.

The idol of the deity here had since been lost. Only the dais remains now. In the large inner chamber, there is a floral motif sculpted out of stone. The shrine’s walls have carved scripts referring to the concept of 'Brahma.' Within the southern fort, which is surrounded by walls of substantial construction, there are many more shrines collectively called 'Shivalya' where Lord Vishnu and Lord Ganesha too were worshipped. It is believed that the famous 'Vatapi Ganapati' idol stood here during the golden era of the Chalukyas and the renowned Carnatic verse "Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje," eulogizing Lord Ganesha was composed here. Music lovers still flock to the birthplace of this famous composition.

Considering the aridity of the landscape, the Chalukyas first constructed a lake, named Agastheeswara Theertha, before undertaking the construction of the forts, one to its north and the other to the south. This lake can serve the entire Badami population even today and it still stands as a symbol of the place’s prosperity. The lake has its own stepped landing and other royal structures.

The Chalukyas constructed temple complexes in the nearby Pattadakkal also. The coronation of the Chalukya kings were conducted in this temple complex by Malaprabha River. All the major policy decisions were taken at this temple complex as it was considered auspicious. The temples here are still functional and the oil lamps still set the statues, the stone pillars and the walls aglow. The place stands symbolizing the lost glory of the early Chalukyas.

The golden era of Badami

The history is not very loquacious about the Chalukyan glory. The dynasty reached its pinnacle around 600 CE under Pulikeshin the 2nd. He conquered the Kadamba and Banavasi lands and built the twin forts on the hills south and north of the lake. Pulikeshin’s reign lasted 32 years. Towards the end, despite having an impressive army with cavalry and elephant phalanx, Pulikeshin was defeated by the marauding Pallavas of Tamil Nadu in 642, triggering a Chalukyan decline. The place, then known as Vatapi Badami was raided further by the Pandyas and others. In these offensives and counter-offensives the fort and the temples within suffered and even the Vatapi Ganapati idol was lost. Thereafter, the place was called just Badami. Much later Tipu Sultan also captured Badami.

Badami also has a history of intrigues and wars. The Chalukyas were perennially worried about their security, surrounded as they were by enemy kingdoms. The many watchtowers we see now about the fort are suggestive of this concern. The cavernous corridors are not easily accessible to the outsiders. At the same time, the guards could easily sight any enemy movement. The enemy access to the top of the fort is also made difficult by narrow stairways and long stretches of slanted corridors.

The grandeur of the Badami Fort have attracted filmmakers from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Somehow, the Malayalam filmmakers seem to have missed out on this.

It takes an entire daytime to complete the visit of the Badami Fort and premises. The temple dedicated to Banasankariyamma, one of the most important in Badami, is about 4km from the fort. There is an archaeological museum about a kilometre away. Pattadakkal near Aihole, about 25km from Badami has another pantheon of Chalukyan provenance. The sunflower and maize farms around are locations much favoured by Kannada filmmakers.

How to reach

Badami is in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka, some 500 km north of Bengaluru. The nearest railway stations are at Hubli and Bijapur. The best time to visit is between the months of October and March.

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