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The Nandi bull at a temple in Pattadakal has carved stone structures dating back to the seventh century. istockphoto
The Nandi bull at a temple in Pattadakal has carved stone structures dating back to the seventh century. istockphoto

Karnataka’s towns from another age

At Badami and Aihole, glimpses of an India that lives in several centuries at once

Which village are you from?"

The man in the little dhaba outside the ancient temple complex is apologetic. The late monsoon rains have dampened the firewood and his wife is poking at the fire, trying to make us jowar rotis while he makes conversation. There’s spicy eggplant and green moong beans. He offers some spicy golden poha made with both puffed rice and flattened rice, wrapped in newspaper. A woman sells us fresh yogurt in tiny black clay pots, each smeared with a streak of vermilion.

We tell them we are from Kolkata. They nod but I sense they are not satisfied. No one is really from a city in these parts. That’s just a place where people go to work. Ultimately, one must have proper roots somewhere.

Mundane meets majestic in Badami
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Mundane meets majestic in Badami

These parts of northern Karnataka understand roots because they have been places of continuous habitation for centuries. In most world heritage-type towns, that heritage is carefully cordoned off in manicured spaces. In Badami, on the other hand, the town and its history are not so clearly separated. This is history as something much more lived in.

Badami was the centre of the sixth century Chalukyan kingdom. Their history is carved into the caves built in the cliffs of Badami—a Trivikrama Vishnu kicking his leg high, a bull and an elephant that share a head, amorous couples under flowering trees, all carved in red sandstone with purple striations. Just below the caves is an ancient tank, one end of it green with pond scum. It’s still the centre of life, as it must have been for centuries. Women, their saris rolled up to their knees, wash clothes, the steady thwack of wet cloth meeting stone steps ringing across the glassy water. Old men in Gandhi topis and white dhotis shoot the breeze on the bank. Young men strip down to their underwear and dive into the water, emerging shivering and dripping, only to do it again. The reflections of red cliffs with ruined forts and temples shimmer in the waters of the tank, embodiment of that cliché of India living in several centuries the same time.

Badami is small-town India with shops named Savitri Digital Photo Studio and Shekhar Cold Drinks House and streetcars selling Manchurian Gobi, a symbol of modern times. But the walls and bastions and cobbled streets rising up into the hills are from another age. The town is overrun with snorting, bristling grey-black pigs that look like boars Asterix and Obelix might have hunted. An old Muslim man shows us the way to the Jambulinga temple tucked behind squat houses and a tamarind tree, past a cow with scimitar-like horns painted blue. Clothes are drying between the temple columns, watched over by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva carved on to the ceiling. An inscription on a pillar dates it to 699.

It’s all best seen from the Malegitti Shivalaya temple, an early Chalukyan temple perched on a great boulder below the North Fort. The sandstone cliffs tower behind it like great columns, studded with bursts of magenta bougainvillea. Grey langurs patrol its walls while stone dwarapalas bearing maces guard its doors. In front of the temple, the city stretches out with box-like houses pockmarked with yellow water tanks, and the spire of some Chalukyan temple jutting out from somewhere in their midst, like an antenna to another century. In the distance, I can hear a goat bleat and the sing-song honk of a bus. It’s amazing to be able to see a whole town and its history just laid out in front of you like a sketch.

The Nandi bull at a temple in Pattadakal has carved stone structures dating back to the seventh century.
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The Nandi bull at a temple in Pattadakal has carved stone structures dating back to the seventh century. (Photo: iStock)

Aihole, some 35km away, is much like that as well. There too the houses extend right into the town’s history. George Michell, in his book Badami AiholePattadakal, writes, “Aihole had the appearance of an ancient settlement untouched by time, with houses built up to, and even extending into, historical edifices." Unlike a Prambanan in Indonesia or Angkor Wat in Cambodia recovered from the jungle, these are lived-in heritage sites, history layered upon history like mud on the roof.

Now the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has built gardens around its important monuments, like the apsidal Durga temple (actually dedicated to Surya), but old houses with whitewashed masonry still abut many of them. In front of the old cave of Ravanphadi, with its carvings of a dancing Shiva with his entire family, little children clamber and slide off the Nandi bull.

As we ascend Meguti hill, via a cowdung-strewn path, the town opens up below us, the temples sticking out between flat-roofed houses, some with grass growing on the roofs. The streets are narrow and uneven, old houses crowding out ancient temples. Young men while away the afternoon in the ornately carved 12th century Gauri temple. Across the street, the older Jain temple is closed but you can unlatch the gate and walk in. Two goats are tied to the ancient columns and clothes dry on the stone walls.

The Chikkigudi temple is locked but someone helpfully points out a gap in the fence. Inside, there’s a ceiling carved with lotuses and Shiva and Vishnu, home to hundreds of bats. As our eyes get used to the darkness and the smell, something moves. Four puppies are watching us warily: Their mother has probably gone to forage, leaving them safe in the sanctuary of gods. We leave quietly.

It’s only in Pattadakal that one gets the sense of a sanitized heritage spliced apart from the town. The monuments are clustered in a “monument park" alongside the Malaprabha river. The grand eighth century Chalukyan Shiva temples with their elaborately carved Nagara towers have been cleared of the village houses that once encroached upon them. This finally feels like an Incredible India tourism brochure, with gaggles of tourists and loud guides.

The Virupaksha temple here is astonishing, the panels on its columns telling intricately carved stories from the great epics, Bhishma lying on his bed of arrows, Lakshmana cutting off the nose of Surpanakha, Krishna killing the crow demon. Viewed through a gap in the locked door of a little antechamber in a corner of the mandap is a magnificently sinuous eight-armed Durga spearing a startled Mahishasura. It’s beautiful but it has the feel of a museum, a different relationship with history from the Mahakuta temple nearby where dozens of young men cavort in the green waters of an ancient tank, watched over by a Lakulisha sculpture, under a sign that says “Preserve Sanctity" until a water snake sends everyone scurrying.

On the way back from Pattadakal, we stop at Sidlaphadi, home to Palaeolithic cave paintings. Just walk 3km, our driver says, pointing to a path that stretches into miles of scrub with thorny cacti and stumpy tamarind trees amid termite hills, a patchwork of green shrubs and red earth. We plod on, relying just on instinct in a landscape without signs and bad connectivity, until the path suddenly trails off at a cave with the burnt stump of a tree outside. The roof of the cave has great holes, ripped open by lightning strikes, it is said, flooding it with shafts of natural light. On the walls, entirely unprotected from the elements or vandals, are faint bisons and stick-like human figures in white paint and red ochre, signs of human inhabitation from the second millennia BC. The only sound is the chirp of birds and the drip of water. It could still be the second millennia BC.

On the way back, we encounter no one till we suddenly hear the bells of goats. The goatherd listening to music on his mobile phone beams at us. Sidlaphadi cave? he asks. It’s the only touristy thing around. We nod. He nods back and then asks, “Which village are you from?"

At a time of citizen registries that may require documents as proof of belonging in India, there’s something charming about that query, carrying within it not just a question but also an assumption of belonging.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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