Banavasi – capital of the Kadambas

This extremely small town (or large village) with a population of less than 5000 people has this one large Shiva temple built in the 9th century CE. Most vacationing people will simply ignore this and instead carry on towards Jog Falls. Which is fine. But for those who like to explore history on their travels, a short detour to this village is worth it.

As George Moraes in his Ph.D thesis work called The Kadamba Kula writes

“The History of the Kadambas is the history of one of the most neglected, though in its own days one of the most influential, of the dynasties that held sway over the Dekkan (sic).”

The news of the city had reached Ptolemy as well and we can find the town “Banauasi” in his Geographic works. During the third Buddhist Council hosted by Emperor Ashoka, a Buddhist monk Rakkhita was deputed to this town. Obviously, as George Moraes says, it must have been an important centre for someone to be specially sent for spreading the word. And about 900 years later, in the 7th century CE, Huien Tsang mentions visiting this place (called Konkanapulo) and finding over 100 monasteries (or sanghramas) with over 10,000 priests. It is believed that with Banavasi as the base, Buddhism spread to the Konkan and other parts of Karnataka.

The Aihole inscription describes Banavasi as a city “whose wealth rivaled the gods” and then proceeds to explain how Pulakesin II of the Badami Chalukyas vanquished the Kadambas of Banavasi.

Banavasi is located in north-western Karnataka, about 120 kilometres south-west from Hubli. To its west lies the Shravati Wildlife Sanctuary up in the Western Ghats which also is the home of the highest waterfall in India, Jog Falls. The town lies on the banks of the Varada river. Like most cities across the world, this city was also established on the banks of a river. In this case, it is the Varada river which is a rain fed river rising in the Western Ghats and flowing down the slope eastwards. The Aihole Inscription mentions that the river encircled a fortress and there were birds in the river which were trained to alert the soldiers in the fortress in case they were attacked. Pulakesin II of the Chalukyas was still able to defeat them and the Aihole Inscription carries on about his greatness. Being rain fed and with a number of hydro-electric dams built along its course, there is not much water left in the river, especially in November.

The Madhukeshwara temple is dated to the 9th century CE when the Western Chalukyas of Kalyani held sway over the land. But this temple may have been built over earlier structures as some of the inscriptions tell. Also there are various sculptures that depict different styles, namely the Kadamba, the Chalukya and later the Vijayanagara style.

Each of these styles are unique and the uniqueness is usually palpable. The main areas to focus when looking for uniqueness are a) the shikhara / vimana b) the general plan and c) the lesser number of sculptures. The Kadamba shikhara is typically a pyramid with stepped layers rising and tapering to the peak (see the picture above). You will also find Kadamba architecture in Belgaum, Belur, Halsi and Goa and other surrounding areas.

Exquisite stone work is on display like most other places in peninsular India. However, unlike the artwork in Hampi or Kanchipuram or Ellora or Pattadakal, the sculptures are extremely measured. There are sculptures of Nandi, elephants, warriors, gods and goddesses but each piece of sculpture has a lot of breathing space around it and often there are walls with nothing on it providing some relief.

I visited this town in 2013 in November. I took a state transport bus from Hubli to Sirsi, a 100km ride which took about 2 hours and a bit. From Sirsi, I took another state transport bus, but a very well decked tourist oriented bus to Banavasi, a 23 kilometre ride which took another 30 minutes. I started in from Hubli at 10:15am and I was in Bnavasi by 1.15, waiting time included. I spent 1 hour there walking around, exploring the temple and the village houses all around. By the time I finished, the next bus had arrived from Sirsi and I could take the same bus back and be on my way to Gokarna which was my main destination.

The whole village can be covered in a nice slow 30-minute walk. One passes through small institutes of art and culture including a Yakshagana theatre group. Today, there is a certain charm to this town. The old temple continues to conduct its daily rituals and hosts various festivals as per schedule. There are families coming over, one or two on a normal day, a few more on the weekend and a little more on religious holidays. But, it is a quite unassuming place. There is a resort there as well, on the banks of the river, and it advertises trips to the Jog Falls and the neighbouring forests.

Personally, the 1 hour I spent there was enough for me. It gave me what I wanted, a glimpse of what prosperity was in the first millennium and also a living proof of how a place goes into decline and fall once the political powers disappear. of course, I could tick off another important historical location in Peninsular India from my personal travel list

Why so secret? The Ajanta Experience

The first thing that strikes one is how thoroughly concealed these caves are. You can only see it once you are in the complex. No one, even a kilometre away, would have a clue that something like this exists. On three sides, it is hemmed in by hills. And from the north side, you only see the back of the hill. One can’t even see it from the MTDC facilities at the entrance. You climb up the stairs, turn round the curve of the hill and there in front of you, they stare back at you. It is not difficult to reach. But you will never know where is it.

Ajanta Caves, July 2014The first sighting of the caves, if you follow the present day access road


Every one knows the terrain and the shape and the contours and other topographic details of the caves.As the Waghor river snakes through the hills making one hairpin bend after another (or horseshoe bend), you have pairs of basalt hills side by side separated by the river. On one particular bend, the caves are cut on the southern face of a hill on the north bank. If you come from the north, you can’t see it. The hill on the south bank completely hides it from view if you are on the highway in the south. There are no access points from east or west as you have hills interlocking and creating a natural curtain of sorts.

Waghora River, Ajanta, July 2014Following the Waghor river from the north east side towards the caves


My immediate thought was that these caves were designed for absolute seclusion. Almost all the other cave monasteries that I have been to can be seen from the plains below. Travelers on the road below can sight them easily and work their way towards them for shelter and or enlightenment. Not so for Ajanta.

A similar concept can be seen in forts where the gates are hidden from view. But the difference is that the fort builders have to design and build their fort walls in a way such that the gates are hidden. In the case of the caves of Ajanta, the effect of concealment is a natural feature.

After pondering all this, my next thought was why and how did the first batch of monks choose this location. Were they being persecuted and needed to hide? Were they working on something that was very sensitive and needed to be done in a place where there was no prying eyes. Kanheri and similar caves provided seclusion but they were very much open to public view. Who selected this location? Did that person have a similar accidental discovery as the Englishman who found it in the early part of the 19th century? There must have been something in the Buddhist pioneer’s mind which led him to pick this very specific horseshoe bend of the river. One will never know and therefore one can only imagine many possible scenarios, one as crazy and wild as the other.

Cave 9, Ajanta Caves, July 2014Cave 9, a chaitya hall excavated circa 1st century BCE, part of the initial set of caves


Once one cave was excavated, circa 2nd century BCE, and populated by a few monks, the other caves started coming up. This went on for hundreds of years till about the 1st century CE. Walter Spink, one of the leading researchers on Ajanta, is of the view that the caves were abandoned from the 2ndt century CE till the 5th century CE. After that, for about a hundred odd years, kings, noblemen and commoners donated to the excavation and artistic development of the site which was now inhabited by a new generation of monks. Which means that the place was well known in most parts of the country in those times and Buddhist monks consciously chose that secluded spot for their monastery. Here again there are some thoughts that get triggered as you see each cave.

Monks would most probably be drawn to this complex because the incumbent people must have been some kind of masters and leaders in their field of thought. Almost every cave which served as a dormitory had at least three discussion spaces – a large pillared hall inside, a verandah and an open courtyard by the river. Spending time with these monks must have been extremely fruitful for students of Buddhism – both young initiates into the monastic order and visitors who cut across royalty and commoner. This is validated with the inscriptions found everywhere. It is also validated by various travelogues of those times including Huein Tsang.

The level of artistic brilliance on display is at a level far superior to what we see today. Let’s assume that craftsmen of those times produced extraordinary work for even the most mundane commissions. But this is not a mundane commission. This is an ultra secluded Buddhist sanctuary, one of thousands in the country, virtually invisible even to villagers in nearby areas and the craftsmen produce work which is, as per all the such caves which have been studied, one of the best there is. Surely they were briefed that these caves were special. So what was so special that was happening in this cave, first between the 2nd century BCE to 1st century CE and then again in the 5th century CE?

Cave 29, Ajanta Caves, July 2014Cave 29, one of the last caves to be done, outdoes all the others in terms of the sculptures


And why did it disappear from all consciousness? Coming back to Kanheri, there are inscriptions of 11th century CE of Parsees visiting the caves and meeting the Buddhist inmates there. Which means for at least 600 years after the last known inscription in Ajanta, Kanheri continued to function. But Ajanta seemed to have gone into a decline earlier than the others.

Walter Spink puts it to the decline of Buddhism and the rise of Hinduism as the state religion of most monarchs in the Deccan Peninsula. This loss of royal patronage could be one of the reasons. Possibly, the secret location turned out to its own nemesis as the monasteries remained out of sight and out of mind for most people, especially the various new empires, like the Rashtrakuta (which sponsored the Ellora Caves and some of the Elephanta cave temples), Chalukyas, etc. many of whom might still have supported them as they were known to be secular.

So who were these Buddhist masters who needed such an extreme level of seclusion? Did they achieve their goals which they had set for themselves? And who were the craftsmen who created all these works which would lie hidden in the jungles for over 1400 years?

More photographs of my Ajanta trip can be found here.

Historic City – Badami

Though it has been around from pre-historic times, the zenith of Badami’s existence was in the years bookended by the rise of the Chalukyans with Pulakesin I in the mid 6th century and the defeat of Keerthivarman in the 8th century to the Rashtrakutas.

Takeo Kamiya who spent 30 years traveling the Indian sub-continent cataloging all major structures and monuments along with his drawings and notes writes this about Badami

It is one of the especially fascinating places in the South, unspoiled by tourism due to bad roads and poor accommodation.

This is true even today. Here’s picture of a typical street in Badami
Badami Town, February 2010
And then Takeo writes about this typical scene which is best seen in the late afternoon.

Ancient stone temples blend with the northern and southern mountains they are built on. Bhutanatha Temple on the other side of the lake looks like it is floating on the water. The evening view is unforgettable. It looks like a painting of India in the Middle Ages.

Here’s a picture.
Badami, February 2010
More about Chalukyas of Badami here.
More exploration of the historic city of Badami here.

The City of Victory 3 – The Domes

This work by George Michell and Mark Zebrowski laments that:

The plateau region in the centre of peninsular India, known as the Deccan, is one of the country’s most mysterious and unknown regions in terms of artistic heritage. Few scholars, Indian or foreign, have worked extensively in the Deccan, which remains little visited and surprisingly unexplored.

(Introduction, Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates, George Michell and Mark Zebrowski, Cambridge University Press, 1987)

It is quite easy to use “Mughal” architecture as a common label for all Islamic structures in the country, wherever they might be. It is a bit like most Indian non-vegetarian food is termed as “Mughlai cuisine”. The Islamic structures in the Deccan have a number of subtle differences. For one, most of the sultanates were descended from Persian generals and were mainly subscribers of the Shia sect. The Mughals were more mixed – Turks, Arabs and Persian – and more importantly, Sunni. Instead of looking northward for artistic influences, most often the Deccan art patrons would turn west – to Persia. The geographic characteristic of the peninsula made this region a sponge for influences from all over the world. These influences included material (e.g. tiles from Kashan in Iran) and people (e.g. Persian calligraphers). There is also a much stronger influence of Indian i.e. Hindu elements in the design and construction of the structures.

So, with this basic background, when one looks at the monuments of Bijapur, there are three main observations with respect to its independent identity vis a vis the Mughals.

Firstly, unlike the Mughal architecture (and specific examples would include Humayun’s tomb, the Red Fort, etc.), the monuments at Bijapur were much more simple and to some extent drab. The Gol Gumbaz for example is a fine architectural wonder. However, there is no major detailing on the walls, the doorways, the windows, etc. For comparison, let us take two pictures, one of Humayun’s tomb and one of the Gol Gumbaz.

Secondly, there is a major difference in the level of preservation / restoration work that is in place. The Mughal monuments, more high profile and much visited, obviously get the best conservationists to take care of them. The high degree of attention, in a way, drives the pressure to prioritise all maintenance of these sites. As opposed to that, the sites in the Deccan area seem to have been left to the elements. Barring the Gol Gumbaz and the Ibrahim Rauza, there was no ASI operation. The local people were the sweepers, shoe deposit counter operators, souvenir sellers and quick fix guides. As a consequence, the general appearance of most of the sites were extremely unattractive.

Thirdly, and this is spoken of by the authors I quoted above, there is no definite histories of the sites. There are oral histories which have come down the years – in some cases, oral histories were recorded down in the 17th century (by the Persian historian Firishta who was specially invited by the Ahmadnagar sultan to write a history of the region, see my first post of my Bijapur series). As a result, for the same structure, different people on the ground had different stories. Ask the tangawala, he will give you one story. Ask the caretaker of a monument and he will give you another story. The available ASI literature is restricted to the technical specifications of the structure and they do not seem to be interested in speculating any further history about the subjects.

All these factors add to the mysteriousness of the Deccan region. For the Gol Gumbaz itself, there are some interesting questions that one may want to ask

1. According to the ASI inscription, the Gol Gumbaz was commissioned by Muhammad Adil Shah in 1626, the year he became sultan. He ruled for 30 years. In 1656, when he died, he was interred in the structure. So effectively, he built his own grave. The question is why? The wikipedia article mentions some tales of Sufi mystics helping him. There are no citations. I don’t think there will be any citations on this.

2. Ibrahim Adil Shah, the predecessor of Muhammad Adil Shah, reigned from 1580 till 1627. He is buried at the Ibrahim Rauza. The local tangawala calls it the Taj Mahal of the South. (another doffing of the hat to the more famous northern cousin). He was greatly interested in music and specifically Indian music. He has written a work on the nine rasas. There is a structure called Sangeet Mahal in the outskirts of the city. There is no ASI inscription there. Did Ibrahim Adil Shah have anything to do with this? Is this an example of syncretism in the south. Ibrahim Adil Shah was also a contemporary of Akbar who was also dabbling in designing syncretic religions.

3. How did the people manage the heat?

Here is a set of pictures on the edifices of the Bijapur sultanate?

Traveling in India Experiences – Thebaw Palace, Ratnagiri

Amitava Ghosh in his, possibly one of his best, novel The Glass Palace gives us an insight into the isolated lives of the last of the Burmese royals imprisoned here in Thebaw Palace, Ratnagiri.

Thebaw Palace

Today this structure serves multiple purposes including that of an engineering college campus. The views of the harbour enjoyed by the king, as described in the novel, are blocked by urban growth of Ratnagiri

The Mystery of the Lion, the Elephant and Man

Everyone who has been to Konark would have seen the two stone guards.

Stone Guards or dwarpala at Konark
Stone Guards or dwarpala at Konark

It is a lion crushing an elephant which in turn is crushing a man. I have often wondered what is the significance of this three layered crushing. Searching the web, I get two main leads.

Gajasimha: This is a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant. But nothing more seems to be known about it.

There is one theory that the lion signifies power, the elephant signifies wealth and the man stands for justice. If this is so, then this sculpture makes for an example of satire where power is on top of wealth which is crushing justice.

However, a more plausible story which is also narrated by some of the official guides on the spot refers to the lion and the elephant represents two ends of the power spectrum – darkness and light.But as this thread suggests it is open to debate.

The mystery still remains.