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Mahakuta

The next stop in my Chalukya series is Mahakuta, a very small town about 15km from Badami. Here too, the Badami Chalukya legacy lives on in the form of a group of 6th-8th century temples in their signature architectural style. The temples are all dedicated to Lord Shiva. The largest of these are the Mahakuteshwara and Mallikarjuna temples. It is believed that the Mahakuteshwara temple was built by Kirtivarman I, the son of the first Chalukya king Pulakesin I. The rest of the temples in the complex were built by later kings of the dynasty, and have shikharas typically seen in the Nagara school of architecture.Badami Chalukya Temples in MahakutaBadami Chalukya Temples in MahakutaThe hub of activity in Mahakuta is the rectangular Pushkarini tank, fed by natural spring water.

Badami Chalukya Temples in MahakutaThe afternoon we went, dozens of young boys from the village were playing in the water. They were very sweet, friendly, and excited to be photographed!
Badami Chalukya Temples in Mahakuta
Badami Chalukya Temples in MahakutaA small shrine with a Chaturmukha or four faced Shivalinga (quite uncommon, apparently) sits in the tank.
Badami Chalukya Temples in Mahakuta

Mahakuta has played a huge role in helping historians unravel the story of the Chalukyas. The Mahakuta Pillar, a sandstone pillar with inscriptions in Sanskrit and Old Kannada, providing a wealth of information about the Badami Chalukyas, was found lying here. It is believed to date back to the reign of Kirtivarman I’s successor, Mangalesha ie, the late 6th century. Today, it is kept in the Archaeological museum in Bijapur, about 150km from here.
 
While not as expansive as those in Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal, most of the temples here are still in active worship, and the vibrant atmosphere makes Mahakuta a worthwhile stop if you have a couple of hours to spare.

Travel

Badami Caves: exquisite art in the Capital Of The Chalukyas

Badami, about 35km from Aihole, was the capital of the Badami Chalukyas for 3 centuries. The town was originally called Vatapi. Legend has it that two demon brothers called Vatapi and Ilvala lived here. Vatapi would disguise himself as an animal, and Ilvala would offer his meat to weary travelers, who would eat it unsuspectingly. Ilvala would call out to Vatapi, and the latter would come back to life (thanks to a boon he’d received), bursting out of the person’s stomach and killing him. Vatapi and Ilvala would then eat the poor dead passerby. This went on until a sage named Agastya came by. He played along with the demons’ trick, but immediately digested Vatapi, before Ilvala could call him. This ended the menace the two brothers were causing in the region 🙂
Rock cut cave temples of Badami
Badami is most famous for its complex of four Chalukyan rock cut cave temples. Gouged out of almond (called badam in India) colored sandstone that is believed to give Badami its present name, every cave has pillared verandahs in front, and a sanctum right at the back. They were all excavated not at the same time, but during the reigns of various Badami Chalukya rulers. (I wrote a little about the dynasty here)
Rock cut cave temples of Badami
The lowest cave is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and is believed to have been built in the 6th century, during the reign of the second Chalukya ruler. It is decorated with sculptures of Shiva in various forms, and the most exquisite ones are those of Nataraja (Shiva in his cosmic dance), Harihara (half Shiva and half Vishnu) and Ardhanareeshwara (half Shiva and half Parvati).
Cave dedicated to Shiva, Badami
Shiva as Ardhanareeshwara
The second cave is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and has magnificent depictions of him in his Vamana avatar as Trivikrama and in his Varaha avatar as a boar, among others.
Cave dedicated to Vishnu, Badami
Vishnu as Trivikrama in his Vamana avatar
The third cave is the largest and probably the most spectacular, and is also believed to be the oldest of the lot. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu as well, and has images of his Narasimha avatar, Varaha avatar, Vamana avatar and also one of him seated on a coiled serpent.
Cave dedicated to Vishnu, Badami
Vishnu seated on a coiled serpent. In his Varaha avatar on the right.

The topmost cave is absolutely breathtaking, and is the only Jain shrine in the complex, dedicated to Lord Mahavira. The columns in this cave are decorated with Jain tirthankaras. Inside the sanctum, Mahavira is seated in deep meditation.

Jaina Cave, Badami
Jaina Cave, Badami
Mahavira seated in meditation in the sanctum

The sparkling (manmade) Agastya lake in front of the caves, separates the rocks from the stunning Bhootanatha group of temples. They are built in the Chalukyan style of architecture with features from the Dravidian temples of the south and the Nagara temples of the north. One cluster was built in the 7th century by the Badami Chalukyas, while the other was built in the 11th century or so, by the Kalyani Chalukyas.

Bhootanatha Group of Temples, Badami

Many scenes in the Bollywood movie Guru were shot in Badami. You can see the caves in this song. The scene in which Abhishek and Aishwarya get married was shot at the Bhootanatha group of temples.

 

By road, Badami is about 3 hours from Hospet. Many people choose to do a day trip from Hampi/Hospet to the Chalukyan trio of Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal. Since Badami has many decent hotels, and we didn’t want to rush through everything in a day, we stayed a couple of nights here.
Travel

Aihole : a treasure trove of Chalukyan architecture

Yet again, I’ve neglected my blog for months, but I’ve now accepted that my enthusiasm is always going to wax and wane, and that’s okay. So from Bhutan in my previous post, let’s go deep into the Bagalkot district of Karnataka in Southern India, to talk about the Chalukyas, a powerful dynasty who ruled between the 6th and 12th centuries. At their peak, their territories included all of Karnataka and most of Andhra Pradesh. The dynasty was established by the first king Pulakesin I, after overthrowing the reigning Kadamba dynasty. His first capital was Aihole, but he soon shifted it to Badami. So he and his descendants  are called the Badami Chalukyas.
 
There were three distinct Chalukyan dynasties – the Badami Chalukyas (6th to 8th centuries), the later Kalyani Chalukyas (11th to 12th centuries) with their capital at Basavakalyan near Bidar, and the Eastern Chalukyas of Vengi, near present day Eluru in Andhra Pradesh. This and the next few posts are going to be about the legacy left behind by the Badami Chalukyas.
 
Aihole, a sleepy and primitive village by the Malaprabha river is a wondrous treasure trove of Chalukyan architecture. Many consider it a cradle of temple architecture in South India, and with good reason – there are at least a 100 temples scattered across the village in varying states of preservation. They range from early rock cut cave temples to later structural temples built in the distinctive Chalukyan idiom, which combines Nagara (Indo-Aryan architecture seen in Odisha, etc) and Dravida (the kind you see in Tamil Nadu, etc) features. Some clusters of well preserved temples are enclosed by compound walls, while others are just a part of the village. Let me show you some of the most prominent temples in Aihole.
 
Among the oldest is Ravana Phadi, a cave temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, dating back to the 6th century.
Ravana Phadi, Aihole, built by the Badami Chalukyas
Ravana Phadi, Aihole, built by the Badami ChalukyasThe most recognized structure in Aihole is the beautiful Durga Temple with its unusual apsidal shape (imagine one side of a rectangle replaced by a U)It is believed to date back to the late 7th century.
Durga Temple, Aihole, built by the Badami Chalukyas
Durga Temple, Aihole, built by the Badami Chalukyas

The Lad Khan temple in the same compound almost looks like it was built with logs of wood. They say the curious name comes from a Muslim General who used the structure as his residence for  a while. The complex also has a small archaeological museum. My favourite exhibit there was the birds eye view of Aihole that shows the distribution of temples around the village.
Lad Khan Temple, Aihole, built by the Badami Chalukyas

The Hucchimalli Gudi (Gudi means temple) stands in its own enclosure along with a beautifully carved step well.

Hucchimalli Gudi, Aihole, built by the Badami Chalukyas
Step well, Hucchimalli Gudi, Aihole, built by the Badami ChalukyasSome more temples from around the village:
Badami Chalukya temples in Aihole
Badami Chalukya temples in Aihole
Badami Chalukya temples in Aihole
Badami Chalukya temples in Aihole
Aihole is about 140km from Hampi/Hospet. The nearest town where you can get good accommodation is Badami, 35km away. If you are crazy about monuments, you could easily spend hours or even days exploring Aihole, given the number of ruins in the village. But for most other people, 3-4 hours should be adequate to visit the most important temples.
Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
That little speck is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery
See that little white spot up there? That’s Taktsang, or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro, the most sacred site in all of Bhutan. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, the Indian saint who spread Buddhism across Bhutan, flew to the top of this cliff on the back of his consort, who took the form of a tigress. A monastery was built at the site in the 17th century. It hangs off the rockface dangerously at more than 3100m above sea level, and I demand to know why it’s not a wonder of the world!
Trekking up to the monastery is one of the holiest pilgrimages that a Buddhist can undertake. Even if you’re not spiritually inclined, it’s an experience of a lifetime.
 
The trek will take a good part of a day, and I’d be lying if I said it’s easy. But seriously, if I (lazy, unfit, somewhat asthmatic) can do it, literally anybody can. The first and last half hours are the hardest – the first is just starting trouble, and the last involves about 700 very steep steps. The rest of the time, you kind of settle into a comfortable pace. Ponies are available to take you up about one third of the way, but better avoided because they are not completely safe. Hiking poles are useful, and you can rent one at the base. We did the trek on the last day of our stay in Bhutan, so we were well acclimatized to the altitudes.
Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
One of the easier stretches of the climb

About 1-1.5 hours into the climb, the cafeteria appears in the distance like an oasis! It’s the only place in the trail where you can stop for refreshments or even a meal:

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
That cluster of shacks is the cafeteria
Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
This lucky cat lives in the cafeteria

As you trudge on, you are treated to breathtaking views all around, and you can see the monastery slowly getting closer.Sometimes, you can see it clearly, past the greenery:

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Past the greenery

Sometimes  you see it through the prayer flags:

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Through the prayer flags

If it’s spring, you can see it past the rhododendrons:

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Beyond the rhododendrons
Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Rhododendrons in full bloom

Through the gaps in pine trees

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Through the gaps in pine trees

Sometimes, very faintly, through the clouds

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Through the clouds

At times, it seems close enough to touch

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Almost there!
 And then, finally, you make it! Photography isn’t allowed inside the monastery, so I cannot show you what it’s like inside, but it’s incredibly spiritual and serene. It’s the site Guru Rinpoche chose, to meditate for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours, and you’re right there! Just the thought is amazing 🙂 After making a wish at his altar, we began the long descent, which is harder than you’d think. Some parts can get very slippery, and keeping your balance can hurt your toes quite a bit. It was bittersweet – an absolutely beautiful trip was ending, but in the best possible way  🙂
Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Holy water cascading down just before you reach the monastery
Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Flowers For Good Luck

Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
One of the things that I loved the most about Bhutan is that almost every home or shop has a few potted flowering plants. This is because the Bhutanese believe that flowers bring good luck – totally my kind of philosophy 🙂 And the loveliest part is that these plants are grown in upcycled containers like tyres, tins, paint buckets, cement bags, drums, fish tanks – just about anything.
Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
Flowering plants in Bhutan, believed to bring good luck
Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Thimphu

The Thimphu Valley in Bhutan
The gorgeous Thimphu Valley
The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu, about an hour’s drive from Paro. Although it’s a lot more urban than the rest of the country, it’s very much a quaint and charming Bhutanese town. Here are a few of my favourite things from Thimphu 🙂
 
The Tachog Lhakhang on the Paro-Thimphu highway. After landing in Paro, we drove down to Thimpu where we spent the first two days of our journey in Bhutan. On the way, we stopped at this historic temple built by Bhutan’s famous iron bridge builder back in the 15th century. He also built an iron link bridge leading to it. It was washed away however, and what you see now is a replica. A less shaky and more photogenic (IMO) bridge runs parallel to it, for cattle to cross without getting their feet stuck in the iron links:
A wooden bridge in the Tachog Lhakhang on the Paro-Thimphu highway, Bhutan
A bridge to help cattle cross the river, lined with prayer flags
The Wang Chhu river in front of Tachog Lhakhang on the Paro-Thimphu highway, Bhutan
The Wang Chhu river under the bridge
Thimphu’s main river is Wang Chhu, and you can see it in the above picture. This little river is no little river, actually – it flows through three countries (Bhutan, India, Bangladesh), and becomes a part of the mighty Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
 
Thimphu has two dzongs, both of them are magnificent in their own ways. The Tashichho Dzong is the seat of the Bhutanese government, and the Simtokha Dzong is Bhutan’s oldest surviving dzong. As I mentioned earlier in my Paro post,, dzongs are like fortresses, but they also house a monastic section and the local district administration. Ngawang Namgyel, known as the Shabdrung or the unifier of Bhutan, brought the whole country under one rule for the first time, back in the 17th century. He is worshipped as a deity all over Bhutan and all of the dzongs that you see in Bhutan today, were built by him.
The Tashichho Dzong or Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Tashichho Dzong
The Tashichho Dzong or Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Tashichho Dzong
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong / Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong / Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong
The Simtokha Dzong / Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Simtokha Dzong

The Buddha Dordenma or Buddha Point is probably Thimphu’s highlight – it is a colossal statue of Lord Buddha that appears to magically rise out of the mountains! The statue is 51 meters tall, and you can see it from almost everywhere in Thimphu.

Buddha Dordenma or Buddha Point, Thimphu, Bhutan
Buddha Dordenma
Buddha Dordenma or Buddha Point, Thimphu, Bhutan
Buddha Dordenma
We did a bit of window shopping at a small handicrafts bazaar on the river bank, The prices vary wildly from stall to stall, so it’s hard to know if you’re getting a good deal!
Shopping for Bhutanese handicrafts in Thimphu
Shopping for handicrafts in Thimphu
Shopping for Bhutanese handicrafts in Thimphu
Shopping for handicrafts in Thimphu
People come to the old Changangkha Lhakhang (Temple) to get their little children blessed, and also to get lucky names picked out for their newborns. Or if they are like me, to check out the incredible view from the back of the temple.
The Changangkha Lhakhang in Thimphu, Bhutan
Changangkha Lhakhang
We went to the National Institute of Zorig Chusum to watch students learning Bhutan’s traditional arts and crafts. There are 13 specific arts that the Bhutanese consider very important – together they are called Zorig Chusum. Below, is a painting class in progress:
National Institute of Zorig Chusum, a school for traditional arts and crafts in Thimphu, Bhutan
School of arts and crafts
National Institute of Zorig Chusum, a school for traditional arts and crafts in Thimphu, Bhutan
School of arts and Crafts
Thimphu has some really nice cafes and bars. If you drink beer, try the Druk and Red Panda beers – both are brewed locally in Bhutan.
Druk Beer, brewed locally in Bhutan. At a cafe in Thimphu.
Druk Beer
The Zone, a cozy cafe in Thimphu, Bhutan
A cozy cafe called The Zone
These were just my favourites – there’s a lot more to do in Thimphu, like the National Memorial Chorten, a cluster of lovely museums, the post office where you can get custom stamps printed with your face on them and the Takin zoo. After getting our fill of Thimphu, we drove eastwards past the picturesque Dochula Pass to remote Phobjikha. A three hour drive from there took us to historic Trongsa, from where we squeezed in a day trip to Bumthang. We then turned around, and headed westwards to warm Punakha. Finally, we returned to Paro, where we began our trip. This wraps up my series of posts about the towns that I visited, but I’m not done with Bhutan – there’s more coming up 🙂