A Monument to Multiple Faiths — the Majestic Rock-Cut Cave Temples of Karnataka

Nestled in northern Karnataka, the Badami cave temples of India are adorned with a unique blend of intricate carvings that draw religious motifs from Shaivite, Vaishnavite and Jain traditions. Learn more about these 2nd-century rock-cut shrines that bear testament to ancient Indian royal patronage and religious syncretism.

Group of Monuments, Badami Caves, Photographer: P4psk, Karnataka, India, 6th century, Photographed: 2016.

A group of four rock-cut sandstone Shaivite, Vaishnavite and Jain shrines, the Badami cave temples are located in and named after the town of Badami in the Bagalkot district of northern Karnataka. Dating to the second half of the sixth century CE, they are among the earliest surviving monuments of the Early Western Chalukyas. Previously known as Vatapi (or Vatapipuri), Badami was a Chalukya capital, citadel, and cosmopolitan centre, nestled in a valley between two branches of the Kaladgi basin. The cave temples were carved into the cliff face of the southern branch of this basin, facing the Agasthya Teertha artificial lake, constructed around the same time.

Badami Cave Temples, Photographer: Alende Devasia, Karnataka, India, 6th century, Photographed: 2013.

The sculptures and carvings at Badami are modelled with considerable detail, taking advantage of the versatility of the sandstone. Scholars have suggested that the aesthetic tastes of the patrons and sculptors of these caves contributed to the development of a uniquely Deccan architectural vocabulary, which would come to characterise the temple landscape of the south-western Deccan. The Badami cave temples are also characterised by the presence of early Nagara and Dravida architectural forms, which would be further developed in the architecture of the Pattadakal temple group. Scholars have noted that architectural, sculptural and iconographic elements from various religious sects appear to commingle and interact in the caves, attesting to a highly diverse and multicultural class of patrons and artisans.

Cave 4, Badami Caves, Photographer: P4psk, Karnataka, India, 6th century–8th century, Photographed: 2016 (left); Verandah, Cave 3, Badami Caves, Photographer: Dey.sandip, Karnataka, India, 6th century–7th century, Photographed: 2011 (right).

The caves are numbered according to their position and elevation on the cliff formation and their distance from the town, with Cave 1 being the lowest and closest to the town and Cave 4 being the highest and furthest away. Due to variations in style and structure, some scholars have suggested that this arrangement corresponds to the sequence in which the caves were excavated and carved. The first three caves are dedicated to Hindu deities, while the last is to Jinas and associated figures. The iconography of the caves is characterised by syncretism and pluralism; many motifs appear to have been used by artisans and patrons irrespective of religious denomination. A small, grotto-like space was found during early investigations of the temple group and considered a separate cave, but it has since been excluded from the grouping.

Cave 2, Badami Caves, Photographer: Paneer06, Karnataka, India, 6th century–7th century, Photographed: 2017.

Along with the Aihole cave temples – and other sculptural temples built by the Early Western Chalukyas during the same period – the Badami cave temples are significant transition points for the architectural development of temples in South India and the Deccan. As of writing, the Badami cave temples, along with Aihole and Pattadakal, are candidates to be declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


This article first appeared in the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art. 

The MAP Academy is a non-profit online platform consisting of an Encyclopedia of ArtCourses and Stories, that encourages knowledge building and engagement with the visual arts and histories of South Asia. Our team of researchers, editors, writers and creatives are united by a shared goal of creating more equitable resources for the study of art histories from the region.

Published: 29 Jan 2024


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