Cave temple dedicated to Maha Vishnu
Located on the red sandstone hills of Badami in Karnataka, India, the four rock-cut cave temples are great works of religious art and a showcase of Chalukya temple architecture.
This page describes Cave – 3, the third cave temple from the entrance. Check the following pages for a detailed explanation of the other three caves:
|Cave – 1||Shiva||Nataraja, Dwarapala, Ardhanarishvara, Harihara|
|Cave – 2||Vishnu||Varahavatara, Vamanavatara|
|Cave – 4||Mahavira|
|Mahavira, Adinatha, Parshvanatha, Bahubali,|
Mahavira with Jakkave
The temple in Cave – 3 is dedicated to Maha Vishnu and has reliefs related to Vishnu, his avatars, and legends narrated in the Puranas.
Unlike the other three caves, there is an inscription detailing the exact date of its completion. According to this inscription, Chalukya Mangalesha, a stepbrother of King Kirthivarma I of Chalukya dynasty, completed it in 578 CE and donated the village of Lanjisvara (present-day Nandikesvara) to this temple.
Area-wise, Cave – 3 is bigger than the other three caves, and compared to them, it has a broader facade and a larger courtyard with a prakara (a protective wall).
Elegant Mantapa-Style architecture
Like the other three caves, Cave -3 is a
1. Mukhamantapa (Verandah or Porch) – The mukhamantapa is a narrow hall at the entrance to the cave temple. The access to the mukhamantapa from the courtyard is through a flight of steps. At the edge that faces the courtyard, there are six pillars embellished with beautiful artwork and reliefs. Carved into the walls at each end of the mukhamantapa are the three life-size sculptural reliefs. The reliefs on the left-side wall are, Vamanavatara, Narasimhavatara, and Harihara. The reliefs on the right-side wall are, Astabhuja Vishnu (8-armed Vishnu), Vishnu seated on Ananta, and Varahavatara. The ceiling of the mukhamantapa is also ornate with bas-reliefs of Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Varuna, and Yama.
2. Sabhamantapa (Congregation Hall) – This is a large hall flanked on each side by two isles. The rectangular space on the ceiling is divided into 9 frames, each carved with a bas-relief. The relief of Brahma is in the center, Kartikeya is in the south, Varuna is in the west, Indra is in the east, and Kubera is in the north.
3. Garbhagriha (Sanctum Sanctorum) – The
Mukamantapa – Embellished with exquisite carvings
The mukhamantapa is highly ornate with a repertoire of decorations, including large-size narrative sculptural reliefs on the walls, beautiful bas-reliefs on the ceiling, and intricate artwork carved into the pillars. On each side between the mukhamantapa and sabhamantapa, there is a small wall carved almost at right angles to the sidewall. Just like in the other caves, the mukhamantapa sidewalls are extended outside the cave. Thus, there are three walls on each side decorated with large-size sculptural reliefs.
Vishnu seated on Adishesha
The image shows left side the
Seated majestically on the throne formed by Ananta (also known as Ananta, Adishesha, Seshanaga), a seven-headed mythical serpent, is Maha Vishnu, a form of Vishnu represented as a supreme being. Vishu’s vehicle Garuda is on the lower left and his consort Lakshmi is on the lower right.
The squarish pillars on the left are embellished with carvings of beautiful patterns and reliefs depicting figures and stories from ancient Indian texts and Hindu epics. The ceiling also has intricately carved bas-reliefs of Vishnu, Brahma, and Ashtadikpalas (8 guardians of the directions) that include Indra and Yama.
The image shows a large-size relief depicting the story of Varahvatara carved on the wall perpendicular to the left sidewall of the
Varahavatara is the third of the ten avatars of Vishnu (
The story of Varahavatara is a popular theme in both Chalukya and Hoysala temples. The Chennakeshava and the Hoysaleswara temples have several Varahavatara reliefs carved into their walls. Cave – 2 of this cave complex also has a Varahavatara relief carved into its wall.
A Varahavatara sculpture is installed in one of the devakoshtas of the Durga Temple located in Aihole about 22 miles from Badami. Also built by the Badami Chalukyas, it is a free-standing temple carved with many sculptures and reliefs similar to those in the Badami cave temples.
Ashtabhuja (Eight-Armed) Vishnu
The image shows a beautiful relief depicting Vishnu with eight arms carved on the left side of the Cave – 3 facade.
The iconography of Vishnu typically shows him with four arms, but this relief shows him with four additional hands to indicate that he is Maha Vishnu. In addition to
Check the other Ashtabhuja Vishnu sculptures:
- Ashtabhuja Vishnu in Angkor Wat, Cambodia
- Ashtabhuja Vishnu mounted on the outer wall of the Somanathapura Keshava Temple in Karnataka, India
In Vamanavatara, Vishnu takes the following two forms:
1. Dwarf brahmin holding a wooden umbrella
2. Gigantic Trivikrama taking a giant stride. In this avatar, Vishnu curbs the powers of the asura king Mahabali and relegates him to Patala (Netherworld).
Trivikrama in this avatar is portrayed as Ashtabhuja Vishnu (8-armed Vishnu). His additional four hands carry a bow, arrow, sword and a shield. As you can see from the image, Trivikrama’s left leg is on Mahabali’s head as he takes a giant stride. Read the story below.
Trivikrama’s left leg is stretched above the site where Mahabali is performing
Note: Yagna is a Hindu religious ceremony performed by the priests (brahmins) in front of a ritual fire. It includes the ritual in which sacrificial materials are poured into the fire as priests chant hymns from the sacred texts.
Here is the story of Vamanavatara:
In this avatar, Vishnu takes the form of a diminutive brahmin to punish Mahabali, a benevolent asura (demon) king with an ambition to acquire more power and defeat the devas (demigods). He was also a grandson of Hiranyakashipu killed by Narasimha (man-lion), a previous avatar of Vishnu.
To fulfill Mahabali’s ambition, his guru Shukracharya advises him to perform yagna – a ritual in front of the fire – to please Vishnu and acquire more power. Indra, the lord of the heavens and the king of the devas, sees Mahabali as a danger to his position and authority and asks Vishnu’s help to curb Mahabali’s power and save devas from defeat.
Vishnu agrees and incarnates himself as Vamana, a dwarf brahmin carrying a wooden umbrella. Vamana goes to the
As soon as Mahabali grants his wish, Vamana, the diminutive brahmin, changes himself into Trivikrama, an enormous giant. With his long legs, Trivikrama takes his first stride from Bhuloka (Earth) to Swarga (Heaven) and then the second stride from Bhuloka to Patala (Underworld).
Vishnu then asks Mahabali to show him the position to take his third stride. Mahabali points to his head because Vishnu covered all the realms with his two strides. Vishnu then places his foot on Mahabali’s head and pushes him to Patala.
Once Mahabali is relegated to Patala, Vishnu grants him the immortality and allows him to come back to earth once a year because he was a benevolent king.
In this avatar, Vishnu has a man’s torso with the lion’s face and claws. He adopted this body to kill an asura named Hiranyakashipu, who wanted to take revenge on Vishnu for killing his brother Hiranyaksha in his previous avatar, i.e., Varahavatara.
Here is the story of Narasimhavatara in brief:
To exact revenge for his brother’s death, Hiranyakashipu performs an intense tapasu (austerity and meditation) to please Brahma from whom he expects to obtain a vara (boon) that would give him special powers and make him immortal.
Pleased with Hiranyakashipu, Brahma asks for his wish. When Brahma realizes that he wants to become immortal, Brahma refuses his request but suggests that he can ask for other varas. Hiranyakashipu then cleverly asks Brahma that he must not be killed by a man or animal, or by any weapons.
Brahma accedes to this request and endows him with the vara. With the superpowers he gained from the vara, Hiranyakashipu assumes the godly status and starts tormenting Vishnu’s devotees, including his own son Prahlada. To solve this problem, Vishnu cleverly transforms himself as Narasimha (lion-man) and kills Hiranyakashipu in a gruesome manner by ripping off his entrails with his bare claws.
The story of Narasimhavatara is also a popular theme in both Chalukya and Hoysala temples. It is depicted in the Ugra Narasimha relief carved into the outer wall of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur. The Durga Temple in Aihole also has a Narasimhavatara sculpture installed in one of its devakoshtas.
The large-size sculptural relief depicting Harihara is carved on the wall perpendicular to the sidewall on the right side of the mukhamantapa. Harihara is a symbolical unification of Vishnu and Shiva and is a single entity made from half of Shiva’s and half of Vishnu’s features. Because of this fusion, the followers of both the Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions worship him.
As you can see from the image, Harihara is carved with Shiva’s features on the left side and Vishnu’s features on the right side. One of the left hands carries a shanka (conch), a signature object of Vishnu, indicating that the left part of Harihara belongs to Vishnu. One of the right hands carries a staff with a serpent, and the right part of his crown has a half-moon, kapala (skull cup), and a serpent, indicating that the right part of Harihara belongs to Shiva.
This is one of the most beautiful sculptural reliefs carved in the Badami caves. Adding to its beauty is the red and blue colored texture of the sandstone.
Bas-reliefs on the ceiling
The images below show the bas-reliefs carved into the ceiling of the
As you can see from the image, there are two concentric circular frames, and enclosing them is a square frame. The inner circular frame depicts Vishnu with four hands, one of which carries the Sudarshana Chakra (a disk-like weapon), and another a
Just like the Vishnu relief, this relief also has two concentric circular frames. The inner circular frame depicts Brahma seated majestically on his vehicle Hamsa (a swan). One of his four hands carries a long-handled spoon, and another a
Between the outer and inner circular frames, there are eight smaller circular frames, each with a relief carved inside.
The relief above Brahma depicts Yama, the god of justice and death, riding a buffalo. The relief below him depicts Varuna, the sea god, riding Makara. To his left is the relief depicting Indra, the king of heaven and the devas (demigods), riding Airavata, an elephant. To his right is the relief depicting Kartikeya, a son of Shiva and the god of war, riding a peacock. The other four circular frames have reliefs of yakshas and Vidyadhara couples.
The Yama relief is similar to Vishnu and Brahma relief except for the number of circular frames between inner and outer frames. The inner circular frame depicts Yama, the god of justice and death, riding his vehicle, a male buffalo.
Between the outer and inner circular frames, there are four smaller circular frames, each with a relief carved inside.
Garuda on the eaves
The image shows a sculptural relief depicting Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda carved on the eaves of Cave – 3. This relief is above the entrance and faces the interior side of the temple. In this sculpture, Garuda, a mythical eagle-like bird, is portrayed with a human body having two wings and the nose resembling a beak. Flying above Garuda’s wings are two Vidyadhara couples.
Sabhamantapa – Spacious and well-designed
Compared to the other three cave temples, Cave – 3 has a spacious and well-designed interior. Check the ground plan to see its layout.
The hall at the near end of the image is the sabhamantapa (congregation hall), and the horizontal aisle at the far end is the mukhamantapa (porch), which overlooks the courtyard. At the center of the outer edge of the mukhamantapa is the staircase to enter the temple. On the eves above the entrance is the bas-relief of Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda watching the garbhagriha.
Notice the ceiling. There is a 3 x 3 grid that neatly divides it into nine blocks. This design is called navaranga, which means nine sectors in Kannada. The Hoysala temple architects used the concept of navaranga to design the mantapa in front of the garbhagriha. Read more about navaranga in the Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga page.
Each of the nine blocks has a bas-relief, some of which are weathered. Carved on the center block is Brahma, one of the Trimurti and the creator, and carved on the eight blocks around him are the Ashtadikpalas (guardians of the eight directions).
In Indian mythology, space is made of eight directions, four cardinal and four inter-cardinal, each of which has a dikpala, the god who oversees a direction. Check the AshtaDikpalas painting on the Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals for a list and descriptions of all the dikpalas.
So, the navaraga truly represents cosmic space as experienced by a human being. The builders of this temple tried to capture this concept.
Garbhagriha – Ornate entrance, but no idol
The garbhagriha is a small chamber carved out of the stone at the back of the cave temple. Only the pedestal of the main idol remains. It is believed that a statue of Maha Vishnu once stood on this pedestal.
As you can see, an elegantly-carved staircase at the center leads to the garbhagriha, which is at a higher level than the subhamantapa. The figures carved on the wall on either side of staircase are the dwarapalas (a.k.a. dwarapalakas), Jaya and Vijaya, of Vishnu. Surrounding the door to the garbhagriha are multiple layers of exquisite artwork on stone.
Proceed to Cave – 4
– Badami, Cave – 1, Cave – 2, Cave – 4
– Durga Temple at Aihole
– Somanathapura Keshava Temple – A Masterpiece of Hoysala Temple Art
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Garbhagriha Outer Wall
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Kappe Chennigaraya Shrine
– Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals
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