This page describes Cave -3, one of the four rock-cut cave temples carved out of a red sandstone hill near Badami in Karnataka, India. It is named Cave – 3 because it is the third cave from the main entrance where the visitors enter the cave complex.
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
Cave -3: A rock-cut cave temple dedicated to Maha Vishnu
According to Hindu mythology, Maha Vishnu is a form of Vishnu, one of the Trimurti (Holy Trinity) who preserves order and maintains harmony in the universe. Because of his role as the primary creator, i.e., the creator of the creator, Vishnu is known as Maha Vishnu (Great Vishnu).
Unlike the other three caves, there is an inscription detailing the exact date of Cave – 3’s 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.
Because the temple is dedicated to Vishnu, most of the carvings in the temple are related to Vishnu, his avatars, and the legends narrated in the Puranas.
Facade and entrance
Cave – 3 stands out from the rest of the caves as it is bigger area-wise, and its carvings are precise and exquisite. Compared to the other three caves, it has a broader facade and a large courtyard enclosed by a prakara (protective wall).
As you can see from the image, the staircase in the middle provides access to the temple. It leads to a narrow terrace, behind which there are six pillars embellished with beautiful artwork and reliefs.
Elegant Mantapa style architecture
Like the other three caves, Cave -3 is a style temple with the following three sections:
1. Mukhamantapa (Verandah or Porch) – The mukhamantapa is a narrow hall near the entrance with six squarish pillars on the side facing the courtyard and four pillars on the side facing the . The ceiling of the mukhamantapa is also ornate with bas-reliefs depicting Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Varuna, and Yama.
2. Sabhamantapa (Congregation Hall) – The subhamantapa 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 is a small chamber carved out of the stone at the rear end of the cave. The principal diety is missing in this chamber, where, according to some experts, a statue of Maha Vishnu once stood
Mukamantapa – Porch embellished with exquisite carvings
The mukhamantapa is highly ornate with an ensemble of decorations, including large-size narrative sculptural reliefs on the walls, beautiful bas-reliefs carved into the ceiling and eves, intricate artwork carved into the pillars, and murals (mostly faded) painted on the eves.
On either end of the mukhamantapa and on the edge facing the , there is a small extension almost at right angles to the sidewall. In addition, the mukhamantapa sidewalls are extended outside the facade at each end. Thus, as you can see from the ground plan, there are three walls at each end of the mukhamantapa.
All the walls at the two ends are carved with large-size sculptural reliefs. The reliefs on the right wall are, Maha Vishnu seated on Adishesha, Varahavatara, and Astabhuja Vishnu (8-Armed Vishnu). The reliefs on the left wall are, Vamanavatara, Narasimhavatara, and Harihara. Here are are the details of these reliefs:
Maha Vishnu seated on Adishesha
The image below shows the left half of the , which appears like a durbar (royal court) of a king.
Maha Vishnu is seated majestically on a throne formed by Adishesha, a seven-headed mythical serpent. His vehicle Garuda is on the lower left and his consort Lakshmi is on the lower right.
Adishesha is known by many names, including Shesha, Sheshanaga, and Ananta. Buried in these names are the two interesting mathematical concepts. In Sanskrit, shesha means one that remains (i.e., remainder), and ananta means endless (i.e., infinity). In other words, Shesha will remain even after the end of the universe, and Ananta will exist for eternity.
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 Ashta Dikpalas (eight guardians of the directions) that include Indra and Yama.
Varahavatara, the third avatar of Vishu
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 (). Varaha in Sanskrit means wild boar. In this avatar, he assumes the form of a wild boar and rescues Bhudevi (Mother Earth) from an evil demon named Hiranyaksha, who was tormenting her. As you can see from the image, Vishnu as Varaha is lifting Bhudevi from the cosmic ocean represented by multi-headed nagas (serpents).
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 can be found in one of the devakoshtas of the Durga Temple at Aihole, about 22 miles east of 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
This beautiful relief depicting Vishnu with eight arms is carved on the left extension of the facade.
The carvings of Vishnu with standard iconography show him with four arms, but in this relief, he has four additional arms. This feature indicates that he is indeed Maha Vishnu, to whom Cave -3 is dedicated.
In this finely-carved relief, Vishnu is wearing beautiful jewelry around his neck, arms, hands and waist, and a tall crown on his head. He is standing elegantly with a stern face.
Each of his eight hands holds an object. Here are his signature objects in four of his hands:
1. Chakra (A disc-like weapon) – right hand, first from the top
2. Gadā (Mace) – right hand, third from the top
3. Padma (Lotus) – missing, left hand, second from the top
4. Shanka (Conch Shell) – left hand, first from the top
Here are the objects in the other four hands:
1. Dhanush (Bow) – left hand, third from the top
2. Bāna (Arrow) – right hand, second from top
3. Sword (partly broken) – right hand in front
4. Rope – left hand in front
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
Vamanavatara, the fifth avatar of Vishnu
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. 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 to please Vishnu. Attending him are the brahmins who are holding materials to offer them as sacrifices at the pyre. The Vamana sculpture under Trivikramas left leg is missing, but his umbrella is seen.
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 site and asks Mahabali to give him the land that covers his three strides. Mahabali considers it as a trivial request, and against the advice of his guru Shukracharya, who senses a trickery, grants his wish.
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.
Narasimhavatara, the fourth avatar of Vishnu
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.
Harihara – Vishnu and Shiva as a single entity
This large-size sculptural relief depicting Harihara is carved on the perpendicular extension 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 panels enclosed by a square panel. Carved into the innermost circular panel is a relief depicting Vishnu with four arms, one of which carries the Sudarshana Chakra (disc-like weapon) and the other a shanka (conch).
Filling the space between the outer and inner circular panels are the eight circular frames, likely carved with the Ashta Dikpalas (Guardians of the eight directions). Some of them are identifiable, including Indra (riding an elephant), Kubera, Varuna (riding Makara), Agni (riding a ram), and Nirtti (riding a horse).
Covering the space between the outer circular panel and the square panel is beautiful artwork depicting foliage spewed by Makara.
Brahma, the creator
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 (prayer beads).
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.
Yama, the god of justice and death
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 entrance to the temple. On the eves above the entrance is the bas-relief of Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda watching the garbhagriha.
If you 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 architects of Hoysala temples used the concept of Navaranga to design mantapas in front of the garbhagrihas. Read more about the Navaranga in the Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga page.
The intricately carved bas-reliefs adorn each of the nine blocks, and as you can see, some of them are weathered. Carved into the central block is Brahma, the creator and one of the Trimurti. Carved into the rest of the blocks around are the Ashta Dikpalas (guardians of the eight directions).
In Indian mythology, space has eight directions, four cardinal and four inter-cardinal, each with a dikpala, the god who oversees that direction. Check the Ashta Dikpalas painting on the Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals for a list and descriptions of all the dikpalas.
The Navaraga truly represents cosmic space as experienced by a human being. The builders of this temple tried to capture this concept in stone.
Garbhagriha – Ornate entrance, but no deity
As you can see from the left image, an elegantly carved staircase at the center leads to the garbhagriha, built at a higher level than the subhamantapa. The sculptural reliefs carved into the wall on either side of the staircase depict 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.
The garbhagriha is a small chamber carved out of the stone at the back of the cave temple. As you can see from the image on the right, only the pedestal of the principal deity remains. It is believed that a statue of Maha Vishnu once stood on this pedestal.
Proceed to Cave – 4 …
– Badami, Cave – 1, Cave – 2, Cave – 4
– Durga Temple at Aihole
– Somanathapura Keshava Temple
– 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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