Kilian Fischhuber at work on a new route in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian Fischhuber at work on a new route in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The most obvious thing in Badami is its beautiful rock walls.

They not only have this orange-ochre colour, but with the right sunshine, at the right time – they are also dramatic.

Badami’s ancient stone temples and caves add to the scene.

If stone is so obvious, you would think – Badami’s story should be one of stone. That is true but it isn’t wholly so, for as with many organized settlements, the oldest constructions found here are of brick. Dr Padigar attributes this to a rather universal trend – in human civilization, stone and the lifeless initially went hand in hand. Much before people built with stone to live in such buildings, they used stone to build tombs, reserving bricks for inhabitable spaces. In India, the taboo was first broken by Buddhism. A lot of early cave and stone structures in the country is Buddhist in origin. Hinduism followed in adopting the practice. In the Badami region – there are caves and temples here – the oldest caves are Hindu. This aside, Badami’s story in stone goes all the way back to crude stone implements from the dawn of human settlement (these tools are displayed at the local archaeological museum). From such antiquity it spans right up to the glory of stone temples under the Chalukyas. The oldest stone implements discovered date back to about 100,000 years ago, part of what is called by archaeologists as a `stone line’ (suggesting the level of open ground at a time when stone age people would have been active here), a metre and a half below the ground in Lakhmapur. Like Precambrian giving way to eras of complex multi cellular life, from these small, isolated stone implements, human craftsmanship graduates over the years to construction. What is on show in the later and more complex architectural history of the region is the craft of working soft stone. In South India, working hard stone like granite has been the domain of the Tamil kingdoms further south and south east from Badami. Thus the hard granite of Hampi wasn’t exploited by the Chalukyas although Hampi is just 145 kilometres away from Badami. On the other hand, some of the temples of Hampi are built of soft stone brought in from elsewhere. The first detailed report about the stone monuments of Badami-Pattadakal-Aihole is the 1874-work by James Burgess. There is also an earlier photo album-like publication by Meadows Taylor. As medium for craftsmen to work on, Dr Padigar believes that the stone of Badami proper was probably the best in the region; the sandstone here is firm despite being sedimentary in origin. “ The Aihole version tends to crumble,’’ he said. How the soft stone-craft flourished in Badami has interesting angles. Although Badami had trade guilds, guilds of architects, craftsmen and artists don’t seem to have existed – Dr Padigar said. By the Chalukyan era, there were many talented architects in town; some of them were brought from outside Badami as well. Ilkal in the region, has the widest variety of stones and a particular monument in Nandwadagi is unique for converging a variety of stones into one building.

An architect or craftsman in the Chalukyan era wasn’t a specialist devoted to one medium or style. They had to have expertise across mediums – from stone to metal, be versatile. They even had duties as soldiers in war. As regards artistic style, one of the engaging points according to Dr Padigar, is that in the Badami-Pattadakal-Aihole region (collectively called Badami for the purpose of explaining history in this article), you find doses of North Indian architectural styles in the ancient stone buildings. You also find local architects (their names are there in inscriptions) – some of who built without patron for given project – evolving their own hybrid style. For art and architecture, the area was thus a melting pot, a case of north meeting the south. In all of ancient India, the Gupta period is deemed the Golden Age in terms of art and architecture. Dr Padigar thinks that the Chalukyas were much inspired by what was happening in the north and central parts of India and sought to showcase something similar in Badami. He isn’t surprised by the resultant synthesis because even in still older times, as when the great king Ashoka ruled vast parts of India, Badami and its neighbourhood was under the administrative influence of the northern empires. In fact, the range of artistic influences that converged in Badami under the Chalukyas only add to the academic curiosity to find out where these people hailed from. Was there something to the story of their life before Badami that shaped in them the urge to synthesize at a new capital rising from the dust? All this reminded me of my own experience doing a story on Hindustani classical music in North Karnataka (please see earlier post of January 2, 2014: Hubli-Dharwad: Life after the Legends accessible on this link: The question there too had been why Hindustani classical music flourished in Hubli-Dharwad but not further south, say in Mysore, famed for supporting the arts.

Tuhin Satarkar climbing n Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuhin Satarkar climbing in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tall and lanky, Tuhin’s hands and legs reach far on rock. This shapes his climbing style. His successful climbs become projects entailing homework for others with a different climbing style. I recall Gaurav Kumar telling me that he would have to work to climb Ganesha as the route isn’t his style. And climbers do that – every style, every human size has its strengths, ability to innovate. According to Tuhin, Ganesha has strenuous moves at start, cruises through the middle and near the finish poses a battle with fatigue. At the bottom of Ganesha to take a photograph of the climbing route, all I saw was an overhang; the route seemed like ascending the edge of a mild mushroom. As elsewhere in Badami, on Ganesha too, chalk marks on rock betrayed the holds, the features – the key to tackling the route’s challenge. More accurately, one half of the key; the rest is climber. What is a key if you don’t know how to use it?

Through late January to early February 2014, Tuhin and Kilian Fischhuber have been climbing in Badami. Kilian climbed Ganesha soon after arrival. I hung around watching some of their later projects. When I left Badami, two new routes were in the testing stage. One, next to Samsara, had been climbed in sections and was awaiting all the sequences to be sewn up in one flow; the other – on a nearby overhanging rock face – kept defeating the climbers with a very strenuous move in the middle. The unsaid quest across these routes, that tantalizing thought beyond enjoying climbing was – are there routes in Badami exceeding Ganesha in difficulty? Will India get an 8c or 8c+; will we touch the 9-mark? Today the toughest sport climbing routes in the word are in Spain and Norway, both graded 9b+, both climbed by the 20 year-old Czech rock climber, Adam Ondra. The ascent in Spain took him weeks of work.

Amazingly, what the Chalukyas laboured to create by way of influential empire was lost in no time once their power waned. In the sweep of history, Badami’s decline resembles stone dropped in water; as sudden as its appearance as the Chalukya capital, except – the decline is despite new found prominence as capital. As the Chalukyas fade, so does Badami. Post Chalukyas, it came under the orbit of the Rashtrakudas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagar kingdom, the Adil Shahi rulers, the Mughals, the Marathas, the British – on to present day India. Everyone who followed the Chalukyas left their mark, but none like the Chalukya.“ Chalukya craftsmanship is in a class of its own,’’ Dr Padigar said. According to him, while there are monuments in Badami hailing from the well known Vijayanagar period, in terms of craftsmanship they don’t match what was achieved 800 years earlier under the Chalukyas. Today Badami sees life as a hot, dusty town framed by timeless sandstone. The town’s architecture is characterized by the characterless architectural mess of modern India, old buildings and new, a clash of concrete, metal, paint and glass. Traffic on its main road has grown. Cell phone towers have appeared and like elsewhere in India, here too, there are those with one hand stuck to the ear, phone sandwiched in between. On the street’s edge, bull dozers are forever tearing down something. Life goes on amid gaping holes in concrete and twisted steel rods puzzled for logic. A man stood on half a balcony and calmly sipped tea observing the rubble. Monkeys sat on roof tops. Pigs ran around and a dark muck lurked in open sewers.

Kilian Fischhuber (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian Fischhuber (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Not all climbers like Badami. I have noticed that.

Many prefer Hampi, reportedly more relaxed and at home with climbing compared to this town.

For the faithful, Badami is the home of sandstone and that route called Ganesha.

In climbing, nothing comes to you and your comfort zone. You have to venture out. Kilian is from Innsbruck in Austria. I asked Kilian what he thought of Badami. “ This is a great place to climb. Good rocks and good routes. My only problem is with the heat,’’ he said one evening, on the winding path to the Temple Area. It was a team composed of three people in the main – Kilian, Tuhin and Johannes Mair, who handled photography and film making. A typical day featured Tuhin climbing and Kilian belaying, or vice versa, with Johannes perched on nearby rock or dangling from a rope, filming the scene. Once in a while, Johannes too climbed. Over an evening and the following morning and evening, I watched Kilian and Tuhin work the two newly bolted routes. Would they be tougher than Ganesha? – I wondered. In sport climbing, the nature of the animal is such that the question can’t be avoided. Climbers I spoke to in Mumbai (where some of the blitz gang had gathered for the 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition) felt that routes tougher than Ganesha existed in Badami.

Third week of February, I checked with Tuhin to know what happened after I left Badami. Both the new routes, he said, have remained work in progress. Kilian almost completed a climb of the route next to Samsara. But then almost, isn’t the same as completed. And with neither route fully done, it is probably correct not to guess their grade yet. 

The search is on for beyond Ganesha.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the help provided by Dr Shrinivas Padigar, Dr Sheelakant Pattar, Dr Navin Shankar, Vinay Potdar and Dr Sambhu Pankicker towards writing this piece.)     

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