The only way to Badami is by bus. The main problem in riding buses in the south of India is finding the one going to our destination. There are no signs in English, and we’re so far into poor rural areas that people are not that educated and speak very little English – and the names of some of the towns are impossible to pronounce, adding to the confusion when we ask for information. We stand beside the bus lines looking for someone who might be able to help us. A driver appears, guesses we’re going to Badami and leads us to his bus. Immediately another driver intercepts: no, this is the bus, and tries to lead us to his. Suddenly we’re involved in a tug-of-war between two buses and their drivers. This is unusual – normally buses are so full, no one is trying to drum up business.
A supposed five hour bus journey extends closer to seven. But it’s an interesting ride, through several remote hillside villages that somehow seem little affected by the 21st century – with the exception of plastic. From the vantage point of the bus, you can be a spectator without being observed.
As we pull into Badami, it’s not what we expected at all – but things rarely are. It is much busier, dirtier and noisier. The street is a chaotic scene of rickshaws, trucks, people, menacing monkeys and wild hairy pigs (not the beguilingly attractive variety of Goa). We have litte choice of hotel. Our room sits beside a generator which comes on for long periods, day and night, when the power’s out. Power cuts in India are a fact of life. Our hotel has a generator which is a mixed blessing. The ceiling fan operates throughout the night; the downside is that we have to hear the diesel engine generator roaring outside the window. The garden restaurant, described in the guidebook as Badami’s saving grace – is closed. The scrubby garden doesn’t look inviting anyway. This must be the poorest Indian town we’ve ever visited!
But we have to remind ourselves, we didn’t come to Badami for the facilities. We came to see 6th Century caves carved out of sandstone cliffs – rather I came because Gerard wanted to, drawn by a compelling picture he found on the Internet of the multicolor layered cliff caves bordering a huge water tank. But when we visit the three major caves, even I am awestruck by the immensity of the carvings – the huge statues of the Hindu Gods – Vishnu, the monkey Hanuman, sixteen armed dancing Shiva – the Buddhist bodhisattvas in the neighboring Jain temple. The detailed design and the workmanship involved are truly amazing. Considering their age, and the record of the Muslim invaders for destroying and defacing anything that predated Islam, they are in incredibly good shape. The archeological society of India is now maintaining and doing some repair work.
We go back the next day for a second look, trying to imprint them in our memory because even though we take a lot of pictures, they still can’t capture the awesome presence of the carvings. From the caves we look out across the huge tank where women are washing clothes, to the hillsides around dotted with structural temples built later in the 7th Century. Gerard comments, that in modern times, it’s hard to think of anything comparable. So little attempt is made to do great works, never mind communal projects that involve thousands of people working for the same ideal. No doubt there are great artists today, but there’s something here that seems to transcend the individual ego. It’s true these days we construct large buildings but they’re a testament to commerce and not to spiritual devotion.