Important early medieval cave paintings, the Badami murals were executed on the rock-cut Badami Cave temples between the sixth and eighth centuries CE. While it has been argued that murals originally adorned most of the surfaces and sculptures of the caves, only fragments survived when they were first systematically studied in the 1930s. Most fragments may be seen in Caves 3 and 4, and to a smaller degree in the ceiling panels of Cave 2. The murals have been used to understand the techniques, styles and colours used in Deccan wall paintings in this period, as well as the themes preferred by artists and patrons.
Among the most prominent and well-studied of the extant murals are on the vaulted cornices of Cave 3. The cave bears an inscription dating its completion to 578 CE, which may also apply to the paintings. While the cave’s sculptural program focuses on Vaishnavite icons, the murals appear to depict Shaivite and secular royal themes. Two fragmented scenes can be discerned from the murals; one is of a wedding and the second is of a dance performance. The former has been conclusively established as the Kalyanasundara scene: Shiva is depicted with matted hair and Parvati in a veil. Both reach their hands out to one another. Also depicted in the scene are a male figure next to Parvati, thought to be her father; a figure holding what appears to be a stalk of sugarcane; and a group of women in a gallery, watching the proceedings below. The other fragment next to this depicts two dancing women: one faces forward with her hands in a karihasta (swaying elephant trunk) gesture, while the other is turned away. They are accompanied by two female flautists and a drummer. The background appears to be a stage, delineated by a red curtain hanging from a rod, supported on each end by a female figure. This painting has been noted for its depiction of the prishtha-svasta karana or posterior view of dancers, described in treatises such as the Natyashastra. The earliest sculptural depictions of this appear around 800 CE, suggesting that sculptors were drawing on earlier painting traditions.
The cave also includes paintings of airborne Vidyadhara couples, separated from the marriage scene by a sardula (rampant lion or tiger) sculpture. The Vidyadharas are depicted slanted diagonally, with the womens’ braids flowing parallel to their bodies. Their legs are alternately flexed and extended, perhaps in an attempt to depict movement and flight: this artistic principle is unique to the period.
The technique and style of the Badami murals are indicative of a long established tradition of wall-painting. The Ajanta murals, their likely antecedents, may employ a similar fresco secco method. The rough, non-porous surface of the sandstone cave walls was prepared by applying a base consisting of a plaster of mud and clay, mixed with water and natural gum. The paint — a tempera consisting of pigments such as red and yellow ochre, lime and carbon mixed with a binder — was then applied to the dry plaster. A high degree of technical sophistication may be inferred from the placement of the paintings on the concave surface of the cornice, their delicate delineation of figures, their subtle colouring and emphatic modelling.
The Badami murals have often been discussed as a composite of influences, drawing on the technique, style and composition of the Ajanta murals and the fullness and sinuousness of form seen in northern Indian sculptures of preceding centuries. However, their possible antecedents in southern India have received less scholarly attention, due to the lack of other examples of wall painting and sculptures in the region.
Little is known about the planning of the Badami murals as a whole and the stages in which they were executed. Some scholars believe, based on their readings of the inscriptions in Cave 3, that they were painted in full after the carving. It has also been proposed that the murals are a sign of a close relationship between sculpture and painting in India: sculptural forms may have been modelled first, with details and secondary figures added by painting.
Tracings and sketches were made when the murals first caught public attention in the 1930s, coupled with attempts to preserve the fragments. A fresh round of preservation to check the deterioration of pigments and improve visibility was undertaken after the caves came under the authority of the Archaeological Survey of India later in the twentieth century.
As of writing, the Badami cave temples are on the candidate list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the name “Evolution of Temple Architecture – Aihole-Badami-Pattadakal.” As of writing, they remain major tourist attractions.
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