The Badami Chalukyas: An Indian Dynasty Spanning Over 200 Years
At a glance, history can seem chaotic. We need to delve into the depths of any particular era, and not just focus on particular incidents. History is not just a timeline of earth-shattering battles, but is also a continuous process of cultural assimilation by many groups of people. Often, it is the story of a particular dynasty spreading its wings and bringing the population of a vast area together with its indelible mark of governance and influence. India’s is a complex, mammoth and million-faceted history. Sometimes, its beauty can be appreciated as a continuum, where an empire never disappears completely, but only fades away momentarily to reappear in a different form for the following generations.
In India today, the southern state of Karnataka is home to Badami, a town revered for its breathtaking rock-cut cave and structural Chalukya temples. These temples are the legacy of a dynasty known as the Chalukyas, a golden age in the history of Karnataka. This legacy is present not just in Badami, but also in Pattadakal and Aihole, together the three urban centers of the Badami Chalukyan dynasty, and in which one can enjoy the remains of their majestic temple architecture.
Badami, in the southern state of Karnataka, is a town revered for its breathtaking rock-cut cave and structural Chalukya temples. ( Yevgen / Adobe Stock)
The Origin of the Chalukyas
An Indian royal dynasty that ruled vast areas of southern and central India, from the 6 th to 12 th century AD, Chalukya doesn’t just refer to one homogeneous dynasty. The name Chalukya itself has mythological connotations, as is the case with many aspects of Indian culture. One legend claims that Chalukya could be an extension of the words chaluka-jala, which signifies the amount of water on the palm of the Hindu Trinity Lord Brahma who created the Chalukya warriors from that oblation liquid.
The main Chalukyas that we will talk about today was the Badami Chalukyas with their erstwhile capital at Vatapi, aka today’s Badami. But, let’s not forget that there were several Chalukyas over time. The origin of the Chalukyas is not known and several debatable theories exist. According to the renowned historian Shri Durga Prasad Dikshit, the evidence available, both epigraphic and literary, fails to provide any conclusive answer to the question of their origins. Information provided by the likes of Kashmiri author Bilhana, or other Kannada and Tamil authors, is incomplete.
We do know however that before the 6 th century, the Indian subcontinent was dominated by the marching reverberations of the Guptas whose influence spread far and wide. The earliest Chalukyas rose to power in the Deccan some time in the mid-6 th century AD, known as the Badami Chalukyas, during an interesting period in Indian history when regional kingdoms took control after the collapse of the Gupta Empire. The Deccan rose to power and saw a tripartite struggle between three dynasties. The Badami Chalukyas of Vatapi was constantly in a struggle with the Pallavas of Kanchipuram and the Pandyas of Madurai.
Map showing the area covered by the Badami Chalukya Empire between about 636 AD and 740 AD. ( Mlpkr / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Divisions of the Chalukyas: Badami, Eastern and Western Chalukyas
Before the Badami Chalukyas, the western Deccan was a scene of utter chaos. According to historian Durga Prasad Dikshit, the Deccan was in turmoil at that time, with many families vying for supremacy. This led to one of the darkest periods in the regions history, with neither material or political developments. The central Deccan at that time was ruled by the Vakataka and the Nala dynasties. The Chalukyas probably did not clash with the Vakatakas, but conflict with the Nalas resulted in the latter becoming their vassal. However, the renowned historia Romila Thapar argues that the Chalukyas first came into limelight as vassals of the Kadambas, from whom they soon broke free. The Chalukyas also expanded northwards to capture the erstwhile Vakatakas regions in the upper Godavari. They also annexed many coastal areas in Western India to enable the benefits of trade from across the Arabian Sea.
The earliest Chalukyas were the Badami Chalukyas, who rose to their greatest extant of power when King Pulakesi II ventured far and wide and subjugated various regions. This dynasty was founded by Pulakesi I, Pulakesi II’s grandfather.
The Eastern Chalukyas were the Chalukyas which reigned from Vengi, in current day Andhra Pradesh state. When Pulakesi II captured the region, he installed one of his relatives there as a governor. Soon that line of the Chalukyas became independent and came to be known as the Eastern Chalukyas.
Around 8 th century CE, the Badami Chalukyas were eclipsed by the Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta, another powerful dynasty of the southern region of India. They, in turn, were eclipsed later on, by a line of Chalukyas from Kalyani who came to be known as the Western Chalukyas.
The Chalukyas of Lata was a feudatory of the Western Chalukyas who ruled around 10 th to 11 th centuries CE in the modern-day state of Gujarat. The Chaulukya or Solanki Dynasty of Gujarat finally defeated them in the end.
This Stone Shiva in the historic caves in Badami, India, is an example of 6 th century temple artwork found within the Badami Chalukya architecture. ( radiokafka / Adobe Stock)
Supremacy and Expansion of the Badami Chalukyas
Pulakesi I, founder of the Badami Chalukyas dynasty, came into the picture in around c. 543 AD. Pulakesi’s name probably meant “a powerful lion” or “lion-haired”. He fortified his base by building a citadel in Badami in the same year and went on to declare his supremacy by performing an Ashwamedh Yagna , or horse sacrifice, which was an old Indian tradition where an all-conquering monarch was supposed to declare his suzerainty over others by performing this ritual. Pulakesi I extended his domain during his rule and governed a huge area covering the modern-day Indian states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.
According to historian K. A. Nilakanta Shastri, Pulakesi’s warrior son Kirtivarman I then came to the throne and expanded the kingdom further. He fought and defeated the Kadambas of Banavasi, the Mauryas of Konkan, the Gangas of Takakad, the Alupas and the Nalas. By such deeds, he came to rule a vast region probably encompassing parts of modern-day Indian states of Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Karnataka. It was probably during his reign that the military structure of the Chalukyas began to take on an invincible halo. In fact, Kirtivarman I probably served as the commander-in-chief in his father’s army and was therefore responsible for some of Pulakesi I’s victories too.
When Kirtivarman died, he is believed to have left three sons, of which Pulakesi II was the oldest. However, Pulakesi II was still a minor when his father passed away, and hence Kiritivarman’s brother, Mangalesa, assumed power as a regent for his nephew. Mangalesa took control and adhered to the earlier policy of expansion and conquest. He invaded the territories of the Kalachuri Buddharaja who ruled over Malwa, Khandesh and Gujarat. However, these conquests did not add to the Chalukyan territory.
Mangalesa was a very able ruler who might have gone down in history as one of the greatest sovereigns of ancient India. However, fate made other plans after Mangalesa attempted to usurp the throne for himself and his own family. This forced Mangalesa into a pitched battle with his own nephew. When Pulakesi II came of age, he left court, gathered his loyalists and together they revolted against his uncle. In the ensuing civil war, Mangalesa was defeated and killed, and his memory faded into oblivion. Pulakesi II came to power in an established kingdom, but he managed to surpass those before him in glory and honor.
Pulakesi II continued the expansionist policies of the Chalukyas, and even defeated Harsha in battle. ( Public domain )
Invincible Pulakesi II: Battling the Rebels and Defeating Harshavardhana
Pulakesi II was skilled in martial arts and was a very able general. When he came to the throne, he continued the expansionist policies of the Chalukyas. One by one, he defeated a rebel by the name of Appayika, the Kadambas of Banavasi, the Alupas of South Canara, the Gangas of Mysore, the Mauryas of Konkan, the Latas, the Malavas and the Gurjaras.
He then came face to face with one of the greatest figures of Indian history, the Indian emperor Harshavardhana, known through the glorifying accounts of the Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler Xuanzang. During those days, Pulakesi’s burgeoning influence in the subcontinent was making Harshavardhana very uncomfortable and together with the ambition of subjugating the Deccan, Harsha came down with his army and the two mighty monarchs met each other near the Narmada River.
Harsha suffered a resounding defeat and had to retreat in disgrace. Henceforth, Pulakesi II acquired such a martial prestige that the chroniclers glorified the magnificence of his army in no uncertain terms. It was said that his invincible elephants were unleashed into battle after being intoxicated with wine.
After defeating Harsha in battle, chroniclers glorified the magnificent army of Pulakesi II’s army. It was said that his invincible elephants were intoxicated before being unleashed into battle. ( radiokafka / Adobe Stock)
Rise and Fall of Pulakesi II, Lord of the Eastern and the Western Seas
Leaving one of his brothers in charge of the capital after this resounding victory, he ventured east where he easily subjugated the Southern Kosala, Kalinga and other regions. It was this campaign that later gave rise to the Vengi Chalukyas. From here, Pulakesi II ventured further south to the Pallava territory where he fought a ferocious battle with Mahendravarman I. Though the Pallavi king saved himself and his capital (Kanchipuram), Pulakesi II was the clear winner and claimed much of the Pallava territory. From there he went on to subjugate the Cholas of the Kaveri delta, Pandyas of Madurai and the Cheras of erstwhile Kerala. According to the noted historian John Keay, Pulakesi II by this time had become tantamount to “the lord of the eastern and the western seas.”
However, that was not the end of the Chalukya-Pallava struggle. In the Pallava realm, King Mahendravarman gave way to his dynamic son Narsimhavarman I, the person who was also behind the construction of Mahabalipuram, now a popular tourist attraction. When Pulakesi II again invaded the Pallava territory, Narsimhavarman defeated him in a series of battles. Emboldened by these successes and the assistance of his allies, Narsimhavarman invaded the Chalukya territories, reached their capital Badami and defeated them so comprehensively as to become the master of the city. In the final battle, known as the Battle of Vatapi, Pulakesi II was probably killed. Thus ended the reign of one of the greatest monarchs of India.
The Battle of Vatapi, between the Pallavas and Chalukyas, took place near the Chalukya capital of Vatapi (today’s Badami) in 642, and ended with the defeat and death of Pulakesi II. ( Public domain )
Restoring the Badami Chalukyas to Rule until 753
After a few years under Pallava control, Pulakesi II’s son Vikramaditya I rose to power. He drove away the Pallavas from Badami and restored the power of the Chalukyas. Vikramaditya I was a good ruler and he was ably succeeded by his descendants like Vinayaditya, Vijayaditya, and then Vikramaditya II who avenged their earlier defeat in the hands of the Pallavas by taking Kanchipuram and defeating the Pallava monarch Nandivarman II.
Vikramaditya II was one of the greatest rulers of the Chalukyas. He expanded their territories and came to be known for his benevolence. During his rule, apart from subjugating many southern powers, he also drove away invading Islamic armies, who attempted to invade the part of Gujarat under the control of the Chalukyas. The Badami Chalukyas probably ruled until c. 753 AD, when their last ruler Kirtivarman II was overwhelmed by the great Rashtrakuta monarch Dantidurga. The Chalukyas would return once again after more than 200 years, this time in the guise of the Western Chalukyas or the Chalukyas of Kalyani.
The cultural contributions of the Badami Chalukyas dynasty within Indian culture cannot be enumerated in a single book, let alone an article. Not only did they bring about a fusion of northern and southern Indian styles in their temple architecture, but also languages such as Kannada flourished during their reign. Telugu, another language of southern India , also blossomed under the Eastern Chalukyas. Hence, under the Badami Chalukyas literature proliferated, as did distinguished men of letters. The Badami Chalukyas remain one of the greatest dynasties to have governed within the Indian subcontinent.
Top image: The Badami Chalukyas dynasty came to control vast tracts of land within southern and central India from about 543 AD until 753 AD. Representative image of a more modern era. Source: Public domain
By Saurav Ranjan Datta
Dikshit, D. P. 1980. Political History of the Chalukyas . New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
Keay, J. 2011. India: A History . Grove Press.
Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. 1976. A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar. Oxford University Press.
Thapar, R. 2015. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 . Penguin Books Ltd.