On the smooth pink sandstone surface, veined here and there with deep brown and pale white streaks, two large, stylised human figures stand frozen in a moment of frenzied action, their bodies contorted and twisted in the ecstasy of dance. At their feet, a sounder of wild boar are scattered about, their bristly hides lending a rough texture to the smooth stone. The dancing couple seems oblivious to them; in fact, the woman seems to be stepping on one of the animals. The man appears to be swaying backwards, holding what seems to be a stick or a spear, while the woman’s body is taut and arched. Maybe the couple is hunting, not dancing. Surrounding this scene is an assortment of various much-smaller human and animal figures: stick-like humans, cows or bulls, as well as abstract symbols.

This haunting scene, traced out in red ochre by the hands of an accomplished artist (or artists?) on a sandstone cliff protected by an overhang, has been braving the elements for thousands of years, at the outskirts of the famous heritage site of Badami, Karnataka. The artist(s) who created this work of art lived in the Mesolithic or the Middle Stone Age, possibly ten thousand years ago, according to rock art experts. During this period, humans lived as hunter-gatherers; animal domestication and agriculture were yet to become a part of human endeavour.

The Mesolithic rock painting near Ranganatha Gudi, southern Badami.

The location of the rock art, on the face of the overhanging cliff to the left of the image.

Just why Mesolithic humans chose to paint this scene high on the cliff is anybody’s guess. It is quite possible that the composition is a collage of the work of artists of different times – images of different periods overlaid in the same frame. Maybe this was an ancient ritual site, where hunters gathered to invoke good luck before they set out on their mission. The wild boar depicted in the scene was probably one of the favourite prey animals of Mesolithic humans.

A closer view of the wild boars in the prehistoric rock art panel.

Less than a kilometre to the north-west of where this dramatic scene is painted, on the other face of the very same sandstone massif, is a series of four caves scooped out to form rock-cut temples by the artisans of the Early Chalukyan Dynasty, which ruled a large part of South India from their capital at Badami during the 6th–8th centuries CE. The second rock-cut temple of the series, known as Cave 2, is one of two caves dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Here, in a niche flanking the entry, is a beautiful sculpture of Varaha, the third of the ten avataras (incarnations) of Vishnu. Within six to seven hundred metres, and several thousand years, the favourite prey animal of the prehistoric occupants of Badami stands transformed into a valiant and magnificent god—an incarnation of Vishnu—who saved the goddess Earth (Bhudevi) from the primordial waters in which the demon Hiranyaksha had hidden her.

In Cave 2 at Badami, Varaha holds Bhudevi in the palm of his lower left hand, as she stands leaning on his snout with her right elbow.

The worship of Varaha did not begin in Badami, though the Early Chalukyan sculptures of the god are some of the earliest images of their kind. The earliest images of Varaha were found in Mathura, from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. However, the Early Chalukyans of Badami were the first dynasty to adopt the boar as their symbol, as can be seen portrayed on a pillar of the Lad Khan Temple at Aihole, 25 km from Badami. Later, the Vijayanagara Dynasty also chose the boar as their royal emblem.

The royal insignia of the Early Chalukyan Empire, carved on a pillar in Lad Khan Temple, Aihole.

The royal insignia of the Vijayanagara Empire, depicted on a wall surface of a Shiva Temple (locally known as Varaha Temple) at Hampi.

The images of Bhu-Varaha at Badami and Aihole show the avatar in his anthropomorphic form, with the head of a boar and the torso of a human. The Bhu-Varaha image in one of the niches of the outer circumambulatory path at the Durga Temple, Aihole, is a much more vigorous depiction of Varaha raising Bhudevi high on his left shoulder and gazing into her face.

Durga Temple, Aihole.

The Bhu-Varaha image in an outer niche of Durga Temple, Aihole.

At the rock-cut Ravulaphadi Cave at Aihole, Bhudevi sits demurely on the bent left elbow of a more sedate looking Varaha, her feet resting on his palm and her right hand placed on his left shoulder for support. At Cave 2 and Durga Temple, Varaha stands with one foot resting on the worshipful naga (serpent) Adisesha, accompanied by his consort. However, in the Ravulaphadi sculpture, the naga figures are in a corner of the frame. The presence of the naga figures emphasizes the setting of the drama – in the primordial ocean.

Ravulaphadi Cave Temple, Aihole.

The Bhu-Varaha image at Ravulaphadi Cave, Aihole.

The Early Chalukyan artisans have rendered in the pink sandstone of the Malaprabha Valley, the well-known story of the Varaha (boar) incarnation of Vishnu, with the easy grace characteristic of the sculpture of that period. Though more or less similar in theme and depiction, the individual artists who created these images have taken the liberty to make small changes in the manner Bhudevi (earth) is carried by her saviour, and in the overall posture of the boar who saved Goddess Earth.