Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Sedimentary Structures: Building Stones of Badami, Aihole And Pattadakal Temples

Is this sandstone slab in its original geological orientation (as when the sedimentary layers were deposited) or is it upside down? I'll answer this a little later, but first some background.

I recently visited the Chalukya style temples and rock cut monuments at Aihole, Pattadakal and Badami (6th -8th CE) in northern Karnataka and noticed some great sedimentary structures in the building stones. The term sedimentary structures refers to the shape and form sedimentary layers get sculpted into by the action of waves, currents, tides and wind during deposition of the sediment. The size of the deposited sedimentary particles and the orientation of layers are a reflection of both the vigor of the currents and waves and the direction of flow of water or wind.  

These monuments are made up of Neoproterozoic age (900-800 million year old) sandstones. Geologists have recognized using detailed sedimentological analysis that the sandstones formed mostly in a large braided river system that flowed in a northwesterly direction.

Between  roughly 1800 -800 million years ago, over the course of a billion years, the Indian continental crust sagged due to various tectonic forces to form several long lasting sedimentary basins. The Kaladgi Basin in which the Badami area sandstones were deposited is one such basin. The paleogeographic reconstruction below shows the position of the Indian continent at about one billion years ago and the location of the various sedimentary basins within it.

Source: Shilpa Patil Pillai, Kanchan Pande and Vivek S Kale: 2018: Implications of new 40Ar/39Ar age of Mallapur Intrusives on the chronology and evolution of the Kaladgi Basin, Dharwar Craton, India.

Much of this deposition took place in inland or epeiric seas that flooded the Indian continent. During intervals of sea level fall, rivers carved valleys and deposited coarse sediment. The Badami Cave sandstones are river deposits of the Kaladgi Basin. The stratigraphic column shows various sedimentary deposits of the Kaladgi Basin and their inferred environments of deposition.

Source: Shilpa Patil Pillai, Kanchan Pande and Vivek S Kale: 2018: Implications of new 40Ar/39Ar age of Mallapur Intrusives on the chronology and evolution of the Kaladgi Basin, Dharwar Craton, India.

The Badami braided river system was receiving sediment eroded from Archean age (>2.5 billion year old) rocks situated SE of the basin. These were granites, granodiorites, and low to medium grade metamorphic  rocks of the Dharwar craton (a large block of stable old continental crust). 

Land plants did not exist then. Weathered debris was moved quickly by surface flow into streams. Large sediment load, moving by traction i.e. by rolling and sliding on the stream bed, repeatedly choked the channels, forcing bifurcation of streams and formation of braids. Very broad braided rivers formed since there were no plants to stabilize banks.  The Badami sandstones (Cave Temple Formation) are technically known as arenites. This term indicates that the rock is made up of mostly coarse sand with very little finer sized mud. Accumulation of mostly coarser sand size and pebbly particles reflects a locale of repeated high discharges and vigorous currents which winnowed away the finer sized mud.  The braided river shown below as an example is from the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand.

 Source: Braided Rivers: What's the Story?

The Badami rocks preserve a record of  various subenvironments of this paleo-river. Picture shows channel and bar deposits in outcrop.

Source: Mukhopadhyay et. al. 2018; Stratigraphic Evolution and Architecture of the Terrestrial Succession at the Base of the Neoproterozoic Badami Group, Karnataka, India.

As river channels episodically migrated sideways and the basin floor subsided to accommodate more sediment, channel deposits and adjacent sand bars got stacked to form thick 'multi-story' sandstones. Each bed tells a story of a discrete depositional episode.

The arrangement of sand layers within each bed tells us about the subenvironments in which it formed and the energy and direction of water flow during deposition. I came across many types of these internal structures. I recognized tabular cross beds, trough cross beds, planar lamination and rippled beds. Water (or wind) can move & shape sand into piles or waves. Sand grains roll along the direction of flow, then avalanche down the steeper side (lee side) of the wave forming a layer inclined (cross) to the orientation of the main sand body. Successive avalanches form a set of cross beds. The graphic shows the formation of a set of cross beds.

 Source: Dr. Diane M Burns in Teaching Sedimentary Geology in the 21st Century.

Here is an example of cross beds from near the town of Badami.

And this one is from a building stone from Pattadakal temple.

Such cross beds were built by sediment avalanching on the lee side of migrating sand bars during high flow.

This picture show trough cross bedding from near the Badami cave complex. These represent the internal structure of migrating sinuous sand dunes on a channel floor. 

See this elegant explanation by Dawn Sumner, a sedimentologist at the University of California at Davis,  of how trough cross beds form.

Email subscribers who may not be able to see the embedded video, click on this link: Trough Cross Bedding Video.

And here is a beautiful example of trough cross bedding found in a Pattadakal temple building stone.

This is planar lamination on a slab at Pattadakal. The bed is constructed of parallel layers of coarse sand. It is interpreted to have been deposited in a high flow regime from sheets of water flowing over mid channel sand bars.

Ripples on a slab at Pattadakal. This is a rare preservation of a bedding surface showing rippled sand. Erosion usually cuts off the wavy upper part. These ripples indicate migration of small sand waves in a quieter flow regime on the channel floor.

Remember, cross beds are the inclined layers that form on the lee side of a ripple or wave or dune. Here are small cross sets on the floor of Aihole rock cut temple! These represent the cross beds formed by migration of small ripples. The ripples themselves have been eroded away. Arrows indicate the direction of water flow and cross bed accretion as ripples migrated.

Okay, let's go back to my first question. Is the slab I showed in the picture geologically upside down?

Yes it is. But how to tell?

As sand avalanches down the lee slope it forms a tail at the toe of the slope resulting in cross beds which become tangential to the floor. In picture the cross beds are tangential towards the top of slab i.e. that is actually the base.

Lets see at how the cross bed contact with the top and bottom bedding plane looks in an outcrop. Here is the original depositional orientation of cross beds manifest in this outcrop near Badami caves. They show a tail or tangential contact of the cross beds with the base. Since top of cross beds are not usually preserved they show a high angle contact truncated by upper bedding plane.

This slab is upside down too! Notice again the tangential contact of the cross beds (white arrow) is towards the top, which means that must have been the base. Yellow arrow points to high angle contact with the upper bedding surface. 

Towards the top of the exposed section of sandstone around Badami I came across some truly impressive examples of cross bedding. These particular exposures were on the crags opposite the four main Badami temples. There is a narrow passage past the archaeological museum and a short climb to the top. Take a look at these beauties!

These large cross beds reminded me of the inclined beds of wind blown sand dunes. Is it possible that abandoned sand bars were sculpted by wind in to big dunes? Or does this upper level sandstone represent, as a recent study suggests, the beginning of a marine incursion in to the basin? In this scenario, deposition of sand took place in high-energy shallow waters near the shore. These cross beds represent large migrating sand waves which were eventually shaped in to beach ridges and tidal bars.

The outcrops and building stones of these monuments mostly record the processes within the Badami braided paleo-river. 900 million yrs ago a complex of channels and bars, quieter pools and rippled sand beds existed where these temples stand today.

Do visit Aihole, Pattadakal and Badami and gaze at its splendid architecture and sculptures. But spare some time to appreciate the magnificent record of our natural history that these monuments preserve. 

Quiz- Is this slab upside down or in its true depositional orientation? 😉

Until next time....