The Chalukyan magnificence

Print edition : January 14, 2005

The Pampanath temple in Pattadakal. The Chalukya rulers have left behind a wealth of temple architecture in Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal, all neighbouring villages in Bagalkot district of Karnataka. -

WHO designed the first Hindu temples? Who constructed them? Where were they built? What were they made of? Why did successive rulers make them more and more magnificent? These are some interesting questions relating to temple architectural history.

The eighteen-armed Nataraja, in a rock-cut temple in Badami.-

One comes across three principal types of temple architecture that were prevalent in different parts of India around the same period. Between A.D. 320 and A.D. 650, the Gupta Kings started building temples in North and Central India in what is known as the Indo-Aryan Nagara style of architecture.

In the south, kings built temples in the Dravidian style. One finds the earliest surviving Dravidian temples near Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram, 60 km south of Chennai). These were built around A.D. 500. This style flourished for centuries and reached its zenith when the massive structures in Madurai and Rameswaram were built, around A.D. 1600.

The Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal, built around A.D. 740.-

The Chalukyan style originated in Aihole around A.D. 450 and was perfected in the neighbouring villages of Badami and Pattadakal (all in Bagalkot district of Karnataka). Chalukyan artists experimented with different styles, blended the Indo-Aryan Nagara and Dravidian styles, and evolved their own distinctive style. One can see magnificent examples of their earliest works in Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal. These certainly are not the earliest temples. Temples were constructed centuries before the 4th and 5th century A.D., but with wood and bricks and have not survived.

The massive temples in South India today give the impression that there were no large temples in North and Central India. There were, in fact, big temples in North and Central India, too. But repeated invasions, pilferage and destruction over the years devastated most of them. Thus, we do not find in North and Central India the equals of the grand temples of South India which was comparatively free of frequent foreign invasions and enabled successive rulers to add to the work of their predecessors.

The Lad Khan temple in Aihole, which was built around the 7th century A.D.-

THE Chalukya rulers of Vatapi (as Badami was then known) ruled the central Deccan from A.D. 540 to A.D. 757. They were great patrons of art and architecture. They have left behind a wealth of temple architecture in Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal. Since these areas do not lie on the major tourist routes and are not well-connected with the major cities, they have not received the prominence they deserve.

The architectural style that developed in this part is known as the Chalukyan style (to distinguish it from the Dravidian style, more common to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and so on). Why did South Indian rulers build temples of such magnitude and why did their successors make continuous additions to the work? Certainly not solely because of their faith in religion. Perhaps they wanted to overawe their enemies and subjects with an enormous show of wealth and power, represented by these temples. Or perhaps they wanted to impress their subjects with a show of love for the religion. Or perhaps they wanted to atone for the sins they had committed by killing innumerable innocent people in the bloody wars they fought. The temples were built by teams of architects, artists, sculptors and masons, who remain anonymous.

Dwarpal in a Badami temple.-

Aihole, a small village on the banks of the Malaprabha river, was the cradle of ancient Hindu temple architecture. There are over 70 temple structures scattered around the village. These structures clearly show the experimentation with different styles undertaken by the artisans. It was here that the artisans worked on the rocks to create the earliest rock-cut shrines based on Buddhist monuments. It was here that they experimented with different styles, abandoning some and adopting others. From the earliest rock-cut shrines, the artisans graduated to the full-fledged Chalukyan style of architecture.

Ravana Phadi is one of the oldest rock-cut temples in Aihole. There is a Sivalinga in the inner room (cella or sanctum sanctorum, where the idol of the deity is kept). The walls and sides of the temple are covered with large figures. The sculptures are superb - especially that of dancing Siva. The Huchchimalligudi temple is one of the earliest in Aihole. A significant feature of it is the addition of a room to the old temple structure, which had only an inner room and a hall. The room was added between the sanctum sanctorum and the hall.

The water tank in the temple complex in Badami.-

One of the most impressive temples here is the Durga temple, which dates back to the 7th century A.D. This is actually a Hindu adaptation of the Buddhist Chaitya Hall with a rounded end. The temple has perforated windows and a statue of Mahishasuravardhini - Durga destroying the demon Mahishasura. This was constructed in a new style, but subsequently abandoned.

The Durga temple in Aihole.-

The Lad Khan temple was also built around the 7th century A.D. It is a unique temple, with a surprising resemblance to the Parliament House. It is believed that this structure was not meant to be a temple but a meeting place.

BADAMI is now a small town located at the mouth of a ravine between two steep hills. It was the original capital of the Chalukya empire founded by Pulakesin I in the 6th century A.D. Here are four beautiful rock-cut temples carved out of sandstone hills. Each has a square sanctum, a hall with pillars, and a pillared verandah. The halls have exquisite carvings and sculptures.

Mahavira, in one of the rock-cut temples of Badami.-

Of the four temples, the fourth is actually a Jain temple. It has a statue of Mahavira.

Rock-cut caves in Badami.-

Among the masterpieces in these rock-cut temples is the famous 18-armed statue of Nataraja (Siva in the dancing pose). If one observes it closely, one will see Nataraja in 81 different dancing poses.

Pattadakal is another small village on the banks of the Malaprabha. This place was considered to be very auspicious and holy. The Chalukya kings were crowned here. During the middle of the 7th century, temple building activity shifted from Badami to Pattadakal. There are 10 temples here, four in the northern or Indo-Aryan Nagara style and six in the Chalukyan style. Here one finds an intermingling of the two styles. A look at the Pampanath temple shows its disproportionate dimensions. The height is much too low. This style, too, was abandoned.

Vishnu, Badami.-

The Mallikarjuna, and the larger Virupaksha, temples were built around A.D. 740, by Trailokyamahadevi and Lokamahadevi, the two queens of Vikramaditya II, to commemorate their husband's victory over Nandivarman, the Pallava king of Kancheepuram. Vikramaditya II brought artisans from Kancheepuram. The Virupaksha temple clearly shows the influence of the Kancheepuram style.

Guides will tell tourists that Aihole is considered a school of architecture, Badami a degree college, and Pattadakal, a university of architecture. In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) included Pattadakal in its list of World Heritage sites.

Binoy Gupta is Chief Commissioner of Income Tax, Chennai.