Gifts from the Chalukyas

Print edition : March 04, 2016

The Durga temple in Aihole, constructed in the sixth century, is built in the Buddhist chaitya style but it has a corridor running on all three sides.

Aihole, considered the cradle of temple building.

At the Durga temple in Aihole.

Ten-armed Siva at the Ravalphadi Cave, Aihole.

A Siva temple carved deep within a sandstone outcrop at the Ravalaphadi cave, dated around 550 C.E.

At the Durga temple, Aihole.

Durga temple pillar frieze, Aihole.

A sculpture of Nandi at the Lad Khan temple, Aihole.

Twin temples, Aihole.

Gauda Gudi temple in Aihole.

A seven-headed serpent carved on the ceiling of the Durga temple.

The fifth cave temple in Badami, which is in a dilapidated condition.

Jain tirthankaras in Cave 4 in Badami.

Cave temple 2, Badami, dedicated to Vishnu, was built in the sixth century.

Jain tirthankara at Cave 4, Badami.

Ornate pillar brackets in Badami.

Galaganatha temple in Pattadakal. It belongs to the later phase of Chalukya temple building.

The Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal is rich in pillar carvings with mythological themes.

Bhishma on a bed of arrows, at the Virupaksha temple.

The Mallikarjuna temple at Pattadakal. It belongs to the final phase of Chalukya temple architecture.

The Sangameshwara temple at Pattadakal.

The Virupaksha temple, built by Loka Mahadevi, queen of Vikramaditya II, to commemorate his victory over the Pallavas.

IN traditional historical narration, much of the history of ancient Indian architecture is preoccupied with the Gupta period. There is a marked cultural ignorance of the ancient Deccan in popular reading. Events happening largely in northern India have been written about for long, with the south receiving a marginal narrative. While Brahmanical sources are engaged with northern and central India, the other regions remain in the periphery; the south remains almost a blank. Almost around the time when the Guptas were creating architectural heritage in northern India, a purposeful movement was taking place in the Deccan—a group of robust structures evolved from an earlier tradition of rock-cut shrines and came to be known as experiments in Brahmanical worship. This was the work of the rapidly rising imperial regime of the Early Chalukyas.

Their first efforts are found in the temples at Aihole in Karnataka, built between 450 C.E. and 650 C.E.; the majority of them are Brahmanical and some are Jain. The first Hindu structural temples are believed to have been part of this movement. Unlike the contemporary Gupta structures, which were spread over a large area, the Chalukyan group was confined to a small region. After about two centuries of vigorous temple-building experiments, the temple construction movement shifted to Pattadakal, a World Heritage site in Karnataka. Here, a later style developed.

Brief history

Under the patronage of the Early Chalukya rulers, experimentation in temple building—planning, art and architecture—started around the fifth century C.E. in Aihole, Pattadakal and some other places.

It was Pulakesin I who shifted his capital from Aihole to Vatapi (Badami). From the middle of the sixth century, and for almost 200 years, the Chalukyas of Badami held power over northern Deccan. Around the same time, a group of cave temples at Badami was sculpted under the Chalukya rulers. The Chinese traveller Hiuen-tsang, who visited the Chalukyan empire in 639 C.E., mentioned Pulakesin II (610-642 C.E.) as a conqueror of the Deccan. Badami remained the Chalukya capital for almost two hundred years, from 540 C.E. to 757 C.E.

The Chalukyas, who were followers of the Brahmanical order, dedicated several temples to Vishnu and Siva, but they also showed commendable tolerance for Buddhism and Jainism. The Jainas enjoyed high favour in the Chalukyan courts, especially that of Pulakesin II.

His successors, particularly his grandson Vinayaditya, were victorious over enemies of Badami. Vinayaditya’s son Vijayaditya built the Siva temple (Sangameshwara) at Pattadakal and made several grants to Jaina teachers. The reign of Vijayaditya’s son Vikramaditya II saw the arts and architecture flourish.

The triad

Aihole, a small, relatively unknown site (visitors usually prefer to visit the more majestic and popular Hampi), has been called the cradle of Indian temple architecture. It was here that the first Chalukya kings established their kingdom (450 C.E.). Structured temple architecture that emerged first can be seen here. The Lad Khan temple, Durga temple and Huchchimalligudi represent significant architectural experiments of this time. Lad Khan, built in the panchayat style, is considered to be the oldest temple, dating around 450 C.E. The latticed windows indicate a northern influence, while the stone struts and the overhang suggest the idea of a wood-and-thatch roof. The placing of the Nandi and the linga in this fifth century temple suggests that priests and architects were still at the stage of searching for the right design for a place of worship. The Durga temple, constructed in the sixth century, is built in the Buddhist chaitya style but it has a corridor running on all three sides. The incomplete Meguti Jaina temple atop a hillock represents an early phase of Dravidian-style architecture commissioned by Pulakesin II. The temple was constructed by Ravikeerti in 634 C.E., according to an inscription found at the site.

It can be assumed that at Aihole the style differed from the northern Indian Rekha-Nagara-Prasada style as well as the southern vimana tradition but reflected both the traditions in styling by the Chalukyan artists. The Huchchimalligudi temple exemplifies the Rekha-Prasada type.

Rock-cut temples at Aihole: Ravalphadi

The oldest rock-cut architecture, carved deep within a sandstone outcrop and dated around 550 C.E., is Ravalphadi. This well-preserved Siva cave temple has a large Nandi in front. The entrance is flanked by pot-bellied figures, most probably representing Kubera, the guardian of wealth. The main mandapa is huge, flanked by two narrow antechambers. The chamber on the left has panels of Nataraja with Ganesha and the Saptamatrikas, while the one on the right has Gangadhara Harihara. Dwarpalas (doorkeepers) are positioned in the centre. Bhuvaraha and Mahishamardini are in the antarala (a covered, private space), and a rock-cut Sivalinga is present in the sanctum. Siva is seen here with a high crown, indicating the Early Western Chalukya influence. Figures wearing high crowns symbolised power and dignity. From Aihole, temple-building activity—or rather, experimentation with Brahmanical temple architecture—shifted to Badami, the seat of the Early Chalukyas. They contributed magnificent monuments and temples dedicated to Vishnu and Siva.

Sandstone cave temples of Badami

One of the most powerful dynasties of south India, the Early Chalukyas (from the first half of 6th century to the middle of 8th century) flourished in the region of Badami (modern Bagalkot district). The earliest authentic names are those of Jayasimha and his son Ranaraga. Ranaraga’s son Pulakesin I was the first declared king of this dynasty. According to the Badami inscription of 543 C.E., he laid the foundation of the fort of Badami. His successor, Mangalesa, completed the construction of the Badami cave temples and installed the image of Vishnu in them. He was followed by his nephew Pulakesin II. After 642 C.E., the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I sacked Badami and carried away all its riches. It was Vikramaditya I (655-681 C.E.), son of Pulakesin II, followed by his son and grandson Vinayaditya and Vijayaditya, respectively, who brought glory to the Chalukya kingdom once again. During the reign of Vikramaditya II, son of Vijayaditya, who subdued the Pallavas, the arts and architecture reached new heights.

The Early Chalukyas chose the stratified sandstone cliffs of Badami (derived from the colour of the stone found in the region) for rock excavations. There are four cave temples —three are Hindu, while the fourth is Jain. They seem to be the oldest Hindu temples in southern India.

Each of these cave temples has a rectangular pillared verandah ( mukha-mandapa) flanked by several pillars; a square pillared hall ( maha-mandapa); and a small, almost square, shrine-cell ( garbha-griha) at the rear, all entirely rock-cut, with flat roofs. This particular series of pillared galleries was among the earliest of its kind, for the only other rock-cut shrines up to the present belonging to the Brahmanical faith were the Gupta examples at Udaigiri at Bhopal.

The portico or the gallery pillars are tall and massive, heavily carved and of square section with corner brackets. The massive overhanging ledge in front of each cave temple is supported by brackets in human, animal, and celestial figures in stone. The ceilings of the verandah are painted or decorated with relief medallions. The inner rows of pillars, most often square at the base, are intricately carved and are circular at the top, with kumbha-kalasha and flower designs. Some, like the Cave temple 4, are adorned with carvings of Jain tirthankaras.

Cave temple 1, a Shaivite shrine, was probably built last. It has a long rectangular gallery in the front flanked by pillars both in front and back and a square-shaped sanctum hollowed in the back wall. There are faded paintings of maithuna couples on the ceiling. The ceiling is carved with an awesome serpent coiled around in bold relief. The perfectly-proportioned 18-armed Nataraja on the outer wall is in a cosmic dance pose. Cave temple 2, the smallest, built in late sixth century, is dedicated to Vishnu, transcending the earth and the sky. The bold and valiant Varaha avatara—with Bhudevi, whom he is seen rescuing—finds its place on the left side of the entrance.

The most majestic and the largest is Cave temple 3, dating back to 578 C.E. According to its inscription, Mangalesa built this. The massive overhang of the cave is nearly 70 feet wide. It has splendidly carved giant figures of Paravasudeva, Bhuvaraha, Harihara and Narasimha—all avatars of Vishnu. One of the biggest attractions of this cave is the wonderful stone bracket pillars of the long gallery carved with maithuna couples, celestial figures, animals and dwarfs. The powerful serpent god Ananta shows itself through the medium of strong yet fine stonework. Every inch of this cave is exquisitely carved with high relief. The earliest Hindu temple fresco is found here. Cave temple 4 is dedicated to Jaina tirthankara Parshvanatha. He is represented here with a serpent coiled at his feet. Each of the four sides of the pillars has finely carved tirthankaras. A large Mahavira in sitting posture is found in the inner sanctum.

The reliefs in the galleries, especially the human forms, are simple with bold, strong, yet tender features. The panels within which the huge figures are carved do not conform to the size of the frame in which these are enclosed. According to Percy Brown, the historian, the Brahmanical halls at Badami were probably all excavated within a short space of time, but the Jaina cave temple was added almost a century later, adapted to suit Jain rituals. Examples of Early Chalukya paintings are now available only at Cave 3.

Cave temple 5 is in a dilapidated condition. It is still undated, and there are several theories about its representation.


By the middle of the seventh century, temple-building activity shifted from Badami to Pattadakal, where royal ceremonies such as coronations were held, while Badami remained the capital. During this period the temple structure was beginning to assume a definite form. This was a period when a mixture of religion, philosophy, identity, inquiry, concepts and artistry went towards making great buildings. The Pattadakal group of temples (about 22 kilometres from Badami) are the first stone-carved temples. They represent experimentation with different architectural styles—Rekha, Nagara, Prasada and Dravidian. Percy Brown finds 10 temples of consequence at Pattadakal, four of which are in the Indo-Aryan northern style, and six in the Dravidian or southern style, a pointer to the fact that experimentation was on during the reign of the two most powerful rulers: Vijayaditya (696-733 C.E.) and Vikramaditya II (733-746 C.E.).

The military victories that Vikramaditya II achieved against the Pallava kingdom were remarkable. Legend has it that his queen consort Loka Mahadevi got the chief architect of Kailasanathar temple of Kanchipuram to build the Lokesvara Virupaksha temple on the bank of the river Malaprabha to commemorate his victory over the Pallavas. The Virupaksha temple is said to have become the model for the Kailasha temple of Ellora, although the former is in the Nagara style and the latter is Dravida vimana.

A strong south Indian influence is found in the high reliefs of the Virupaksha temple and others at Pattadakal. The figures are more refined than those at Badami. It is rich in pillar carvings from the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as ordinary life.

The Mallikarjuna temple was commissioned by Triloka Mahadevi, the second queen of Vikramaditya II. The Kashivishwanatha temple was built by the Rashtrakutas. The Nagara-style tower of this temple has very fine carvings. This was perhaps the last temple to be built in the Early Chalukya style. The top is missing. Built in the Dravidian style, the Sangameshwara temple, perhaps the oldest Chalukya structure at Pattadakal, was built by Vijayaditya, around 720 C.E. It has excellent carvings on its outer wall, especially the Nataraja, which draws a lot of attention. The Papanatha temple (680 C.E.) is a fusion of two designs. It was started in the Nagara style but later the Dravidian style was adopted. It is inferred that it was built in different periods, in stages.

The Papanatha and the Virupaksha temples are larger and more important than the others. The former is older and, according to Percy Brown, it must have been built as chief temple soon after the capital was founded. The development in architectural composition was noteworthy. Initially dedicated to Vishnu, the Papanatha temple, built in the Indo-Aryan style, was later converted to the worship of Siva, indicating that the Chalukya dynasty may have changed over from Vaishnavism to Shaivism. The Virupaksha temple is exquisitely carved, especially the exterior. The richly patterned windows, the bold animal figures and human forms required not only technical skill of the artisans but also a knowledge of anatomy. Obviously, those who built these temples were master craftsmen of their time. Another striking feature is the earliest form of the gopuram in the Virupaksha temple, the ornate, pyramidal tower that characterises all Dravidian temples.

Temples in the experimental stage

The Huchchimalligudi temple, with its roof sloping on the sides and raised at the centre, is a Shaiva temple. Galaganatha and the Papanatha in Pattadakal, as in the case of Hicchimalligudi of Aihole, possibly had their shikharas (spires on Hindu temples) added later. Of all the temples of this type, the Kasivishveshvara is the most ornate and richly carved.

Two distinct phases of development are evident in the architectural forms of the Chalukyan temples. Temples from the early phases are the Lower Sivalaya of Badami, the Mallikarjuna temple, the Malegetti Sivalaya of Badami, the rock-cut cave temples of Aihole and Badami. Temples of the later phase include the Huchchimalligudi and Huchchappaiah temples of Aihole and the Kasivishveshwara, Galaganatha and Papanatha temples of Pattadakal. The final stages of temple architecture are evident in the Sangameshwara, Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples, all at Pattadakal.

Principal religious faiths

The fascinating Badami-Chalukya temples belonged to the three principal religious faiths, Brahmanical, Jaina and Buddhist. The Shaiva temples of the Brahmanical faith are the largest. There is usually a Nandi mandapa in front, enshrining a colossal sculpture of Nandi. An example of amalgamation is the apsidal Durga temple: its plan resembles that of the Buddhist chaitya, though it has a sanctum, a mandapa and a circumambulation path.

Most of the sculptures of this period are religious in nature—Siva in various forms, Vishnu in various incarnations and Jain tirthankaras. The Hindu trinity was omnipresent. Also, family-life scenes as found in the Mallikarjuna and Virupaksha temples in Pattadakal testify to the diversity in temple art. There were also scenes from epics and Puranas and mythological characters.

Almost all temples would have the image of Garuda, along with shakhas, in both Shaiva and Vaishnava structures along the lintel. The door jamb bottoms would have the dwarpalas and the Ganga and Jamuna forms. Also, couples in amorous postures are generally shown in bracket figures on top of pillars. The southern vimana type of architecture in Pattadakal is said to reflect the contact between Chalukyas and Pallavas.

Sculptures were always a part of cave and structural temples. Siva, Vishnu and several of his incarnations, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Brahma, saptamatrikas and ashtadikpalas were the main forms of sculptures. Besides, stories from the Bhagavatpurana, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Panchatantra also provided themes. In the temples dedicated to Jaina tirthankaras, Suparshwanatha, Mahavira and Bahubali sculptures are found as are depictions of birds, animals, mythical beasts and celestial forms. Sculptures depicting social spaces, such as the gurukul, and relating to daily lives are found in the Mallikarjuna and Virupaksha temples at Pattadakal. Durga mahishamardini is yet another popular form.

Caves 2 and 3 of Badami have bas-relief of stories from the Bhagavata depicted on the lintels in the verandah. Stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are found only at structural temples at Pattadakal, on the pillars of Mallikarjuna and Virupaksha and on the external walls of Papanatha.

The Puranas provided the main theme for the sculptors of the earlier phase, while epic themes were popular in the later phase of the Chalukyas. Images of lions and elephants on the Mallikarjuna temple are said to have served as models for the Kailasha temple at Ellora. Examples of Early Chalukya paintings are now available only at Cave 3 of Badami. Though much of it is faded, the style of paintings is comparable to that of the Ajanta murals. The Badami murals are very important as these are the earliest among the wall paintings of Hindu temples in India.

Pre-Chalukyan architecture

The influence of the Pallavas and the Guptas on Aihole and Pattadakal has been mentioned earlier. But there is new evidence that indicates the presence of pre-Chalukyan structures at these two places. According to S.R. Rao, the archaeologist, early brick structures excavated at the Sangameshwara complex at Pattadakal point to the fact that the early mandapa-style stone temples were modelled on the basis of brick temples belonging to the third century C.E. Ceramic evidence suggests a late Satavahana period, supporting the view that there were temple structures along Malaprabha during Satavahana period.

A fragmented brick wall below Lad Khan belongs to the fourth century. The brick temple excavated in the vicinity of the Jaina temple complex at Pattadakal may have been one of the earliest Chalukyan brick architecture.

Among the artists of the masterpieces of the time are Sarvaa Siddhi Achari, Changamma (who built Papanatha), Baladeva Amayyasri (sculpture at ardhamandapa of Papanatha), and also sculptors like Muddasili, Jinalayan and Surendrapad who have contributed in the construction of Durga temple at Aihole.

Mahakuteshwar, Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal were the laboratories of temple architecture, both structural and cave. In Aihole and Pattadakal, temple building became almost like a movement in architecture. It was all the more difficult as there was no precedent or benchmark. While Aihole conceived an idea in grammar and composition, Pattadakal executed it—a group of sturdy yet rhythmic structures.

Haimanti Dey is Senior Publication Coordinator, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi.

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