The cave temples of Badami, and the temples of Aihole and Pattadakal together represent an extremely vibrant and productive period – between the 6th and 9th centuries – in the history of temple architecture in the Deccan. My friend and guide Ananthakrishna said that Aihole, the ancient town, was a sort of laboratory of temple architecture. Patronised by the rulers from different dynasties, master architects and craftsmen conducted experiments at Aihole in different forms and styles of temple-building, including fusion of the north and south Indian styles of temple architecture. The products of their experimentation, which are seen at the sites today, were then replicated elsewhere.
It took us about 3 hours from Hosapete to reach Badami, the capital of the early Chalukyas who ruled from the 6th to the 8th century. It was during this period that the unique rock-cut cave temples of Badami were built. Carved out of steep hills of sandstone, these are some of the earliest examples of rock-cut temples in south India.
Till we climbed the steep flight of steps, we had no notion of the magnificent sight that would suddenly unfold itself before our eyes. The sandstone rocks, out of which ancient artisans carved out the temples, are so huge and inaccessible that one cannot but wonder as to how such a feat was accomplished so many centuries ago.
The architectural design of the temples comprises of a front verandah with beautifully decorated columns, a central hall and a small inner sanctum for the deity. The stately columns, their elegantly carved brackets, the images of Hindu gods and other images adorning the walls are unbelievably beautiful, although the frescoes on the ceilings of the caves retain only faint traces of their colourful past.
Cave 1 is a Shiva Temple. With its 18 hands, the charming figure of Nataraja in his Tandava Dance posture right at the entrance of the Cave, is a rare beauty. Besides this image, the verandah walls, walls of the central hall as well as the ceilings are carved with figures of Durga vanquishing the buffalo headed demon, Hari-hara (half Shiva and half Vishnu), Ganesha, Kartikeya and many others.
A flight of steps leads to Cave 2 and then to Cave 3, both of which are temples dedicated to Vishnu. Among the most attractive reliefs on the walls of the front Verandah in cave 2 are the beautiful images of Varaha Avatara and the Trivikrama form of Vishnu (the form Vamana Avatara takes to demolish the pride of the demon king Bali). Adorning the walls of the central hall are wonderfully carved imageries from Hindu mythology.
A plaque in front of Cave 3 informs the visitors that this cave temple, dedicated to Mahavishnu, was built in 578 CE by the Chalukyan king Mangalesha. An inscription inside this cave gives the date of consecration of the temple and other details. It is from this information that the archaeologists have determined the approximate antiquity of the other cave temples in the complex.
The most important relief image in Cave 3 is that of the statue of Vishnu sitting on a coil of Sesh Nag, whose hood forms the canopy on the head of the god. Besides, this cave also has carved image of Varaha Avatar, scenes from the Mahabharata and the Puranas as well as those of some romantic couples.
Cave 4 is a Jaina temple, as is easily made out from the images of Jaina Tirthankaras carved on its walls.
The four caves overlook a beautiful and serene lake, known as the Agastya Lake on the bank of which stands the Bhutanatha Temple. On the opposite side of this temple there are some more caves, due to lack of time we did not explore these sites.
While we were at Badami, a group of Lambani tribal people came to visit the caves. They were attired in their traditional dresses – the males sporting their coloured pugrees and the women their beautifully embroiderd skirts and blouses of the brightest of hues, and their hands full of colourful bangles. They made a wonderful contrast to the otherwise drab blocks of sandstone.
Pattadakal, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, lies 21 km to the north-east of Badami. Some of the temples here depict a smooth fusion of the northern and southern Indian styles of temple architecture. Of the ten temples of Pattadakal, nine are Hindu temples and one belongs to the Jain religion. The Hindu temples are all dedicated to Shiva.
The largest and the most ornate among the
temples in the complex is the Virupaksha Temple, which also is a functional temple. Shiva is the presiding deity, but the walls of the temple are carved with images related to the Vaishnava and Shakti sects too. The other notable temples in the complex are the Kashi Vishveshwara, Sangameshwara, Mallikarjuna, Papanatha, and the Jain Narayana temples. Each one of them is a beautiful specimen of the wonderful creative skill of the architects and artisans who built them.
Like Pattadakal, Aihole is also located on the western side of the Malaprabha river. Its recorded history dates back to the 6th century A.D. when it was under the rule of the early Chalukyas. However, its association with the legend of Parashuram, an incarnation of Vishnu, puts its heritage back to the days of the Puranas, and makes it a place of great reverence for the Hindus. As the story goes, after ridding the world of the tyrannical Kshatriyas, Parushuram washed his bloodied axe in the Malaprabha river at this place. The blood from his axe turned the soil red, which has remained so till today!
In more modern times, under the patronage of the Early Chalukyas, renowned architects and craftsmen began their experimentation with temple building at Aihole between the 6th and he 8th centuries.
Over one hundred temples, mostly dedicated to Shiva, are located within a comparatively small area at Aihole. Some of these are in good shape, some in decay and yet others are still being excavated. The Durga Temple, with its beautiful pillared Verandah and carved images from Hindu mythology, is the largest and most attractive at the Aihole complex.
Control of the Aihole region changed hands many times in history. The Early Chalukyas ruled here from the 6th to the 8th century, and for the next two hundred years it came under the Rashtrakutas. The Later Chalukyas controlled the region in the 11th and 12th centuries.
In the 13th century Aihole was subject to plundering raids by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate, but when the mighty Vijayanagara Empire rose to power in the mid-14th century, they took control of the region and protected Aihole and its monuments. Aihole and its surroundings witnessed umpteen number of battles between the Bijapur sultans and the Vijayanagara kings. After the combined forces of the sultanates of Bijapur, Bidar, Ahmad Nagar and Berar destroyed Vijayanagara in 1565 the Adil Sahi sultanate of Bijapur captured Aihole and surroundings.
It is said that the monuments, although not completely destroyed by the marauding armies, were defiled and were even used as stables for their horses, or as camp offices. Thus, originally a Shiva temple, the Lad Khan temple at Aihole got its name from the name of a commander of the Adil Sahi sultan.
The archaeological sites of Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole bear testimony to a glorious period of blossoming of temple architecture in the Deccan. Standing in the midst of these historic sites we were almost transported back to the days of the kings who were great connoisseurs and patrons of art and architecture. As we walked from one to the other of the temples we silently paid our tributes to the architects and artists of extraordinary skills who produced such marvelous pieces of art which captivate us centuries later.
As the sun’s last rays produced amazing silhouettes of the temples of Aihole against a pink-blue sky, we realized it was time for us to leave. Reluctantly, but highly satisfied at what we saw, we started our journey back to Hosapete to catch the night bus to Mysore for the next lap of our tour of Karnataka.