Portals to another world

Heritage

Portals to another world

There’s more to Aihole than its exquisite temples, discovers Meera Iyer, after sampling its spectacular sculptural art, astounding architecture and an ancient poem chiselled in stone.

Aihole — a town all the guides and guidebooks call the ‘cradle of Indian architecture’. But there is so much more to the town than that moniker, including some spectacular sculptural art, architecture from several centuries before the famous temples were ever a gleam in anyone’s eye, and an ancient poem chiselled in stone. 

Deeming it prudent to get hill-climbing out of the way earlier in the day, we headed first to see the Meguti temple, which lies on the flat summit of a hillock overlooking Aihole. After taking the flight of steps to the top, we discovered another lacuna in tourist literature: few mention the beautiful views of the countryside from here. 

The Meguti temple is a simple, rectangular shaped structure housing a now-defaced Jain tirthankara. On the eastern wall of the temple is a grey-coloured slab with a 19-line inscription written in old Kannada characters. It looks like your common, garden-variety inscription, the sort found in many temples. Well, never judge a book by its cover, or, I might add, an inscription by its look, for this unremarkable relic is the famous Aihole inscription, penned by Ravikirti, the court poet of the celebrated Early Chalukyan king, Pulakesi II, who ruled from 610-642 AD. The inscription provides a genealogy of the Early Chalukyas (also called the Chalukyas of Badami) for all the way till 634-635 AD, when Ravikirti had the temple built. This makes it the only Early Chalukyan temple in Aihole for which we have a firm date for its establishment.

Unfortunately, there was no translation of the inscription on site. Fortunately, I had read a translation earlier so I knew Ravikirti showed off his literary skills to considerable advantage in this inscription, extolling Pulakesi II’s kingly qualities. When Pulakesi II was crowned, ‘the whole world grew light again, invaded as it were by the lustrous rays of his irresistible splendour,’ he says. The eulogy also describes Pulakesi’s military victories, in chronological order. On his patron’s most famous victory, the defeat of Harsha, Ravikirti makes use of some clever puns when he describes how the enemy’s joy, or harsha, ‘melted away by fear’. I imagine Pulakesi II was pleased with this panegyric. 

Relics from the past

The Meguti Temple is set within a small fort with rubble walls and a small bastion in one corner. Potter about this enclosure and you will come upon random relics from the past, including hero stones. For a look into a far more remote past, climb the steps in the eastern wall. A stone’s throw from here are dozens of dolmens or megalithic monuments. Each dolmen consists of three, or occasionally four, large stones placed upright to form a rectangular space which is topped with another large stone called a capstone. Though these memorials to the dead may not appear very exciting at first glance, keep in mind they are among the oldest structures you might ever see, for they are thought to have been built sometime between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. It was interesting to see that the builders of the Meguti Temple had not reused or removed the stones from the dolmens. Perhaps they still considered the megaliths sacred, even after all those centuries? 

Hill-climbing done, we headed out to my favourite temple in Aihole, the so-called Ravanaphadi cave temple, dated to around the late 6th century. From the outside, the temple appears quite plain, with only two interesting but eroded door-guardians and two unadorned pillars. Inside, the cave opens up into three cells, each housing large, spellbinding sculptures that surpass each other. In one, you have a ten-handed dancing Shiva, radiating power, compassion and grace all at once. Arrayed on his side are Parvati and the saptamatrikas, the seven divine mothers who, the inscriptions claim, nourished the Early Chalukya lineage. On another wall is Durga, one bent knee casually pinning down the demon Mahisha, one hand holding the buffalo’s head while another gracefully but unerringly spears him. 

The sculptures in Aihole (and Badami for that matter) are not like the heavily bejewelled beauties that the Hoysalas created. Instead, the sculpted figures here look loose-limbed, lithe and insouciant. Many look — there’s no other word for it — positively cool, at least to me! 

Living it up

Our next stop was to Aihole’s most famous monument, the Durga temple. The Early Chalukyas were frenetic builders, constructing an astounding 100 temples in just 200 years. And they seem to have experimented with most of them. At the Durga temple complex, you can see why the ‘cradle of Indian architecture’ phrase is actually quite apt.
 Take the Durga temple itself — it has an unusual apsidal end and a unique pillared verandah that extends around the shrine. Nearby is the Ladkhan temple, which looks more like a dwelling than a shrine. 

This two-storeyed temple has a two-tiered sloping roof with curiously shaped long stones placed on it, and a small square shrine on the first floor. The long stones resemble logs and are probably a throwback to earlier times when timber was used for construction. Up next is the Gaudargudi, one of the oldest Hindu temples in Aihole. It is rectangular-shaped, has a colonnaded verandah all around it, but unlike in the Durga temple, these pillars are plain. And then you have a few nameless temples scattered around the complex, some of which are simple rectangular cells, some with superstructures, others with sloping roofs... The variety of styles and schemes is quite astonishing. Many of these were adopted and continued through the centuries. The balcony seating in the Ladkhan and Gaudargudi temples, for example, is similar to balconies in the Hoysala-constructed Belur temple. Other experiments like the Durga temple’s apsidal plan and its double-circumambulation path (pradakshina patha) were abandoned. 

Also abandoned, at least for worship, were the temples themselves, although exactly when is not very clear. By the 1800s, when we have modern records, all of Aihole’s old temples seem to have gone to rack and ruin. Photographs of the Durga temple show a crumbling structure surrounded by rubble and with a pile of stones and vegetation for a superstructure. Several shrines were also converted to dwellings. Some temples were only cleaned, cleared and restored by the Archaeological Survey of India in the 1960s. 

A walk through the village shows that many of Aihole’s old temples are still not protected monuments. It is not uncommon to find buffaloes tethered to fallen old pillars, carts parked next to Early Chalukyan temples, and people living in structures with sloping stone roofs like the Gaudargudi. These temples are still part of the daily rhythm of life here, just not as places of worship. 

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