Chiselled to perfection

Chiselled to perfection

The intricate grandeur and unparalleled majesty of the Chalukyan temple architecture surpasses the mundaneness of adjectives. Majunath Sullolli takes us through the elaborate journey of these stone wonders

The sculptural legacy left behind by the Chalukyas of Badami include some of the earliest and finest examples of Dravidian temple architecture and in India. The evolution that took place in less than 200 years had a profound impact on the later development of South Indian temples.

Great skill has been manifested in the carvings of the ceiling in early western Chalukya temples. Several temples have their ceilings carved with images of the principal trio – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Framed by borders of lotus stalks, the trio are found with their consorts. 

Shiva, with Parvati on Nandi, is found in the Mallikarjuna Temple at Mahakuta, the Naganatha Temple at Nagral and the Badami Jambulinga Temple. Vishnu appears in a small medallion in the Brahmanical cave at Aihole. He is also present in a cave at Badami where he is surrounded by ashta-dikpalas or the eight guardians of the directions. At Jambulinga, he is seated in an octagonal frame.

Only the ceiling panels at Chikki Temple in Aihole represent the god in his various incarnations. The image of Kartikeya in the porch of the Aihole Hucchimalli Temple and the great composition depicting the Sun god, Surya, riding on his chariot in the east porch of the Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal are unique.

In the two cave temples at Aihole, a delicate decoration covers the whole ceiling. Geometric designs and aquatic monsters or couples emerging out of an exuberant foliation are found here. Flying couples in fact, are an extremely popular ceiling motif.

The most celebrated examples from the Durga Temple at Aihole have billowing garments, vividly suggesting the rapid flight of the figures through space. The auspicious swastika and fish wheel are common motifs; both are seen in Badami and in later replicas at the Jambulinga Temple.

The mythology of Shiva dominates much of the early western Chalukyan art. This dynamic icon is often utilised in the horse-shoe arches placed against the front of the superstructures of the Pattadakal Temple as on the Jambulinga. In the Aihole Brahmanical Ravanaphadi Cave, the dancing god is flanked by female attendants.

Standing images of the god, sometimes as Lakulisha, holding an axe and ornamented with a snake are also seen. The Sangameshwara Temple at Mahakuta and the Jambulinga Temple at Pattadakal, however, have standing Shiva figures with clearly defined forms, suggesting they were constructed much later. 

Conjoint with Parvati in a male-female figure as Ardhanareshwara, Shiva is found in the Brahmanical Cave at Aihole and on the Sangameshwara Temple at Mahakuta. Emerging out of the fiery lingam, Shiva also appears in a magnificent composition on a wall of the Virupaksha Temple.

Engraved windows

Light enters the dark interiors of Chalukya temples through pierced stone windows. In many temples, the windows clearly demonstrate their timber origins with their criss-cross bars. In the Aihole Lad Khan Temple, these bars are decorated with lotus flowers, whereas in the nearby Durga Temple, the windows are framed by pilasters surmounted by mouldings. 

The Nagral Naganatha Temple has no sculptured panels on their outer walls, but there are brilliantly carved windows framed by delicate ornamental parapet elements. Certain motifs are especially popular such as foliation, amply illustrated in the many examples from the Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna Temple at Pattadakal.

Here, door frames are also elaborately carved, replete with many auspicious motifs essential for the effective protection of the temples sanctity. Undulating foliation in recessed bands appears around the doorways of the Badami Caves and in the two-storeyed temple at Aihole. 

The river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna, often accompanied by attendant figures, constantly appear at either side of the door frame. The Gowda Temple in Aihole preserves one of the most elaborately carved doorways. Here, the opening is framed by pilasters supporting three miniature niches created by horse-shoe arches, split and recombined. Garuda, holding serpents, appears to be flying out of the lintel. 

The southern stylistic interpretation of this scheme replaces the niches with foliated aquatic monsters whose flowing tails partly conceal the supportings pilasters. Between their open jaws flows a jewelled garland which, in the Pattadakal Virupaksha and Papanatha temples, is furnished with a central medallion.

Early western Chalukya temples are remarkable for their open porches with balcony seating, the backs of which are  carved with auspicious lotus pots. Sculptures of amorous couples richly embellish the porch columns. Numerous porch sculptures at Aihole, as in the Hucchappayya Matha, depict couples embracing beneath trees. 

Couples carved on the porch columns of the Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal, as well as those on the columns of the outer hall of this example, are consummate examples of early western Chalukyan art. Another category of porch figures are the male guardians, invariably armed with clubs upon which they lean heavily as in the Durga and Hucchapaya temples. 

The halls and porches are greatly enriched with intricate relief decoration lavishly applied to column shafts. This decoration consists of narrative reliefs, mythological scenes and a host of ornamental motifs. The Badami Caves have exquisitely moulded columns decorated with medallions and garlands.

At Aihole, the Lad Khan Temple porch columns have a large variety of motifs executed in an unsophisticated style, whereas the Durga Temple at the same site, with its friezes of dwarfish imps and amorous couples on the porch columns, shows a dependence on themes from the Badami cave temples. In the twin Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna Temples at Pattadakal, an enormous body of narrative art is found carved on the columns, together with birds and animals embellished with foliation and jewelled garlands. 

Depicting life forms

The brackets above the outer columns at Badami become leafy arbours sheltering amorous couples beneath. In the Papanatha Temple, as well as in several examples at Aihole, brackets are transformed into mythical beasts emerging out of the mouths of aquatic monsters – a motif first found in the Badami cave temples. 

The temples are raised on deeply moulded bases, carved with elaborate sculptured compositions. In the Badami Malegitti Shivalaya Temple, mythical animals, vyalas and makaras are positioned at the top of the plinth. 

Preserved in stone, these plinth animals form one of the constant features of the southern temple style. At Pattadakal, beneath the porches of the great temples and open Nandi pavilion, lions and elephants appear, often engaged in violent struggle.

Narrative mythological friezes depicting episodes from the life of Krishna or courtly scenes with royal figures and attendants are found on the base of the Aihole Durga Temple, on some loose slabs at Badami and on the plinths of the large temples at Mahakuta. 

The style of these reliefs differs from that of the principal wall sculptures above – evidently different craftsmen were responsible for their execution.

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