Cradle of temple architecture

evolving style

Cradle of temple architecture

When we browse through the pages of our state’s history, many prominent dynasties come to mind. Among few such dynasties which were successful in southern India were the Chalukyas of Badami. After the Kadambas, the Chalukyas went on to become the most powerful and long-lasting lineage of rulers. Starting from smaller provinces, they built up a large Chalukyan empire that spanned the southern and central India between Cauvery and Narmada rivers.Ruling between 6th and 12th centuries, they were known for their valour, good administration and love for arts and crafts. And it was during their regime that the temple architecture in the Deccan really blossomed, paving the way for some of the most artistic and intricate temples we see today.

Aihole, presently a small dusty town of Bagalkot district was where the Chalukyans ruled from 5th century. Among the Chalukyan kings, it was during the reign of Pulakesi II (610 to 642 AD), that the sculptors and artisans were encouraged to develop the temple architecture.

Aihole, called Aryapura or Ayyavole in those days, became a training ground of sorts for the artisans. The craftsmen experimented with different styles of architecture and built different kinds of temples before perfecting their art and creating a few masterpieces at Pattadakal and Badami where the capital was moved to subsequently. 

As the Chalukyan empire spread over a large part of central and southern India, the temple styles from north, south and the Deccan were adopted. Elements like curvilinear towers and blind arches from the north and wall panels and structural architecture from the south were brought together. Seating balconies, angled eaves and sloping roofs – typical of Deccan architecture, were blended with the Chalukyan interpretation to give rise to a distinct style. Flat roofs, assemblage without the use of mortar, well carved columns and ceilings became a significant part of most of the temples.

Dotted with art
During this long drawn process, a plethora of temples were created in different forms. As a result, we can see hundreds of temples spread all over the town of Aihole. In fact, there must be more temples than dwellings in this nondescript township. And anyone visiting Aihole would feel as if they are swimming through a sea of shrines. As many as 125 temples dot the busy narrow lanes and fields which have been classified into 22 groups based on their styles. Even though the whole area is spread over just 4 sq km, visiting all the temple complexes in a day would be nearly impossible.

My visit to this town of temples was to see the main groups where the difference of styles is more pronounced and discernible. Reaching Aihole in the late afternoon, I headed to the complex of Durga Temple. The uniquely shaped and attractive structure is synonymous with Aihole. Approaching from the west, I could see the mild glow of sunshine on the red-coloured columns of the semicircular structure. The distinct apsidal form in the western part, with an oblong extension eastward with a row of gapped columns around the shrine gives it a strikingly attractive appearance.

The tower built in a curvilinear style adds variety to the structure. The front entrance leads to a circumambulation path along the colonnade which has a multitude of figures from the epics. Even though the Temple is named after goddess Durga, one can see many forms of Vishnu and Shiva depicted on the pillars. It is merely named Durgada Gudi after the remnants of a fort nearby.

A home turned shrine
The Lad Khan Temple is another example that exhibits a different style. Resembling a panchayat hall, it was the residence of a certain Lad Khan in 19th century. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this Temple consists of a main shrine housing a shivalinga with a Nandi and an intricately carved mantapa. The pillars of the front porch are adorned with pairs of amorous couples.

Situated close-by is another exquisite temple said to be the oldest in Aihole, Gaudara gudi. Earlier, the village heads were called gowdas and hence the Temple was named after a certain village head lived here for a while. It is a simple structure whose walls are supported by 16 pillars on a raised platform. Some also call it as Bhagavati Temple.

As the Sun rose again next morning, I made it to the hill in the south east which has a two-storeyed Buddhist Chaitya ( meditation hall). The upper floor has a pillared hall with numerous caverns. Watch out for the impressive Meguti Temple, also on the same hill. Said to be the only Jain shrine here, it was built in 634 AD. This also seems to be the first Dravidian style temple though it was left incomplete.

The area behind the temple is a prehistoric site with many ruined dolmens dotting the landscape. After enjoying a sweeping view of the town from the hill, I retraced my steps to visit the Mallikarjuna Temple complex. It is a group of five shrines and a well. The free-standing stone arch draws your attention as well as the varied shrines that have sloping roofs and towers.

The Ravanphadi Temple is yet another distinctly designed structure that the Chalukyas attempted. It is a rock cut cave temple, one of the earliest of this type, situated on the eastern periphery. The shrine dedicated to Shiva, has been cut out from a small granite hillock and has a stone Nandi outside the cave. Though the shivalinga in the central chamber is quite simple, the well sculpted figures and columns cut into the rock on both sides are astounding. The detail on the ten-handed dancing Nataraja and figures of saptamatrikas depict the finesse of the craftsmen.

To the north is the Huchhimalli Gudi, one of the earliest temple groups. Dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, this structure is the perfect example for the changing styles of the Chalukyas. For the first time, an ante chamber or entrance hall to the shrine was added. The cicumambulatory path also had its debut at this shrine.

After visiting the main temple complexes, I went to scores of little shrines that were equally fascinating. I left many for another exciting day. My trip to the temple strewn Aihole was like taking a trip back in time to the era of art lovers and skilled craftsmen.

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