Booming capital now tiny village

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Booming capital now tiny village

Walking through Lakkundi, a village 12 km from Gadag, I was constantly reminded of the non-permanence of things. Here was a charming village – wooden carts plying on small clean lanes; neat, compact brown houses plastered with white, some sporting pretty decorations in red; people sitting on their doorstep, watching the world go by…Yet some 800 years ago, this was a grand capital city.

So grand in fact, that it used to be compared to Indra’s abode Amaravati and to the kingdom of Kubera himself, the god of wealth. Parts of the city’s old fort can still be seen in places, crumbling, disintegrating. At one time, this very fort was described as “invulnerable”, with lofty ramparts and bastions. It needed to be, to guard the booming, bustling Lakkundi of yore.

Lokkigundi, or Lokki...
Lakkundi was an important town in the empire of the Chalukyas of Kalyana. In those days, the town went by the name Lokkigundi, sometimes shortened to Lokki. It was famous as an agrahara, a centre for higher learning. According to a legend proudly recited in several inscriptions, the agrahara had been established by Lord Rama himself.
Students came here to study from all parts of the Kalyana Chalukya empire. Lakkundi’s other claim to fame was as a centre for minting money. Literally, for one of the Kalyana Chalukya empire’s mints was in Lakkundi. Because coins were often named after the place they were minted in, we know that gold and silver coins minted in Lakkundi were used in all parts of the kingdom: inscriptions of the period often mention coins like the Lokki-gadyana and the Lokki-pon. It was a flourishing business for those running the mints often donated part of their income to the city’s temples.
Today, there are no traces of mints, but several of the old temples still stand, providing the only glimpse of the grandeur that once was. Lakkundi was said to have 101 temples and 101 tanks. Some of those have today morphed from abodes of the gods to abodes of people. Several are in stages of ruin. About 15 temples still stand much as they did several hundred years ago. And almost each one alone is enough to merit a visit to Lakkundi.

Patrons of art and literature
During their 200-year-reign over most of the Deccan, the Kalyana Chalukyas engaged in several wars, particularly with the Cholas. Yet they still managed to find time to promote literature, language, crafts, and above all, temple building. Architects under the Kalyana Chalukyas experimented with various styles.

By combining some of their own ideas with decorations and architectural elements typical of north Indian and south Indian temples, they evolved what some scholars classify as a new style of temple architecture. This distinct style seems to have flowered in Lakkundi, which was a major centre of temple construction under the Kalyana Chalukyas.
Lakkundi’s most famous temple, the early 11th century Kasivisvesvara temple, is known for its clever mix of north and south Indian temple styles.  HR Desai, a senior archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India, drew our attention to decorations on the temple pedestal – wide lotus petals carved on rectangular bases and topped with a delightful frieze of elephants – which are commonly seen in Gujarat but rarely encountered in south India.

He also pointed out the temple’s astonishingly decorative door jambs, a characteristic of Kalyana Chalukya temples. At first glance, they did indeed look beautifully carved. But the more closely I looked, the more details seemed to emerge from the ornate background.  
Here were dancers, musicians, magicians, cherubs, all gambolling animatedly along small scrolls that looked like filigree work. Here were lions, deer and other animals, and all manner of stunningly intricate designs that I know I could scarce reproduce on paper, let alone carve in stone.

The temple’s shikhara (or tower) is also very unusual: successive storeys are innovatively linked using trefoil arches and gargoyles, a style rarely seen elsewhere.
Inside the temple are richly carved, black pillars, polished so you can see yourself reflected in them…upside down! They reminded me of similar pillars in Halebid and other Hoysala temples.

Desai informed me that this was because many of the novel designs that the Kalyana Chalukyas tried out in their temples were adopted and improved upon by their successors, the Hoysalas.

Brahma Jinalaya
Lakkundi’s oldest temple is the Brahma Jinalaya, built in 1007 AD by the famous Danachintamani Attimabbe. It is one of the 1,500 Jaina temples that the devout and generous lady is said to have constructed in the kingdom.
Like Lakkundi’s other temples, and like the later Hoysala temples, the Jinalaya is built of soapstone (also called chloritic schist). Inside the temple is a large, beautifully proportioned idol of Brahma and another of the yakshi Padmavati. One theory suggests that Lakkundi derives its name from the association of Padmavati with the Lokki plant.

A veiled stepwell
My favourite spot in all of Lakkundi actually lies just outside it. Just north of the road towards Hospet is the three-shrined Manikesvara temple. The temple is quietly charming, with pleasing lattice-work screens in floral patterns that match those on the decorative doorframes.

But the real draw is the exquisite stepwell adjacent to it.
The beautiful Musukinabavi has a rather unusual design. In front of the temple is a bridge that goes over the tank. Underneath this are two sets of beams that cross the gap between chambers on either side of the tank.

Underneath both is a long funnel of steps that leads to the water. Ten small shrines decorate the steps around the tank. The stepwell’s name, meaning ‘well of the veil’ in Kannada, was indeed apt, for both temple and tank are a little off the road, sheltered in a clearing in the middle of fields and groves of coconut trees.
The solitude confers an atmosphere of other-worldliness on the place, making it an ideal spot in which to idly contemplate the non-permanence of things. 

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