Cradle of temple architecture

Cradle of temple architecture

The 25 km long stretch of the Malaprabha Valley, which comprises the celebrated sites of Badami, Pattadakallu and Aihole, is best known for the temples and other monuments of the Early Chalukyas, who ruled a large part of southern India from 6th to 8th century CE. In fact, this region has earned for itself the impressive, even if not entirely accurate, soubriquet ‘laboratory of Indian temple architecture’, thanks to the multitude of temples in different styles that had sprung up, shoulder to shoulder, all over the landscape. And yet the Chalukyans were not the first builders of stone monuments in this region. Long before the first cave temple was excavated into the sandstone cliffs of the Malaprabha Valley, or the first structural temple was erected by the celebrated Chalukyan artisans, unknown inhabitants from the prehistoric past of the valley had been erecting humbler stone monuments.

The earliest monuments 

To the south of the settlement at Aihole is a flat-topped low sandstone hill, called Meguti Hill after the 7th century Jain Meguti Temple sited within a fortified compound at its northern end. It is the earliest dated temple in this region, the famous inscription of the poet Ravikeerti allowing us to assign it to the year 634 CE. To the south of the walled compound of the Meguti Temple, strewn all over the flat summit plateau, are diminutive stone structures called dolmens. Some of them are neatly made box-like constructions built of sandstone slabs, while others are less precisely engineered structures consisting of a large horizontal slab supported on small boulders to form a crude chamber within.

Dolmens belong to a class of structures labelled ‘megaliths’ by archaeologists. Megaliths may assume various forms – from the single erect stone called a menhir, to rings of stones termed boulder circles, to dolmens as at Aihole, or even vast arrays of menhirs arranged in grids called stone alignments. Most of the megaliths in India are concentrated in the southern part of the country, though conspicuous pockets exist elsewhere in the country too. Megaliths are believed to have been erected in the South Indian Iron Age, though this cultural practice could have begun in the preceding Neolithic, and have persisted well into the Early Historic Period, several centuries later. Most of the megalithic structures were either burials, or memorials commemorating ancestors long gone.

Thus it is intriguing that the Chalukyan builders left these prehistoric dolmens undisturbed when they were constructing the Meguti Temple, despite them being a source of so much rough quarried blocks ideal for use in construction. Perhaps they knew the significance of these seemingly crude structures as the resting places of people from the past. It turns out that Meguti Temple is not alone in being in close proximity with a megalithic complex. Towards the south-east of the settlement at Aihole, adjacent to the right bank of River Malaprabha, is another flat-topped hillock called Ramalingeshwara Hill, after the Ramalingeshwara group of temples located on it, towards the north. To the north of this group of temples is another cluster of temples called the Galaganatha group.

There are many megaliths strewn all over the hill to the south of the Ramalingeshwara group, in strong similarity to the case on Meguti Hill. In addition, there is a cairn with three hero stones embedded in it, among these megaliths. Hero stones are memorial plaques erected to commemorate persons who died valorous deaths, during the medieval period. Thus the hill seems to have a definite association with the commemoration of the dead, from prehistoric times to medieval times.

There is a very curious dolmen located among the temples of the Galaganatha group. Unlike most other dolmens ­— whether crude ones made of a slab balanced on rough boulders, or the more sophisticated box-like dolmens built entirely of slabs — this unusual dolmen consists of a large horizontal slab supported on six ‘legs’ or pillars. The horizontal capstone is a rough-hewn slab with irregular edges consistent with most megaliths encountered in South India. However, close
examination shows that the legs that support the capstone have distinct wedge marks along their edges.

This distinction throws light on the manner in which these blocks of stone were extracted. Most megaliths were built with stone that was quarried by the process of firing — by heaping firewood on the bedrock and setting it ablaze. The large slab-like blocks that separated out from the parent rock usually had irregular edges which were left as it is, or dressed into shape by blows of a hammer. However, during the early medieval period, when the temples were constructed, the art of separating blocks of stone of desired dimensions using wedges had been perfected. In this process, wedge holes are chiselled into the bedrock at regular intervals along the desired line of splitting. Steel wedges are hammered into the wedge holes till the stone splits along the line. The split edges of the blocks thus separated display prominent wedge marks.

Many questions

Quarries are instructive places, often throwing more light on the way monuments were constructed than the monuments themselves. Several quarries of the Early Chalukyan artisans are known – near Aihole, Pattadakallu, Huligyemmanna Kolla etc. The wedge holes of the Early Chalukyan artisans are lens-shaped, unlike those of later generations of artisans, which are rectangular. The wedge marks on the ‘legs’ of the Galaganatha dolmen correspond to the Chalukyan wedge marks. It is thus clear that the builders of the temples modified a pre-existing dolmen by adding supports to raise it, for purposes that are not clear to us today.

This leaves us with several questions. Why did the builders of the temples modify the prehistoric dolmen? Why did they choose to locate the temples in what is virtually a megalithic graveyard? It is unlikely that they did not know about the sepulchral associations of the megaliths — the hero stones which broadly belong to the same period as the temples testify to that. Is it likely that some, if not all, of the temples are also memorials? There are known memorial temples of the Chalukyans in the region, notably at Huligyemmanna Kolla, near Pattadakallu. Are the temples of the World Heritage Site at Pattadakallu also memorials — continuing the prehistoric tradition of commemoration in the valley? There is a multitude of smaller shrines scattered among the more celebrated temples at Pattadakallu, some of which look suspiciously like dolmens.

The rich tapestry of interweaving strands from different periods of history in the Malaprabha Valley holds the answers to many of these tantalising questions.

(The author is with National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

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