Monkey Business at Aihole

Srikumar M Menon captures the mastery and mischief that could lie behind the carvings at the ancient temples in Aihole
Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 02:17 IST
Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 02:17 IST

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To the south-west of Aihole town, on the right bank of River Malaprabha, is a low, flat-topped hillock with two clusters of temples seldom visited by tourists. The northerly of these, the Galaganatha group, consists of temples built in the Early Chalukyan, Rashtrakuta and Kalyani Chalukyan periods of rule in the region, spanning nearly six centuries, from the sixth century CE. South of the Galaganatha cluster is the Ramalingeshwara group, still used for worship. This, too, contains shrines from various periods of mediaeval history. The hill is also strewn with several other monuments – ranging from unfinished mantapas of uncertain vintage to prehistoric megaliths. 

To the south of these clusters, among the megaliths, is a solitary sandstone shrine facing west of the river. It is a simple, flat-roofed Early Chalukyan temple, consisting of just a sanctum and a porch. Rather austere in appearance, it does not display the sculptural exuberance which its larger contemporaries usually possess. 

Nowadays, there is a linga enshrined in the sanctum, but when Carol Bolon, one of the earliest art historians to study this region, visited decades ago, the sanctum was empty. She reasoned that a large, well-carved lotus icon, then lying just outside the shrine, could have been the deity within, and named it the “Pushpabhadra Temple”. 

Interestingly, on the topmost basement moulding on the eastern side, there is a small image of a monkey carved in relief. This is adjacent to one of the standard dormer motifs known as kudus strung out along the moulding. The monkey, depicted as lifting some object, does not seem to be a part of any narrative imagery. The image is certainly not a later addition though, since it is in relief, projecting above the plane of the moulding surface. 

Images of animals are commonplace in the sculptural programmes of even the earliest temples. Bands of animal imagery featuring elephants, lions, horses, birds etc. are encountered on various components of temples from plinth to finial. However, the little monkey image on the Pushpabhadra Temple is probably one of the earliest of its type – showing an animal not as part of any sculptural narrative, but rather “out-of-place” at the spot it appears.

Other examples in stone

Another example of seemingly out-of-place monkeys can be encountered at the Amruteshwara Temple at Annigeri, where carvings depicting groups of monkeys engaged in grooming each other as well as single monkeys can be found interposed among the architectonic elements of the temple vimana. This temple was built during the 11th century, during the rule of the Kalyani Chalukya dynasty. The architectural features of the tower of the temple are typical of the evolved form of the Karnata Dravida temple-building tradition, with kuta aedicules or miniature shrines flanking a transformed and staggered sala aedicule, in receding tiers towards the finial. The deliberately introduced monkey images break the symmetry which these repetitive architectural elements endow the temple tower with. 

Similar motifs of monkeys can also be seen at the Kasivisveswara Temple at Lakkundi, and the Mahadeva Temple at Ittagi. Why would any group of artisans choose to introduce such disruptive elements in their creations?

During a visit to the Amruteshwara Temple, members of a troop of bonnet macaques could be seen gambolling among the kutas and salas which make up the structure of the temple shikhara. One of the dominant males of the troop was even seen in the exact pose as a monkey carved on the vimana. Could it be that the artisans who built the temple were inspired by the antics of their simian companions to incorporate their images in the architectural programme, even at the expense of the canonically prescribed symmetries? 

The fascination of both langurs as well as macaques with the lofty perches which towers of temples provide can be witnessed to this day at monument sites across the country, which must presumably have been the case even when these temples were being built.

Tropes and poses

During Vijayanagara rule, it became almost a trope to depict monkeys, pigeons and even cats on the prominent doubly-flexed eave characteristic of the temple architecture of that period. The Chintala Venkataramana Swamy Temple at Tadipatri in Andhra Pradesh provides a typical example, with monkeys depicted in animated poses on the eaves of the mantapas of both the main and subsidiary shrines.

A clue to the intent of the sculptors and architects in carving such images on their architectural creations is provided by the celebrated art historian C Sivaramamurti, in his writings. He points out how the eighth-century poet Magha, in his mahakavya titled ‘Sisupalavadha’, eloquently describes how live cats stalked doves carved on the roofs of beautiful houses in Dwaraka, mistaking the masterfully carved stone images to be the real thing. Spectators taking in this scene admired the handiwork of the sculptors who had wielded the chisel. Sivaramamurti sees this desire to showcase the sheer wizardry of the artisan and invoke awe in the mind of the beholder as the motive behind such imagery – from lizards on walls and ceilings, to monkeys and doves on the cornices and eaves of medieval stone temples.

The carving on the Pushpabhadra Temple, too, might be the record of a sculptor’s playful and spontaneous ingenuity, inspired by some naughty monkey pestering the artisans at work.

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

Published 16 May 2024, 02:17 IST

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