Stories that stones tell us

Stories that stones tell us

Kalakana Gowda scoops out stone-dust from a row of rectangular slots in the sandstone with the same pointed chisel he had used to carve them. Once he rids them of enough dust to his satisfaction, he begins to lay steel wedges in each of the seven slots, packing the edges tightly with fragments of thin metal sheets. “So that the wedges do not bounce out when I hit them.” he explains, tapping the wedges tight with the light hammer called kodathe

He stands up, and removes his shirt in preparation for the hard work to follow, in the blazing sun of Pattadakal.

Picking up a long-handled hammer, Gowda proceeds to hit each of the wedges in turn, the hammer tracing long, sweeping arcs in the air, its heavy head unerringly smashing into the tops of the wedge. After two rounds of blows on each of the wedges, a narrow crack appears. After Gowda persists with his effort, a block of stone roughly 1.5m in length lies separated from the bedrock. 

He looks up and grins, the perspiration streaming off his body.

A few kilometres from where Gowda and his friends work the stone, are two disused sandstone quarries where Early Chalukyan stonecutters similarly worked more than a thousand years ago. 

Situated at an distance of roughly five kilometres from the famous group of temples at Pattadakal, it is evident that much of the stone which went into the temples were sourced from these two quarries, as well as another one closer to the heritage site. 

Ancient stonecutters 

There are a lot of signs of those early stonecutters and sculptors in the abandoned quarries — sketches, mason’s marks, inscriptions in 8th century Kannada script, and plenty of wedge holes, where the quarry workers intended to split rocks. Slabs of split sandstone lie stacked and ready to be transported and transformed into the ceiling of some unbuilt temple, before the quarry was abandoned all those centuries ago.

These quarries near Pattadakal were used only during the 7th and 8th centuries, by Early Chalukyan artisans. However, at Aihole and Badami, temple construction continued unabated, though at a less frenetic pace, for centuries after the Badami Chalukyas were displaced from power in the mid-8th century. 

So it is common to find constructions from the periods of Rashtrakuta, Kalyani Chalukya and Vijayanagara rule rubbing shoulders with one another.

Careful study shows that the wedge holes from the Badami Chalukyan period are lens-shaped, unlike those from the Vijayanagara period, which are square or rectangular in outline. Similarly, the stones, after splitting, sport wedge marks along their edges, which are U-shaped in the case of the Badami Chalukyan stonework, and angular in the case of the Vijayanagara ones.

After extensive investigation at a number of sites, we devised a geometrical method to analyse such wedge-marks on stones and thus determine the period of stonework. 

At sites like, Badami, or Aihole, where construction from various periods exist in close proximity with each other, this is a helpful way to determine authorship of various components of construction. 

Tool marks   

For instance, at Badami, we could determine that a particular gateway in the fort wall near the Agastya Teertha was from the Early Chalukyan period, while the fort wall in which it is embedded seems to be rebuilt during the Vijayanagara era. There are independent clues corroborating this, since the Vijayanagara builders have left tell-tale signs of their craft in carvings specific to this period.

Extending this study to other periods and regions, it appears that stonecutters all over the subcontinent seem to have used lenticular wedge holes for splitting stones during the 6th to 10th centuries. For instance, we find that the Pallava artisans who created the wonders at Mahabalipuram also used lens-shaped wedge holes to split stones, as did the builders of the northern style temples in the Kumaon Himalaya. It appears that the switch from lenticular to rectangular wedge holes happened in the 10th or 11th centuries, for reasons which are still not clear to us.

The exact methods used to split stones in the medieval period is still a matter of debate among scholars. Some scholars aver that wooden wedges were hammered into the wedge holes and then soaked with water, whereupon they swelled and cracked the stone. We considered the possibility that the switch from wooden to steel wedges could be the reason for the change in the shape of the wedge holes. 

However, the discovery of an ancient steel wedge and the head of a heavy hammer used to drive them, at one of the quarries of the Badami Chalukyan stoneworkers at Pattadakal (currently exhibited at the ASI museum at Badami) discounts that possibility.

The history of architecture in our country is a mesmerising puzzle, with many pieces still missing. Several monuments were begun in some early period in history and subsequently rebuilt or renovated by other rulers. In some cases, inscriptions reveal these phases; obvious stylistic factors also help in tracing authorship. But in the absence of such telltale signs, the stones themselves reveal many stories through the marks they sport, unravelling the history of the monument, like a palimpsest.

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