The mystique and magic of India lie in the tales from ancient times. Carved in stone are stories that take legends beyond the mythical. Religion, archaeology, mythology, even geology have defined culture, the architecture and art, akin to one’s heart. They speak to wanderlust souls about a poignant past.
Most impressive is the thrilling narrative these images present about a pulsating and glorious history. These accounts date far back… chronicled from the Golden Age of the Gupta period, to medieval times of the last millennium. One example is that of Chandragupta Maurya, the emperor who built a mighty empire, after fighting several battles and conquests. Grandfather of Asoka the Great, he is known to have met Alexander, also the mighty Greek conqueror, well known to world history, perhaps even more relevant in Indian history. What happened towards the end of his reign? Influenced by the Jain saint Bhadrabahn, Chandragupta turned into an ascetic Jain monk. The Emperor who had founded an unyielding dynasty, that ruled over one of the first-known golden ages of united and independent India – as known to modern history – moved to southern India, in voluntary exile. The end… self-imposed starvation brought an end to this Jain monk’s illustrious life.
Patronage of Jainism can be traced back to this period, i.e. around 3rd century B.C. During this time, when a serious famine is said to have wreaked havoc in eastern India, Jain monks migrated to the Deccan. Much later, in the 9th-10th centuries A.D., Jainism, in the south, benefited from the patronage of the Rashtrakutas and Western Gangas. From that period dates Shravana Belgola with its freestanding, figural structure of the mighty Bahubali, son of Adinath, the first Tirthankara. While this temple in Karnataka state is the principal, and most celebrated of Jain pilgrimage sites in southern India, other treasures, important to Jain art, architecture and literature also exist within the state.
Ahimsa and truth, fundamental to Jainism, seem to stem from monolithic statues and the top of hills or from dark interiors of deep-cut rocks we see as grottoes.
Belonging to the early and late Chalukyan period, as well as to the intervening Rashtrakuta era, in Aihole, you will see numerous temples. The early Chalukyan sites in Badami and Pattadakal, listed today among World Heritage Sites, have splendid rock-cut caves and temples from another era. These are examples that display an unusual diversity of architectural and religious forms. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism seem to have co-existed in harmony, patronised by different kings and dynasties spanning the period 6th-12th centuries A.D. The kingly courts of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 14th-16th centuries A.D. also had many Jain ministers and generals. Today, the ruins of Hampi give a glimpse of the imperial magnificence, art and architectural patronage by yet another dynasty. Some pre-Vijayanagara temples, on a hillock, are believed to be Jain temples from ancient times. The preliminary datable shrines constructed at Hampi during the first dynasty of Vijayanagara were devoted to Jain deities.
Much mystery and enigma shroud the grandeur of Aihole, Badami, Pattadakal and Hampi. Some Indian and local historians have been embroiled in controversies on these places. It is interesting that even scholars from other parts of the world have studied the subject, shared and participated in these discussions. Research studies have shown how religion has always been closely entwined with wealth, trade and patronage by the powers that be. Today, in another period and in a far-off land, we bring you the opportunity to see some examples of lesser-known glories. Perhaps this article may interest you to explore your cultural heritage. What the mighty rulers relinquished may leave you in wonderment. Words and pictures do not suffice. Yet, listen to the silent stones. You’re bound to stop in your path as they tell you some awesome stories.
Rich in detail, quietly peaceful, Aihole, “cradle of Indian architecture” as it is aptly referred to, in the Deccan – “dakshin”, the south, is home to over a hundred temples. Built between the 5th-8th centuries A.D., on the banks of the River Malaprabha, the 22 groups of temples are all scattered around the village. In a bygone era, Aihole served as the centre of Chalukyan sovereignty. Today, it stands in virtual anonymity.
Rashtrakuta and Late Chalukyan temples dating from 9th-12th centuries are often a combination of two or more shrines, combined and devoted mainly to Jain divinities. As is the practice today, donations from royal patrons and wealthy individuals were the prime source of wealth for constructing religious buildings we refer to as ‘temples’.
The Megutti Temple sits on the flat top of the fortified hill, facing north. With an inscription of the ruler Pulakesin II, it is perhaps one of the earliest dated temples in India. An impressive Jina figure is seated within the sanctuary. The Jain yakshi now sits in the Archaeological Museum in Badami.
To the south of the town is a late 6th century rock-cut Jain cave temple. Though incomplete, you’ll see sculptures of Parshvanatha, Bahubali and Mahavira on the walls. Foliate scrolls and makaras (aquatic monsters), delicately carved on the ceiling, seem ferocious, and yet are decorative in an otherwise austere cave interior. The fascinating rock-cut techniques in architecture had an influence on other structural practises of construction, the chief purpose of the craftsmen being to carve the building surface.
Among other contemporary temples, and from the early Chalukyan period are Hindu temples that display an unusual diversity of form. Of these, the largest and most elaborate is the “Durga” temple. Despite the reference to the well-known goddess, the name actually refers to a fort (durg). From the late 7th century A.D., the temple may have been originally dedicated to Surya (sun). Among the finest sculptures of the period adorn the columns. The interiors are rather plain.
The Lad Khan Temple, the Kunti complex, Gaudar Gudi, Chakra Gudi Hucchappayya Matha, Chikki Gudi, Mallikarjuna group, Galagantha group, Hutchimalli Temple, Ravalphadi Cave are some of the other interesting Hindu temples. By now, if you’re ready for a short climb, you may find peace with Buddha, smiling at you with that familiar tranquility, straight down from the ceiling of the two-storeyed temple.
During the course of your tour in the Hindu temples, someone may narrate to you the story of Parasuram, how he avenged the slaying of his father, and then washed the axe in the river. The Malaprabha turned red. Like Parsuram, but for lesser reasons, you may, by now, be ready to exclaim, “ai, ai, holi!” It actually means, “Ah, the river!” – the legend behind the name Aihole.
In a spectacular setting, situated at the base of an outcrop of red, rugged sandstone, surrounding an artificial reservoir on three sides, are the steps that meet the waters of Agastyatirth. Up above, the steps on the south fort lead to the rock-cut monuments with an exceptionally marvelous quality of carvings in deep-red sandstone.
The 6th century Jain temple cave – the most recently excavated, fourth in a series, stands on the south side. Less elaborate, smaller in scale, it seems austere. The seated Parshwanath, Mahavira, and standing figures of the Tirthankaras that adorn the walls can be easily distinguished from the later carved insertions of small standing Jinas.
You wouldn’t miss the 18-armed Nataraja, striking 81 dance poses inside Cave 1, guarded by Shiva’s monolithic Dwarapalas! Yet again, from the 6th century, it is a symbol of Hinduism, of particular importance to Shaivaites.
One of the most remarkable in the Deccan is Cave 3. With multifaceted fluted designs, flying figures sculpted to embellish ceilings, Vishnu flanked by Laksmi and Garuda; Shiva, Indra and Varuna are among the principal deities; Krishna vanquishing demons, and with other epic stories depicted on the walls, and much more, this cave is undoubtedly symbolic of a Hindu reign in the region. Similar in layout and ornamentation to Cave 1, Cave 2 is a Vaishnava sanctuary.
The Upper Shivalaya from early 7th century, the Lower Shivalaya also from the same period, and the Malegitti Shivalaya from the late 7th century seem to be the first of the Early Chalukyan structural projects. Sitting atop the north fort boulders, these temples today lie in ruins.
To the rear of the Bhutanath temples are caverns – natural openings inside boulders. Seated on a throne is a Jain icon – a Jina. Yet another one has Vishnu sleeping on Ananta attended by Lakshmi.
Your next search for soul-satisfaction and visual delight may well lead you to Vatapi. A visit to this pantheon of Jainism, Hinduism and Budhhism will leave you in a stupor. To what degree did the culturally savvy Chalukyans venerate their religion? Talk to the larger than life symbols of all these schisms. Experience the art, architecture and grandeur. Without doubt, they’re indeed compelling. Do we see you heading towards Badami for a private tete-a-tete with the monoliths?
The large scale of the architecture, the complex elevation and spatial treatments, the rich ornamentation in the different building styles, artistic traditions from different parts of the subcontinent… the Pattadakal temples provide a striking illustration of their harmonious coexistence. The 10 or so major temples represent the zenith of the Early Chalukyan period. Today, a World Heritage Site, Pattadakal served as the royal commemorative centre. Coronation of the Chalukyan rulers between the 7th–9th centuries A.D. was held with great pomp in this city.
The Rashtrakutas reigned in a subsequent century. The Jain temple dated to this period has slender pilasters on the external walls but has no sculptures. The shikhara is a stepped tower, capped with a square roof. Placed in the mandapa you’ll see large elephants, carved in full relief. Makaras with unusually elaborate tails frame the doorways.
Facing the Malaprabha River in the east, nestled together as a close group of 7 temples, are the Banashankari, Virupaksha, Jambulinga, Galganatha, Papanatha, Mallikarjun, Kashi Vishwanath, and Sangmeshwar temples. Larger than life carved images of the bull, “Nandi”, are visible within the pavilion.
The detailed descriptions in the sculptures of the temples give an insight into the social life of those days. Although the temples are in ruins, they stand as a reflection of the economy, language, script, polity, society, and of course as symbols of prevailing religions during the reign.
Sitting amidst these majestic surroundings, I felt like a special guest to a king’s crowning ceremony. A sojourn to this southern town sufficed to experience a period of great glory.
Today a mere symbol, Hampi represented a cultural force between the 14th-16th centuries. It was originally a sacred centre on the banks of the Tungabhadra River. The dynasty that founded the Vijayanagara Empire later transformed it into a fortified, magnificent capital.
The Gangitti Jain temple of 1385 represents the typical, early Vijayanagara style of architecture. Located on the east side of the Royal Centre in Hampi, it has double shrines. The walls are plain, columns and pyramidal stepped towers – “vimanas” compare with the early shrines on the Hemakuta Hill. The tall, lamp-column in front of the temple has an inscription on its shaft.
The small temples overlooking the village of Hampi from the south, built on a sloping shelf of granite, are also a photographer’s visual delight. From this hillock in Hampi you can see the Pampapati Temple, worshipped by devout followers, even to this day.
Interesting are also the monolithic images of Ganesh, Narasimha and the Shiva Linga, not far from Hemakuta. The Malayavanta Raghunatha temple, the Krishna, the Hazaar Rama temples, all have interesting tales to tell, both, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is also believed that in a natural cavern close by, the monkey king Sugriva hid the jewels dropped by Rama’s consort Sita, soon after her abduction by Ravana of Lanka; marks left by her clothing still remain, or so they say.
In a beautiful setting by the river is the most impressive Vitthala temple with its granite columns that chime with musical notes! Facing this marvelous temple is the celebrated Ratha, a granite repro of a real chariot. The delicately carved lotus design on the wheels is simply superb!
A Persian traveler in the 15th century is known to have said, “The city of Bijanagar is such that the eye has not seen, nor ear heard of any place resembling it upon the whole earth!” A Portuguese visitor wrote in awe, “The city is situated like Milan, but not in a plain… It appears to me to be a second paradise!” Today, the impressive elephant stables, the ruins of the Lotus Mahal, the Queen’s Bath, the recently excavated step-well with aqueducts, the huge Mahanavmi Dibba and other royal fortifications, can only give us an estimate of the size, the architectural grandeur and engineering feat.
Although the sculptures seem broken, the buildings derelict, and dynasties destroyed a long time ago, the tradition of sanctity in the Deccan remains unbroken through the ages. Stop by… listen… each stone has its own story to tell.
Written and photographed by Words-n-Motion.
Originally published in Jain Society of Toronto, 2600th Janma Kalyanak, 2001. (www.jsotcanada.org)
P.S.: My thanks to all the references – authors, and web sources I referred to, while putting this article together. It is difficult for me to give each of them individual credit, since I now have no record with me.