Today we drive to Aihole, said to be one of the first regional capital of the Karnakata region under the rule of the Chalukyas. The town contains a large number of early experimental Hindu temples and shrines that date between the 6th to 12th century CE.
Along the way we passed vast spaces of empty terrain with nothing but brown bushes. The desolate landscape is strewn with interesting shaped boulders. The boulders in this area are very different from the ones in Hampi, which is just about a hundred kilometers from here. Whereas the boulders in and around Hampi have been smoothed by wind erosion over thousands of years, the boulders in this region appear more reddish and jagged.
Aihole is a historic site of ancient and medieval era Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monuments in north Karnataka. The town was referred to as Ayyavole and Aryapura in ancient inscriptions and Hindu texts. The Britishers referred to it as Aivalli and Ahivolal in colonial British era.
The idyllic town boasts of over a hundred stone and cave temples dating from the fourth century through the twelfth century CE. These monuments are protected under the laws of the Indian government, and managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Located around a small village surrounded by farmlands, Aihole is a major archaeological site featuring many temples and monasteries, set amidst narrow streets and congested settlement.
Similar to Pattadakal, the heritage site does not have a cordoned parking area. You just park in the space outside the complex. As we got down hoards of local villagers came charging at us selling informative books and eatables among other items. It is not advisable to buy books form these locals as they will ask for astronomical amounts and you have to bargain. We hurried towards the sanctity of the ASI protected site, beyond which they didn’t chase us.
Myths surrounding Aihole
Aihole has also been a part of Hindu mythologies. It has a natural axe-shaped rock near the Malaprabha river bank, which is a tributary of the larger Krishna river that flows in north Karnataka, and a rock in the river that shows to be a footprint. A 19th-century local tradition believed that rock footprints in the river were those of Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Hindu God Vishnu.
According to local folklore, Parashurama, is said to have washed his blood soaked axe here after killing the whole clan of King Maheshmati Kartvurya Arjuna, in revenge for killing his father, giving the land its reddish color. The story goes that one King Maheshmati Kartvurya Arjuna forcibly takes the Kamdhenu cow from his father. Parashurama was a saint but he was born with a warrior attitude. He fights a war with the king and brings back the holy cow. On seeing Parashurama commit a sin, his father asks him to atone for his sin. While Parashurama is away in penance, the king comes back and kills Parashurama’s father. When Parashurama hears of this he goes on a killing spree and kills everyone in the kings family. When other Kshatriya kings came to help Maheshmati’s family , he killed all of them, and then he killed all the Kshatriyas (warrior class) in the region for 21 generations. Talk about holding a grudge! The red blood washed away into the river, gave the region its red color.
Brief history of Aihole
Aihole has been called a cradle of Hindu rock architecture. The documented history of Aihole is traceable to the rise of the Early Chalukya dynasty (c. 550‒c. 750 CE) in 6th century. Aihole was the first capital of the early Chalukyas. It became a major cultural center and religious site for innovations in architecture and experimentation of ideas. The Chalukyas sponsored artisans and built many temples in this region between the 6th and 8th centuries.
Excavations have found evidence of wooden and brick temples dating to 4th-century. Experiments with stone started in Aihole sometime at the culmination of the 5th century CE. This was a period when the Indian subcontinent saw a period of political and cultural stability under the Gupta Empire rulers. Following the decline of the Gupta Empire, the Chalukyas began to assert their independence. The earliest dynasty, known as the “Badami Chalukyas”, ruled from Vatapi (modern Badami) from the middle of the 6th century. Their presence in the roughly 25-kilometre stretch of the Malaprabha valley is documented mainly at four well-known sites: Badami, Mahakuta, Pattadakal and Aihole.
After the Chalukyas, the region became a part of the Rashtrakuta kingdom who ruled in the 9th and 10th century from the capital of Manyakheta. In the 11th and 12th century, the Late Chalukyas (Western Chalukya Empire & Chalukyas of Kalyani) ruled over this region. Even though the area was not the capital or in immediate vicinity from 9th to 12th centuries, new temples and monasteries of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism continued to be built in the region based on inscription and textual and evidence.
In the 13th century and thereafter, the Malprabha valley along with much of Deccan became a target of raids and plunder by the Delhi Sultanate armies devastating the region. From the ruins emerged the Vijayanagara Empire which built forts and protected their monuments.
The region continued to witness series of wars between Vijayanagara Hindu kings and Bahmani Muslim sultans. After the collapse of Vijayanagara Empire in 1565, Aihole became a part of the Adil Shahi rule from Bijapur, with some of the Muslim commanders using these temples as residence.
Aihole became a significant archaeological site and attracted scholarly attention after the British India officials identified and published their observations. After the British left, Aihole remained a neglected site. Until the 1990s, the site consisted of houses and sheds built up to and in some cases extending into the historical monuments. The walls of the ancient and medieval temples were shared by some of these homes.
Experiments at Aihole
Aihole, along with nearby Badami, were the cradle of experimentation with temple architecture, stone artwork, and construction techniques. Aihole was an early medieval era meeting place for regional artisans whose ideas eventually led to the creation of prototypes of 16 types of free-standing temples and 4 types of rock-cut shrines. Though there is a sprinkling of Jain monuments in Aihole, the temples and relief artworks were predominantly created to spread the theology of Hinduism. These experimentation in architecture that began in Aihole yielded the more polished looking group of monuments at Pattadakal, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tickets for the Aihole group of monuments are priced very cheap at Rs 25 for Indians. Foreigners have to pay a hefty Rs. 500 for entry per head. The complex consists of seven Hindu monuments. The first structure you see as you enter the premises is the Durga Temple.
Inside the complex we started our exploration with a visit to the museum. You can find the museum at the back of the complex, just past the Durga Temple.
Photography is prohibited inside the museum, but you can find very interesting stone idols that have been removed from the main temples. Surrounding the museum, there are many excavated statues, artwork, hero stones, and temple parts demolished in past, placed over cemented pedestals for display.
The building was originally planned as a sculpture shed in the year 1970 and was converted in to a full-fledged museum in the year 1987. The museum mainly comprises of stone sculptures of Brahmanical, Jain and Buddhist faith, fragmentary carved architectural members, inscriptions, hero stones, and sati stones. Period wise they range in date from 6th century AD to 15th century AD. These antiquities were acquired through exploration, excavation and scientific debris clearance near the protected monuments.
The indoor collection includes preserved pieces of statues of Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Brahma, Saraswati & Durga among others. One of the rooms accommodates a bird’s eye view model of Aihole and the surrounding Malaprabha valley, with marked locations of the various monuments. You can also purchase informative books from the museum store, with a compiled history of the region.
Durga Temple Complex, Aihole
From the museum we walked down to the Durga temple, the most iconic structure of Aihole. The temple is part of a pending UNESCO world heritage site. It has a misleading name, because the temple is not named after goddess Durga. According to one theory, it stands near the ruins of a fort-like enclosure or durg during a time of late medieval era conflict in the region. According to another local tradition, a stone rubble durg and lookout was assembled on its flat roof and locals therefore began calling it the Durga temple.
The Durga temple is the principal attraction for Aihole visitors with its unique semicircular apsidal layout. This shape is similar to 1st century BCE Buddhist chaitya halls found in Ajanta Caves. The Durga temple stands on a high molded adisthana. There used to be a damaged tower that had a curvilinear shikhara. The museum contains a back dated photo of the temple with its shikhara still somewhat intact. The damaged tower’s amalaka crown lies on the ground.
The temple was initially thought to be dated to be from 5th century CE, but later revised to be from between the late 6th and early 8th century. It is the largest of a group of over 120 temples at Aihole and the best maintained.
From the front the temple appears much more conventional with two staircases on either side providing access to the porch. As you ascend to the porch you will be greeted with with many richly carved relief panels.
The original dedication of the temple may have been to the sun god Surya, or perhaps either Vishnu or Shiva as the representations of Vishnu are as numerous as those of Shiva.
The Durga temple reverentially displays gods and goddesses from Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism. The included near life-size statues include Shiva, Vishnu, Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu), Durga in her Mahishasuramardini form killing the buffalo demon, goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, Brahma, Surya, avatars of Vishnu such as Varaha and Narasimha.
The sober and square pillars are decorated with characters around the porch and the entrance to the peristyle. The parapet is carved with niches and small animals. The porch gives access to rooms with pillars (‘mukhamantapa’ and “sabhamantapa”) to get into the sanctuary, the heart of the shrine (garba griha).
The mukha mandapa (main hall) and the sabha mandapa (community hall for functions) show intricate carvings. The temple pillars have artwork showing scenes of daily life and couples, including several amorous couples in various stages of courtship, including roundels with groups of lovers.
The rounded ends at the rear or sanctuary end include a total of three layers: the wall of the sanctuary itself, the main temple wall beyond a passageway running behind this, and an ambulatory passage with pillars, running all round the building.
The most original feature of the temple is a peristyle delimiting an ambulatory around the temple itself and whose walls are covered with sculptures of different gods or goddesses. Stone grilles with various geometrical openwork patterns ventilate the interior from the ambulatory.
The plan of the temple is oblong and apsidal. It means that the corridor with pillars between the porch and the heart of the shrine encompasses the heart of shrine and allows worshipers to perform the parikrama (circumambulation ritual).
The shape of the temple, in Indian traditional architecture, is known as Gajaprasta which means the resemblance to the back of an elephant. The temple’s unusual apsidal form is thought to imitate the earlier Buddhist chaitya halls, but recent studies suggest that apsidal designs in Indian architecture were a pan-Indian tradition, which was shared by various faiths from the 2nd century BCE.
The corridor of the temple contains idols of the many Hindu Gods, including the one below, that appears to be Shiva with Nandi bull.
Outside the Durga Temple, there is a small gateway structure.
Nearby there is a water tank.
From here we moved to the South area of the complex which contains many other smaller temples.
It follows another unnamed Shiva Temple.
We went inside the temple, which also has some nice pillar carvings.
Suryanarayana Temple, Aihole
Just to the left of this temple lies the Suryanarayana Temple with a pyramidal shikara on top. It has a Surya statue with each hand holding a lotus flower in its garbha griya (sanctum), in a chariot and seven small horses carved at the bottom. The temple outline is intact, but most of the details are damaged.
In front of the Suryanarayana Temple lies another unnamed temple.
Lad Khan Temple, Aihole
At the back of this temple lies the Lad Khan Temple, variously dated to “about 450 CE”, or from the 6th to 8th centuries. The temple is named after the Muslim commander under Adil Shahi Sultan who briefly stayed here about a thousand years after it was built. He used it to coordinate his military campaign in the region.
The temple embeds three concentric squares, facing the sanctum with a Shiva Linga. Inside the inner third square is a seated Nandi. The two square mandapas surrounding it create the sabha mandapa or community hall, providing ample space for devotees and community to gather for functions. The second concentric square is supported by a set of 12 intricately carved pillars. The wall has floral designs. The temple inside is lit with natural sunlight coming in from lattice windows of the north Indian style. The temple roof stones include log-shaped stone strips suggestive of an attempt to mimic more ancient timber temple construction.
The Ladkhan temple includes iconography from the Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism. On the lintel of the sanctum with Shiva Linga, for example, is a Garuda image who carries Vishnu. The temple has reliefs showing goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, as well as other deities. A set of stone stairs connect the lower level to the second floor whereupon is a damaged square shrine. On three sides of this upper level are Vishnu, Surya and Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati). Like other Aihole Hindu temples, the temple includes scenes from daily life, including amorous couples in courtship and kama scenes.
Gaudaragudi Temple, Aihole
And finally at the south-end most section, we find the Gaudaragudi Temple. Gaudargudi temple stands next to the Ladkhan temple, built on the lines of Ladkhan temple but more open from all sides. It too has log-shaped stones, where its timber like form is integrated to serve its structural function. The sanctum is empty but has a Gajalakshmi on its lintel.
An inscription engraved on the lintel states that the temple has been dedicated to goddess Gauri (an aspect of Parvati). There is evidence that the sanctum, the inside mandapa, and niches on outer walls had carved statues, but these are now empty. Gaudargudi was among the earliest temples when architects included pradakshina patha (circumambulatory path) in Hindu temple design.
Next to the Gaudargudi (also spelled Gaudergudi) temple is a large stepwell for utility water storage whose walls have ancient carved sculptures. The stepwell with its Hindu shrine was likely added in the 10th or 11th century. The Chakragudi is notable for its preserved 7th or 8th century Nagara-style tower superstructure. The temple shows signs of later addition of a mandapa, whose style suggests 9th-century Rashtrakuta extension. After exploring the back area of the temple complex we made our way back towards the exit.
Just before the exit I captured a last glimpse of the beautiful Durga Temple.
Ambigera Gudi Complex, Aihole
Opposite to the Durga Temple Complex, you can find the Ambigera Gudi Complex. Its a gated complex but does not require admission tickets. The gardens here are not that properly maintained.
Ambigergudi group is one of the archaeologically significant Aihole complexes situated immediately west of the Durga temple complex, near its entrance ticket office. It consists of three monuments, all aligned to the east-west axis. The easternmost monument is square monument walled on its east, north, and south, and it lacks a tower. It faces the middle monument, which is largest of the three. The middle monument has experimented with an open verandah design concept with sloping slabs for roof cover. The sanctum is inside, and it contains a damaged Surya (Sun god) image whose crown is visible. These eastern two monuments are from 6th to 8th century, the Early Chalukya period.
The third monument in the Ambigergudi complex is a Late Chalukya design from about the 11th century. Its structure and layout feature all elements of the Hindu temple but it is damaged, the image inside the sanctum is missing and the face, nose, and limbs of most of its intricate carvings on the walls are defaced. The structure experiments with square and cubic shaped elements and arrangement of space. The Dravida design stands out above the sanctum walls, with repeated motifs of resonating tower structure as it rises upwards. Like other elements of this temple, the capping roof and finial is missing.
The archaeological significance of the Ambigergudi temple is from the results of limited excavation near the rear wall of the sanctum foundation. This yielded red-ware bowls dated to the 1st and 3rd century CE, as well as an outline of a single cell more ancient brick temple, which probably the stone temple replaced. According to the hypothesis of Rao, the excavating archaeologist, the 3rd century CE brick temple served as a model and sanctum ground on which a more lasting stone was built. This hypothesis, however, remains tentative as additional evidence to refute or support it has not been found. According to Hemanth Kamdambi, Chalukyan temple inscriptions from the 6th to 8th century are silent about the existence of prior temples.
Hucchimalli Gudi Complex, Aihole
After grabbing a chilled 7UP we drove to the next group of temples in Aihole. Following the map, we drove north and and took a narrow road to the right. The Hucchimalli Gudi Temple Complex is also a gated complex but I could not see any guards around. You don’t need tickets to go inside.
The main temple faces west towards a stepped tank. The sides of the temple incorporate sculpted figures of gods and goddesses. The temple consists of a mandapa with a passageway contained within walls. its plain exterior is in contrast to the well preserved Nagara style tower.
The third structure facing opposite to the main temple is clearly another experimentation where the temple is constructed in an elongated shape. A small broken idol of Nandi sits facing the temple.
Apart from these three temples, the complex also houses stepped water tank.
Ravana Phadi Cave Temple, Aihole
After exploring the temples of Hucchimalli Gudi Temple Complex, we went to the Ravana Phadi Cave Temple, which is a short drive away. Ravanaphadi is one of the oldest rock-cut cave temples in Aihole, located less than a kilometer uphill, northeast from the Durga temple complex. The temple dates to the 6th century belonging to the firts phase of Early Chalukya architecture.
The entrance has an eroded fluted column and seated Nandi facing the temple sanctum, with three other small monuments each with a porch leading to a chamber.
This is a temple carved into a hill. In front of the temple is a nice garden complete with two Frangipani trees and a monolith pillar.
The small temple in the garden is the only one topped with a kuta type roof.
In front of the cave temple, facing the Shivalinga inside, sits a huge idol of Nandi
A small stone staircase leads up to a platform which is flanked by two smaller shrines.
The entrance of the Ravanaphadi cave is decorated with two worn down relief images of pot-bellied figures.
Inside the cave temple, the main mandapa connects to two other squarish chambers, one on the right and one in the front.
The left side on the first chamber accommodates an elaborate tableau of a ten-armed Shiva. He is accompanied by Parvati and a complete set of saptamatrikas, including a boar headed Varaha, triple headed Brahma and sons Ganesha & Kartikeya.
The chamber on the right was empty. At the entrance of this chamber you can find two wall reliefs on either side. On he left is Harihara portraying a fused image of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. On the opposite side one can make out an image of Shiva with three primary river goddesses of Hindu theology, and he stands with Parvati and the skeletal ascetic Bhringi.
The main mandapa leads into a smaller vestibule. A pedestal with a molithic linga lies here inside the cave, never fully completed. On either side of the inner sanctum, we see two amazing works of stone art. One the left, we find a deeply carved image of Vaishnava Varaha or Vishnu’s boar avatar rescuing Bhudevi (goddess earth). To the right is an equally praiseworthy carved image of Shakti Durga as Mahishasuramardini spearing the buffalo demon Mahisasura.
The Ravanaphadi cave temple is in my opinion, one of the most enchanting temples in Aihole. Because it is located away from the settlement, this place is very quiet and you can explore in peace. Once we had our fill, we drove on along the road searching for our next heritage stop.
A few minutes drive from the Ravana Phadi Temple, you can make out the exteriors of the Buddha Temple. But we were exasperated from the heat and decided to skip the Buddha Temple as well as the Temple on the top of the Meguti Hill.
Before moving on, I fished out my long 80-400mm lens and took the shot of the two-storeyed temple, a few steps below the crest of the hill. The two levels of the temple are open and feature four full carved square pillars and two partial pillars on two side walls.
Each pair of pillar goes into the hill to form a small monastery like chamber. The doorway to lower level chamber is intricately carved, while the central bay on the upper level has a Buddha relief showing him seated under a parasol. The temple is dated to late 6th-century.
Jyotirlinga Temple, Aihole
Before starting on our drive back to Badami, we made a last stop at the Jyotirlinga Temple Complex. Admission ticket is not required for this temple as well. You just open the iron gate and go in. Make sure to close the gate otherwise the cows will barge in to munch on the green grass inside.
The Jyotirlinga group of monuments contain sixteen Hindu monuments including a large stepwell water utility tank. It is located east of the Durga temple complex compound across the road and to the south of the Ravanaphadi cave. The temples are dedicated to Shiva, with most monuments small to moderate size.
The complex is largely in ruins, except for the Nandi mandapas and standing pillars inside the temples some of which show intricately carved but damaged images of Ganesha, Karitikeya, Parvati and Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati). The temples are likely from the Early Chalukya and Rashtrakuta Hindu dynasties. From what I could make out, there are about 4 unnamed fully standing temple structures inside the complex, the rest are in ruins.
The grounds also feature an open air Shivalinga. I am not sure if the shivalinga never had a roof, as it may have been pulled down by sacrilegists
The temple premises also features a stepped water tank. Among all the water reservoirs we saw in Aihole, this one looks to the most properly constructed.
After capturing the pictures, we started on our way back to Badami. Before leaving the area, we stopped briefly to visit the ancient Digambar Jain Temple. The Jain cave temple is to the south of village, on the Meguti hill. It is likely from the late 6th century or early 7th. The outside is plain, but the cave is intricately embellished inside.
The Aihole site and artwork are a major source of empirical evidence and comparative studies of Indian religions and art history in the Indian subcontinent. The Aihole’s antiquity, along with four other major 5th to 9th century sites – Badami, Pattadakal, Mahakuteshvara and Alampur – is significant to scholarship relating to archaeology and religions.
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4th–12th century CE
Hindu, Jain, Buddhist temples and monasteries
Disclaimer: The information presented in this article is based on the time I visited the premises. Note that there might be changes in the prices of merchandise and admission fees that might have occurred after this article was published. At times the facility might also be closed for repairs or for variety of other reasons. Kindly contact the facility or facilities mentioned in this article directly before visiting.
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Credits: The historical information presented herein is gathered mostly from local guides that were re-inforced via historical writings.