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The Trailblazing Chisels of the Chalukyas and Pallavas

The Trailblazing Chisels of the Chalukyas and Pallavas

Authors Gurpreet Chopra and Bharath have put together a fascinating account of the beauty and splendor of the glorious temples of South India in their book ‘Chalukyas and Pallavas’ to be published soon. In this interview, they talk about the Royal kings and what inspired them to create these monuments in stone. The richness of this period traveled far beyond Indian shores to Vietnam and Cambodia and continues to hold sway over locals there.

Denis Hudson, whom you quote in your preface, writes that his book The Body of God was an “exercise in reading architectural, sculptural, written and ‘performed texts’ closely in order to understand  the vision this Vishnu-house was intended to embody for sophisticated Bhagavatas of eighth-century Kanchipuram.” How has your journey in researching for your book helped to create an understanding of the divine form housed in these sacred spaces?

We started this journey in a far less stringent or academic manner as is the wont of amateurs and laymen. Our journey started with mere posts on social media platforms with our own pictures and content that was already established. It is only when we were approached to create a coffee table book that any serious reading up of multiple aspects such as history, architecture, and the associated texts started. Ours is still a coffee table book. It is written to create that first interest in exploring temples through all those lenses that Denis Hudson outlined and more. The book aims at weaving, through pictures of these temples, the stories of our Gods, information on the creators of these temples, and the intent behind such creations along with a taste of the life of those times. From the Pallava perspective, it also attempts to outline the progression that happened in their temple construction: from rock-cut excavations to monolithic structures to structural temples to finally creating the embodiment of an entire philosophy into a structure where Vaikuntha Perumal temple becomes as, Denis Hudson puts it, “The Body of God”.

A temple is an architectural, social, shastraic, and aesthetic representation (to name a few) of our attempts to elevate ourselves. It is a culmination of the human expression that interacts with the divine aspect. Temples were not only for individual spiritual development, but they also provided a secure atmosphere where schools of dance, philosophy, music, sculpture, and shastra’s were propagated and practiced. Even the structure of the temple was according to the Shilpa Shastras which envisioned the temple as the energy body with specific locations for each component. The science of consecration and ritualistic traditions were the cornerstones for creating powerful reverberating spaces where an individual contemplated, interacted with the ‘manifest’ properties of unmanifest Brahman. The Chalukya’s of Badami attempted to create their own Kashi in the monuments at Pattadakallu and Aihole, as well as powerful consecrated spaces, with their uniquely mesmerizing excavations of the Cave temples at Badami.

How did the building of these temples impact the various dharmic traditions of worship? 

When temple worship itself began in India is a matter of scholarly debate. That shift from Vedic forms of worship to structural temple worship is masked in the mists of time. It is obvious that a shift happened, and temples became centers for spiritual development for both the individual and the community as described in the previous answer. Regarding the two kingdoms that we cover in the book, temple worship was already part and parcel of Hindu life. And in line with Agamic practices, three forms of rituals would have been performed without exception: the Nitya puja (daily routine), specific pujas, and rites on specific days of the month such as Ekadashi, Pradosham, Pournami, etc., and finally the utsavam or festival.

If one were to visit the Vaikuntha Perumal temple on a normal day, one would hardly find one or two devotees at any point in time. But as Dr. Chithra Madhavan points out in one of her talks, on the day of Vaikuntha Ekadashi, thousands, if not lakhs, of devotees throng to the temple. Temple festivals are important events to bring the community together for multiple reasons – economic, social, spiritual, political. Both the kingdoms were followers of Vedic practices and several significant yajnas were conducted during the lifetime of the kings in all probability within the temple premises. Tableaus of kings conducting yajnas such as the Ashwamedha are, in fact, sculpted on the walls of Vaikuntha Perumal temple.


Pallava Vaikuntha Perumal

The heyday of the Chalukya’s of Badami was from the 6th to the 8th century CE. During these times, the Vedic traditions were in vogue, in addition to the worship of deities consecrated in temples. The first King who expressed his independence was Pulakeshin I and he did it by conducting the Ashwamedha Yajna. Agnishtoma, Paundarika, Vajapeya Yajna’s were performed by successive Kings with the donation of cows and distribution of gold. Whereas the Chalukyan cave temples as well as the rock temples at Pattada-kallu and Aihole became centers of Shaiva tradition. We see a mix of both Vedic and post-Vedic rituals being practiced at the temples. Additionally, rishis from the Pashupata sect seem to have had an influence at these regions, as can be seen by the presence of Lakulisha sculpture in Badami. 

 The building of a temple required the King to establish an icon,  place of dwelling, and worship. All three to be done according to the rites taught by Veda and Tantra. This would have been the same for both the dynasties you have covered. How does one differentiate between the two in terms of the rituals followed?

Both kingdoms were followers of Vedic practices, agamas and Shastras. While we have not found specific details on the consecration rites or Nitya puja details, it is very likely that there would be any great difference between what was followed in the temples of these two kingdoms.

The careers of the Kings are depicted in the panels of some temples giving us insight into the dynasties. Some of them have been interpreted and others haven’t. What information is available to us about the motivation of the Kings in building temples and whether they received the benefits believed to accrue to them for building the temples in their lifetime?

In the Srimad Bhagavatam, Lord Krishna says in 11.27.52:

pratiṣṭhayā sārvabhaumaṁ

sadmanā bhuvana-trayam

pūjādinā brahma-lokaṁ

tribhir mat-sāmyatām iyāt

By installing the Deity of the Lord one becomes king of the entire earth, by building a temple for the Lord one becomes ruler of the three worlds, by worshiping and serving the Deity one goes to the planet of Lord Brahmā, and by performing all three of these activities one achieves a transcendental form like My own.”

While not every ruler that ruled in Bhārata was a Sri Vaishnava, nearly every ruler, fully cognizant of the elevation he or she would attain by doing so, built temples for our Devas and established a practice of worship across the kingdom. In fact, one never comes across huge palaces or grandiose residences of the illustrious rulers of powerful dynasties, but one, definitely, comes across a grand temple built by those rulers.

The need for temple excavation was not merely political, but it involved an attempt to further the name of one’s kula (family), as well as fulfill one’s moral and social obligations. The aim was always to create an inimitable structure that would be a one-step above the existing standards. Many a time, it also commemorated significant victory over one’s enemies. After all, temple construction was a complex activity that required huge financial ability and accomplished artisans/sthapatis/Vishwakarma to execute the King’s vision. Thus, it was not taken up by every generation, but only when the above resources were sufficiently available.

The intention was also to develop the city/space into a spiritual powerhouse that would attract the learned saints, teachers, different sampradayas; who in turn would contribute to the cultural renaissance of the region.

In Cave 3 at Badami, King Mangalesha dedicates the merit that accrued from the construction of this cave temple to his elder deceased brother Krittivarma. Whereas Virupaksha temple at Pattadakallu was built to commemorate the successful war campaigns of Vikramaditya II. Similarly, Pallava temples are replete with inscriptions about the accomplishments of the kings who built them in superbly calligraphic Pallava Grantha script.

Whether each of these benefits was visible to the King within his lifetime, is a rhetorical question. However one can clearly see a reasonable correlation between “golden periods” of these kings in and around the construction of the temple. Be it, economic or cultural (in terms of establishment of educational institutions or scholars flocking to their courts).

Apart from the panels themselves, are there inscriptions about the history of these temples. Are they well preserved?

As mentioned already, both Pallava and Chalukya temples are replete with inscriptions about the accomplishments of the kings who built them. For example, Kailasanatha temple inscriptions inform us that Sribhara (Narasimha II or Rajasimha Pallava) was the builder of this temple. The inscription also records that his queens Rangapataka and Lokamahadevi were also associated with the construction of shrines in the complex of the Kailasanatha temple. While Vaikuntha Perumal Temple has the history of the Pallavas sculpted on the walls, inscriptions in the Kailsanatha temple traces the genealogy of the Pallavas all the way from Brahma to Ashwatthama. Ashwatthama’s son is considered to be the first Pallava by the Pallavas themselves.

All the Chalukyan temples do not have inscriptions regarding their historicity, therefore their dating has been done by historians based on the architectural styles and the King who patronized the temples. However, we do find mention of the Sthapati responsible for directing the creation of the entire temple, as well as sometimes names of individual sculptors who worked on creating the beautiful sculptures on the temple façade. We see such evidence in the Virupaksha as well as the Sangameshwara temples at Pattadakallu, as well as in Cave 3 at Badami. 

As far as preservation goes, much needs to be done. Tamil Nadu’s HRCE department is notorious for painting/constructing over inscriptions. The sites in Mahabalipuram, Kailasanathar, and Vaikuntha Perumal are under ASI. Unfortunately, ASI isn’t great at maintaining these sites either. With their penchant for sandblasting, many structural elements get eroded.


Pallava Kailsanathar

What are the sources of the Sthala Puranas? The same stories are sometimes found in temples situated far from each other. Is there a reliable source for these stories?

Some sthalapuranas are recorded in the Puranas themselves or in devotional poetry such as the Tevaram and Nalayira Divya Prabandham. A typical example is the Sthalasayana Perumal temple at Mahabalipuram which talks of a poignant tale of the devotion of Pundarika towards Lord Vishnu. Of course, it is likely that the same stories are repeated in multiple places. Whether a reliable source or a conflict resolution is required at all is the key question. It is our way of linking our temples to the divine and make the stories of our Gods a part of our own lives. These stories pass on from generation to generation and become part of the local lore.

The sthalapuranas associated with the Chalukyan temple sites are the Ban-Shankari Mahatmya and the Mahakuta Purana. These Puranas narrate stories of the origin of the city of Vatapi, named after the demon inhabiting the region, who was killed by Sage Agastya. The artificial lake near the Badami caves complex is aptly named ‘Agastya Teertha’. These Puranas also narrate the story about how Devi Ban-Shankari or Devi Shakhambari, as she is also known; appeared to slay demon Durgamsura who was harassing the people of that region. She is also known as Shakhambari, as she provided vegetables to the people who were in a grip of severe famine. A shrine to the Devi exists at Ban Shankari near Badami, which was built by the later Kalyani Chalukya’s. 

What is the understanding we can get of Pallava and Chalukya architecture from your book in terms of how their rivalry led to their trying to outdo each other in building grander temples?

Pallavas and Chalukyas have had an extremely competitive relationship. They attacked each other numerous times, in a bid to outdo the other kingdom politically. Both were strong regional powers within Indian in the 6th – 8th-century timespan. However, no matter how strong the rivalry, we see an underlying theme of the exchange of art and aesthetics between these dynasties. For instance, even though Chalukya Vikramaditya II defeated the Pallavas and entered Kanchipuram, he treated the Kailasanatha Temple with reverence. Almost every representation of Shiva in the temple has a bewitching smile playing on His lips. It is said that Vikramaditya was simply bewitched by the same smile. So bewitched that he abandoned his intention of sacking Kanchi. We see an inscription to that he provided generous funds for the upkeep of the temple on one of the pillars.

Chalukya Bhutanatha

Chalukya Bhutanatha

Post this encounter we see the beginning of construction of the Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples at Pattada-kallu which represented the zenith of Chalukyan aesthetics and culture. In fact, Krishna I of the Rashtrakutas, based the Kailasa temple at Ellora on the temples of Pattadakkal, which in turn were inspired by the Kailsanatha temple at Kanchi. Krishna I took a sthapati named Sarvasitti Acharya from Kanchi to execute the Ellora temple.

Contrary to what is sometimes propagated as ‘political destruction’ of temples, in order to whitewash the horrific period of Islamic invasions and iconoclasm in our country; Hindu Kings did not engage in temple destruction. They would shift the deity from the conquered territory and relocate it in an even grander temple within their kingdom. The reverence for the deity as well as the temple was paramount and it was the underlying thread that connected different regional identities. The cultural or spiritual unity of sorts.

The Pallava temple architecture inspired and spurred on the Chalukyas to create their own ‘karnata-style’ of the temple which was unique to the Chalukyas and directly impacted the evolutionary process of temple construction. This resulted in the creation of the inimitable Kailashanatha temple at Ellora. Likewise, the 13-year long occupation of Badami by Narshimhavarman I, who went on to construct some of the earliest Pallava temples, may have also resulted in the Chalukyan architecture of Malegitti Shivalaya and Mahakuteshwara contributing to the Pallava temple forms in terms of the Octagonal Shikhara.

The two Kingdoms not only learned from themselves but they left a lasting legacy. KR Srinivasan, former deputy director at the ASI notes, “the Gaṅgas, the Muttaraiyars, the early Cōḷas, the later Cōḷas, and the Pāṇḍyas, the Vijayanagara rulers and the provincial Nāyakas continued the Pallava tradition in their respective zones, while the Rāshṭrakūṭas, the Telugu Cōḍas, the later Cāḷukyas, the Kākatīyas, and the Hoysaḷas continued the Cāḷukyan tradition in the rest of South India”. 

Shaivite and Vaishnavite temples stand next to each other in several temple towns. Is there any indication of what deities the rulers themselves followed or preferred?

Yes, the rulers themselves were not only followers of specific deities but many were well versed in the specific Siddhanta of their sampradaya. Mahendravarman I is supposed to have converted to Shaivism from Jainism by the great poet-saint Appar. Rajasimha Pallava was an ardent devotee of Shiva and built the Kailashanatha temple at Kanchipuram where he proudly proclaims in an inscription that the temple captures the leela of Shiva on Mount Kailasha, in fact, it is mount Kailasha itself. Similarly, Pallavamalla Nandivarman was a Vishnu bhakta. That said, the state ensured that followers of all sampradayas and their temples were provided for and inscriptions to that effect are found in many places.

The Chalukyas of Badami referred to themselves as ‘Parambhagvata’s’ and had the Varaha on their dynastic banner. The earliest excavations were the Cave temples at Badami, where Cave temple 3 dated as of the earliest excavation, is a Vaishnav cave temple. It is a notable construction in its class and time period. However, later we do see the excavation of Shaiva cave temple in the same complex – Cave 1. Additionally, the earliest Chalukyan temple i.e. Mahakuteshwara is Shaiva and all the temples built at Pattadakallu, from the 7th century onwards are Shaiva. So even though the Chalukyas were Vaishnavas at the beginning of their reign, we see a clear shift towards Shaivism. The presence of Pashupata Shaivism is also experienced from the sculptures of Lakulisha found in the cave temple. However, it is important to note that the Chalukyan temples, even though Shaiva, frequently represented the Vishnu Avatara’s as well as Harihara in their sculptural panels.  

What is the reason for such a surfeit of temples being concentrated in South India?

Until the 6th century, and even post that, there were numerous temple constructions observed in North India. However, with the fall of the Sun temple at Multan in the 6th century and the following repeated Islamic invasions resulted in unbelievable bloodshed, destruction, and uprooting of traditional educational systems as well as knowledge transmission. Both the wholesale demolishing of temples, even across every small hamlet in North India coupled with the barbaric invasions; the temple construction as well as artistic evolution was abruptly stopped. Naturally, we see a greater concentration of temples in the south.

The Guptas were truly the last epoch in temple building in North India, on a pervasive level. We do see temples built in later centuries in pockets, such as Osian in Rajasthan, Khajuraho, multiple constructions at Somnath, Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra. However, many of these constructions again underwent destruction through different time periods. The ones we see today are a pale shadow of the glorious cultural epoch that would have been existent in North/Central India until the first few centuries of the common era. In fact, Odisha still has an impressive roster of temples.

The South faced comparatively fewer invasions by Islamic invaders and consequently many temples survive. Malik Kafur reached as far as Madurai in the South. However several valiant efforts by the local populace managed to safeguard many of our temples.

Can you briefly describe the differences in architectural styles?

Temples in India have been broadly classified into ‘Nagara’ and ‘Dravida’ styles, based on their architectural plans. We see a greater concentration of Nagara temples in the north of the country and similarly, Dravida style temples are seen more in the south of India. Even though we find a fusion or assimilation of these styles with the Chalukyan temples at AihoĪe, we see a variety of styles implemented at Pattada-kallu and Bādāmi. Thus, historians refer to the Chalukyan temple architecture as ‘Karnāṭa a’ style i.e. a technique unique to the Deccan. Even within both the style templates, there are significant regional variations. As an example, even among ‘Nagara’ architectural template, we see exquisite regional variations when we compare the Nagara temples of Orissa with those of Madhya Pradesh.

Chalukya Pattadakallu

Chalukya Pattadakallu

A basic architectural plan for Nagara temple includes a sabha-mandapa facing the garbha-griha or sanctum in which the deity/linga is placed. There may be multiple mandapas in more complex structures such as Bhoga-mandapa, Natya-mandapa (dance hall) etc. There may also be an ‘antarala’ or a vestibule connecting the garbha griha (inner sanctum) with the mandapa. The most distinctive feature of a nagara temple is its curvilinear spire or rekha shikhara which is situated directly above the temple sanctum. This shikhara is crowned by a cushioned capital or a ‘amalaka.’ A ‘kalasha’ is placed atop the amalaka. The shikhara of the Nagara temple uses various methods such as repetition of miniature shikharas on the body of the main shikhara, decorative patterns created using horizontal divisions – bhumis and miniature-amalakas crowning the miniature repetitive shikharas. Based on the number of projections from the main shrine of the temple, it is further classified into ratha categories. The temple façade may contain sculptures depicting various pauraṇic episodes or forms of the deity under worship.

In a Dravidian temple, the upper portion of the temple rising from the garbha-griha is arranged in levels or tiers. Each tier has a decorative hara (garland) on the outer edges comprising of alternating shalas and kutas. Finally, at the top, there is either a square, circular or octagonal shikhara. The bottom section of a Dravidian temple consists of the main sanctum either surrounded by circumambulatory passage, or asandhara (without an inner path around sanctum) where the sanctum is placed near the back wall of the structure. The sanctum is connected to the sabha-mandapa. Additional mandapas or vestibules may also be present. Like the Nagara style, we do not see ratha projections at the base or Shikhara, but the temple façade may be richly ornamented with intricate sculptures located in niches. The tiers may also contain niches with depictions of the deity under worship. Gopuram or temple gateway is another distinctive feature. The Gopuram also contains multiple tiers which may be densely packed with decorative motifs and sculptures. A gopuram traditionally displays the barrel shaped vault at the top lined with stupis.

When did the tradition of temple building cease and why? What is the impact of British rule on these temples?

Temples were always jointly owned by society as well as the monarchy. As we see in inscriptions from the Chalukya temples such as Sangameshwara in Pattadakallu; the local people donated food grains, land, and wealth to ensure that the temple functions for the society. The royalty and wealthy donors set up endowments so that the dancers, musicians, teachers, priests were all adequately compensated, and they could continue in their respective roles without fear of economic problems. The temples too were banks, secure spaces, and schools for the community, in addition to being the abode of the divine. As India was subjected to rule by foreign powers antithetical to Hinduism and our indigenous identity, this connection with the temple as well as our autonomy collapsed. The populace was subjected to extreme poverty and the physical as well as systemic attacks on the people and our temple ecosystems intensified, leading to a break in this evolutionary curve of temple building. We do not see masterpieces like the Ellora Kailashnath Temple, or the huge Chola temples re-constructed in a new template or an alternative style of temple construction in contemporary times.

Today too, our temples are under government control and a disconnected, rootless community unaware of the spiritual and social significance of temples, has led to a continuing lull. It is imperative that we reacquaint ourselves with our own cultural corpus – our temples, Shastras, classical arts, languages, literature, ritualistic studies….the list is endless. Only once we come face to face with our glorious past, we can be true inheritors of our collective civilizational future.

Editor’s Note: Indic Academy is pleased to shortly publish a coffee table book by Gurpreet & Bharath on the temples built by Pallavas and Chalukyas. This project has been conceptualized and initiated by Dimple Kaul, former Director -Center for Indic Writers.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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