Monday, June 24, 2013

A Day Out From Badami

Nataraja, in the Ravana Phadi cave temple in Aihole, flanked by Ganesh. Nataraja is the form of Shiva whose dance of cosmic destruction will obliterate the old universe in preparation for the new. The Ravana Phadi Cave, dating back to the 6th century, is one of the very earliest Chalukyan monuments, predating the cave temples at Badami. Though Chalukyan architecture would develop a great deal between the this period and the 8th century, their skill at sculpting appears to have peaked rather earlier. For my money at least, the very greatest Chalukyan carvings, which certainly include this Nataraja, are in Aihole...Aihole is actually pronounced "Aye-oh-lei," and frankly I wish that whoever decided to render the name into English had gone a more phonetic route...talking about it actually presents exactly the same problem as bringing up the name of the planet Uranus...oh well....

My second day in the Badami area was one of the very best purely travel days I've ever had in India. In the twelve hours I spent on my feet, I wound up visiting roughly three quarters of the core of the ancient Chalukyan Empire (something which I can't say I do every day.) 




My plan for the day wasn't nearly so ambitious as what I wound up doing. The previous evening, I had been approached by a random fellow on the bathing ghats next to Agastya Lake in Badami, who turned out, after five minutes or so of conversation, to be a guide. He had been friendly enough, and after Northern Karnataka, where there's very little tourist hassle, I was perhaps rather off guard. To be honest about it, the guy was just trying to make a living, though I had to turn him down...when you're backpacking on my budget, rs.500 is rs.500. However, he did tell about something which interested me (though obviously he had wanted to take me there for a fee): Behind Agastya Lake, winding up into the red hills east of Badami, is a six kilometer trail that leads to another important site of Chalukyan building activity called Mahakuta. At the time I had never even heard of Mahakuta (it barely gets a mention in Lonely Planet) though it sounded interesting, so I decided I would go there the following morning. 

Waking up at around 6am, and after having a breakfast of a candy bar and two oranges, I headed out. The trail to Mahakuta begins east of the Badami Archeological Museum. Just outside Badami the trail is paved and easy to follow, and it stays that way until it comes onto the top of a redrock plateau, where for a while it's virtually unmarked except for the occasional deliberately placed line of stones. At this point it leads across sparsely vegetated, semi-arid slickrock country, populated by cows, feral dogs, and bands of free roaming ponies. 

Redrock landscape east of Badami, at around 7:30 A.M. 


Ponies on redrock. They seem to be owned by the local villagers, though they're apparently allowed to roam around on their own. 

The trail leads clear across the top of the plateau, and after some time climbs down the opposite side into a wide, flat, grassy expanse watered by a small stream. On either side loom great sandstone escarpments. As it climbs down again, the trail widens out, and there are places where obviously at one time it was quite broad, and was constructed with quite a bit of manpower, though now it's overgrown and sees comparatively little use. Given how long Badami and Mahakuta have been going concerns, the trail might very well have been around for as long as fifteen hundred years...certainly, it's a much quicker route than that which the road follows. 

Sandstone cliffs, as viewed from the valley the trail leads into after it comes back down from the plateau.

Beyond the plateau, the trail leads gradually downhill until it comes to a small watercourse, which it follows along the right side. At about this point I started to hear a rather unexpected noise wafting up out of the east. It was the sound of kids laughing and people splashing about in water. For all the world, it sounded like a crowded swimming pool. But I couldn't see anything to indicate where the sound was coming from. All I could make out ahead of me was a thick stand of trees, and beyond that, fields.

Continuing further downhill, with the swimming pool sounds getting louder and closer,  I saw the first sign that I was getting close to Mahakuta: an old, forlorn looking temple on the opposite side of the watercourse.

Forlorn and forgotten outlying temple, about ten minutes out from Mahakuta, which I would visit later in the day as I was hiking back to Badami. 

Reaching the trees, I could hear that I was close to quite a large number of people splashing around in....something. I was still alone, and the sounds of watery merrymaking, without any sort of visual confirmation, were rather eery, like I was hearing the ghostly echoes of a long forgotten giant Chalukyan bath tub.  But, walking further along, I saw that there was a large sandstone masonry wall to my left, and I knew must have reached the ancient temple complex. 

The cheerful back gate to Mahakuta, as guarded by Kala, left, and Kali, right. I'm far from certain who these folks are. I'm of course well aware of the Goddess Kali, as in Shiva's consort, though I've never seen a depiction of her that looked like the statue on the right. Kala, on the other hand, besides meaning in Sanskrit black, death, and time, is also another name for Shiva. As one of Shiva's roles is to destroy, or to lay things to waste, he is also associated with the concept of time, in a form known as Kala. Also, Mahakuta is primarily a place of Shiva worship, hence it would make sense to have versions of Shiva and his consort on the gate. 

Close in on Kala. To make matters more confusing, there is a version of Yama, the ancient Vedic/ Indo-European guardian of the underworld and Hindu equivalent of Hades, who is also known as Kala. He too is associated with time, as in, when your time is up, he's the one you meet. He also is frequently depicted as having a twin sister...which, again, would seem to fit the carvings on this gate...In short, I'm just not sure who this fellow is.

I walked through the gate that was guarded by Kala and Kali, and found myself in a place which seemed more like a municipal pool than an ancient site of shiva worship. The Mahakuta temple complex, like Badami, dates from the heyday of the Chalukya Empire. It's buildings exhibit the north/south hybrid style of temple construction that the Chalukyas are noteworthy for. Just in terms of its architecture, it's perhaps not as spectacular as its vastly more famous neighboring temple complexes. However, unlike the other three major concentrations of Chalukyan building in the area, Mahakuta is less a historical site than a going concern. Its temples are still prayed in, and its great tank of ritual ablutions, besides serving its religious purpose, seems to be the center of activity for miles and miles around.

Papavinasha Tirtha, Mahakuta's tank of ritual ablutions, which doubles as central Karnataka's 1300 year old holy public swimming hole.  The scene was far from solemn. Note the kid just about to dive from the pavilion in the middle of the water. Everyone seemed to be having a really good time.  After having walked for the past hour and a half alone through the lonesome semi-arid expanses between Badami and Mahakuta, arriving in the midst of the crowded waterpark atmosphere of the temple complex was quite a contrast. 

I wandered about a bit in the temple complex, getting some very odd looks, as I think Mahakuta sees far less foreigners than the other historical sites in the near vicinity. Then I contemplated my next move. I had been thinking beforehand that on this day I would visit Mahakuta and then backtrack to Badami and visit some of the places in that town which I had missed the previous day. But I had gotten to and seen Mahakuta earlier in the day than I had expected to, so I decided to try and push on to another, more famous historical site called Pattadakal.

A subsidiary shrine with a newly constructed stairway, in Mahakuta.


These guys were getting their tractor blessed. 

I found a bunch of Rickshaws at the end of the parking lot for the temple complex and negotiated a (in all likelihood exorbitant) fare to Pattadakal. 

Pattadakal, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was where the focus of Chalukyan building activity shifted after Badami. It was for a time their capital city, and it was where, in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Chalukyan style of architecture reached its most advanced stage. Here, in an incredibly dense complex of ancient buildings, a profusion of temples in  Northern and Southern styles stand side by side. Being there is like walking through a whole landscape of bizarre red sandstone mountains. It's more than worth the slightly steep rs. 350.
Various Pattadakal temples in different styles. The large pyramidal tower in the background is part of the Virupaksha Temple, the most famous shrine at the site. The large curvilinear structure in the foreground is the Sikhara of the Kashi Vishwanatha  temple, built by the immediate successors of the Chalukyas in the region, the Rashtrakutas, though in a Chalukyan style. 

Looking towards the Sikhara, or tower, of the early 8th century Virupaksha temple, the largest temple and most impressive construction at the site. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple was built by a certain Chalukyan Queen Lokamahadevi to commemorate her husband Vikramaditya's military victories over the Pallavas, a neighbouring ancient South Indian dynasty. This Virupaksha temple is not to be confused with the much later Hampi Virupaksha Temple (which I happened to visit just a few days later). 


A closer view on the tall, finely sculpted Sikhara of the Virupaksha temple. This is an example of a Chalukyan temple that tends more towards the Southern School of temple architecture, the Sikhara being pyramidal rather than curvilinear. 


A fine illustration of the differences between the Northern and Southern types of Sikharas. The temple tower in the foreground is classicly South Indian, while the temple in the background is typically North Indian in style. However, there are few places in India where you can capture both types of temple in one photograph. 


Close up on a finely carved though somewhat weather beaten South Indian style Sikhara. 


The partially ruined Galganatha temple, built in a pronounced North Indian style. What is perhaps most interesting about the stylistic choices of the temple builders of Pattadakal is the fact that neither Northern or Southern styles of temple really won out. Rather, throughout the period during which the site was active, a roughly equal number of Northern and Southern style temples were built. 

Narasimha, the lion headed 4th avatar of Vishnu, about to slay the demon Hiranyakashipu.  From a frieze on the side of the Mallikarjuna Temple. Narasimha is generally regarded as an embodiment of divine wrath. In the story of Narasimha and Hiranyakashipu, the form of Vishnu which preceded Narasimha, the boar headed Varaha,  killed Hiranyakashipu's brother, Hiranyaksha. Seeking revenge, Hiranyakashipu did penance and then appealed to Brahma for immortality. Brahma wouldn't accede to this, though he did allow certain conditions to be placed on Hiranyakashipu's death, among which was the stipulation that he could be killed be neither man nor animal. Later, after the demon had been granted essentially de facto immortality, his son became a devotee of Vishnu. This angered Hiranyakashipu so much that he tried to kill his son, but Vishnu protected him and sent his avatar Narasimha to intervene. As Narasimha was part human and part lion, he was technically neither a man nor an animal, and hence was able to slay the demon. 


Golden light inside the Mallikarjuna temple. The Mallikarjuna temple is a very close, though slightly smaller, imitation of the next door Virupaksha temple, and was in fact built only around 15 years later, by a different queen of the same ruler for whom the larger and more famous temple was built.  


Inside the Mallikarjuna temple...it looks almost exactly like the inside of the Virupaksha Temple, and actually, the only reason I have pictures of the inside of this temple rather than the temple it was modeled after is because the Virupaksha temple had more people in it, but in order to get these relatively low light pics with my little point and click camera, I needed to be able to stand really really still, and I couldn't have people walking through the frame.


Carved pillars inside the Mallikarjuna temple.

While inside the Mallikarjuna temple, I aquired a few small though very persistent kids who wanted to beg from me. I gave them a little bit of candy and some bananas, but they would only be satisfied with rupees.  For the next ten minutes or so I wound up being chased around the whole UNESCO World Heritage site, before I got fed up and turned on the kids, literally running them screaming out of the complex, and then most of the way out of the surrounding town. I got some more very puzzled looks from local visitors. Then I continued my tour of the site.


A frieze carved on the side of a pillar depicting a scene from the Mahabharata, the 3000 year old sanskrit epic, inside the Virupaksha temple. 

More Mahabharata scenes. It's fairly amazing to note that the Mahabharata had been in existence for over 1500 years by the time this carving was made. 


By the time I had finished in Pattadakal, it was around two in the afternoon, the very hottest part of the day. I had already done quite a bit, but since I had come so far already, I decided that, if I could, I would travel that day to the final great center of Chalukyan building activity, the unfortunately named Aihole (remember, it's pronounced Ai-yo-lei). 

There were, however, no buses, and none of the rickshaw drivers in Pattadakal seemed to want to take me for a reasonable price. I ended up riding between Pattadakal and Aihole with a perfectly random family from Bangalore. They had rented a rickshaw in Badami for the day, and were taking a tour of the whole area...the tour operator made a few extra rupees off me, needless to say.

Whereas Pattadakal was where Chalukyan architecture can be said to have reached its zenith, Aihole was more of an architectural testing ground. It was here that the Chalukyas built their first cave temples, and experimented with various styles of structural temples, some which continued into their later building projects, and some which did not.

In my very humble and far from expert opinion, the statuary in Aihole is superior that of the other three major Chalukyan sites. The carvings manage the impressive trick of being both stylized and life-like at the same time. Elsewhere in Karnataka, the rather more famous statues in the much later ruined city of Vijayanagara are more massive, and in a way more awe-inspiring, that those in Aihole, but are not so artistically fine. 


Matrikas in Ravana Phadi Cave, Aihole. Ravana Phadi Cave, dedicated to Shiva, dates from the 6th century, and predates the cave temples temples in Badami. The picture at the top of this post is from Ravana Phadi Cave. The Matrikas are a group of mother goddesses, usually numbered at seven (though that can vary) who are regarded as the female personifications of the energy of the more important Gods. The sow headed figure to the left is Varahi, who is considered the living form of the energy of Varaha, the third avatar of Vishu. It's interesting to speculate how much historical data these carvings contain with regards to the clothing of the period. In particular, I wonder if those rather fanciful headdresses are simply an artist's invention, or if they actually reflect something which might have been worn in the Chalukyan court.


More carvings in Ravana Phadi Cave. The figure in the center is Shiva, with Paravati to one side. The malnourished fellow on the other side is, I think, a figure named Bhringi, and every story I've run across as to who exactly he is is different. One story was that he was a demon who fell in love with Parvati, so in retribution Shiva drained all his fluids out, and he became Shiva's devotee. I've also read that he was in fact Shiva's next son after Ganesh. Also, in another story I heard that he was actually a saint who was, quite contrary to the first account, entirely devoted to Shiva, to such an extent that he wanted to totally ignore Parvati. In this version, Parvati, angry at being ignored, then decided to drain Bhringi of all of the parts in his body that are, in Tantric Hinduism, associated with female energy, i.e., all the soft squishy stuff, leaving Bhringi in the state you see him in this carving: A bag of bones, still devoted to Shiva...In short,  in Indian mythology, they don't make it easy on you...


Durga Temple, Aihole. This is the most famous temple in Aihole, and perhaps the most unusual in the whole region that constituted the core of the Chalukyan Empire. The name of the 8th century temple comes not from the goddess Durga, but rather from the word "Durg" meaning fortress, which is what the temple served as at one point. The identity of the God who was venerated here is in fact unknown. The layout of the temple is unique, the curved colonnade around the outside of the building being a design feature that does not appear anywhere else in South Indian temple architecture. Some historians speculate that the shape of the temple was inspired by earlier Buddhist shrines, which had a somewhat similar floorplan, though the design on the Durga Temple itself was never copied, and seems to have been something of an architectural dead end.


A rather marvelous Durga, on the side of the Aihole Durga temple, which happens not to be named after Durga. To the left is her lion mount, and to the right, the Buffalo demon Mahishasura, who I assume she is about to slay, though her weapon has since worn away, along with one of her legs and some of her arms. As you walk along the colonnade on the outside of the Durga temple, you pass by a number of panels depicting six of the more important Hindu Gods.


Shiva with Nandi, also on the side of the Durga temple. 

There are something like (depending on your source) 150 temples in Aihole, in a number of different groups and from a variety of historical periods. But as I had come, without planning on it, all the way from Badami, I had to visit Aihole at rather more of a rushed pace than I would have liked. 

Still, I had the time to walk up to the top of a small hill next to the town, on which were a number of Buddhist and Jain shrines.


A small carved Buddha, in another, very early, 6th century shrine. 


The unfinished Meguti Temple, which was constructed by a Jain scholar in the Chalukyan court in the 7th century. It's noteworthy in that it's the only temple in Aihole with a precise date, an inscription on the temple indicating that it was constructed in 634. Though a tower was probably planned, it was never added. The temple now just has another, smaller, shrine on top.

As it was late in the day, and I had to get all the way back to Badami before sundown, I left Aihole, and wound up taking another rather expensive rickshaw ride back to Mahakuta, from where I would hike the last 6km back to Badami via the same track I used in the morning.

It was getting on towards sundown when I got back to Mahakuta. Heading once more out into the lonely country between Mahakuta and Badami, I remembered the rather forlorn temple I had seen in the morning, and decided to go and investigate. What I found there made for rather a mysterious end to what had been a very long and eventful day.

Next to the fairly plain, ancient, outlying temple was a wall of rock covered in strange red symbols, along with a few small inscriptions. 

Weird arcane scribblings. Make of them what you will. These were some distance from the trail, next to a small abandoned temple. I have no idea how old these symbols are, or who put them there. Perhaps they're just some sort of weird hoax, or maybe they're just not that old.

Close in on the weird symbols. I would be inclined to think that these were fairly recent scribblings, if not for two facts that became apparent on close inspection. Firstly, the symbols seem to have been there long enough that bits of the rock that were once underneath them have been worn away over time. Also, those two black patches covering the bottom of the symbols would appear to be lichen, which generally grow at a rate of only a few millimeters per year. The symbols must have been there at least long enough for the lichen to grow to its current size, which would have taken quite some time.....What does that all add up to? I'm not sure, but it was interesting.

Leaving the ancient forlorn temple next to the mysterious symbols, I walked back to Badami under a steadily darkening sky. At one point a cobra crossed my tracks, and progressively more and more huge flying foxes could be seen above as I made my way westward. The day had truly been a spectacular, if unexpected, success...but that's just how it turns out sometimes.


Naga ceiling medallion on the roof of the front porch of the Aihole Durga Temple.



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