Vesara Temple Architecture – Origin and Evolution : A Photo Journey

Ereya was a small boy when his father Kirtivarman- II died and his uncle Mangalesa ascended the Chalukya throne as regent. As the boy came of age so did his uncle’s greed for power and he decided to declare his son as his heir apparent showing Ereya the door. The young prince sought shelter in Bana territory (present day Kolar) and formed his own small army that went on to defeat his uncle. Ereya ascended throne taking the name Pulakesin -II and the title Chalukya Parameshwara. Thus began the golden period of the Chalukyan dynasty.

Chalukyas are one of the first dynasties of the upper Dravida Desha and known as the real builders of Karnata / Kuntala desa (present day Karnataka) region. The scion of the dynasty launched his political career sometime in the 5th century CE from a small territory around the Bijapur town. This region lay north of Banavasi (of the Kadambas) and was a region that gave no sign of notable cultural activities until the advent of Chalukyas as rulers. The twin cities of Aihole (Ahivalli) and Badami (Vatapi) were the nerve centres from where the Chalukyas and their empire spread out to become one of the most powerful .

As the Chalukyan empire started growing rapidly, more and more neighbouring regions fell in the dominion of the dynasty. From these two cities, elements of art and culture travelled to the lands that the Chalukyas newly conquered and the first monuments bearing an authentic brand of the “art of Karnata” started taking shape. The role of first two Chalukya kings was largely insignificant as they were merely seen as the puppets of the previous dynasties that ruled here. The real glory began from the time of Pulakesin I who was an independent ruler and fortified Badami (Vatapi) in 543 CE. His successor Kirtivarman-II, then the next king Mangalesa, then Pulakesin II added to the legacy of Badami (Vatapi) by constructing Hindu, Jain & Buddhist caves as well as the Mahakuta group of temples.

 Chalukya_territories_lg

During the reign of Pulakesi II (CE 608-642), Chalukyas attained imperial status. He soon went on to capture Talakadu (of Gangas), Banavasi (of Kadambas), Aluvakheda (of Alupas). He shortly defeated Mauryas of Konkan and conquered large areas of today’s coastal Maharashtra rapidly moving towards North. His army went further north till river Narmada to check advance of his enemies by defeating them and restricting them beyond the river. The same was repeated on the eastern front along the Godavari river. He defeated the Vishnukundinas and added most of Vengi- one of the most fertile regions in the south; to his kingdom. The difficulty in keeping a check on the activities this far east from his capital in Badami might have seemed difficult to Pulakesi II. Very smartly, he stationed his brother Kubja Vishnuvardhana there as his viceroy. Within a decade, Vishnuvardhana declared independence and thus began the eastern branch of Chalukyas (Vengi Chalukyas) who went on to rule Vengi for many centuries outliving the Badami Chalukyas as a dynasty.

From being the Chalukya Parameshwara to defeating the mighty Harshavardhana and assuming the title of Dakshinapatheshvara (Lord of the South), Pulakeshin – II’s achievement on the battlefront have inspired both poets and chroniclers. Huein Tsang, Harshavardhana’s Protégé  could not hold himself from writing about his valour while the poet Ravikriti wrote verses in his praise. Etched in stone at the Meguti temple and known as the Aihole inscription, it still is a reference source of events of the times. But Pulakesin – II’s achievements were not limited to the battlefield alone. During his reign, he added the cave no 2, Sivalaya temples at Badami, Gaudargudi and Meguti temples at Aihole and Mahakuta temples near Badami. Vikramaditya I- one of the sons of Pulakesin II carried his father’s legacy after the latter’s mysterious disappearance.

Badami Agastya lake & Shivalaya templesBadami Shivalaya temples

Agatsya Lake and Sivalaya Temples, Badami

Chalukyans can be considered a pioneering dynasty as they did not patronize either Vaishnavism or Shaivism but followed both. This is amply clear in the construction of both the Shaivite temples (Badami cave 1 and Ravalaphadi cave at Aihole) and Vaishnavite temples (Badami cave 2 & 3, Badami Shivalaya temples). The dynasty further took keen interest in Jainism (Badami cave No.4) and Buddhism (unfinished cave at Badami as well as caves in Aihole).

 

The Chalukyas of Badami have left prolific monumental remains. The geographical placement of Chalukyas allowed their kingdom to be a unique cultural magnet- a fact reflected in their art. Political circumstances not only put Kuntal desa (today’s Karnataka) but also parts of rest of the Deccan (today’s Maharashtra & Telangana state), southern Kosala (part of today’s Chhattisgarh and western Odisha), Kalinga (today’s coastal Odisha and coastal Andhra) into their areas of influence. As a result, a number of art styles converged and emerged from Chalukya territory. In the nuclear Chalukya cities like Vatapi, Aryapura, Kisuvolal (Pattadakallu) and other sites in western Andhra desa- a curious variety of temple form and architectural and sculptural styles are encountered.

This is the Vesara style or the Chalukyan style of temple architecture. But of course, this style didn’t take birth all of a sudden. The extreme creative curiosity of Chalukyas created marvellous pieces of architecture by experimenting with different styles and forms. They seem to have chosen Aihole- on the banks of Malaprabha river for their architectural experiments. From the rock cut- Rawalaphadi caves, the apsidal Durga temple to the imitation of wooden architecture in Ladkhan temple and planting a Nagara (north Indian) shikhara on a large area otherwise covered by flat roofs at Chakra Gudi temple; they tried it all! It’s not for nothing that this otherwise underdeveloped village of Aihole is bestowed with the honour of being called ‘the cradle of Indian architecture’.

Aihole Ladkhan templeAihole Ladkhan temple- inside

Ladkhan Temple, Aihole

A point to note here is that, the brick and timber structures preceding the Chalukyas have totally disappeared. Nothing is left of the art and architecture of the Kadambas or Konkan Mauryas. Hence it is difficult to say whether the ‘hybrid’ architectural style that Chalukyas are often credited to have developed, was actually exclusively developed by them or was it an experiment in continuum.

Coming back to the style, most of this architectural experimentation of Chalukyas can roughly be categorised as follows:

1) Nirandhara Temples- small temples without a circumambulatory (Pradakshina Patha) eg. Surya  and Huchchappayya temples at Aihole.

2) Sandhara Temples- Bigger temples showing Garbhagriha and pillared hall with an occasional porch. These temples had a circumambulatory path. Eg. Huchhimalli Gudi and Meguti temples at Aihole and Sangameshwara temple at Pattadakal.

3) Temples showing Garbhagriha, pillared hall as well as a porch. However the Garbhagriha is pushed to the back wall of the temple leaving no space for pradakshina. Eg. Ladkhan and Kontigudi temples at Aihole.

4) Apsidal i.e. horseshoe shaped temples in plan. It has an apsidal Garbhagriha as well as apsidal ambulatory path. This type of temples are considered to have been inspired from Buddhist rock-cut chaitya halls which were apsidal in plan. Eg. Durga temple, Aihole.

5) Trikuta Temples- temples with 3 garbhagriha but a common hall and an open porch. Eg. Jambulinga temple, Badami.

In his book ‘Indian Temple Forms’, the author  Shri. Madhusudan Dhaky points out that, although the term Vesara means ‘Hybrid’, this particular hybrid style is assigned to the region between Vindhyas and Nasik (roughly today’s Madhya Pradesh) or to an extent till Krishna river. Umpteen examples of this style are found to the south of this region. As seen from the temples at Aihole & Pattadakal by the early Chalukyas one cannot deny the fact that a transitory phase between the Nagara and the Dravida styles of temple architecture did exist. The features of this ‘architectural phase’ but which may not always be a part of it, are as follows : 

1.      Subsidiary shrines around the main shrine (picked up from Nagara temples)

Pattadakal Group of monumentsPattadakal

2.      Diamond shaped stepped plan that slowly evolved into stellate plinths (picked up from Nagara temples)

Badami Bhutanatha templeBhutanatha Temple, Badami

3.      Presence of a vestibule between the mandapa and the garbhagriha (picked up from Nagara- Kalinga temples)

Pattadakal virupaksha templeVirupaksha Temple, Pattadakal

4.      Minimization of height of each storey (than that of the Vimana of Dravida temples) and arranging them in descending order of height from base to top.

PattadakalPattadakal

5.      Pillared mandapas with flat roof (a Dravida temple feature)

somnathapura3Chennakeshava Temple, Somnathapura. Picture courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

Another reason for the birth of Vesara style in this particular region could be the fact that it was not the first time, a ‘combination’ of two or more distinct features was carried out in the architecture of Karnata. Hari-Hara (the combination of Vishnu & Shiva), Ardhanari-Nateshwara (combination of Shiva & Parvati), Yali- the mythical animal (thought to be a combination of multiple animals like lion, bull, elephant, crocodile etc.) are just some of the most famous examples of the above. Given these examples, I think it was only natural that such a distinct hybrid architectural style was born in Karnata. Also, when this style was developed, the architectural features of Nagara and Dravida temples could have naturally mingled as unique features of these two styles were still developing. It took another couple of centuries for various Nagara sub-styles such as Khajuraho, Kalinga (Odisha), Osiyan and Gujarati to fully develop. If one has to chronologically trace various architectural styles, it was the Vesara style which came into being before the various Nagara styles were fully developed. For all we know, the lines between Nagara and Dravida styles were blurred which is what could have given birth to this unique combination and which may not have been regarded as a separate architectural style back then.

Pattadakal group of monuments 2Pattadakal group of monuments 3

Pattadakal group of monuments

Let’s go through various examples of this hybrid style right from its inception till the time it reached its zenith, to understand how this particular style evolved.

The 7th century Durga temple at Aihole may be regarded as one of the first and most prominent examples of this style of architecture. This Gajaprastha (resembling to elephant’s back) temple is dedicated to either Lord Shiva/ Vishnu or Surya is still under debate as there is no such deity in the sanctum. Although the temple shows predominantly Dravida features, it is topped with a Nagara Shikhara on its sanctum. Its apsidal plan takes inspiration from the Buddhist chaityas making it a truly ‘hybrid’ temple.

 

 

Aihole Durga temple ambulatory 1Aihole Durga ambulatory 2

The apsidal Ambulatory Path

Aihole Durga temple Durga sculpture

Sculpture of Durga at Durga Temple, Aihole. The deceptive name ’Durga’ here actually refers to Durg i.e. fortification of which it was a part of and not goddess Durga.

Galagnath temple dedicated to Shiva; not too far from here shows presence of Ganga and Yamuna sculptures- necessarily a Nagara feature till then along with chaitya windows.

Pattadakal Galagnath templeGalaganath Temple, Pattadakal

The 8th century Papanatha temple in Pattadakal is the only temple in the UNESCO world heritage site of Pattadakal that has been designed using both north and south Indian architecture styles. It seems that the temple was initially supposed to be a Nagara style temple but there was a change of intention during the course of construction of this temple as is evident from its narrow circumambulatory path. The construction of rest of the temple was continued on the lines of Dravida architecture.

papanatha-pattadakalPapanatha Temple, Pattadakal. Picture courtesy – TeamGsquare

Chakra Gudi temple at Aihole built in 9th century CE shows a Rekha Nagara Shikhara (northern superstructure topped by an amalaka and a kalasa). It encompasses a large mandapa with flat roof and has a large temple tank beside it.

Aihole Chakra gudi templeAihole chakra gudi kund

By 9th century, the western Chalukyas i.e. Kalyani Chalukyas had taken over large parts of Karnata and continued experimenting with the temple architecture. The term western Chalukyas  however refers to a distantly related dynasty- a fraction of Rashtrakuta dynasty that broke off from the Rashtrakutas, defeated them and made Kalyani- in northeastern Karnataka their capital. The western Chalukyas came into the picture much later than the Badami Chalukyas i.e. in 10th century. They built so many exquisite temples in and around today’s Gadag town. Trikuteshwara, Someshwara, Veera Narayana temples at Gadag, Kashi Vishweshwara and Mahavira Jain temples at Lakkundi, Dodabasappa temple at Dambala, Amriteswara temple at Annigeri are some of the best temples built in improved Vesara style by the Kalyani Chalukyan kings. Architectural articulation like the recess chajjas, is the most striking feature that Vesara seems to have picked up from the Nagara style. Most of the above mentioned temples show stepped projections in odd numbers making it appear like stepped or a diamond pattern in plan. Although the later Chalukyans retained features from both Nagara and Dravida styles, surprisingly, they inclined more towards the Nagara style and built smaller shrines around the main shrine as is evident from the presence of smaller shrines. They also seemed fascinated by decorative miniature towers along the Shikhara of the main shrine just like in Shekhari and Bhumija Shikharas with miniature spires horizontally and vertically filling up the quadrants of the four faces of the central projection right upto the top.

Gadag 1Gadag 2

Trikuteshwara Temple, Gadag. Pictures courtesy – TeamGsquare

LakkundiKashivishweshwara Temple, Lakkundi. Picture courtesy – TeamGsquare

DambalDoddabasappa Temple, Dambal. Picture courtesy – TeamGsquare

The Hoysalas picked up from where the Western Chalukyas left. Naturally so, as the initial builders employed by the Hoysalas came from the centres of medieval Chalukyan art. Hoysalas kept the basic architectural form of the Western Chalukyas but built much more detailed temples with intricate sculptures at Belur, Halebidu, Somanathpura and in the vicinity of southern Karnata region.

belur1belur2Chennakeshava Temple, Belur. Pictures courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

halebid1halebid2Hoysaleshwara Temple, Halebid. Pictures courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

 

Chennakeshava Temple, Somnathapura. Pictures courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

It is very interesting to see how the Vesara style which in its initial phase of development restricted itself only to the Shikhara/ Vimana part, slowly over the centuries looked beyond the superstructure of the sanctum and absorbed more from both the major temple architecture styles in more ways than one – be it plan, features, sculptures, structural members or decorative elements. The outcome of these centuries of experimentation have paid off and we have some unique temples as a standing testimony.  If Pulakeshin II and his Badami Chalukyan successors could come back and see how stunning their hybrid temple style has transformed into by the end of 11th century, the dynasty of art connoisseurs would erupt in joy and do a happy dance. Well, they can or cannot but we surely can !

 

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

He can be contacted at onkaar7@gmail.com

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