Chalukya Temple Trail – Aihole 1

Photos by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra

Aihole, also known as Aivalli, Ahivolal, Ilavalapura or Aryapura, is a sleepy village about 140 km from Hampi, or about 450 km from Bangalore. The story goes that after killing the decadent Kshatriyas who had been abusing their power, Lord Parasurama, the sixth avatār of Vishnu, washed his blood stained axe on the banks of the river Malaprabha. A woman passing by the river at that moment was shocked to see the water turning all red and screamed ‘ayyo hole’ which in the local language meant ‘Oh no! Blood!’ Hence the place came to be known as Aihole (pronounced ‘Eye-hoḷé’).

The name ‘Ilavalapura’ is attributed to another legend, according to which it was at this place that Rishi Agastya killed the rākshasa Ilvala, who with this brother Vatapi was living in nearby Badami (the famed capital city of the Chalukyas, which was also known as Vatapi). Some others believe that the name ‘Aihole’ is a deformation of the words Ayyahole, or ‘city of scholars’, which is why the place also had a Sanskrit name, Aryapura.

The first view of Aihole temple complex

“A great oriental work of art does not easily reveal its secret to one who comes to it solely in a mood of aesthetic curiosity or with a considering critical objective mind, still less as the cultivated and interested tourist passing among strange and foreign things; but it has to be seen in loneliness, in the solitude of one’s self, in moments when one is capable of long and deep meditation and as little weighted as possible with the conventions of material life.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 20: 271-272)

Chalukyas, the Temple Builders

The Chalukyas were a powerful dynasty who ruled over large parts of southern and central India between 6th and 12th century CE. Over a period of two centuries, the early Chalukyans (also known as Badami Chalukyas) were able to unify a vast and culturally diverse area between the rivers Narmada and Krishna, and had spread their kingdom to the areas comprising the present Indian regions of southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka.

Due to consolidation of several smaller kingdoms, Chalukyas were able to usher in a golden period for the southern India, as per many historians. This period marked with efficient governance, administration, overseas trade and commerce also saw the development of a new style of architecture which came to be known as “Chalukyan Architecture”. In fact, the contribution of early Chalukyas (6th–8th century CE) in encouraging large scale experimentation in the field of art and architecture – both rock-cut cave temples and free standing temples – remains unparalleled in the Indian subcontinent.

Owing to a convergence of diverse cultural forms and practices as well as a rich variety of knowledge traditions and techniques in the field of temple construction, the Malaprabha river valley became a ‘cradle of Hindu Temple Architecture’ during these times characterized by prosperity, political stability and religious co-existence. While the rock-cut cave temples of Badami and free-standing sandstone temples of Aihole show the crucial formative stages of this grand artistic experimentation, the nearby village of Pattadakal, reputed today because of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, marks as sort of its culmination.

Another view of the Aihole temple complex

It was at Aihole that initial experiments in temple architecture were conducted; the evolved architectural techniques and practices were implemented at Badami; and finally they built numerous big and small temples at Pattadakal. In addition to being dedicated to Hindu deities, many temples were also built for Jain and Buddhist devotees. The intricate details and carvings on the temple exteriors were matched by the detailed beauty to be seen in the interiors featuring intricate roof carvings and stunning sculptures.

Old photo
Durga Temple at Aihole in 1855, when the roof had been used as a fort or look-out post. (Source)

Together, the temples at these three places – a must-visit for anyone interested in Indian art and architecture – are the largest, earliest group of monuments comprehensively demonstrating the evolution of Hindu rock-cut and temple architecture, and profoundly impacting what followed later in the Hindu temple construction history.

We begin our exploration of Chalukya Temple Trail with the Aihole temple complex, which has several individual temples. We will have separate photo-features on Badami and Pattadakal in the coming weeks and months.

Durga temple, Aihole

The Durga Temple at Aihole may be seen as a starting point for experimentation in the fusion of the Dravidian and Nagara styles of temple architecture. Built sometime in the late 7th or early 8th century, the extremely photogenic Durga Temple derives its name from Durgadagudi meaning ‘temple near the fort’. With passage of time nothing much remains of the fort, which was perhaps built by the Marathas.

Interestingly, throughout India we find that it is the glorious temples rather than any of the forts and palaces built by the great kings which have generally withstood the massive destruction at the hands of brutal invaders.

“The secular buildings of ancient India, her palaces and places of assembly and civic edifices have not outlived the ravage of time; what remains to us is mostly something of the great mountain and cave temples, something too of the temples of her ancient cities of the plains, and for the rest we have the fanes and shrines of her later times, whether situated in temple cities and places of pilgrimage like Srirangam and Rameshwaram or in her great once regal towns like Madura, when the temple was the centre of life.” (CWSA 20: 272)

It is not easy to tell who was the main deity of the Durga temple because there is no image in the garbhagriha. Throughout the temple, we find numerous representations of both Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, so it could have been a temple dedicated to either. Some speculate that perhaps this was a temple for Lord Surya.

As one enters the Durga temple one is awestruck by the sheer elegance of its apsidal layout. In Indian traditional architecture, this shape is known as Gajaprasta which means the back of an elephant. This apsidal style also reminds one of a Buddhist chaitya with a high moulded adhiṣṭhāna and a curvillinear shikhara. According to some experts, the apsidal design had been a pan-Indian architectural tradition right from the second century BCE onwards. We find evidence of this design used in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples.


Another unique and remarkable feature is a pillared corridor which runs around the temple, enveloping the garbhagriha, mukhamandapa and sabhamandapa. The rounded end at the rear include three layers: the outer wall of the garbhagriha, a path for doing pradakshina, and the wall of the outer corridor itself. The outer pillared corridor in a way also serves as the second pradakshinapath.

The garbhagriha is mounted by a Nagara style shikhara. The amalaka that once crowned the shikhara lays on the ground nearby.


Both the exterior and interior walls of the temple are covered with sculptures of different gods and goddesses. The sculptures are rather widely dispersed and are primarily located on the pillars or as extending from the pillars. We also see some sculptures on the temple walls and ceiling, and some koshtha (niche) sculptures.

Temple entrance

The entrance to the temple faces east, with two flights of stairs in the north and south directions. Two dvārapālas are carved on the entrance pillars.


The large number of pillars in this temple provided the artists ample surfaces to carve out decorative relief panels, a few of which depict scenes from purānic stories. These reliefs are of high order and add refinement and charisma to this temple.


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Of the twenty six pillar sculptures in this temple six are dedicated to different deities, and the rest are sculptures on maithuna theme. The sculptures of deities are carved on the pillars of the inner porch while the maithuna sculptures are carved on the pillars of the outer promenade. Most of these sculptures are now in dilapidated condition, some due to the ravages of time and some destroyed by the attacks of invading armies of Deccan Sultanate.


All these sculptures are carved in bold relief to reveal three fourths of the depth of the figures. We find a certain uniformity in the treatment of the drapery, ornamentation and decoration of various sculptures. The drapery on the maithuna sculptures is rather scarce, and the figures are primarily adorned with ornaments.

On a close observation we notice a certain difference between the sculptures of the gods and the couples in passionate maithuna poses, especially in terms of the contours of the body and general treatment of the figures. The gods of these sculptures are somewhat heavy, hefty and stocky in their physique while the maithuna figures are comparatively slim, slender and more elegant in form. A few of the maithuna sculptures also have floral canopies.

Stone grilles with various geometrical patterns ventilate the interior from the circumambulatory.


Gods and Goddesses

“The gods of Indian sculpture are cosmic beings, embodiments of some great spiritual power, spiritual idea and action, inmost psychic significance, the human form a vehicle of this soul meaning, its outward means of self-expression; everything in the figure, every opportunity it gives, the face, the hands, the posture of the limbs, the poise and turn of the body, every accessory, has to be made instinct with the inner meaning, help it to emerge, carry out the rhythm of the total suggestion…” (CWSA 20: 290)

It is on the outer pradakshina-patha of the temple that we find beautiful and intricately carved sculptures of the Gods and Goddesses. The picture below shows the layout of these six sculptures, each placed in its own niche.

Durga Temple Major Sculputure panel layout
A – Shiva; B – Narasimha; C – Vishnu; D- Varaha; E- Durga; F- Harihara (Source)

These sculptures are carved on thick stone slabs which do not form part of any architectural elements of the temple. They are fitted into the koshtha or niche built specially for that purpose. The six koshtha sculptures are: Shiva with Nandi, Narasimha, Vishnu riding Garuda, Varaha, Mahishasuramardini and Harihara.

“Indian polytheism is not the popular polytheism of ancient Europe; for here the worshipper of many gods still knows that all his divinities are forms, names, personalities and powers of the One; his gods proceed from the one Purusha, his goddesses are energies of the one divine Force.” (CWSA 20: 192)

Unfortunately, many of these mūrtis now stand mutilated. Despite the massive damage, the depth of carving and the rich variety of poses, the intricacy and delicacy of decoration, and the strong contours of the figures make these mūrtis outstanding and timeless works of art. They are quite proportionate in their form and pleasing in depiction. The attributes of different deities are distinctly shown, and the ornamentation is limited to the minimum essential jewelry.

“…the sculpture of ancient and mediaeval India claims its place on the very highest levels of artistic achievement. I do not know where we shall find a sculptural art of a more profound intention, a greater spirit, a more consistent skill of achievement.” (CWSA 20: 286)

Eight-armed Shiva poses with Nandi
Narasimha; his front right forearm casually supporting a club has been destroyed
Vishnu with his vāhana, Garuda; the Garuda appears here in an odd-looking, dwarf-like form, some of his wing feathers are visible to the right
Varaha avatār of Vishnu rescuing Bhu Devi; his one foot is on the Nagas. Lord’s arms are completely destroyed.
Mahishasurmardhini Durga attacking the buffalo demon, as her lion fiercely watches. Mother’s left leg and several arms are missing.
Harihara – the combined form of the two Great Gods Shiva and Vishnu. Several attributes are destroyed, but one can still identify on the right side (left on the photo) the form of Lord Shiva attended by the dwarf gana. On the left side of the form (right on the photo) is Lord Vishnu, holding worn-out but recognizable attributes of conch and discus.

A Hindu heart, one is who is able to see through the outer damage to these sculptures, knows that behind the form and hidden deep within it exists the real spirit of the deity. It is to that which it tries to connect and with which it aspires to unite. For such a mind knows that “Indian religious forms…are rhythms of the spirit; but one who misses the spirit must necessarily miss too the connection of the spirit and the rhythm.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 146)

House of the Lord

“An Indian temple, to whatever godhead it may be built, is in its inmost reality an altar raised to the divine Self, a house of the Cosmic Spirit, an appeal and aspiration to the Infinite.” (CWSA 20: 273)


The entrance to the garbhagriha of this temple is very ornate.

The sculpture of Nagaraja on the ceiling at the entrance porch is said to be one of the finest examples of this theme in the entire Badami Chalukya art.


Nagaraja is emerging from the centre of the coils of his body in human form. His head is adorned with a serpent crown. He has two hands, one hand is seen holding a garland and the other a basket full of flowers. He is surrounded by Nagins in human form. The twist of the body and bends of the necks of Nagaraja and Nagins give a touch of movement to the entire panel.


On both sides of the entrance at the bottom are seen maithuna sculptures. Right up to the level of the door to the garbhagriha, the wall is richly and ornately carved with hardly any empty spaces.

“The wealth of ornament, detail, circumstance in Indian temples represents the infinite variety and repetition of the worlds,—not our world only, but all the planes, —suggests the infinite multiplicity in the infinite oneness.” (CWSA 20: 278-279)

Close up of the richly decorated entrance to the garbhagriha

Like many other Hindu temples throughout the length and breadth of India, the Durgadagudi temple also bears witness to the destruction and iconoclasm at the hands of the Islamic invaders. The empty pedestal in the garbhagriha of this beautiful and unique temple stands as a testament to history when an entire way of religio-cultural-social life had come under brutal attack.

What remains of the pedestal in the garbhagriha where the Lord used to reside

An empty garbhagriha, however, need not be an obstacle to a heart full of reverence and a soul willing to surrender to the Force of the Divine, for such a mind knows that the Formless and Form are two aspects of the same One. Sit quietly for a few minutes outside the garbhagriha and you may begin to feel the presence. 

“The image to the Hindu is a physical symbol and support of the supraphysical; it is a basis for the meeting between the embodied mind and sense of man and the supraphysical power, force or presence which he worships and with which he wishes to communicate.” (CWSA 20: 147)

Coming up in next part: More of Aihole Temple Complex

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