Chalukya Temple Trail – Aihole 3

Continued from Part 2

Photos by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra

After Pulakeshin I established the Chalukya kingdom making Badami its capital in 543 CE, a great phase of experimentation and innovation in temple architecture began in the southern region of Karnataka. In parts 1 and 2 we explored various temples at Aihole, some of which were built in the Dravida architectural style, some in Nagara and some others that represented a hybrid design known as Vesara.

Early Chalukyan temple building activity also took the form of rock-cut caves. A fine example of rock-cut temple is the Ravanaphadi Cave at Aihole, which was excavated around 550 CE, shortly after Pulakeshin I came into power.

One of the oldest temples in Aihole and located about 600 meters from the Durga Temple complex, Ravanaphadi cave temple is  known for its distinctive sculptural style. In the front is a vast flat field, a common feature seen in most rock-cut temples in India.p1060504

This temple stands on a platform and a short set of stairs takes you to the cave’s entrance which faces southwest direction. Two smaller, free-standing pillared halls on both sides of the cave entrance add great visual appeal to the overall architecture of the temple. The simple entrance is flanked with two pillars adorned with a few carvings. Next to the pillars are carved reliefs of Padmanidhi and Shankhanidhi guards, the guardians of Lord’s riches.

Ravanaphadi entrance

A colossal monolithic pillar on a quadrangle base is also seen in front of the temple. Nearby is a temple amalaka resting on the ground, just like the one seen at Durga temple. One wonders where this came from or what was its intended place of use! Facing the temple entrance is the seated Nandi Bull, in the service of the Lord. Time has taken a heavy toll on this Nandi which is badly eroded.

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The reason behind the name Ravanaphadi remains a mystery just like Ladkhan temple or the several nameless temples at Durga temple complex.

Fortunately, the day we visited Ravanaphadi we were the only ones there. There was not even a guard at this small but most exquisite temple. Thus having the entire complex to ourselves we could really experience the wonders it has to offer in complete quietness.

Entering the cave we were completely awestruck.  Everywhere — in front of us, behind us, on our left, on our right we saw larger than life, full of life, massive and magnificent sculptures of Gods and Goddesses. Even the ceiling of the mandapam are adorned with beautiful images including a huge, intricately carved lotus flower.

Surrounded by the Gods on all sides any open heart would definitely feel an unmistakable divine presence there. We were reminded of a beautiful passage of Sri Aurobindo where he speaks of the theory behind all great Indian art:

“Its highest business is to disclose something of the Self, the Infinite, the Divine to the regard of the soul, the Self through its expressions, the Infinite through its living finite symbols, the Divine through his powers. Or the Godheads are to be revealed, luminously interpreted, or in some way suggested to the soul’s understanding or to its devotion, or at the very least to a spiritually or religiously aesthetic emotion.” (CWSA 20: 267)

The closely knitted sculptural forms throughout Ravanaphadi would strike any visitor. As one pays close attention to the decorative details, carving of the drapery, jewellery and also the standing postures, a clear sense of a unified aesthetic sensibility is seen among all the sculptures — all of which are striking in their bold features and expression.

Taking photographs is a challenge in this cave temple, at least for amateurs like us, because most of the key sculptures are too close to one another and there is paucity of light in the cave. We tried our best given the equipment at our disposal, but these in no way do full justice to the real beauties that are hidden at Ravanaphadi temple.

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We were most taken in by six great Gods of this cave temple: Nataraja flanked by the Saptamatrikas, Ardhanarishwara, Varaha, Durga as Mahishasuramardini, Harihara and Gangadhara Shiva. The harmonious physical proportions, the various attributes of the specific deities, the ornamentation — all of these carved with perfection and delicate workmanship — would leave anyone mesmerized. Standing in awe, we were witnessing divine stories carved in stone, and we were the only ones witnessing this grand event.

“What Nature is, what God is, what man is can be triumphantly revealed in stone or on canvas.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 1: 451)

Meeting the Gods

Upon entering the cave, on our left, we meet Ardhanarishvara, portraying the equivalence and essential interdependence of the masculine and the feminine energies. Shiva on the left and Parvati on the right, fused as One, stand gracefully in tribhanga pose, a posture where body bends in one direction at the knees, in another direction at the hips and then again in the first direction at the shoulders. An eye interested in outer detail would notice that the feminine side looks more graceful in form and contour while the masculine side seems more rigid and stiff. But such details lose their significance when one remembers the eternal truth:

“Without Him I Exist Not, Without Me He is Unmanifest.” (The Mother, CWM, 13: 32)

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“Beyond the manifestation there is no differentiation, that is, there are not two, there is only one. It was at the moment of creation that it became two. But before that it was one, and there was no difference; as it was one, it was only one….The differentiation is not something eternal and co-existent. It is for the creation, and in fact for the creation of this world only.” (The Mother, CWM, 7: 155)

Walking past the Ardhanarishvara as we enter the first mandapam, we notice a carved out narrow side chamber on the left. There we meet a most magnificent Nataraja who has ten long slender arms which appear like vines emerging from his back. This is perhaps one of the earliest depictions of Nataraja Shiva and here he is surrounded by larger-than-life-size depictions of seven divine mothers, the Saptamatrikas — three to Shiva’s left and four to his right next to Parvati.

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With a snake wrapped around his torso, this Nataraja Shiva also holds another snake in two hands raised above his head. We see Ganesha on the right and Kartikeya on the left, while the place next to him is reserved for Ma Parvati. A clear difference can be seen in the draperies of Ma Parvati and that of the Saptamatrikas.

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All the matrikas are tall with shapely bodies standing in delicately curved postures, each sporting short anatriya and tall cylindrical mukuta; one can see the diversity in the carvings of the mukuta-s. The fine carved markings visible in their dhotis indicate pleating details. The tall, slightly robust bodies with bends and curves are similar to what are seen in Pallava sculptures.

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This particular representation of Shiva, his family and the matrikas accompanying them is probably an ode to the Pauranic story in which Lord Shiva performs a dance after defeating the powerful asura king named Andhaka (who as per Shiva Purāna is actually the son of Shiva and Parvati but raised by the asura Hiraṇyākṣa). This Andhaka had several special boons from Lord Brahma which almost granted him immortality, the only exception was that he could be killed by Lord Shiva.

Once in his blind arrogance, he tried to abduct Devi Parvati who invokes the Gods for her protection. A great battle ensues, but as per another boon granted to Andhaka from every drop of his blood that falls on the ground, a new Andhaka is born. To address this difficult situation Lord Vishnu creates matrikas, the mother-goddesses who drink up the falling blood drops so that finally Andhaka can be decapitated by Lord Shiva’s trident. In one of the variations of this story, Lord Shiva is said to have forgiven Andhaka because he takes refuge in the Lord.

Representations of Nataraja Shiva along with matrikas are also seen in some of the caves at Ellora, including the famous Kailasha temple (cave 14). With regard to the particular representation at Ravanaphadi at Aihole, it is also interesting to note that the Chalukya kings claimed to have been nursed by the Saptamatrikas. They considered them as giver of powers to defeat the enemies; matrikas thus figured prominently in their sculptural art, especially in the later Chalukyan period (11th to 13th century).

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On the right side of the main mandapa we meet Lord Harihara – representing harmonious synthesis of Shaivic and Vaishnava approaches to the Divine. With Vishnu or Hari represented on the right and Shiva or Hara on the left, Lord Harihara stands erect and sports a spiked halo.

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There is a clear distinction between the parts representing Hari and Hara. The strong physicality of the image with broad shoulders and strong limbs is distinctive. The third eye on Shiva’s forehead as well as the crescent moon on the mukuta are clearly visible; the carved snake held in the upper right hand almost looks like a real one. Lord Harihara is accompanied by Lord Shiva, who has a similar halo but a slightly more robust form.

A short set of stairs leads one to the garbhagriha where Lord Shiva is in the Lingam form. But before we go there, let us spend some time with Gangadhara Shiva, who is on the wall opposite to Lord Harihara.

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Here we see Lord Shiva standing strong and erect but in a state of complete calm. His two back arms are bent upwards and hold his jata-s (hair) because it is in these jata-s will be descending the mighty rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati from the heavens . The river goddesses represented on top of Lord’s head have their hands in Anjali mudra, ready to submit to the Lord. Sage Bhagiratha is also visible on the left, standing on one leg and performing his penance. Ma Parvati is on the right witnessing the great event.

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Just before we reach the garbhagriha, on our left we meet Lord Varaha, the boar avatar of Lord Vishnu who is depicted rescuing Bhu Devi, the Earth Goddess. The ceiling on this panel features Garuda, the divine vehicle of Lord Vishnu.

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To the right is Ma Durga in Mahishasuramardini form, her trident killing the buffalo demon. Art historians claim that most representations of Mahishasuramardini in Karnataka temples followed a depiction similar to what was first created at Ravanaphadi.

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The eight-armed Mahishasurmardhini, shown with her mount, the lion, on her side, holds her various āyudha-s or weapons. Standing with her left foot on the rump of Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, the Devi is shown grabbing its snout with her front left hand while her right front hand is thrusting the trident into its head. Two of her other right hands hold a sword and an arrow. The fourth weapon in her remaining right hand may be a chakra. In her lower left hand she holds a bow and the two upper hands hold a conch and a shield. The rhythmic arrangement of the limbs gives a great dynamism to the form and also suggests the ease with which the Great Shakti kills the evil. The gentle smile and tranquility on her face clearly capture her divine protection for all those who come in her refuge.

“…terror and gloom are conspicuously absent from the feelings aroused in it [the Indian mind] by its religion, art or literature. In the religion they are rarely awakened and only in order to be immediately healed and, even when they come, are always sustained by the sense of a supporting and helping presence, an eternal greatness and calm or love or Delight behind; the very goddess of destruction is at the same time the compassionate and loving Mother; the austere Maheshwara, Rudra, is also Shiva, the auspicious, Ashutosha, the refuge of men. The Indian thinking and religious mind looks with calm, without shrinking or repulsion, with an understanding born of its agelong effort at identity and oneness, at all that meets it in the stupendous spectacle of the cosmos. And even its asceticism, its turning from the world, which begins not in terror and gloom, but in a sense of vanity and fatigue, or of something higher, truer, happier than life, soon passes beyond any element of pessimistic sadness into the rapture of the eternal peace and bliss. Indian secular poetry and drama is throughout rich, vital and joyous and there is more tragedy, terror, sorrow and gloom packed into any few pages of European work than we can find in the whole mass of Indian literature. It does not seem to me that Indian art is at all different in this respect from the religion and literature.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 20: 281)

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Almost every surface of the cave temple has been carved and filled with representations of the Gods and Goddesses, giving a divine ambiance to the entire place. The only exception is a chamber which is to the east of the main mandapa, which was possibly left un-carved because of a fissure on the roof.

The ceiling too has carved reliefs. One shows Vishnu and Lakshmi mounted on winged Garuda, another shows the Vedic God Indra with Indrani on their Airavata elephant, and there is another with lotus carving. The beams are also carved with flying apasaras.

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After spending some time in the company of all these Gods and Goddesses and admiring them in all their glory and splendour, a quietness is bound to take over your mind and heart. That is the time to just sit quietly in the garbhagriha facing the Shivalingam, and let the Divine Presence wash all over you.

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Don’t forget to visit: Part 1 and Part 2 of the Aihole wonders.

Coming up next on Chalukya Temple Trails: Badami

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