The ancient school of temple architecture – Aihole

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Karnataka | 32

Guess what is that one thing that is common between the temples of Hampi and the ones in Ranakpur. In fact, it is the same thing in any heritage temple of India. It is the question – “How did the artisans of the yester-years create these magnificent structures?“. While I still seek the answer to “How” in terms of the method, I partially discovered “where” they manage to perfect the craftsmanship. I found the ancient school of temple architecture in Aihole.

The ancient school of architecture - Aihole

I meant to write this blog post earlier – in fact, post my visit to Badami, but the details were so overwhelming. It took me a while to sort it all out in my head. With this post, I embark on a series covering the schools of architecture across 3 locations – Aihole, Pattadakal & Badami. These three places are a heritage trail in North Karnataka that can be covered in a single trip. While Pattadakal is deemed as the place of graduation, Badami is like a high school of architecture. Nevertheless, Aihole is where it all begins.

The tiny village of Aihole

Though a small village, Aihole can be quite a mind-boggling journey. I underestimated its beauty and spent only half a day here. Trust me – that was not enough for I left it incomplete. Even as a primary school, the work of its artisans will leave you spell-bound. Enough for you to mark as one of the must-visit destinations in Karnataka.

History of Aihole

Nope…it is not pronounced as “I Hole”. It is actually –  “I – Ho – Lay”. Back in the 4th century, Aihole was also, called Aryapura. This has been mentioned in the Aihole inscriptions. While physical proof dates Aihole to the 4th century, it is believed to have come to existence much before that. Indian Mythology has it that Lord Parashurama – one of the 9 avatars of Vishnu came here after a battle. He reached the River Malaprabha and washed his blood-stained axe. It caused the river and the rest of the hill turn to red. A lady saw this and exclaimed – “Ayyo Hole” (Oh No, Blood) And thus, the current name.

Ambigergudi Temple doorway - experimental carvings

During the Chalukya period, this mini town became a center for architecture and sculpture. From the 4th century to the late 13th century, it flourished as a place where numerous temples were built. Different types of carvings, temple layouts, and architectural styles were created. These were almost like prototypes for the actual temples built across India – both north and south. The expert students were later engaged in Badami and finally, the masters graduated in Pattadakal.

The temples here were not just Hindu. They were also, Jain and Buddhist ones. From elaborate temple complexes to single buildings and even cave temples, every possible combination was built here. It wasn’t just the exteriors but the intricate wall carvings, stunning idols and fascinating ceilings that were practiced.

Ceiling Art in Durga Temple of Aihole

The area was invaded in the 13th century and the exceptional work was ravaged by the Muslim invaders. Some of the temples were converted to military homes and bases. And thus came the decline of Aihole. It changed numerous hands before it finally landed in the hands of the British. Aihole remained neglected till the 20th century when the archaeological significance of the place came forth. Since then, numerous excavations were done and restored.

Today, with over 120 temple complexes, Aihole is a significant destination in the heritage trail of North Karnataka. It is here that you can trace the origins of many designs that you have admired in the popular Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples of India. That is how you will be able to answer the key question of how they were created – but partially!

Places to see in Aihole

Durga Temple Complex, Aihole

A large temple welcomed us into Aihole. However, that did not seem to be the first stop for this destination. For one, there was a tourist bus in front of us that seemed to move forth to a different temple complex. And for another, there were helpful signboards egging us towards what was termed as the main temple – Durga Temple Complex. A large ticket window at this temple complex introduced us to the history of Aihole while giving us a list of places that we need to visit when here.

Summarizing it for you –

  • Durga Temple Complex
  • Ambigergudi Temple Complex
  • Jyotirlinga group of temples
  • Meguti Jain Temples
  • Ravanaphadi Cave Temple
  • Mallikarjuna group of Temples
  • Huchimalli Temple Complex
  • Huchappayya Gudi
  • Galaganatha group of temples
  • Hucchappaya temple complex
  • Chikki Temple
  • Rachi Temple
  • Eniyar Temple Complex
  • Kunti Temple Complex
  • Charanti Math Complex
  • Ramalinga group of temples

I am pretty sure that you are overwhelmed just seeing this list. However, take this as a prep for what you are going to experience. In fact, please take this as your indicator to spend at least a day here. I made a mistake of just budgeting half a day and yes, I did not manage to see all of them. In any case, am sure you will enjoy a tour of what I did manage to see.

Durga Temple Complex

This is the focal point of Aihole. The Durga Temple Complex consists of around 12 Hindu temples – each one with a different architectural style. They all have been dated back to the era between 6th and 8th century. The place can easily take up a majority of your time in Aihole.

Durga Temple

Durga Temple in Aihole

If you are expecting this temple to be dedicated to Goddess Durga, I would love to share how wrong you are. Durga here refers to Durg – which means a fort. The oblong temple with a flat roof was more than just a temple. They say that it was used as a lookout – possibly by the Marathas who won back Aihole from the Muslim rulers. Right now, you will find Lord Shiva as the presiding deity. However, it is said to have been built for Lord Surya originally.

Varaha Carving on the walls of Durga Temple

Built in the typical Dravidian style, the Durga Temple of Aihole had a very simple structure. The outer shrine called the Mukhmantapa that was used as a community hall and the inner sanctum – Garba Griha with the Shiva Linga. The Mukhamantapa had a circular path that allowed the devotees to walk around in a clockwise direction (called Parikrama). In fact, now it is the path that every visitor to the temple needs to take – not just to offer respects but to admire the ancient handiwork.

Carving of Mahishasura Mardini in Durga Temple, Aihole

Elaborate portraits of the Hindu Deities decorate the outer walls of Mukha mandapa. From Vishnu to Krishna and the beautiful but fierce Durga in her Mahishasura Mardini pose, walking around and observing this is nothing short of a visit to an open-air gallery. For those who have visited the various other Chalukya and Vijayanagara temples, you will be able to spot the similarities in the actual temples. I could not help but go back to my own visits to Hoysaleshwara Temple of Halebid, the Brihadeeswarar temple of Tanjore and the Hampi temples.

The art that was fine tuned here can be seen its complete glory across various Hindu Temples of India. If you are curious to know what they look like, check out my pictures of Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebid & the BrihadeeswararTemple of Tanjore.

The roof of the temple seemed to be incomplete. Possibly collapsed over the years. However, this was another point of how they might have practiced the design before beautifully executing it in the Brihadeeshwara temple.

Pillar Carvings of Durga Temple, Aihole
Doorway to inner shrine of Durga Temple, Aihole
Naga Carving on ceiling
Naga Carving on Lintel of Durga Temple

A lone Nandi faces the Linga inside the Garbha Griha. However, it is around the Nandi that keep an eye out. Trace the elaborate pillars from the ground to the ceiling and you will see the magic of the Naga Deva (Snake God). The same deity forms the lintel atop the entrance to the Garbha Griha.

Pushkarni of Durga Temple, Aihole

In a lot of ways, the Durga temple is a mini model of many temples for it has all the elements of a typical Hindu temple. Besides the main temple, it has its own gateway – though not as elaborate as the finished temples of Chalukya. It even has a customary step well or Pushkarni for its devotees to wash before their prayers. If you actually note, you can see a complete pattern of temple architecture that was used over centuries in India.

Durga Temple along with its gateway

Lad Khan Temple

The temple might have been called something else earlier but its current name stuck to it after Lad Khan – a military commander in the Adil Shahi dynasty took up the place as his residence. Not only did he stay here, but used this temple as a base for his military operations.

Lad khan temple, Aihole

Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Ladkhan temple of Aihole is built in 3 concentric squares. The outer shrines formed the Mukhmandapa (also, called Sabhamandapa or community hall). These were typical of its carved pillars and ceilings – the most prominent theme of the art being flowers. The extreme outer walls had plenty of carvings – some quite erotic. Watch out for the emblem of the Chalukya – the Varaha.

Erotic carvings of Lad Khan Temple
Varaha Symbol - sign of Chalukya
Pillar Carvings of Ladkhan Temple
Carvings on the outer wall of Ladkhan temple

The Ladkhan temple is quite unlike the Durga temple in its architectural style. This particular one is built in a typical North Indian temple style. You can gauge this by the design of its flat roof and the lattice windows within. The windows allowed the temple within to be lit up by natural light.

Inner Sanctum with the Linga. Ganga and Jamuna flanking the doorway
Windows within Ladkhan temple

At the center of the Mukhmandapa is a large Nandi facing his Lord. Flanking the doors of the inner sanctum are carved figures of Ganga and Yamuna while the lintel atop has Garuda carrying his Lord Vishnu.

Chappara Gudi

Chhapar Gudi

Gudi means temple and Chappara means thatched roof. One look at the temple and you know why it is called so. In fact, from afar, I did not even deem it as a temple. Don’t make a mistake of just seeing it from the outside. A quick visit within will allow you to see very different kind of temple pillars. Devoid of any deity carvings, even the entrance to its sanctum santorum was different – like the typical lattice window screens.

Chhapar Gudi Temple shrine_Aihole

Suryanarayana Gudi

It is likely that you might find this structure an ordinary looking ruin that possibly did not have anything of significance. The simple Suryanarayana temple in the Durga Temple complex belies its appearance. Within the temple is a 2 feet statue of Lord Surya with Ganga and Jamuna flanking it. The beautiful statue is lit by sunlight while all around it is darkness. The only opening that I saw was the door but that does not explain why the rest of the temple is dark.

Suryanarayana Idol, Aihole

I am pretty sure that now that you know of this miracle, you won’t miss going in. And when you do. remember to look up at the Garuda on the entrance to the inner shrine.

Gaudara Gudi Temple

Gaudara Gudi temple, Aihole

Right next to the Ladkhan temple, this one has a huge temple courtyard – quite like a lot of other Hindu temples today. The temple itself has an outer passage that allowed its devotees to do parikrama (walking clockwise) around the entire structure. The temple has a flat roof and is dedicated to Goddess Gauri (Goddess Parvati). This temple I believe is the oldest one among the Durga Temple Complex. It dates back to the 5th century.

Chakra Gudi

Chakra Gudi, Aihole

The Chakra Gudi temple has a very distinct Shikhar or temple roof. The base is very Dravidian while at the top there is a dome kind of structure. I believe that is what makes it Nagara style. This was built in the 8th century and around its main shrine has 20 erotic sculptures.

Badiger Gudi

Badigar gudi, Aihole

The partial pyramid roof with an image of the Sun God – Lord Surya in it is what will identify this temple. It is opposite to the stepwell between Chakra Gudi temple and Gaudara Gudi temple. The temple name literally means “Carpenter’s temple” and as you might have guessed – a carpenter and his family stayed here for a long time. There isn’t much left within the temple to see – most of the artwork has been destroyed.

Nadyar Gudi

Nadyar Gudi
Pillars in Nadyar Gudi

This particular temple is closer to the Durga Temple. The distinguishing feature of this temple is that it has three shrines. Though most of the structure within is lost to time, you can still see its huge cylindrical pillars. Our guide mentioned that this was typical of Hoysala architecture, which I can now agree to. You see, I went back to my visit to Chennakesava temple of Belur to confirm. You too can check out the similarity.

Unidentified Temples

Nameless Temple in Durga Temple Complex

There were a few structures that seemed interesting enough but did not seem to have any name. They were in fact labeled as nameless structures. However, you cannot miss them for their pretty work. Like these twin temples that reminded me of the Chariot temple or the Ratha Temples of Mahabalipuram.

Nameless Structure

Or maybe this one, with its elaborate Shikhar. It struck me as a possible prototype for the Gopurams that I have seen in Tanjore or Hampi.

Step Wells of Aihole

Pushkarni in Durga Temple Complex

The Durga Temple Complex is not just about temples. Within it are two stepwells. The first one is the T-shaped one that is a part of the main Durga temple. However, it is the 2nd one that is found between Chakri Gudi and Gaudara Gudi temple that is the most impressive. Huge and symmetrical, this one has carvings along its walls. You can walk right down its stairs to observe the elaborately etched face of Lord Naga.

Archaeological Museum

Excavated Sculpture outside Archaelogical Museum, Aihole

Don’t miss the museum within the Durga Temple Complex. It is home to the exquisite treasures that have been found during the excavation of Aihole. Some of these can be seen just outside the museum itself in the form of carved idols from the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist faiths. Within the museum, you will find a map of entire Aihole that will showcase the extent of history this village holds. Watch out for a huge idol of Lajja Gauri. She represents a birthing mother on a lotus.:-)

Ambigergudi Temple Complex

Ambigergudi Temple Complex

As you exit the Durga Temple Complex, you will see another set of ruins right across. The Ambigergudi group of temples has three temples within its compound. They seem to be dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Surya. These too, are typical of Dravidian architecture and have been built in the 6th to 11th century period.

A lot of the structures within are destroyed and it was actually, hard for me to figure out anything distinguishable here. There was only this lone idol of Lord Surya in one of the shrines. I really wished that I had a guide for I had this feeling that in my ignorance of what I saw, I might have missed something.

Jyotirlinga Complex

Jyotirlinga Group of Temples, Aihole

This group has around 16 temples dedicated largely to Lord Shiva. As I walked into the complex, I could see two distinct subsets. There were one with a collapsed roof that seemed incomplete even in terms of the carvings. It seemed to me as if the artisans might have started learning a skill here. The Nandis that faced the Shivalinga did not have the fine features that I had seen in the Durga Temple Complex.

Incomplete temples with Nandis
Nandi Facing one of the Jyotirlinga Temples

However, if I go by the carbon dating here, I might be wrong as the temples were built later between the 8th and 11th century. Or maybe, it was some advanced experimentation that might have done. In any case, the 2nd set of temples with the elaborate roofs seemed to be a little more complete.

Stepwell of Jyotirlinga Temple Complex

The one thing that you must not miss here is the Pushkarni or step well. Have a look at this one and click through here to see the one made in Hampi centuries later. Am sure you will know what I observed!

With that as my last stop in Aihole, I had to give a royal miss to all the other temples. I had to make do with a virtual tour of the same on Google. Among the missed ones, I really would have loved to see the Ravana Phadi Cave Temples, the Meguti Jain Temples, and Kunti group of temples. Or maybe, even Mallikarjuna Gudi too. Ah well, I know my list will keep growing till I have covered them all. Maybe I will get a chance to go back and explore Aihole again. Fingers crossed – not just for me – but you as well!

How to get to Aihole from Badami?

  • The closest town to Aihole is Badami. It is 35 km away by road. You can hire a cab at Badami or take one of the local bus to Aihole.
  • Badami does not have any airport. The closest one is at Hubli which is 106 km from there. There are regular flights from Bangalore and Mumbai to Hubli.
  • Badami has its own railway station with regular trains from Bangalore, Goa, Hubli and Bijapur.

Where to stay in Aihole?

Aihole being a small village does not have any major hotels or homestays. It is best to opt for a stay in Badami and travel to Aihole for a day.

Travel Tips

  • There is an entrance fee only for the Durga Temple Complex. It is INR 20 for Indians and INR 205 for foreigners. This includes the tickets for the museum as well. An additional INR 25 is to be paid for cameras
  • All the monuments here are open from 10 am to 5 pm.
  • Most tourist plans only take you to the Durga Temple Complex.
  • Given the number of attractions here, it is best to plan an entire day’s visit to Aihole.
  • There are no restaurants around. A few grocery shops are available for you to buy basic water, fruits and dry snacks.
  • Restroom facilities are available at the Durga Temple Complex.
  • Engage a guide for Aihole. It is best to get one at Durga Temple. Check with them if they can help you with the other temples as well. Most of them are not really knowledgeable about these other temples.

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