8 am in November, on a sometimes-winding road flanked on either side by acre after acre of sunflowers smiling at the sun is certainly a good morning. North Karnataka has a rather sunny disposition with this flower being a cultivated crop in these parts. If there aren’t sunflowers, there are exuberant yellow and orange marigolds, eager to take over the task of brightening up the landscape. After Hampi, we were headed for older periods - Aihole, known as one of the cradles of temple architecture, Badami with its surreal cave temples and Pattadakal where kings came from everywhere to be crowned and bestowed with a kingdom - were on today’s itinerary. If you plan on visiting Hampi, I’d suggest you extend your trip by a day and explore this belt as well. The temples are older and some, are even in better condition.
Visits to Aihole and Pattadakal are often clubbed with Hampi trips. Badami is also a stopover in this particular stretch. So I would recommend heading to Hampi first and then heading to the other three places by road. By rail: There are trains to Hospet. From Hospet, you'll need to get to Hampi by road. For more details, check out irctc.in . By Road: There are bus services from Bangalore to Hampi. Check www.redbus.in for more information. By Air: There are no direct flights to Hampi. But one can fly to Bangalore/Hubli and then continue by road. If you are a foreigner, please check the visa policy before you book your tickets.
Aihole gets it name from an exclamation and is an exclamation of sorts in itself. Legend has it that, Lord Parusurama after avenging his father’s death washed himself in the river Malaprabha, turning it red, which made him cry ‘Ai, ai! Holi!’ (Ah! The river). The ancient temple town has some extraordinary specimens of temple architecture, some as old as the 7th century and even has stone tombs that date back to the prehistoric era. Aihole was the first Chalukyan capital and it’s evident that here’s where they tried out new styles of temple architecture. Our first impression of Aihole was the unusually shaped Durga Temple. The only one of its kind in all of India, the temple apparently is dedicated to the sun god and gets its Durga reference from Durgagudi which means ‘temple within the fort’. Within the same walled area is a cluster of temples that varied as much as they were beautiful. If the Durga Temple was resplendent with elaborate carvings, the Ladh Khan Temple - the oldest temple in the complex that dates back to the fifth century, is relatively austere with its Shivalinga and Nandi bull sitting in a companionable silence as they have for centuries.
It’s largely dark inside these temples and using flash photography inside these temples gave mean eerie feeling I just couldn’t shake off. There aren’t many tourists, so you’re likely to find yourself alone most of the time. The unmistakable dank smell of bats hung thick in the air, which again I found a tad unnerving. Even if there were no ancient denizens around, I still had to worry about stirring these guys. But no rendezvous with Chalukyan spectres or bats happened that day - just a litter of local runts who were determined to get a pen out of me. ‘Madam, where from? Madam…one pen please?’ They lost interest in me the minute they heard my fractured Kannada. ‘Guide, madam?’ ‘Beda’(No thanks!). I’d have employed their services if I had the time, just to see what tall-tales these street-savvy, pint-sized rather charming frauds would try to pass off as historical facts. Without a doubt, their version would be miles and miles away from what the guide books and wikipedia had to say on the subject. Again, get a licensed guide. There’s even a grievance facility, where you can lodge a complaint if you find a licensed guide unhelpful. Most of them take a lot of pride in their work, so it’s highly improbable that you’d be displeased with their services.
Right inside the complex, the evolution of temple architecture is evident and measurable. Even styles have been experimented with, some temple are not built on Dravidan tenets. The 7th century Huchimalli Temple has a very discernible North Indian tang to it and is one of the first examples of having an ardhamantapa or an ante-chamber annexure to the main shrine. The stretch between Aihole and Pattadakal is again peppered with ancient temples - so commonplace, that the locals hang around them like we’d do at a Coffee Day - without giving it too much thought.
You can discover Hampi either on bicycles or rent a cab to take you around.
Along with Vedic influences, Aihole’s architecture has strong Jain and Buddhist influences. Just a little away from the complex are 5th century cave temples hewn into a rocky hill. These ubiquitous but no less awesome, steep, gigantinormous anthill-like sandstone superstructures run all along the landscape of the belt. I always find myself wondering if God created Karnataka on a particularly creative day. The geography changes without warning, colours pouncing at you from behind every bend in the road, trees have a prehistoric gait, the rivers are shrewd and the very air is virile - the earth has grown into a pan-chewing feisty old woman who has no qualms showing off her wrinkles and her giddy, if sometimes improper, escapades. Even if you weren’t a temple or architecture or history buff, this stretch has all the trappings of an unforgettable biking trip. Great photos, great pitstops, great scenery and great destinations within a 100 km radius. Except that there’s no food. All your eating should be done at Badami. Aihole and Pattadakal only offer facts and killer scenery to chew on and little else.
If the earth here is a carefree old woman, the civilisations that were born of her womb have been, as the case always is, rather diligent and dutiful children. They’ve gone on to achieve greatness as if to make up for their motherland’s whimsical ways. Pattadakal was the destination of kings, quite literally. Many a king made the journey from the furthest outreaches of the Deccan to be crowned at the Sangameshwara Temple, a Shiva temple that dates back to the 7th century. The name Pattadakal comes from ‘pattada kallu’ that literally translates into coronation stone. Over 90 kings are believed to have been crowned at the Sangameshwara Temple, which bear the signs of being incomplete - leading to many a speculative hypothesis on why it might be so.
It’s a tad surreal to see so many styles of temple architecture just about yards away from each other. There are both Dravidian (South Indian) and nagara (North Indian) styles of architecture - not a common sight. Time has preserved the details on these temples rather well and the temple complex enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status. The scenes from the myths chiselled on walls, roofs and what not, are still sharp and breathtakingly elaborate. The Virupaksha Temple which stands whole and complete at the end of the complex is the only 8th century temple that isn’t in a state of disrepair. It was commissioned by Lokamahadevi, the wife of Vikramaditya to commemorate his three victories over the Pallavas and occupation of Kanchi.
The only temple in the entire complex which had worship in progress, we were a little wary about photography inside the temple. But as long as you are discreet and respectful, the priest lets you be. The interiors of the temples are generally dark and this one was no different. Lit only by means of a skylight, sudden bursts of flash photography momentarily startles everyone inside the temple. But a rally of school noisy school children, obviously on a school excursion diverted everyone’s attention. Quietly, leaning against a pillar sat an artist sketching away. The size of his portfolio, with reproductions of the carvings on paper indicated that he was a regular. Our guide was again, rather enthusiastic, and clambered up pillars to point vital parts of the stories etched on those walls, lit up alcoves where sculptured treasures stood almost forgotten. At Pattadakal, a guide could cost you about Rs. 250 during the off-season and Rs. 350 during the peak season. But again, worth it.
Just outside the Shiva Temple is the mandap with the Nandi Bull, which looks freshly hewn belying its true age. This temple is believed to have been the inspiration for the famous Kailasa temple at Ellora and has many fascinating depictions on its walls. Shiva emerging from a shivalinga, Gandaberunda, Vishnu’s two-headed eagle avatar that has found its way onto the official seals of many a dynasty - the present Karnataka government included - were some of the unusual carvings on the Virupaksha Temple. Over 32 small shrines dedicated to various goddesses surround the complex.
The monkey and the crocodile, and other characters from the Panchatantra were as much a part of my growing years as Cinderella, Snow White and the Sleeping Beauty were. So seeing the stories depicted on the interior walls of the Mallikarjuna Temple was sort of like meeting a long lost friend. The monkey who fooled the crocodile into believing that he left his heart on the highest branch of his tree for safekeeping and the woman who hastily killed the mongoose that protected her baby from a snake, mistaking the snake’s blood to be that of her baby’s and many such stories are part of the wall carvings. Pattadakal wasn’t the Chalukyan capital for nothing. The temples are proof of an era that was well ahead of its time - where art, literature and other scholarly pursuits flourished. There’s unmistakable pride in the guide’s voice when he informs us that the world-famous sun temple at Kornark, Orrisa is said to have been inspired by the majestic Kashi Vishveshwara Temple with its sandstone, elaborately-carved spire-like structure or the rekhanagara. That's the thing about the people out here - they are distinctly proud of what their land boasts - even if it's the more commercially recognised ones!