The Tribune - Spectrum


, January 6, 2002

Virupaksha Temple: The jewel of the Chalukyan Empire
Arun Gaur

I had to cool my heels for three hours at Aihole before I could get a bus for Badami. Fatigued and irritated, I resolved not to stop in between at Pattadakal. But when the bus, after crossing the Malaprabha, halted for a moment near a group of temples at Pattadakal, slanting sun lit the Virupaksha temple, making it glitter like a pale jewel and I just could not ignore that beauty.

The Virupaksha Temple awash in the late afternoon sun
The Virupaksha Temple awash in the late afternoon sun

The eighth century saw a sudden upsurge in the temple building not only because the structural forms had been established but also due to the great religious zeal to build temples of all sizes in every nook and corner of the country. Being part of the same general impulse, at Pattadakal too, where the Chalukyas had established their third capital after Badami was run over by the Pallavas in 642 A.D., such activity culminated in the masterpiece of Virupaksha temple.

It would seem from the epigraphical evidence of this temple that the Chalukyan king, Vikramaditya-II in the first half of the eighth century, after vanquishing the Pallavas commissioned some of their foremost architects (sutradhari) to build the temple here. The epigraph also mentions that the temple was constructed under the directives of Lokamahadevi the senior queen (Pattamahishi) of the king — and was dedicated to Lokesvara.

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A wall sculpture displays its superb body contours
A wall sculpture displays its superb body contours

While there is little controversy regarding the approximate date of the temple (740 A.D.), the debate whether the Pallava architects really came to Pattadakal on a specific assignment still continues. Some authorities are of the opinion that the epigraph only states that the architects came from the South, not necessarily from the Pallava Tamil region. Moreover, they contend that the so-called Pallava features were already in vogue along with the Chalukyans and were just waiting for an integrating force. That is what the Chalukyas’ own artists themselves provided without any outside assistance. The co-presence of the hitherto non-integrated features was possible because of persisting interaction among different guilds and later their integration became feasible due to the crystallisation of the widely accepted canons of art that encouraged such a fusion.

All these contentions notwithstanding, the advance made in the architecture from the Indo-Aryan Papanath temple (680 A.D.) to an almost-perfect Dravidian specimen of Virupaksha erected in its neighbourhood seems remarkable keeping in view the relative short intervening span of 60 years. It would be more convincing if the progressive span can be extended over the two centuries starting from the temple building at Aihole, through Badami and then finally to Pattadakal. Otherwise we have to assume or establish certain factors responsible for the extraordinarily intensive creative activity between 680 AD-740 AD.

The comprehensive layout of the Virupaksha temple has been noted — the wall enclosure with gateways to ensure isolation; a separate Nandi-shrine, having damsels with very slender waists carved on its exterior; the sculpted shikhara; the treatment of the expansive exterior walls with panels, niches and perforated screens dispelling any possibility of plain monotony; and the cella with covered an ambulatory passage.

A richly adorned dvarpala
A richly adorned dvarpala

Inside the mandapa the pale light falls on the battle scenes carved in the miniature panels on the pillars while light and breeze come in through the side-screens.

The exterior is much more remarkable. In the shikhara, there are certain recurring elements like the crowning stupi and the chaityas. The upper portion of every terrace is prominently marked by thatch-like elements resembling the roofs of temples like Ladkhan at Aihole.

Particularly, these chaitya configurations with closed facades have a very pleasing effect on the shikhara. Though the Chalukyas, along with the Pallavas did not patronise the Buddhist cults, yet this principal symbol of austerity and meditation has been granted, though unconsciously, the most spectacular station on the shikhara, easily noticeable from a distance. And this has been done through the agency of the Pallavas who also, like their conquerors — the Chalukyas — did not favour the propagation of the Buddhism.

On comparing the sculpture extant here with that of Badami, we find that it is much reduced in size, and its elegance, albeit, at the expense of the awe-inspiring attributes of the Badami-images, has increased proportionately. The episodic scenes, as well as the full-scaled figures of deities are imbued with a new grace and vitality.

The space allotted to various figures is much more wisely proportioned. The incongruence that might have arisen in the huge panels like that of the Trivikrama at Badami cave-III has disappeared here. The divine beings of the lower order as well as the earthly personages are not too small as compared to the greater gods. Nor does it appear that something has been added as an after-thought or is a forced intrusion. There is hardly a coarsely formed limb or any uncouth flex in the legs, arms or folded hands.

A flying warrior hunted by a creature of the air
A flying warrior hunted by a creature of the air

The action pictures seem to have a realistic touch, dramatic movements dictate superbly the body-contours. In keeping with the rhythmic delineation of the body, the subtlety in the facial expression has deepened. There is mortal fear in the eyes of a warrior fleeing and flying horizontally. The shield that he carries in front of him fails to protect him since the threat is from overhead. A giant bird hovering over him attacks with its talons digging into his flesh. Its vigorously flapping wings are frozen vertically for a moment. The victim twists his torso in agony and terror to have a look at the aggressor. The association of fear with the eye is of particular significance here. Virupaksha suggests fear of the deranged eye. Probably, the Indo-Aryan invaders had some fear of Shankara before the god was eventually assimilated into their pantheon of gods. One perceives something abnormal and monstrous about the physique and activities of this god of his bhutaganas. For them the third eye of Shiva was an imperfection, an abnormality to be feared and consequently it was destructive.

Even the dvarpalas, with their elaborately carved gadas, luxuriant hair, fine ornaments, smile. The mythological motifs are the same, but the gods and the plebeians have learnt how to smile, and how to be annoyed, grateful, kind and even complacent the things they had not learnt at Badami. The heaviness that was evident at Badami has disappeared.

There are some additional motifs like the one in which men with pointed beards pay obeisance to the Hindu deity. While the beauty of women has increased in certain respects, their alluring quality has decayed, one may even notice the absence of the titillating lovers of Badami. By becoming more voluptuous the women seem to have lost their power to charm.

While it was at Aihole that the first Chalukyan temple came into being, and at Badami that the rock-cut cave-temple reached a level of perfection, it was only at Pattadakal that a higher synthesis could be attained between the lessons learned from both these traditions.