Dr. Chithra Madhavan's lecture brought into focus the artistic face of the Chalukyas.

Tattvaloka is conducting a series of lectures on the contributions made by various dynasties towards temple art and architecture in India. The first of these was presented by historian Dr. Chithra Madhavan recently. She dealt with the temple structures at Pattadakal, Aihole and Badami, and showed the Chalukyas as great patron-connoisseurs of art and architecture.

Kings may have been at war, but citizens were travelling from one place to another, picking up ideas and transforming them into works of art. No borders seemed to exist for their artistic pursuits. The period of the Chalukyas saw cross cultural links being maintained and getting manifested in the many masterpieces that combined motifs of a wide range and variety. The intricate and imaginative works on the ceilings of the many cave and structural temples at these sites, the exquisitely done perforated windows and the multi-armed Nataraja (and Durga) seemed life-like even as they were presented as digitised visuals at this session.

World Heritage Site

“Pattadakal has been accorded World Heritage Site status on a par with Ajantha and Ellora,” Chithra said, as she began to scroll back the pages of history. Deservedly so, as one could see the scene of Ravana bearing the entire weight of Mount Kailash, one of his legs bent and the other immersed in Mother Earth, a scared Parvathi clutching to Siva and the Bhoothaganas trying to get the better of Ravana - all carved in sandstone.

“If the works of the Chalukyan period are far more intricate than those of the Pallavas, the tangible reason was on the account of the material used which again depended on its availability. The artists of the Chalukya period used sandstone while the Pallavas had to chisel hard granite,” Chithra observed. At Aihole, committed master shilpis carved Siva in a dance pose, the position of the feet and the arms so perfectly placed that one wondered whether these craftsmen had read and practised Bharatha's Natya Sastra to comprehend those nuances… The level of abstraction could only be matched by the finesse employed to arrive at the final image that was “a personification of beauty and character.” Stone that shook you, spoke for itself and left you in a state of awe.

Badami has its marvels. The sets of ribbed pillars, the hanging Trishanku, the statues marking the Siva-Vishnu co-existence, the special bracket pillars (Hoysala), the unusual pose of Vishnu in the Sesha-Asana (seated on the snake unlike the customary Sesha-sayana pose), the rock formations and the Ashta-Bhuja Vishnu are breathtakingly beautiful. Truly impeccable, they are again a commentary on the artistic levels of those ‘men-at-work.' Chithra mentioned here that Sesha-Asana has been the most-photographed image. The different pillars shown were not cast elsewhere and brought here for erection. These were part and parcel of the single rock from which the images were shaped.

She also made another observation: “Not a line is out of place in any of these pillars or in the perforated windows shown previously. A slightest lapse or even a small error would have resulted in these projects being abandoned, to be begun afresh. But at the hands of these experts, no such misses ever occurred.”

The water requirement of these sites was met by these resources – for Badami, it was the Agasthyar theertam, and Aihole and Patadakkal were served by the Malaprabha. The temples have the presence of Varahamurthy (Boovarahamurthy) giving us a perspective about the kings lifting up their subjects over the earth and thus protecting them. Some temples also took to the model of GajaPrashta (the back of the elephant) where the outer structure is curved on the rear side.

The paintings on the ceilings used natural vegetable dyes. One can imagine the kind of scaffolding that was used to achieve this and the hardship the artists must have been subjected to. A variety of musical instruments that were practised and played, is also depicted. The Panchamukha ghatam (with its five openings), for example, is shown as an accompanying instrument to Siva's dance.

Robert Frost had said somewhere: “No one can really hold that ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place.” A mere glimpse of these magnificent works may have warranted a rewrite.

(Dr. Chithra Madhavan has done extensive research on Ancient History. She is presently continuing her exploratory work under a post-doctoral fellowship from the ICHR, New Delhi. She has also authored four books.) (sivakumar2004@gmail.com)