Pattadakal is a temple complex rich with carvings, pillars and friezes greets Lakshmi Sharath

The red craggy sandstone cliffs form a rather stark background against the sky, and accompany me on my journey. Occasionally, the scenery bursts into acres of green or bright yellow sunflower fields, but the mountains follow me constantly. River Malaprabha interrupts my journey as small streams flow across the rocks in the dry river bed. Along the banks of the river in Bagalkote district is a golden triangle — where three towns had formed a rich tapestry of culture and architecture in ancient times. At the heart of the Chalukyan kingdom, I’m travelling between two erstwhile capital towns — Badami and Aihole, and in between, is Pattadakal, my destination.

It is probably the mountains that gave Pattadakal its old name — Kisuvolai or Raktapura or the Red City. It is believed to be the site where Chalukyan rulers were crowned kings. Yet one cannot find a palace here; but there are monuments more magnificent than a palatial complex.

Sprawled amidst the mountains is a heritage site — the temple complex that’s a fusion of architectural styles, including the Rekha, Nagara, Prasada and Dravida Vimana styles. There are 10 temples here, all located in a single complex, except a Jainalaya that’s slightly away on the road returning to Badami. These temples were all built between the 7th and 9th Centuries by the Chalukya kings. But my interest lies in the largest and the grandest of all in the Pattadakal complex — the Virupaksha temple.

Built in the 8th Century, the Virupaksha temple is also known as the Lokeshwara temple, named not after the king or a deity but after the queen — Lokamahadevi who commissioned this magnificent monument to commemorate her husband Vikramaditya II’s victory over the Pallavas of Kanchipuram. She is believed to have been inspired by the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple, and brought in sculptors from the Pallava capital to build this temple. It is believed that the Kailasanthar temple built in Ellora was based on the model of this Virupaksha temple.

You need more than a day to look at every carving inside the Virupaksha temple. It’s considered one of the architectural marvels of the period; the architect was apparently given the title ‘Tribhuvanacharya’ (the master of three worlds). The temple is sheer poetry carved in stone, and the walls, pillars, panels and columns are adorned with beautiful carvings depicting the epics and the puranas.

A Nandi pavilion greets you at the entrance, and the temple consists of a porch, a mandapa with 18 columns and a linga sanctuary.

The queens of the Chalukyan era probably vied with each other to build temples for their kings.

The Mallikarjuna temple, also known as Trailokeshwara temple, named after the queen Trilokamahadevi who built it, is similar to the Virupaksha temple with its beautiful pillars and columns narrating stories from mythology, legends, puranas and epics.

A Nandi pavilion stands in front, similar to that in Virupaksha temple and one can see two fragmented green stone Nandis.

Every inch of both the Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples are carved — outer walls, towers, friezes, reliefs, pillars and columns... Narratives from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata; forms of Vishnu and Shiva; episodes from Shiva’s life — from his marriage to Parvati to his killing of demons; and scenes from Krishna’s childhood are depicted.

As I sit by the mandapa to take notes from the local guide, the silence is broken by the arrival of several buses bringing in school students from local villages and towns. Colourful school uniforms fill the landscape as the students run in and out of temples, jump in front of mandapas, pose for photographs with the Nandi and lose themselves amidst the shrines, glad to be out of classrooms. I watch them in amusement for a while, before continuing my journey.