We go looking for a rock-cut Jaina temple in monument-rich Aihole
River Malaprabha trickles through a dry bed of rocks, parched by the rays of the sun. A black kite flies low, while a pied kingfisher hovers over the small puddles of water. It is well past dawn, and we leave the jagged cliffs behind us as we drive from Vatapi (Badami) to Aihole (or Aivalli), a town that has borne the Chalukyan legacy since the 5th Century. Aihole was not just a capital town of the dynasty, it was also a commercial centre and a cradle of temple architecture.
I look around Aihole, and I see a temple almost everywhere. There is hardly any house or market amidst the various monuments in different stages of ruin and restoration. The ASI board says there are more than 125 monuments, some of them are as old as 1,500 years old. The town is a veritable storehouse of heritage and architecture with temple complexes, step wells, rock-cut cave temples, pillars and inscriptions dotting the landscape. Busloads of school students in various uniforms eagerly jump out of the vehicles to wander around this ancient site. I leave the more famous monuments behind me as my interest lies in an ancient cave temple dedicated to the Jains.
As I leave the town, its giant rocks look down at me. There is hardly anyone around as we make our way to one of the oldest rock-cut cave temples in Aihole. On a long craggy outcrop and perched on a rock is a Jaina cave, carved probably around the 6th or 7th Century. I climb a small rock and open the door of the cave to find it richly decorated with carvings, some of them not complete. You can see carvings of Parshvanatha and Bahubali with female consorts.
The cave opens into a porch that leads to a square hall with multiple small chambers. In the centre is a seated Teerthankara, flanked by guardians. The ceiling is ornate with relief patterns of lotus petals and other mythical creatures. While some of the chambers are dark and empty, one can see women worshippers carved as well.
The light from outside shines inside the cave, dispelling the darkness. I leave the cave and sit amidst the rocks, looking at the craggy cliffs above me. The dark crevices in the rocks seem to have secrets hidden beneath them. The road above takes you up to Meguti Hill, where the 7th Century Jain temple stands atop the hillock. I look down and see that there is not a soul below us — not even the occasional stray dog or cattle is around. Even the birds seem to have left us alone. I sit there and wonder why some of the most beautiful sculptures are locked inside such caves where very few people stop by to appreciate them.