When I arrived at Aihole yesterday, the sun was beginning to set. The rural setting of open spaces, cultivated fields, low-walled houses and circumscribing hills would have been any of the numerous villages in this part of India. What distinguished Aihole was that it was dotted with temples over the wide landscape. These were temples jostling as neighbours-next-door. These were temples carved out of rocky caves. These were temples looking down from the accessible heights of low hills. These were temples woven into living settlements as well as set apart from the life of 21st century rural India.
At Aihole, you are in touch with medieval India. If there is any place where you get a sense of Indian history, the birth of temple art and architecture, it is here. The temples here are the earliest of the Chalukya Dynasty that ruled a wide part of South India from 6th to 8th centuries. In these temples we have recognizable elements of art and architecture which are found in Belur and Halebid.
There are those who drive down in their cars, spend a few hours here and move on. There are those who come by the bus loads and visit only the Durga Temple and the Ladh Khan Temple within an hour. There are enough temples at Aihole to occupy a curious visitor or a leisurely walker for at least three days. I did not manage to visit all the temples. I had to keep strict time even with the ones I managed to see.
Many of the temples were first consecrated for the worship of Vishnu but were later converted to Shaivism. An example evidence of this is the presence of a linga in the garbhagriha but the lintel on the doorway contains a bas-relief of Garuda.
The Durga Temple is often the highlight for any visitor. It charms with its unusual plan. Apsidal in plan, it is elevated on a plinth which carries an ambulatory around the sanctum. The shikara, or tower over the sanctum, is curvilinear in the North Indian rekhanagara style. Such a tower is better preserved at the Huchchimalli Temple where an ardhamandapa is an innovation in temple architecture. The Lad Khan Temple surprised me with its sloping roof which can be accessed by a stone ladder. There are so many variations in styles, such fine details in the sculptures and much experimental work in Aihole that it is fittingly called the “Cradle on Indian Temple Architecture”.
The best of stone sculptures are in the Ravalapadi Cave, Huchappayyagudi Temple and temples of the Konthi Gudi Complex, all of which I visited this morning. At Ravalapadi Cave, a ten-armed Nataraja is accompanied by two other cave sculptures – Varaha with Bhoodevi, Nagas and Naginis; Mahishamardini. As I was admiring these works of art from the 6th century, I am tempted to say that little has changed since then. A cock crowed somewhere from the village. Spotted doves cooed. The morning sun flirted with the mist. White frangipanis smiled for yet another day of offering.
At the Gauri Temple, I observed a unique puja. It was performed by a woman. What has been for centuries the sole prerogative of male Brahmins, has finally been broken at this temple. There are clear reasons for it. This is an abandoned temple located within the village. Except for this woman, none else come here to pray. The woman does not intercede with the gods for devotees. She does not offer any blessings. She does not recite Sanskrit words prescribed by scriptures or perform the rituals in time-honoured traditions. She washes the linga and the nandi with clear water. She anoints the two with holy ash and vermilion. Little while and pink flowers are sprinkled all over the peetha. Little oil lamps are lit. Three incense sticks are lit and are left standing on a ripe banana. Camphor is lit. The bell is rung. Some words are said. The day begins this way for her, everyday.
I don’t know if public transport in North Karnataka is as good as I have known, or I have been just lucky. I took a bus from Bijapur to Bagalkot (Rs. 59) where I immediately got a bus to Amingud (Rs. 24). This was the bus going to Ilkal. At Amingud, I found my bus to Aihole (Rs. 8) waiting. It departed as soon as I boarded it. Aihole is remote enough to have only a handful of buses to Badami or Pattadakal.
There is only one place to stay, as far as I know. Its next to the office of the Archaeological Survey of India. It is run by the Department of Tourism. Rooms are Rs. 200 and above but for single occupancy I paid half that sum. It was a basic room with shared toilets. I was not given a receipt and the receptionist pocketed the sum.
Food at the guest house is good. A meal of two rotis, rice, daal and aloo ghobi cost me Rs. 60.
Temples at Aihole are spread over a large area on hilly ground. Visiting all these temples on foot will give ample opportunities to soak up the rural atmosphere. Meguti Temple on the hill gives good views. This hilltop is a wide plateau. One can walk in any direction and manage to find a suitable path going down.