Aihole and Pattadakal are two small villages which contain some of the marvels of early Indian temple architecture. The guidebook cliché about these villages is that they represent the cardle or laboratory of Indian temple design because elements and designs from different schools of Northern and Southern architecture found their earliest representations here.
The buildings date from the 6th and 8th centuries. It’s the age and the state of preservation that is is so stunning. The buildings are in a warm red sandstone and covered in carvings inside and out. The sculpture is crisp, of recognisable Gods and stories and often barely weathered.
The Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) has been hard at work sanitising the sites. To some extent that’s a shame; the temples are increasingly surrounded by railings and pristine stretches of walkway and lawns, often in complete contrast to the village outside.
In Aihole in particular the temples were integal to the village; people’s houses were creek-by-jowl with the old stones, ancient statues and carvings were still worshipped, cattle wandered and fed among the ruins and clothes drying on the old walls. Dire warnings about vandalism are now posted up around the temples scattered around the village and feel a lot less vulnerable. The main sites now come with useful multi-lingual explanatory signs, downloadable audio guides, clean toilets and informative museums.
Badami is the next town along and the next capital of the Chalukya dynasty that ruled much of current central and southern India in the 6th to 8th centuries.
There’s a dramatic line of sandstone hills which at Badami yields into a vast cove. In the cove, surrounded by stone cliffs is a vast tank (reservoir). Washing ghats surround much of the lake along with temples and rocks and caves full of carvings. The cove is defended by forts north and south, overlooking the tank and the modern town. Some of the buildings and walls are ancient, other parts date from Tipu Sultan’s defences in the late 18th century. The famous caves are on the south side of the cove.
The road that runs through the town is busy, dusty and dirty. There are one or two hotels and and restaurants. The trickle of foreigners cling to one or two regular spots. There’s a small stream of people doing the same Hampi-Hyderabad route, a few have wandered up from Hampi and there’s a number of adventurous bikers.
One of the eating places has a garden at the back which allows them to sell beer. Some bamboo screens shield it off from the stinking stream and the groups of pigs that scavenge between the houses. A pet white rabbit with a bell round its neck incongrously hides under the tables in the beer garden.
From the main road to the tank there’s a maze of flat-roofed houses, a market area, schools and the occasional ancient building. The surroundings of the lake have been prettied-up by the ASI with neat and fenced off lawns left to the monkeys while a new village has rehoused those moved. There’s a little museum with a couple of truely world-class scultptures, included a rare statue of a woman in childbirth position, her head and hands replaced by lotus flowers.
We find a guide to walk us round the fort and up the hill. He promises context and a secret path back down the hill. We get some useful information, a lot of conjecture and plenty of spectacular views. Narrow sandstone gorges are reinforced with walls and gateways and bastions. Some of this is 16th century, some belongs to Tipu Sultan. There are temples and reliefs of animals carved directly into the rocks.
We drop down to the tank. The pretty Bhutanatha temple (7th to 11th centuries) extends into the lake. Behind it rock faces and caves are covered in carvings, accentuated by the swirling deep colour bands in the sandstone. One cave conceals a massive buddha.
The main caves
The ‘monkey menace’ guards the 4 caves on the south of the lake, which are the pride of the World Heritage site. These were cut in the 7th century into the soft sandstone and are covered with reliefs, over lifesize set pieces of Gods in key poses, elaborate columns and geometric carvings. One at least was once covered in colourful and dramatic paintings but the only remains is a 19th century memory of the work. One temple is Jain; walls covered in the naked tīrthaṅkara of the faith.
The huge granite boulders appeared well before we arrived. I was expecting these vast sand-shaded monoliths from pictures. But I hadn’t expected the lushly irrigated landscape; the palm trees, the water, the bright green of the rice crop being planted in the paddies, all set against the pink, grey and ochre granite. And spread across the landscape are the ruins of Vijayanagara (Hampi).
The city was built from the 14th century until it was thoroughly sacked in 1565. There’s a rich legacy of detailed descriptions from European visitors in the 15th and 16th centuries impressed by the scale, beauty and wealth of the capital of southern India’s largest kingdom. As large as [Renaissance] Rome one Portuguese traveller reported.
The top of Anjenadri Hill is the supposed birthplace of Hanuman and is still patrolled by monkeys. From there you get a panorama of the rocks and fields, the river and the granite slabs and columns of hundreds of temples.
We stayed on the fringes of Hampi in the quiet village of Anegondi in an old house (Uramma House) with dramatic wooden columns and an interior courtyard. The village was pretty, busy, friendly and very dark at night. Occasional foreigners would visit during the day and a few shops had opened selling weavings and lunches. The main street had a large chariot parked, ready for the annual festival and a crumbling palace. Temples and ghats sat by the river; the granite boulders had images of Nandi and lingams carved into them.
Our daily commute was across the river. The coracles are still parked by the river but a small boat and outboard gets you across. It’s a commuting route with locals cramming motorbikes onboard. As they speed off on the other side we walk beside banana plantations and ruined temples.
Vitthala is the first major temple complex and is famous for its stone chariot and the musical columns that ring in various notes when you hit them with a stick. The inevitable column abuse led to the entire temple being cordoned off and guarded. though one of the security men rang a few of them for us when his boss was out of sight.
The quantity of the stone carving is a bit overwhelming; every surface is covered, and many have the remnants of paint. The hardness and grain of the granite means they’re not fine in detail but it’s what has preserved them in such great condition.
We eventually ended up in Hampi itself. There’d been some controversy a couple of years ago when the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) evicted the people who had moved into the granite bazaar that led to the temples in Hampi. (Several of the major temples have these long – 1km+ – processional avenues; lines of granite posts and roofs, almost loggia, together with the remains of large water tanks.) These ex-homes and shops were still cordoned off and awaited restoration.
Hampi itself has an a high density area of cheap accommodation and food, though most of backpackers have moved across the river.
The town is dominated by the active Virupaksha temple. It’s a fascinating series of courtyards and active worship. Some of it is 16th century while other bits were embellished in the 19th. The ASI is hard at work excavating a tank. The temple also had a discerning elephant. It would take coins and notes from your hand, throw them to its keeper and then bless you with its trunk.
We took the ferry back across the river; all washing ghats and nandi bulls carved into rocks. The hostel area is quite pretty, surrounded by paddies. There’s a long lane of beer gardens and huts, specialising in one country or another. We found a bargain bike hire shop. Two bikes for 24 hours just £1.50; they didn’t even want a deposit or a name.
The next morning we took the bikes on the ferry and cycled through the banana plantations and along the irrigation canals. Attempts to reach the royal centre failed as we got lost in the fields and orchards with the elephant stables a distant sight. so back round the roads and via the archaeological museum to the palace area.
The Royal Palace
Some of the grand structures here were essentially foundations. There’s little left of a vast audience hall with its 100 wooden pillars. But another stepped platform is still covered in freezes of elephants, and a neighbouring tank of geometric design was only discovered in the 80s.
Then there are the royal temples covered in scenes from the ramayana, the octagonal Queen’s baths, the women’s quarters with elaborate watchtowers, high walls and a leisure pavilion. Next door is the imposing elephant stables.
On the last day we took another walk round some of the temples and explored some of the rock carvings by the river. Finally we took a coracle ride down the river.
Afternoon taxi to the railway junction at Hospet. Assembled a meal of chaat and chocolate and bought provisions for the early train.The complex Indian Railways booking system meant that I’d booked 2 separate sets of bunks for the trip. One set of reservation had our names attached to the noticeboard by the platform.
Atmospheric wait as dawn broke over the platform. The train was making a 3 day trip from Calcutta to Goa. The route was pretty if only we could see through the dirty windows. The train climbed through the forested Western Ghats to remote high altitude stations and through sturdy Victorian brick tunnels.