The Chalukyas who ruled from the 6th to the 8th centuries AD were, like the Pallavas and the Pandyas of the Tamil country, great patrons of the fine arts, especially music and dance. At the same time, the Chalukya rulers were also interested in experimenting in temple art and architecture. Both these facets are clearly reflected in the sculptures adorning the walls of the temples they built in Karnataka.
The sleepy town of Badami (Bagalkot district, Karnataka) was once the famous bustling Chalukyan capital, then called Vatapi. Abounding in sandstone, Badami has as many as four cave-temples, created by the architects and sculptors of the 6th century AD. Of these, Cave One, dedicated to Siva has, near the entrance, an excellent stone sculpture of this deity’s manifestation as Nataraja. Sixteen-armed and 1.5 metres in height, this carving captures your attention. Next to Nataraja is a small dancing image of Ganesa as also a bhakta playing a vertical drum and Nandi standing by the side. Some of the cave temples also have rows of Sivagana-s – fat and short, dancing joyously.
Aihole, picturesquely situated on the banks of river Malaprabha (a tributary of the Krishna river), once a major town of the Chalukyas, is today best known for its cluster of ancient, ruined temples. One of the oldest here, dated approximately 550 AD, is a sandstone cave-temple, similar to the temples at Badami. This shrine, known today as the Ravana Phadi cave, has another large and superb carving of a ten-armed Nataraja, seen with Ganesa, Kartikeya, Parvati and the Saptamatrika-s (Brahmani, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Maheswari, Chamundi, Indrani and Kaumari). Three of the Saptamatrika-s stand to Natesa’s left, and four to his right.
Pattadakal, situated on the left bank of the river Malaprabha, has ten temples altogether, of which nine, dedicated to Siva, are in a cluster. Interestingly, some of these temples are in the Dravida or South Indian style of temple architecture while some are in the Nagara or North Indian style. The Virupaksha temple was originally known as Lokeswara, as it was constructed on the orders of Lokamahadevi, the chief-queen of King Vikramaditya II (734-744 AD). This temple in the Dravida style, which has some outstanding sculptures of Nataraja on the walls, is believed to have been constructed on the model of the famous Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram of the Pallava era. That temple too is replete with carvings of the dance poses of the celestial dancer. One of the best sculptures in the Virupaksha temple is unfortunately damaged. It is of the four-armed Siva dancing with the Nandi-dhvaja (his flag carrying the emblem of a bull) in one hand, the damaru in another and the lower two hands in natya mudra-s (see above). He dances, with upraised right leg, on Apasmara Purusha, with a devotee playing the ghata at His feet and celestials flying above,
marvelling at the Cosmic Dance. The tilt of the chin and the serene countenance of this image make it a delight to behold. This 8th century temple has an interesting inscription in Sanskrit found on one of the pillars of the front mandapa. It is in praise of Achalan, a dancer, described as a great exponent of Bharatamuni’s Natya Sastra.
The Mallikarjuna temple, originally known as the Trilokeswara, as it was constructed on the orders of Trilokamahadevi, another queen of King Vikramaditya II, is situated alongside the Virupaksha temple. Adorning the walls and pillars of this shrine, which too conforms to the southern school of architecture, are many sculptures of Natya Siva. The Kada Siddheswara, Jambulinga (both dated late 7th century AD) and Kasi Visweswara (dated to the latter half of the 8th century AD) temples, all part of the Pattadakal temple cluster, are in the Nagara style of architecture. They all have, on the sikhara or superstructure over the main sanctum-sanctorum, small, but well-carved Natesa images, alongside whom is Parvati. These sculptures, though much worn out by the vagaries of nature, still reflect the skill of the master artisans of those centuries.
The Papanatha temple in Pattadakal, which is of the Nagara type of construction, is situated only a few metres from river Malaprabha. It has, on the ceiling of the mukha-mandapa, a large, square, carved panel. In the middle of this panel is an amazingly well-wrought sculpture of an eightarmed
Siva dancing on Apasmara Purusha alongside Parvati. On either side of Nataraja are two musicians, one playing on the cymbals while another plays dextrously with his left hand on a unique ghata with four spouts (panchamukhi ghata vadyam). Luckily, an inscription near this carving gives the name of the exceedingly talented 8th century sculptor of this panel – Sri Baladeva.
There is yet another exquisite sculpture of Siva and Parvati in another decorative ceiling panel in
the interior of this temple. Here, Nataraja holds the trisoola and the snake in the upper hands, while the lower two are in abhaya mudra and gajahasta. Nandi peeps out from behind Nataraja’s leg to admire the dance of His lord and master. A lovely little sculpture of Nritta Ganapati adorns one of the niches in the walls of the Papanatha temple.
Long after the Chalukyas of Badami disappeared from the scene, there arose another dynasty in the 10th century – the Chalukyas of Kalyana, who claimed descent from the Badami Chalukyas. The fine arts flourished in their empire too and the famous Sanskrit work, Manasollasa or Abhilashitartha Chintamani was composed by Emperor Someswara III (1127-1139 AD) of this dynasty. This encyclopaedic work, dealing with numerous topics, also has much important information on music (both vocal and instrumental) and dance. Some of the beautifully executed sculptures of the Kalyana Chalukyas in Lakkundi (near Gadag in Karnataka) and other places are of Siva in various dance poses.
(Dr. Chithra Madhavan is a historian focussing on temple art and architecture)