A rare 7th century Durga temple with apsidal plan, Aihole Karnataka - awaiting UNESCO heritage tag


Apsidal plan, Durga temple, Aihole, KA  en.wikipedia.org

In the state of Karnataka, there is no dearth of historical temples that take us back to several centuries and invariably, most them are an epitome of exquisite sculptures, artwork and fascinating rock carvings.

Among the temples of great antiquity the  Durga temple in Aihole, Karnataka is an interesting one for some reasons: 

Durga temple, Aihole, karnataka. iasstuffdially.blogspot.com/

01. A  treasure trove of masterly stonr-carving wok on the largest relief panel.

02. It is known for apsidal plan (rounded ends)–a rare Hindu temple design of early Chalukyan period.  This apsidal plan for its sanctum, fuses with a square plan for the mandapa.

03. Unlike other Hindu temples this one  has a peculiar shape called Gajaprasta,  meaning the resemblance to the back of an elephant. It may be deemed as a departure from the traditional shape of Hindu temples. This plan is suggestive of the end stage in the transition of the ancient Chaitanya hall tradition to later Hindu temple architecture.  

04  It is the largest of a group of over 120 temples at Aihole and is a classical example of  the Badami Chalukya architecture.

05. Rare to see a conspicuous blend of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Vedic deities as revealed by relief panels and 

06. It is awaiting UNESCO World Heritage  recognition that has been pending for some time.

07. The temple itself is not a conventional temple dedicated to Durga nor was the deity consecrated here. It derived its  name from the nearby Chalaukya fort (Durg in Sanskrit meaning fort) built on the site. (Durga is the goddess of valor, courage and wisdom). 

, 8th CE roof carvings, Durga temple, Aihole, KAen.wikipedia.org

Built in the early  8th-century this Hindu temple  was dedicated to God Surya and renamed Durga temple. Part of the reason was the fortified lookout built in the 13th century to check on the invasion of Islamic rulers somehow survived till 19th century when it was rediscovered along with this structure amongst the rubble. 

Briggs – a British artillery officer in early 1860s on an expedition to this area, discovered this rare temple with fine architecture and peculiar floor plan that was not common among the Hindu temples. The  apsidal plan of the temple led some historians to conclude that it was a Buddhist shrine and the debate on the temple remained unsolved even after india's post independence. The discovery of  stone inscription  from c. 700 CE in the 1970s confirmed that the temple was built by one Kumara for Hindu deity Aditya (Surya).

Durga temple interior carvings., Aihole, KA

Ambulatory around the temple, Aihole, KA en.wikipedia.org/

What is quite interesting is the Durga temple in Aihole,  takes the "form of an apsidal temple with inner and outer ambulatories — widely discovered in the Buddhist shrine'' and this design ''may be a derivative of Buddhist chaitya halls''; but is now generally recognized as a traditional Brahmanical form".,.... according to historian Philips Harding.  However,  historian   Himanshu Prabha Ray questions the continuity of the design for a long period -ten centuries. Earliest Sanskrit texts on temple architecture and archaeological discoveries of ancient and medieval apsidal Hindu temples in many states of India  point out ''aspidal'' Hindu design plan is not exclusive to Buddhism''

what makes Durga temple stands apart is it architecture and you can see both Nagara (north Indian style) as well as south indian style Dravida. The advanced design  combines an apsidal plan for the sanctum (garbhagriha) with a non-apsidal Nagara-latina shikhara (northern style)   The other parts like  the mandapa, you can see a combination of rectangular and square plans, with  mukhacatuski-style entrance in the facade.  An ambulatory passage is well incorporated within. More challenging is the perfect fusion of  north and south Indian temple  architecture.  For example, the adhisthana is formulated by a Nagara khura-kumbha, and the decoration with it is Dravida. 
The ambulatory with pillars around the temple is well designed and the walls have  beautiful sculptures of different gods or goddesses. The rounded ends at the rear or sanctuary end are made  of three layers: the wall of the sanctuary itself, the main temple wall beyond a passageway running behind this, and a pteroma (enclosed space) or ambulatory as an open loggia (gallery or room with one or two open sides) with pillars, running all round the building.  

A preponderance of  major artworks are on the pillars of entrance and mukha mandapa,first two bays of the ambulatory and some of the panels around the apsidal ambulatory. The outermost pillars towards the apsidal section are plain.  The sentinels - Dwarapalakas  are noticeable at the entrance so are the stone carvings of scenes of artha and kama (mithuna, erotic happy couples) from the everyday life on pillars and pilaster through the mukha mandapa. The inner sanctuary/sanctum is empty!!  Below near the base, smaller panels that contain scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana are seen.

The doorframe of gudha-mandapa  has six shakhas – concentric bands of artwork like  Naga, Valli, Stambha,etc.s. At the base of this  door frame there carvings of goddess Ganga and Yamuna, with their traditional attendants. Closer to the sanctum there are nice carvings of  deities and themes associated with dharma themes. The ambulatory passage has the highest concentration of  dharma panels. These are set in a traditional Hindu-style clockwise circumambulation).

 Stone grilles with various geometrical openwork patterns are set in a manner  for free air circulation  indoors  from the ambulatory.The porch  with many richly carved relief panels can be accessed through  two staircases in the front part and  the rooms with pillars ('mukhamantapa' and "sabhamantapa"). The main sanctuary of the shrine (garbhagriha) is through the porch. 

This 7th century unconventional  temple with oblong/ apsidal plan is a repository of fine artwork and sculptures of amazing beauty and, no doubt, stands apart from other temples of Karnataka.