Aihole Durga Temple

West side view of the Durga Temple in Aihole, Karnataka, India

A masterpiece of Chalukya temple architecture

Undoubtedly, the Durga Temple at Aihole is an architectural masterpiece and a testament to the ingenuity and engineering skills of the Badami Chalukyas. With its unusual shape and structure, it stands out from the rest of the temples in this area. It could even be mistaken for a Greek or Roman monument because of its curved shape and massive peripheral columns with beautifully-carved corbels at their capitals. It is generally believed that the inspiration for the architecture of the Parliament House in New Delhi came from this temple.

Although it is called Durga Temple, Goddess Durga is not its principal deity. It got its name for an unusual reason. In Kannada, durga means fort. Because the Durga Temple used to be part of a fort complex, people started calling it a temple at the durga, and the name eventually stuck.

Located in Aihole, about 22 miles from Badami and 6 miles from Pattadakal, the Durga Temple was built by the Badami Chalukyas sometime in the 7th or 8th century, although some experts dispute the dating. It is contemporaneous with the rock-cut caves of Badami, and they have a lot in common, especially the carvings. This page describes some of the similarities.

Harmonious blend of architecture styles

Rear view of the Durga Temple in Aihole, Karnataka, India
Rear view of the Durga Temple

Although architecturally classified as the Gajaprastha style – a subclass under the Dravida style – it is a fusion of many architectural styles, including the northern nagara and southern mantapa. In Kannada, Gajaprastha refers to the back-side of an elephant. The round rear-side of this temple does indeed resemble that. If a temple is curved at the back, then its architecture style is identified as Gajaprastha. However, such temples are rare in Southern India.

As you can see from the image, above the garbhagriha is a tower, known as the shikhara (a.k.a. vimana), and appears to be a northern nagara style structure. Notice the round ridged object fallen on the ground next to the temple. Known as amalaka, it used to be part of the shikhara, placed just below the kalasa (pinnacle).

East side view and entrance to the Durga Temple in Aihole, Karnataka, India
East side view and entrance to the Durga Temple

Just like the majority of Hindu temples, this temple faces east, but with an unusual entrance. Instead of a single flight of steps facing front, it has two staircases facing sideways (one facing south and the other north) that join at the top. Check the mukhamantapa image.

As you can see from the image, the temple is on an elevated platform with massive stone columns at the periphery supporting the roof.

Mukhamantapa

South side view of the Durga Temple in Aihole, Karnataka, India
South side view of the Durga Temple

The two side-staircases join at the center and lead to the mukhamantapa (porch), which is a pillared hall with four pillars inside and several pillars at the periphery. The mukhamantapa does conform to the Dravida-style architecture.

Richly decorated internal pillars are carved with exquisite stone artwork and sculptural reliefs on all four sides. All the pillars have finely-carved sculptures depicting mostly romantic couples, some of which can be described as mildly erotic, and are known as mithuna shilpa.

At the center of the mukhamantapa is a flight of steps that leads to the sabhamantapa (congregation hall) and garbhagriha (inner sanctum). Surrounding them is a corridor used as the pradakshina patha (clockwise circumambulatory path), which starts from the left side of the mukhamantapa and ends on its right side. The outer edge of this corridor consists of columns that support the slightly slanted roof. Its inner side is a wall that surrounds the sabhamantapa and garbhagriha and has built-in dēvakōshtas (niches) and jālandharas (perforated stone windows).

Ardhamantapa

Interior of the mukhamantapa (porch) of the Durga Temple at Aihole in Karnataka, India
Interior of the mukhamantapa (porch)

The floor space covered by the four internal pillars is elevated and is accessed through a flight of steps on the east end. Check the front view of the temple. The area covered by the internal pillars forms a small mantapa (hall) within the mukhamantapa. At the other end of this internal mantapa is the Dvārabandha, i.e., the entrance to the sabhamantapa and garbhagriha.

As you can see from the image, massive stone beams connect the internal pillars resulting in two deeply recessed square-shaped blocks on the ceiling. Carved into these blocks are the two beautiful bas-reliefs, Matsya Chakra and Coiled Nagaraja. Attached to the beam separating these blocks are the slightly-curved buttresses. The bottom part of these buttresses are the faces of Makara, a dragon-like mythical creature, projecting out of the capitals of the pillars. The roof above the recessed blocks is at a higher level than the rest of the mukhamantapa.

Matsya Chakra – A beautiful relief representing a cosmic pond

Matsya Chakra (Fish Wheel) carved into the the ceiling of the mukhamantapa of the Durga Temple at Aihole, Karnataka, India
Matsya Chakra (Fish Wheel)

This intricately-carved relief is on the recessed block near the dvārabandha. It is known as the Matsya Chakra (Fish Wheel), a wheel consisting of a hub at the center and 16 spokes of fish enclosed by a rim carved with beautiful patterns of flowers and leaves. The hub of the wheel is a medallion with a lotus flower pattern. The Matsya Chakra relief likely represents the cosmic pond.

This relief was likely inspired by the Matsya Chakra relief found on the mukhamantapa ceiling of Cave -3, the third of the four rock-cut caves of Badami.

Coiled Nagaraja – An exquisitely-carved relief depicting king of serpents.

Coiled Nagaraja carved into the ceiling of the Durga Temple at Aihole in Karnataka, India
Coiled Nagaraja

Carved into the other recessed block on the ceiling is another beautiful relief that depicts Nagaraja, the mythical king of serpents. As you can see, Nagaraja has multiple serpent heads with a human head and torso at the center. The torso extends into a spiraling serpent body forming a coil.

As you can see from the image, Nagaraja is wearing a beautiful mukuta (headgear) and a variety of jewelry, including earrings, necklaces, bangles, and armbands. He is also wearing the yajnopavita, a looped thread sacred to Hindus worn across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist. He is holding a garland with his right hand and a bowl with his left hand.

This relief was likely inspired by the Coiled Nagaraja carving found on the ceiling of Cave -1, the first of the four rock-cut caves of Badami.

Pillars embellished with erotic art

As you can see, the pillar shown in the left image is ornate with a variety of bas-reliefs. The topmost carving is a mithuna shilpa, i.e., an erotic art form depicting a romantic couple. Below that is a carving depicting a series of male musicians playing different instruments. The frieze below that contains Kirthimuka, a decoration commonly seen in Indian and Southeast Asian temples.

Just above the bottom-most frieze is a Vidyadhara couple carved inside a circular frame. The bottom-most frieze contains a series of male figures, likely wrestlers.

Dvārabandha – An elaborate entrance to the sabhamantapa

Entrance to the sabhamantapa of the Durga Temple at Aihole in Karnataka, India
Entrance to the sabhamantapa

The facade of the entrance to the sabhamantapa (congregation hall) is ornate with an ensemble of decorations. At the center is the door that opens int to the main hall and leads to the garbhagriha (inner sanctum). Carved into the lintel is a beautiful relief depicting an imposing figure of Garuda, an eagle-like bird used by Vishnu as his vehicle, clasping nagas (serpents) with human heads. Surrounding the door frame are the finely-carved pilasters and vertical stone beams. Carved into the beams on the outer edge is a series of beautiful female figures, likely representing apsaras.

The stone pediment above the lintel consists of gods and demigods in the niches separated by geometrical patterns.

Garuda subduing the nagas

Garuda clasping snakes carved into the lintel of the sabhamanta door in the Durga Temple at Aihole in Karnataka, India
Garuda with nagas

This intricately carved relief is on the lintel of the dvārabandha depicts Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda, a mythical eagle-like bird with a human-like body with wings, holding nagas, who have human heads and serpent bodies. As you can see, there are three nagas on each side with their tails tightly held by Garuda’s hands. Notice the middle naga on the left. He has seven serpent heads, indicating that he is the Nagaraja, the king of serpents.

Sabhamantapa and Garbhagriha

The door at the far end of the left image opens into the garbhagriha (inner sanctum) of the Durga Temple. The right image shows the interior of the garbhagriha. As you can see from this image, there is just a pedestal on which the principal idol of the temple once stood. Because this idol is missing, nobody is sure to whom this temple was dedicated. Historians believe that it was likely a Surya or Vishnu temple.

There are eight pillars, four on each side, in the main hall that is in front of the garbhagriha, virtually dividing the hall into a grid of three longitudinal aisles and five transverse sections.

In a typical Dravida-style architecture, the mantapa in front of the garbhagriha has two halls: antarala (ante-chamber) and sabhamantapa (congregation hall). In this temple, the first transverse section in front of the garbhagriha is narrower than the other four. So, it can be considered as the antarala. The rest of the main hall is the sabhamantapa.

An oblong-shaped wall, one side of which is semi-circular, surrounds the garbhagriha and the main hall. The semi-circular part appears like an apsidal structure, and this design resembles a Christian Church (sans transepts). Experts believe that it was influenced by the architecture of Buddhist Chaitra halls.

The surrounding wall was built with large perfectly-fitting stones, some of which were cut with precise curvature. It is amazing how the builders achieved this high level of precision without the aid of sophisticated machinery.

Corridor used as the Pradakshina Patha

The Durga Temple has a covered Pradakshina Patha (clockwise circumambulation path). As you can see from the images, the corridor used for performing the circumambulation has a slightly slanted roof supported by the stone pillars at the periphery. The other side of this corridor is a wall that surrounds the garbhagriha and the mantapa (covered hall) in front of it. The upper half of this wall alternate between dēvakōshtas (niches) and jālandharas (perforated windows). Occupying the dēvakōshtas are beautifully carved sculptures, each depicting a god or goddess. The jālandharas provide light and ventilation into the interior.

Because the Durga Temple is apsidal, the corridor is bent at the far end, which in other words means its rear side covering the garbhagriha is round.

Dēvakōshtas – Niches with finely-carved sculptures

There are six dēvakōshtas built into the inner wall of the corridor. The jālandharas occupy the space between the dēvakōshtas.

DēvakōshtaLocationDescription
Shiva with his vehicle NandiSouth – EastCalm and serene Shiva leaning against Nandi, his vihicle
Narasimhavatara, the fourth avatar of VishnuSouth – MiddleVishu’s incarnation as lion
Vishnu riding GarudaSouth – WestVishnu with his consort Lakshmi and vehicle Garuda
Varahavatara, the third avatar of VishnuNorth – WestNarrative sculpture depicting boar faced Vishu’s incarnation slaying Hiranyaksha, an evil demon
Durga as MahishasuramardiniNorth – MiddleNarrative sculpture depicting Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura
HariharaNorth – EastFusion of Shiva and Vishnu

Sculptures in the dēvakōshtas

As you can see, each sculpture is installed between kudyastambhas (pilasters).

Jālandharas – Beautifully designed perforated windows

The purpose of the jālandharas is to provide ventilation and light into the interior. They also improve the aesthetics when the perforations are cut into the stone to create beautiful patterns. The jālandharas in the Durga Temple carved with perforations forming a variety of patterns, some of which depict sacred religious symbols and the others aesthetically pleasing patterns.

Here is a list of the jālandharas installed in the clock-wise direction:

JālandharaLocationDescription
Swastika and lotus flower patternsSouth – EastSacred symbol shared by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions.
Rhombus-shaped perforationsSouth – MiddleAesthetically pleasing pattern
Dharmachakra with eight spokesSouth – WestSacred symbol shared by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions. Built into circular part of the wall. Curved and fits perfectly.
Dharmachakra with 12 spokesNorth – WestSacred symbol shared by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions. Built into circular part of the wall. Curved and fits perfectly.
Square-shaped perforationsNorth – MiddleAesthetically pleasing pattern

The jālandhara is a unique element of the Dravida-style architecture and is a common feature in many Chalukya and Hoysala temples.

Related Pages
Badami, Cave – 1, Cave – 2, Cave – 3, Cave – 4
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Garbhagriha Outer Wall
Somanathapura Keshava Temple – A Masterpiece of Hoysala Temple Art
Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals

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