Situating the Deccan Temple Cluster in its “Natural” Habitat

Situating the Deccan Temple Cluster in its “Natural” Habitat

My dissertation research has taken me to temple towns across India. Some, like Madurai (Tamilnadu) and Bhubaneshvar (Orissa), attract hundreds of thousands of devotees to sacred complexes during annual festivals and pilgrimages while supporting thriving urban centers populated by shopping malls, hotels, schools, and office buildings; others, like Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh) and Pattadakal (Karnataka), are quiet hamlets that are predominantly tourist destinations, their spectacular aggregations of finely carved stone temples the only visible evidence of their pre-modern heydays. Besides inscriptions that hint at the urban character of Khajuraho during the rule of the Chandellas (831 – 1308 CE) and of Pattadakal under the Badami Chalukyas (543 – 757 CE), there are few outward signs of the networks—religious, urban, commercial, or agricultural—within which these temple clusters and their communities surely functioned. This lack of surviving material evidence might explain the monument-based architectural histories that constitute the bulk of the scholarly output on these places and their built environments. The contemporary reception of the temple clusters within manicured compounds maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) completes their sequestration from the natural and constructed environments in which they once functioned.

Consider Pattadakal. This Early Deccan temple cluster, which along with related temple clusters in northern Karnataka and western Telangana and Andhra Pradesh is the focus of my dissertation, is now enclosed by a compound wall and accessed by a gate at the enclosure’s northwest. After gaining entry at the ASI ticket booth adjoining the main road, the visitor can stroll the many paths that crisscross the compound, ducking in and out of the 7th and 8th century temples packed into the compound. She might circulate within the cluster for some time before realizing that the major temples are all oriented towards the Malaprabha River, located just steps from the compound wall’s eastern flank, though not visible from the enclosure. In fact, Pattadakal’s grandest shrine, the Virupaksha (ca. 750 CE), even provides a gateway building connecting the river and the temple group. However, unlike the roadside entrance, which is animated by visitors and locals, motor vehicles, and shops and food stalls, the riverfront approach, if one can even call it that anymore, is secluded and unused. The historiographical analog of this experience is the near absence of landscape from architectural histories that discuss Pattadakal’s buildings.

Pattadakal and the other clusters of significance in the Malaprabha river valley at Aihole, Badami, and Mahakuta were published in the first architectural histories of India [James Fergusson, Architecture in Dharwar and Mysore (London: John Murray, 1866); James Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (London: John Murray, 1876)]. The earliest surviving built structures of the Deccan region, they have figured in most major studies of Indian architecture from then on [Henry Cousens, The Chalukyan Architecture of the Kanarese Districts (Calcutta: Government of India, Central Branch Publication, 1926); Ananda Coomaraswamy, History of Indian and Indonesian Art (New York: E. Weyhe; London: E. Goldston, 1927); Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1946)]. Scholarship of the 20th century—including doctoral dissertations, articles, books, and book chapters—has tackled many complex issues, and also related the corpus in Andhra and Telangana at sites such as Alampur, Kadamara Kalava, Mahanandi, and Satyavolu with that in Karnataka [Gary Tarr (Tartakov), “The Architecture of the Early Western Chalukyas” (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1969); George Michell, Early Western Calukyan Temples (London: Art and Archaeology Research Papers, 1975); Carol Radcliffe Bolon, “Early Chalukya Sculpture” (PhD diss., New York University, 1981); Susan Locher Buchanan, “Calukya Temples: History and Iconography” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 1985); Odile Divakaran, “Les Temples d’Alampur et de ses Environs au Temps des Calukya de Badami,” Arts Asiatiques, XXIV (1971): 51-101; B.R. Prasad, Chalukyan Temples of Andhradesa (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1983); Adam Hardy, Indian Temple Architecture, Form and Transformation: the Karnata Dravida tradition, 7th to 13th centuries (New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts: Abhinav Publications, 1995); Michael Meister and M.A. Dhaky, eds., Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture, vol. 1, pt. 2, South India: Upper Dravidadesa, Early Phase, A.D. 550-1075 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986); Michael Meister, M.A. Dhaky, and Krishna Deva, eds., Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture, vol. 2, pt. 1, North India: Foundations of North Indian Style, c. 250 B.C.-A.D. 1100 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)]. Since only a handful of buildings in the vast corpus of roughly two hundred structures can be securely dated, scholars have been preoccupied with establishing timelines. Studies have also contended with the religious affiliation of buildings, established the independence of Deccan architecture from Tamil architecture, delved into issues of patronage, interpreted sculptural and iconographic programs, and focused on such foundational work as producing architectural drawings and plans. These tasks were made more challenging by the scarcity of sources and the many hardships involved in traveling to and accessing these sites. The emphasis has therefore been on writing the histories or biographies of buildings. Moreover, this monument-based approach is not unique to Early Deccan architecture, but is true for canonical pre-modern South Asian sacred spaces ranging from the Buddhist monastic complex at Ajanta to the temple clusters at Khajuraho.

In recent years, however, scholarship has expanded the purview from sacred buildings to sacred “places,” and to interrelating buildings and built worlds to their broader environments. In other words, the question asked increasingly is: how have sacred places been constituted by agriculture, trade and commerce, urban and rural environments, roads, rivers, and other byways, and pilgrimage and ritual networks? This “landscape turn” has been accompanied by a growing awareness of the need to extend the evidentiary base beyond inscriptions and monumental architecture, the staple of architectural histories of pre-modern India, and an appeal for cross-disciplinary research. Analysis has expanded to include structures once overlooked or considered peripheral: water monuments such as step wells, reservoirs, and baolis, gateway buildings, fortifications, processional and festival structures, and rock reliefs, to name just a few types. Collaborations are being forged among practitioners of disciplines that have tended to remain segregated. A noteworthy example is the inter-disciplinary research of historian Richard Eaton and art historian Phillip Wagoner [Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014)]. Such partnerships also bring together linguistic domains that have long been segregated (in this case, Persian and Sanskrit), and in so doing further expand the source field. And new methods are being added to the scholarly arsenal to enable the charting of sacred landscapes in a variety of ways: these include satellite mapping techniques such as ArcGIS; phenomenological approaches that consider the spatial orientations and distributions of the built environment and the experience of sacred landscapes; as well as literary and discursive treatments of landscapes and landscape cultures (Daud Ali and Emma Flatt, eds. Garden and Landscape Practices in Precolonial India: Histories from the Deccan (Delhi: Routledge, 2011) charts some of these recent developments). Indicative of this growing interest in the landscape histories of South Asia is a colloquium organized at Dumbarton Oaks in Fall 2014 to stimulate conversations between architectural historians of premodern South Asia and colleagues in landscape studies. It is through such endeavors that we can push the boundaries of the discipline and begin writing histories of place that integrate built worlds and the natural worlds that situate and sustain them.

A final word on Pattadakal. It was only by thinking about Pattadakal’s location on a northern bend of the Malaprabha River that I came to view the temples, not as discrete entities with separate lives and biographies, but rather as an aggregation, as a “temple cluster,” an analytical category that reflects the distribution, disposition, and orientation of the buildings and, importantly, the decisions of builders, patrons, and worship communities to integrate each new commission into a thriving, living sacred landscape. Indeed, the organization of sacred landscapes across the Deccan—around reservoirs fed by natural springs, at confluences of rivers, carved into cliff faces, and situated in valleys irrigated by streams and waterfalls – suggests the primacy, and sacrality, of place in the production of sacred spaces.

Subhashini Kaligotla
Art History & Archaeology
Columbia University

Image: Badami, Karnataka, Malegitti Sivalaya Temple. Photo: Caleb Smith.

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