In my middle school history book, a line appeared in a chapter on Harshavardhana of Kannauj’s Chakravarti ambitions. On his way across the Vindhyas, Harsha met a name that stepped out of the shadows and, after routing him, stepped right back. That was my introduction to Pulakeshin II. Copper plate record of land grant by Pulakeshin II circa 613 CE.

The everlasting renown of the Chalukyas mainly rests on the broad shoulders of their most famous son, Pulakeshin, The Great Lion, and his vicissitudes.

One advantage of ancient history being taught so mind-numbingly in our schools is the thrill of self-discovery and sorting its tangled threads. So on a juicy, cold day, I set out to visit the capital of The Great Lion. Along the road to the Dandeli forest reserve lay spectacular vistas, gaily painted temples, and folk in their best clothes anticipating Ganapati’s earthly visit. Since it was close to Ganeshotsav, temples in the forest had been brightly decorated and Prasad was being distributed.

Slowly the landscape changed from lush green to dark, bare earth. Shivaji Maharaj and Hanuman flags made way for Basava iconography. We were entering north Karnataka, along with brightly decorated bullocks and ploughs, into the territory of the famous Sangolli Rayanna.

During the 16th-19th CE, all over India, warriors had been rising to fight the mendacity of the invaders. Rayanna, the seven foot tall hero of Belagavi, was the right hand of Kittur’s Warrior Queen Rani Chennamma, and led a Maharana Pratap style guerilla campaign against the British. Betrayed, as all true Indian heroes always are, he was hanged at Dori (below) but his legend lives on.

Small Shiva shrines built under banyan trees, dot the landscape.
At their peak, the Chalukyas ruled over a vast empire from the Narmada to the Kaveri.

This was an incredible time for peninsular India – ambitious young men were founding dynasties on the ruins of others.

These young men weren’t content with being fierce and gallant warriors. Aspiring kings had to be patrons, if not practitioners, of art and most were poets, musicians and artists. When Pulakeshin assumed the title Dakshinapatheshwar after defeating Harsha, there would’ve been aesthetic expectations of him.

Nothing prepares you for what nature and ambitious, artistic royalty lays out in Vatapi, sprawling against the Agastya Teertha tank, flanked by mountains which gush waterfalls in the rainy season.

As soon as I saw the first set of temples by the Ghats, it struck me forcefully that they weren’t whole but patched together. A newly-wed woman emerged and over her shoulder told her husband it was all the same. So I went in and I cried. I cried. And I cried.

Everyone stood quietly while I tried to process the grief. If you have a vivid imagination, ancient places in India are a feast. Vatapi’s oldest monuments go back to the 6th-7th CE, and are staggeringly ancient! As your foot touches the first stone step, you can see in your mind’s eye The Great Lion in soft white clothes, damp from a quick dip in the tank, bounding up vigorously for the day’s pooja. Set within the slivers of rocks are views of the entire domain of the king in its almond splendour.

All Hindu temples are built to blend in, yet enhance their surroundings.  Alas, no account prepares you for how things are now. You have to see it, in all its arrogance and disfiguring, triumphant presence, to feel exactly how it was intended. Conquered.

Crowning the Vatapi caves is the fort of Tipu Sultan, the tyrant of Mysore.

As I descended the steps, turgid with emotion, our guide asked me if I‘d been bored. We stood under a sprawling tree, surrounded by the cry calling the Faithful to prayer. Pigeons took flight against the emerald green waters of the tank. Monkeys chattered, people cracked open peanut shells. Life had changed yet remained the same. People would come to the capital to attend fairs, catch a glimpse of the handsome king as he went about his daily weapons practice, probably see the ornaments of his queens and assess the fashion of the day. As had these folk, as had I.

The Vatapi caves have to be seen to be believed. But the true jewel in the Chalukyan crown is the most beautiful city I have ever seen – Paṭṭadakal.

The Malaprabha river (meaning full of mud) bears the weight of three Chalukya cities and on its banks grows enough grain to feed a hungry young dynasty.

In his last years, The Great Lion was beset by impatient young scions of rival power centres. In the Battle of Vatapi, Narasimhavarman, the Pallava king who stars in his own romantic tales, felled him. By the time Vikramaditya 1 reclaimed Vatapi from Narasimhavarman *Vatapikonda*, its glory days were over. His heirs began to plan a city by the Malaprabha from where they would govern, pray and host festivities for grateful subjects.

Paṭṭadakal, known at times as Raktapura, Pattashilapura, Paṭṭada Kisuvolalu (and Petrigal to Ptolemy), unfurls before your eyes like a flag.

The Chalukyas had seen tremendous upheavals in their fortunes in four generations. So when they built to stay, they built to impress; aided by the glowy, painterly quality of their monuments against the azure sky and surrounding jewel green fields.

Carvings with intricate details on this vast a scale, inform one of royal wealth and sophistication.

The VIctory Pillar in Hale Gannada script, circa 8CE

Around the complex’s edge, I realised that I had stumbled upon a graveyard. Reconstructed shikhars and headless Gods stared back with sightless eyes. Several shrines had the stench of urine, bat droppings, seepage, and a deliberate, ruinous emptiness within.

Closer by the river, I sighted an eerily familiar vista, like a connector tissue between regions.(Paṭṭadakal || Naimisharanya)

Its a source of eternal wonder to me how, even as our physical heritage seems to be falling apart for neglect, these intangibles keep us together, with unspoken but visible symbolic homogeneity.

Another example – Hanuman in a stance I’d first seen at Hampi.

Leftward from the Malaprabha, a path designed for women in fluttering silks to sway on, leads to exquisite views from the Papanatha temple.

Entering it however, is another story. Like this black stone bull, with lovingly detailed accoutrements and glossy hide. A sculptural marvel of such antiquity.

(Tho this didn’t keep kids back from lovingly embracing these brutalized remains)

One temple was open for pooja and gently recreated an atmosphere conducive for a living god and weary worshippers.

Then, as if to reward heartsick voyagers passing through, a live, frantically adored Nandi appeared; a joyous, brilliant contrast, and complement, to the striated stone. As I took pictures, bhakt after bhakt came and poured handfuls of flowers at His feet.

Is it because of Vikramaditya II’s Kalachuri and Haihaya wives (whose emblem was the Suvarna Vrishabha or Golden Bull) that bulls were everywhere? En route, I spotted small Nandi shrines with Chalukyan era figurines, probably rescued from temple debris. All brought the Golden Bull back to the people.

Land binds Hindus in unique ways. It gives them their names. It gives them their purpose. Its rivers feed and keep them. Its stones form their landscape and the rubble of their seemingly invincible cities, their ambitions to conquer and bring it under one rule.

The Chalukyas said they were born of a chaluk, Sanskrit for hand folded to hold water. Still others said they were named after the chalki, an iron rod they used to till their land, possibly Ayodhya. It established their connection with an agrarian society in the nebulous past of which they may have been headmen. Whatever their origin, their fame, wealth, prestige, and the power of their Karnata Bala army sat lightest when the kings were in touch with land.

Pictures & Writer : @TheSignOfFive


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