A drive through sleepy hamlets, lush green fields and the village of Aihole (pronounced I-ho-lay), brought us to another heritage temple site dating from around the 5th century.
Known as Aryapura in ancient times, Aihole occupies a unique place in the history of temple architecture in India. It was the site for experimenting with different temple-building styles by the early Chalukyan kings from AD 450 to 750. This experimentation began in Aihole, continued at Badami and finally culminated at Pattadakal. Our guide told us that the ruins of a temple, probably dating back to pre-Chalukyan times, had been recently excavated in Aihole. The present-day village settlement and agricultural lands were coming in the way of a full-scale excavation.
There are around 120 temples of varying styles and sizes in Aihole (all built from the same local red sandstone). I tried to imagine 120 temples, each with a unique architecture and failed. But I could imagine the whole area being turned into an architectural laboratory or a workshop, with architects and sculptors being invited over and given a site for constructing a temple. Just imagining the creative buzz in the area was enough to give me a high! Unfortunately, our group had the time to visit only one site, which had about 4 temples of such varying styles that it was astonishing and gave a glimpse into the kind of experimenting that was promoted and encouraged.
The first time I heard about Badami was in my undergraduate Geology class nearly 20 years back. It was a class on the Geological Time Scale and we were being shown slides from various parts of India and the world as examples of different geological time periods. I still remember the Badami slide from that class—the sheer red sandstone cliffs, silhouetted against a deep blue sky. It was love at first sight.
At that time I had absolutely no idea that Badami was also the location of rock-cut cave-temples dating from the 6th century. I got to know about this only a couple of years back, when one of my brothers visited the cave-temples of Badami and shared his photographs. Now, it was love at second sight!
When the opportunity to visit Badami, along with other heritage places in North Karnataka, as part of an organised tour group came up, I grabbed it with both hands. I applied for leave from work a full month in advance, juggled deadlines, prayed hard, etc., etc.
Bijapur was our first halt and after an overnight stay in that town, we left early next morning for Badami, with a short halt at the Almatti Dam Gardens. By noon, the red sandstone cliffs of Badami appeared in the horizon. There is an interesting reason as to how Badami got its name. Someone in the historical or mythological past, and I don’t know who, felt that the red stones were the colour of badam or almonds. And hence, the name!