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The Chalukyas of Badami: In Conversation with Hemanth Kadambi

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Dr Hemanth Kadambi, an archaeologist and historian of ancient and early medieval India, discusses the archaeological understandings of the built environment of the Early Chalukyas.



Ajeya Vajpayee: Tell us briefly about your work on Aihoḷe and nearby Chalukyan sites and your findings—especially the result of your archaeological survey at Aihoḷe.



Hemanth Kadambi:  Hello, my name is Hemanth Kadambi. I am an archaeologist and historian of ancient and medieval India. My major work, for which I earned a doctorate in Anthropological Archaeology from the University of Michigan, USA, is to do with the early medieval polity of the Early Chalukyas or the Badami Chalukyas.


I initiated a systematic archaeological survey project at the Early Chalukya center of Aihole in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka. The aim of this project was three-fold. One, it was to expand the scope of the known history for the Early Chalukyas for the last 100 years or so which was based mainly on epigraphic, and art historical research, and limited archaeological investigations. Secondly, I aimed to raise significant anthropological questions from within Chalukya history (that which was known and that which was documented by me) which may shift the focus from themes that have long been the focus for early medieval historians of South Asia: the nature of urban society, or lack thereof, organization of the state (variously characterized as feudal, decentralized, diffuse polities, etc). The third aim of my project was to look beyond epigraphic studies and textual histories to generate an archaeological source for addressing historical and anthropological questions.


I adopted a methodology that was explicitly inter-disciplinary, drawing from anthropology, history and art history, in the main, and investigating these sources dialogically. In other words, these sources are not simply independent ways of corroborating information as much as, when worked with together, can bring forth unique and nuanced understandings of particular questions. I raised the following questions about the Early Chalukyas: what was the relationship of the Early Chalukya period built environment to their past landscapes and its constructions, mainly Iron Age and Early Historic megalithic monuments? What was the nature of the settlement at Aihole beyond its more than 100 standing stone temples (only 36 of which were constructed during the period of the Early Chalukyas)? What status differentiation, if any, was forthcoming from the analyses of artefacts and the use of space? And finally, and perhaps most significantly, my doctoral dissertation in particular and subsequent research has been an inquiry of the religious affiliations among elites and non-elites as portrayed within the built environment at Aihole in particular but also in the larger Malaprabha valley region.


Before I speak of my results I would like to say something about the design of my doctoral dissertation project. In order to undertake the investigation into the questions outlined above I decided to conduct a systematic archaeological survey at Aihole. This site was chosen, in part because it has some of the earliest constructions of the Early Chalukyas, alongside earlier and later constructions, providing a longer time span of the built environment for my investigations, and secondly, Aihole is a modern village with vast tracts of agricultural lands surrounding the village, which afforded a convenient site for undertaking systematic field-walks. Three-four individuals walked transects in cardinal directions documenting all artefacts of archaeological significance such as fragments of pottery, stone tools, tile and brick fragments, iron slag (residue of the smelting process), etc. We also documented any architectural fragments, ruined architecture, small shrines (typically under trees), and any evidence of water retention features or other types of architectural modifications in the Aihole landscape.


As a result of these systematic field walks, collections and mapping, the project yielded over 850 ‘sites’ in only a 5 sq. km zone. Although a small area, it is a fairly representative sample of the larger earmarked survey area of 25 sq. km around Aihole. More than 90 per cent of the sites are pottery finds with a few but significant sites with architecture. such as previously undocumented megalithic structures, a couple of memorial stone sites, some ruined architecture (both stone and brick), being the other major finds.


Analyses of the pottery was multi-fold: I first categorized pottery fragments by color/texture/design (ware class), and shape (jars or bowls) in order to understand at a basic level manufacturing technique of the vessels, in addition to the possible utility of these vessels: cooking, serving and storage. This level of analysis of the smaller subset of the sample of pottery collected suggests that most of the pottery was relatively easily manufactured using locally available materials and was plain, almost mundane looking with minimal decorations. Indeed this pottery is very similar to pottery documented at hundreds of sites of a similar period from across Karnataka and beyond in India. Most of the pottery I analyzed functionally fall in to the relatively crude functional classification of cooking, and/or storage vessels rather than serving vessels.


Beyond the level of analyses of pottery in this manner I also undertook a spatial classification of the ratio of jars to bowls (the crude proxy for vessel function) across the surveyed area of Aihole. This exercise revealed that there are minor variations in the presence of jars and bowls across the surveyed area, suggesting the relative variations in the functions of pottery in various parts of the site. Much more work needs to be done in order to sustain this observation but as a first step, this is a significant result which provides a unique opportunity to understand the nature of activity going on at Aihole in the mid-first millennium CE.


A.V.: What can you tell about the landscape, architecture and religious affiliation of the Chalukyan temples at Aihoḷe and nearby Chalukyan sites?


H.K: Aihole has long been recognized as a ‘cradle of Indian temple architecture’ by art historians and historians for the last century or so. This is mainly due to the presence of not just a number of Early Chalukya stone temples, many of which still stand today, but also because this site has a progression of all identified ‘stages’ in the evolution of early Chalukya architecture (Cousens, Soundararajan, Rajashekhara, Gupte, Tarr, Michell, Radcliffe-Bolon). Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that the history of the landscapes of the early Chalukyas in general and Aihole in particular is the history of their art and architecture. Similarly, the more than 150 inscriptions of the Early Chalukya ruling house in the form of stone tablets or pillars in and around temples and copper-plate inscriptions, has been the source of historical knowledge of the early Chalukyas.



Hence, while there is very good information accumulated over the decades for this ruling house, the nature of this knowledge ironically fails to provide a dynamic picture to the period of the Early Chalukyas. For instance, we know the religious affiliations of the Early Chalukya kings and queens varied because we learn that from their inscriptions; we also know that they patronized religious communities and places other than their own personal religious preferences. However, we are less certain of the relationship and the impact of all these variations within the royal household or in the relationship between royalty and non-royalty. Crucially, there is very little that we know of the nature of non-elite engagement with religion per se and their engagement, or lack thereof with the religious preferences of the elites.


My research has been able to make significant contributions to these questions.


A.V.: Besides Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina shrines, did you come across temples dedicated to local or relatively lesser-known deities? Elaborate.


H.K.: Perhaps the best-known aspect of the Early Chalukya rulers is their engagement with religion. As mentioned previously much of this is known from both their inscriptions and their architecture and iconography. The scholarship with regards to this is both diverse and nuanced and still forms the major focus of research. Accordingly, we have good evidence for the worship of deities within the Puranic Hindu pantheon, Jain and Buddhist faiths as well. This much is also known from research into contemporaries of the Chalukya such as the Pallavas, Gangas, and other minor dynasties in the Karnataka, Andhra/Telengana and Maharashtra regions.


What is less known is what religious and sacred contexts other than the ones just mentioned may have existed. Did non-elites prescribe to the religious precepts of the royalty or other elites? We know that merchants had their own deities who may have also been patronized by Chalukya royalty but did non-elites groups such as agriculturalists, and pastoralists also participate in the same sacred spheres as royalty or merchants? My research and documentation of the Early Chalukya landscape has suggested that non-elites, and pastoralists in particular, may have had distinct religious preferences but which, significantly, were acknowledged and co-opted by Chalukya royalty. The deity concerned is Lajja Gauri. It is widely known in the existing scholarship that the Chalukyas claimed to be nourished by the seven divine mothers or the saptamatrika. Indeed there are numerous temples enshrining Saptamatrika in the Early Chalukya realm. Sculptural representations of Lajja Gauri are also clearly attested to this period from numerous sites in the Malaprabha valley and beyond. However, the worship or religious status of this goddess is not known from either the main temples of the Chalukyas or from their inscriptions.



My investigation was able to resolve this apparent lacuna when I investigated this issue bringing together a dialogical understanding of pastoral ethnography, epigraphy and archaeological investigations of the Early Chalukya landscapes. To state it briefly, mythology of present-day North Karnataka/Maharashtra pastoral communities recall the goddess called the ‘mother of seven’ or Yellamma. Yellamma is a well-known deity all over the Deccan with a significant site of annual pilgrimage in Belgaum district, 100 km west of Badami, the erstwhile Early Chalukya capital in North Karnataka. Yellama is worshipped mostly by pastoral groups but also agricultural groups who congregate at this temple at Saundatti from all over the Deccan. Badami’s sandstone cliffs reckon the narrative imagery of the Yellamma legend of pastoralists in her fight against Kala Bhairav.



Moreover, Badami is also the site of a 11th-century temple to Yellamma, attesting to the strong presence of pastoral groups in the region. It isn’t too much of a stretch to see Yellamma and Saptamatrika as corresponding deities in the Puranic and non-Puranic realms. In addition, Puranic mythology relating to the episode of Parashurama beheading his mother Aditi or Renuka, the mother of all the gods, who was brought back to life but without her head, provides a neat parallel to the iconographic depiction of Lajja Gauri. Lajja Gauri images and sculptures in the Early Chalukya realm are typically portrayed headless, the head replaced with a giant flower such as a lotus. The birth giving posture of the female deity and record of her worship suggests that she was a fertility goddess. Internal evidence from Chalukya architecture suggests an emphasis on fertility worship as well.



The above investigation thus has been able to present a nuanced and dynamic picture of the sacred landscape of the Early Chalukyas and the various peoples who lived in the Malaprabha valley during the mid-first millennium CE.