When asked to imagine an example of renowned temple architecture or cave art, the lay Indian, in his or her mindís eye, is most likely to conjure up a vision of Khajuraho or Ajanta-Ellora. Their Unesco heritage status notwithstanding, Badami, Mahakuta, Aihole and Pattadakal are unlikely to figure in the collective consciousness. These seats of an ancient dynasty form the main sites for George Michellís extensive research, the fruit of which is the elegantly produced TEMPLE ARCHITECTURE AND ART OF THE EARLY CHALUKYAS (Niyogi, Rs 2,500). Michellís impressive work, embellished with nearly 200 photographs taken by Surendra Kumar, on the architectural wonders created by a dynasty of consummate builders, would, hopefully, turn the attention of both the researcher and the layman to the treasure trove located in central Karnataka.
For the historian and the student of architecture, the attractions of these temples are manifold. Even though they predate other, more celebrated, creations ó the forts and mosques built by the Mughals, for instance ó Early Chalukya architecture has survived in a relatively complete condition, augmenting the possibility of further research. More important, the rulers were great exponents of a syncretic culture that is manifest in the diverse architectural styles. The juxtaposition of the distinct Dravida and Nagara traditions added to the beauty and the complexity of these monuments.
This diversity must have made the authorís research all the more daunting. This is because the region is replete with edifices in which specific architectural styles and designs have intermingled freely, making the task of classification challenging. The shortage of reliable historical data on patrons and architects also makes the chronological arrangement of these relics difficult.
Undaunted, Michell has gone about presenting his findings in a lucid and illuminating manner. The opening chapter provides short excerpts of the major Early Chalukya monarchs, helping the readers gain glimpses of their major achievements, architectural or otherwise. But it is Michellís detailing of the surviving temples in Badami and the other sites that is truly astonishing. Several drawings of measurements have been reproduced from Michellís doctoral thesis to demonstrate the intricate and captivating designs that have been examined. Left depicts the central aisle of the Virupaksha temple mandapa, while the photograph on the right portrays the ornate carvings in the Durga temple in Aihole.
Apart from offering rare insights into a lost tradition of heightened aesthetics, Michell also forces readers to ponder the relative anonymity of the Early Chalukyas and their creations. Is this the result of the prejudices that afflict the teaching of history? Devious proposals to re-write text books may not be the only way of influencing the way we look at the past.