Aihole (pronounced as ai-ho-ḷé ), the erstwhile temple town of the Chalukya Empire, is located in the greater Krishna River Basin (particularly, in the valley of Mālaprabha River, a tributary of Krishna). This is the only place where the structure of an ancient Buddhist Monastery is still intact within Karnataka. (Two monastic structures in Southern Karnataka were excavated and covered back later. But, those had only the basement and not the whole structure intact). Interestingly, to the north of the Krishna basin, in the Godavari River basin, Buddhism arrived right in the Buddha’s time itself through the disciples of the sage Bāvari (Ref: Sutta-nipatta). So, a pre-Ashokan presence of Buddhism in Krishna-basin also cannot be ruled out. Another mystery that surrounds Aihole is that it may hold the clue to the circumstances leading to the decline of Buddhism during the later Chalukya reign.
Now a small hamlet surrounded by yellowish-red sand-stone hillocks, Aihole is only 18km from the Chalukya capital Badami (Vatapi). Some historians also claim that Aihole would have been the Chalukya capital before they moved to Badami. Aihole was earlier known by various names like Ayyavole or Aryapura which indicates a strong connection to Buddhism in Aihole. The earliest of archeological remains in Aihole are Buddhist, though Shaivism and Jainism flourished at the later period.
The famous Buddhist rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora also fell under the Chalukya rule at some point. Some of the Shaivite caves of Ellora (and probably some Buddhist too) were constructed during the Chalukya rule. Due to this connection and inspiration, architectural and iconographic resemblance with Ajanta and Ellora can be seen in temples of all sects in Aihole and Badami. Around 120 stone and cave temples dot the landscape of Aihole. The structures range from the 4th Century CE to 12th Century CE. The variety of structures and architectural styles show that a great deal of experimentation in temple construction.
The following are the salient findings from Aihole with some importance in tracing the history of Buddhism in ancient Karnataka.
Buddhist Chaitya and Vihara at Meguti Hill
Overlooking the Aihole Valley, on the slope of Meguti Hill, is a modest Buddhist Temple (Chaitya and Vihara) from the 5th century CE. It is a two-storey structure. A beautiful carving of the Buddha is still present on the ceiling of the upper floor. The Buddha’s right-hand shows vitarka mudra (gesture of teaching) and the left-hand is in dhyana-mudra (gesture of meditation). He is seated on a lotus, with a prabha behind his head and there is a three-layered chatra (royal canopy) above his head indicating a distinctive Mahayana style. On the doorframes to the inner sanctum are the depictions of various incidents from the life of the Buddha. Those include Buddha leaving Kapilavastu, the first turning of the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath, the Buddha taming the elephant Nalagiri, Devadatta trying to roll a stone over the Buddha, etc. There are also depictions from various jatakas (stories from his past lives), such as Cullahamsa Jataka, Aramadusaka Jataka, Valahassa Jataka, Surapana Jataka, Vessantara Jataka, etc.
The main shrine rooms are now empty. A headless Buddha statue ( ~ 3ft in height) lies abandoned just in front of the building. It is left in a careless condition without either moving it back to the building or to the museum. (The Buddhist and Jain monuments on Meguti Hill are in an ignored state unlike other archeological monuments of Aihole Valley.) Another Buddha statue from this place is now kept in the Aihole Museum. There are also two possible Bodhisattva statues in Aihole museum which are probably from here.
There is also an inscription on the pillar of the lower storey that mentions about one Bhikshu Mahendra, a disciple of Ananda Stavira (Ananda Thera) belonging to the Pindavadi school of Buddhism.
Buddha and Bodhisattva statues at Aihole Museum
State Archeology Museum at Aihole Archeological Site has some artifacts revealing the presence and spread of Buddhism in Aihole. one Buddha statue and a Buddha relief. The statue is said to be from the monastery building of Meguti Hill. The relief is supposedly from a nearby village. There is a big statue, seated on a pedestal with the legs down (in bhadra-asana resembling the Maitreya statues and the Buddha statues of Ellora caves and Aurangabad caves), but its upper torso and head are lost. This is probably another Buddha statue. However, there are two other statues seated in a similar way, also without the torso, and those have a slightly tantric iconography. Since Vajrayana forms usually do not appear in bhadra-asana, it remains difficult to make a clear inference.
There are also two standing statues in a broken condition, one of which may be identified as Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Padmapani) and the other as Tara. This could not be researched further due to the absence of information about the original location of these statues. Unfortunately, the staff at the site museum did not have those details.
The Jain Basati above the Buddhist Chaitya at Meguti Hill
Just at the roof-level of the Buddhist Chaitya (5th Century CE), the Meguti Hill opens up as flat ground with a fort. And, right on that plain ground is a Jain Basati. From an inscription on the outer wall, it is clear that it was built in the 7th Century CE. Currently, this is also in an equally dilapidated condition as the Buddhist Chaitya. There is only a single relief of a Tirthankara in sitting posture, flanked by two celestial beings carrying chamara (whisks). The details of the relief are very similar to that of some Buddha statues, including the tree and cushion behind, the prabha around the head, and even an ushnisha-like projection. However, there are no upper robes, from which it is clear that it is the statue of a Jain Tirthankara. Another statue of Yakshi Ambika form this Basati is now kept in the Site Museum at Aihole Archeological Site.
The inscription at the outer wall of the temple is on a black granite stone, unlike the yellowish-red sand-stone used for the rest of the structure. The poetic inscription by Ravikirti starts with a verse of praise to Bhagavan Jinendra and then goes on to an elaborate praise about Pulakeshi II, the reigning Chalukya king. It thanks the king for supporting the Basati. There are two interesting clues on history from this inscription. The first is that the use of the words Bhagavan and Jinendra which were common epithets for the Buddha were also adopted by Jains for Tirthankaras by that timeframe. It may be noted that Jains were earlier known as Nirgrantas and not Jains. The second and more important observation is that the inscription mentions how even the emperor Harshavardhana (Harsha of Kanauj, Vardhana dynasty of North India) failed to defeat Pulakeshi II. This fact is also confirmed in Xuanzang’s travelogues.
Since Harsha was a staunch supporter of Buddhism, it is possible that Pulakeshi II became unsympathetic to Buddhism after the war. Just as how Shashanka (of the Gauda kingdom of Bengal) destroyed Buddhist places in North India including the Bodhi-tree at Bodhgaya, following the war with Harsha, Pulakeshi II also would have turned antagonistic to Buddhism following his war with Harsha. Buddhism declined in the Chalukya kingdom around that period. Pattadakal, another temple town built by the Chalukyas, two generations after Pulakeshi II, does not have any Buddhist structures, but only those of Jainism and the new Hindu syncretism of Pancāyatana system (worshipping Surya, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, and Ganesha). So, the decline of Buddhism in Chalukya may be more due to a political reason than philosophical reason.
The apsidal-structured Temple at Aihole Archeological Site
The main attraction of the Aihole Archeological Site is a temple with apsidal structure, now known as the Durga Temple. An 8th Century inscription says that it is Surya-temple. There is also a relief of Mahisha Mardini. This temple is a statement of the new Hindu theistic syncretism in its making, with Panchāyatana system (worshipping Surya, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, and Ganesha). The ceiling has many elaborate carvings, including a matsya-chakra. The upper foundation of the basement has an inscription of the word ‘JINALAYA’ (meaning, the abode of Jina) in old Kannada script. Jina in Sanskrit was widely used as an epithet of Buddha. In the later period, this also became an epithet for Jain Tirthankaras and many Jain temples are known as Jinalaya. However, since this is a Hindu temple, it is perplexing what this inscription meant. The official guide book of the ‘Department of Archeology Museum and Heritage, Karnataka’ takes this inscription to be a reference to the name of the sculptor. Though Jinalaya is an unusual name for a person, the conclusion is strengthened by the fact that this inscription is only at a corner of the basement, at a place that the sculptors used to sign. He would have taken the name Jinalaya as a person specialized in building Jinalaya (Buddhist or Jain Temple).
The apsidal structure was a common style for many early Buddhist Chaitya-grihas, starting from the 3rd Century BCE. Originally, the relevance of this structure was for the rock-cut cave temples hosting a Stupa. Before the statues of Buddha became prominent, Chaityas were mainly constituted of a Stupa containing the holy relics as the representation of Buddha’s enlightened wisdom. The round side of the structure was used to host the Stupa so that people can circumambulate around it. The elongated side acted as an assembly hall for chanting and meditation. The earliest surviving apsidal structure is seen at Bhaja cave in Pune. Such structures are also present in Karla, Ajanta, and Ellora caves. Though initially, the apsidal structure was for rock-cut Chaityas, later, free-standing apsidal Chaityas also became popular. Examples are the one in Takshasila, Ter temple in Maharashtra, the Chaitya at Bavikonda (Andhra Pradesh), etc. The Rajaghatta excavation of a Mahayana Buddhist Monastery near Bangalore too revealed a chaitya hall with an apsidal structure.
Seen from this context, the most likely scenario is that a sculptor specializing in Buddhist apsidal structures would have been invited to build a new temple for newly emerging syncretic Panchayatana Hindu system.
Buddhism in Aihole flourished during he early period of Chalukya rule. Buddhist art from Ajanta and Ellora, which also fell under the Chalukya rule also influenced the architecture and iconography of other temples. Buddhism in Chalukya Empire faced decline by the 7th-8th Century preiod, probably due to the political climate following the war between Harsha of Kanuj and Pulakeshi II of Chalukya.