Lakkundi: Hallelujah in Stone

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    Lakkundi is no more than a quiet hamlet in Gadag district of Karnataka, but stand on the edge of the village and prepare to be blown away. In one single breathtaking sweep, you encounter magnificent temples that tell of a grand, bygone era.

    Scattered inside the town inside its narrow lanes standing fairly close to each other are – hold your breath – 20 exquisite temples, several step wells and 80 inscriptions that go back to when Lakkundi was one of the most important centres of the Western Chalukyas or the Chalukyas of Kalyani. The dynasty, known to be great temple builders, ruled the Deccan and a large part of Southern India between the 10th and 12th century CE.

    At various points in time, Lakkundi fell under as many as four medieval dynasties – the Western Chalukyas, Kalachuris (12th century CE), Seunas (Yadavas of Devagiri – 12th to 14th century CE) and Hoysalas (10th to 14th century CE) but the temples here reflect the architecture mainly of the Western Chalukyas, whose capital was at Kalyani (present-day Basavakalyan in Karnataka).

    Lakkundi is located 12 km south-east of Gadag town on the Hubli-Hospet highway (NH -63) but it gets few visitors, not because it is difficult to access but because it is eclipsed by its world-famous neighbour, Hampi, situated around 100 km away.

    Although all the temples are replete with the most mind-blowing carvings, the town’s biggest attraction is the Brahma Jinalaya, a Jain temple built by a devout Jain widow of a General of the Chalukyas.

    Ancient History of Lakkundi

    The Gadag region of Karnataka has a history that goes back to ancient times and even finds mention in Hindu epics like the Mahabharata. The District Gazetteer of Dharwad (1995) mentions that Gadag was earlier known as ‘Krutapura’. This is where Janmejaya, an ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas, is believed to have performed yagna or sacrifice. Janmejaya is also credited with forming the Maha-Agrahara (notable place of learning) administered by 72 mahajanas (important persons).

    Similarly, the District Census Handbook of Dharwad (1981) mentions that “the Lakkundi of Gadag taluka is, for instance, identified with the place described in ancient records as ‘Sri Dasharathi Vinirmita Mahagrama’ (great village founded by Sri Rama) and as ‘Rama-Rathi Agrahara’.”

    Lakkundi was earlier known as ‘Lokki-gundi’ or ‘Loku-gundi’ as mentioned in several inscriptions found at the site. The earliest inscriptions are from the era of the Kalyani Chalukyas, a collateral branch of the early Chalukyas of Vatapi, and who rose to power in 973 CE to rule Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

    The rise of the Kalyani Chalukyas began after the decline of the Rashtrakutas. The earliest ruler of the Kalyani Chalukyas was Taila II or Tailapa II (973 -997 CE), a feudatory of the Rashtrakutas. Later, the great Hoysala King, Vira Ballala II, took control of the region in 1191 CE and made Lakkundi his capital.

    From the many inscriptions found at Lakkundi, it is understood that there was a royal mint at the site, during the rule of the Kalyani Chalukyas. This means that Lakkundi was an important financial centre during the Chalukya period. The numerous officials of the court and wealthy merchants patronised a number of religious establishments in the town, which is evident from some of the prominent temples located at Lakkundi.

    The Temples of Lakkundi

    The temple art of Lakkundi reached its zenith during the 11th and 12th century CE and exhibits the unique Vesara style of architecture, which is a combination of the Nagara style (North Indian) and Dravidian style (South Indian). The temples here are built from greenish-blue chloritic schist or soapstone and mark the transition from the use of sandstone to soapstone.

    Other features of Vesara architecture are a stellate (star-shaped) floor plan; a plinth or large platform with decorative elements; the use of pilasters on the outer walls of the temples; ornamented lathe-turned pillars in the interiors; and highly ornamented door frames and ceilings.

    Many of the temples boast Kirtimukha sculptures in a wide variety of styles on the vimana (conical tower above the sanctum) and walls of the temples. A Kirtimukha or ‘Face of Glory’ is a ‘fierce monster-face with huge fangs, and gaping mouth’ and has different meanings in the Hindu epics and in the Shaivite tradition. Interestingly, even Jain temples feature a Kirtimukha at Lakkundi.

    The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) lists only 11 temples and one step well under its jurisdiction. These are: Kashi Vishveshwara, Brahma Jinalaya, Nanneshwara, Kumbareshwara, Mallikarjuna, Virupaksha, Laxmi Narayana, Virbhadraveshwara, Nagannatha, Manikeshwara and Muskukina Bavi (step well) and a small Jain temple.

    Brahma Jinalaya Temple

    Dated to 1007 CE, this is the oldest temple in Lakkundi and is considered one of the finest examples of Jain religious architecture in South India. It was built by Dana Chintamani Attimabbe, daughter of Mallapa of Kalyani, a feudatory of Chalukyan ruler Tailapa II, and wife of the commander-in-chief of the Chalukyan army, Nagadeva. After her husband’s death, she devoted herself to the Jain religion and is said to have built around 1,500 Jain shrines across the kingdom, including this temple at Lakkundi. Noted 10th century CE Kannada poet Ranna, in his text Ajithapurana, wrote glowingly of her and her philanthropy.

    A small flight of stairs takes you to the rather well-maintained temple. It has a sanctum, an ante-chamber with a closed hall, and an open, main hall with a pitched roof. This main hall or mukhamandapam has 32 bell-shaped pillars whose horizontals are extremely well polished and are truly marvels of Indian temple architecture. The tower (vimana) above the sanctum (garbhagriha) has been built in Dravidian-style architecture.

    The walls on either side of the entrance to the sanctum have exquisitely carved sculptures. On one side of the wall is the statue of a four-headed Brahma (the name ‘Brahma Jinalaya’ is probably derived from it) in a standing posture and on the other side of the wall is Yakshi Padmavati in a sitting posture.

    A yakshi is a female earth spirit and a symbol of fertility in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths. However, Henry Cousens (Superintendent of the ASI, Western Circle) describes the female sculpture in his book The Chalukyan Architecture of Kanarese districts as Saraswati.

    The sanctum of the temple has a plaque of Mahavira in a sitting posture on the lintel of the entrance door, which also has decorative elements.

    The deity in the sanctum of the temple is a black, stone Jain deity of Neminatha flanked by a yaksha and a yakshi. This is an active temple and regular worship of the deity is performed here. There is a small alloy-built golden miniature idol replicating the main deity, which is primarily worshipped instead of the main deity. Interestingly, the original deity was that of Mahavira, whose headless statue is now outside the Brahma Jinalaya and in front of another adjacent temple.

    Other than the Brahma Jinalaya temple, the two other temples that are a must-visit at Lakkundi are the Kashi Vishveshwara temple and the Nanneshwara temple. These are standing facing each other, on either side of a lane about 500 metres from the Brahma Jinalaya temple. Both these temples are standing on a jagati or a raised platform.

    Nanneshwara Temple

    This temple has an open, pillared mandapa (hall) like the Brahma Jinalaya temple but it has a flat roof. The vimana is smaller too. The temple has a decorated door jamb on its eastern entrance. The exterior wall of the temple is decorated with pilasters and devakosthas or small temples. Above one of them is a huge Kirtimukha motif.

    Kashi Vishveshwara Temple

    This temple is actually one of a pair of twin temples, the other being the Suryanarayana temple. In a rare instance, the Surya shrine faces west, not east. It is not an isolated case in temple architecture of India. Martand Sun Temple in Kashmir also faces west. The shrine facing east is dedicated to Kashi Vishveshwara and houses a 3-foot Shiva Lingam.

    The external walls of the Kashi Vishveshwara Temple have an extremely interesting set of plaques. One can easily identify Shiva slaying Gajasura, Ravana battling Indra, Bhim and Arjun fighting with Bhagadatta on an elephant, and Ravana lifting Mount Kailash.

    Just over the lintel of the southern doorway featuring a Gajalaksmi, there are three small figurines. Experts believe these are the remaining figurines of ekadasha (eleven) rudras or dvadasa (twelve) adityas.

    Both the door jambs of the eastern and southern doorway are richly decorated. The lintel of the garbhagriha features Shiva with Parvati, with Brahma and Vishnu on either side. The finial and the capping structure (Amlaka and Kalasa) of the tower of the temple are missing.

    Suryanarayana Temple

    This temple has no deity at present. Above its lintel is a figurine of Surya riding his chariot in his top boots with seven steeds below him flanked by two female chauri bearers. At the two extreme ends are identical figures of women with bows in hand. Henry Cousens identifies them as wives of Surya – Sangna and Chhaya.

    Nagannatha Temple

    Although known as Nagannatha temple, experts say this shrine was dedicated to Parsvanatha Tirthankar. The sanctum houses a pedestal depicting seven hoods of a snake flanked by two chauri bearers. A Shiva Lingam is present as the deity. The garbhagriha has Parsvanatha on its lintel.

    Manikeshwara Temple

    This Trikutachala-style temple, dated to the 12th century CE, is so-called as it is a three celled structure, with the three sanctums or shrines connected by a vestibule or a common Hall. This temple is devoid of any tower at present. The door jambs are decorated and there is jali work (perforated stonework with ornamental pattern) on the walls. Another Trikutachala-style temple at Lakkundi is the 11th-century Kumbareshwara Temple (cover image).

    Muskukina Bavi

    This is one of the numerous step wells at Lakkundi and is located adjacent to the Manikeshwara temple. Built in the 11th century CE, the step well has a flight of stairs leading to the water on the southern, eastern and western sides. There is a double-storey mandapa over the flight of stairs on the southern side

    If you’re short on time, one day is enough to take in the highlights of Lakkundi, which can be clubbed with a visit to Hampi. But pause a little longer if you want to truly reflect on how one of the great southern dynasties turned a rich artistic tradition into a hallelujah in stone.


    Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of India for travel magazines and publications.

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