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Creating Religious Identity: The Archaeology of Early Temples in the Malaprabha Valley

Shivdasani Conference 2007
Dr Himanshu Prabha Ray
Saturday, 20 October 2007 - 3:15pm

Session 2 of the 2007 Shivdasani Conference.

The spectacular temple complexes of Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal located along the 25 kilometre long fertile valley of the Malaprabha river, (a tributary of the Krishna) in Bagalkot district have long been admired for their distinctive Karn Dravida architectural tradition and sculptural exuberance. It was along the Malaprabha river in north Karnataka that Pulakesi I established his capital at Vatapi or present Badami and built a fort on top of the sandstone cliff in c. 543 A.D. Thus the attempt by the early Chalukya rulers to establish a base in the fertile Malaprabha valley is undeniable. It is also evident that in the 7th-8th centuries AD, the Malaprabha valley acquired an identity that has continued to mould the lives of the communities both within and outside it. This identity included the demarcation of a territorial boundary within the enclosed terrain of the valley, adoption of a new mode of worship in the temple, the use of the Kannada language on coins and inscriptions and assumption of a sculptural programme based on the Epics and the Puranas.
The larger issue that this paper raises is the disjuncture in the study of the past as a result of colonial intervention. In the colonial period, many of the standing temple structures came to be studied in terms of style, architecture and sculpture, the emphasis being on chronology and political patronage. This not only altered our understanding of the structures from being abodes of god to objects of artistic appreciation, but it also redefined the nature of Indic religions. Religion came to be understood in terms of doctrine, which could only be comprehended through the texts rather than through practices and rituals.  Once we shift the meaning of religion to its pre-Christian etymology, it is understood in terms of performing ancient ritual practices and paying homage to the gods. In keeping with this I suggest that pan-Indian religious and cultural practices, rituals and imagery formed the substratum of a self-perception and identity long before the Arab or European discovery of the term ‘Hindu’ in 14th-15th centuries AD and a judicious use of archaeological data provides evidence to unearth this identity.