In 2005, I visited the temple town of Alampur, located picturesquely on the banks of the Tungabhadra, and famous for its 8th century Chalukya temples. The site is a vast open-air museum of Chalukya architecture and sculpture. In addition to the nine temples (known as the Nava Brahma) on the main site, the monumental Sangamesvara temple is a short walk away, and further along the river is another group of late-Chalukya temples at Papanasanam.
I took an early bus from Hyderabad to a cross-roads just before Kurnool, and then another bus through village roads to Alampur. The Nava Brahma temple complex is a short walk from the small bus stand at Alampur. Most visitors here are pilgrims and head to the Bala Brahma temple, which is still in worship. The other temples are empty and can be explored without getting in the way of worshippers.
In the 7th-8th century, Alampur was an important religious site in the eastern reaches of the Badami Chalukya empire. The temples were built within a large fortified area laid out from north to south, facing east to the Tungabhadra which flows south here, making its west bank auspicious for temple-building. When site was threatened by the 1981 Srisailam project (downstream), an embankment was built here to save the temples.
The Garuda Brahma temple is the southern-most. Its wall-niches once had sculptures of deities but are now empty. Notice however the finely sculpted pediments with chaitya arches. Pierced windows between the niches allow light into the mandapa-hall. In front of the temple is a complete porch with double columns. The tower above still has its amalaka finial as well as its large arched gavaksa projection.
This large temple is the only one currently in worship, as denoted by the gold-plated kalasa finial above the amalaka. The exterior walls of this temple are concealed by a later colonnade but there are some interesting images inside, including large Dvarapalakas, Siva-Parvati, Ganesa, and a set of Sapta-Matrikas. The sanctuary entrance is flanked by unusual images of Chamunda.
The Swarga Brahma Temple (known to have been built by a local feudatory in honour of the Badami Chalukyan emperor Vinayaditya’s queen) is an evolved and well-preserved temple, closest to what a complete Alampur temple would have looked like, and worth exploring in detail. Its porch has six pillars, each fluted, with elaborate capitals. The guardians at the entrance stand cross-legged, resting casually on clubs. At the base of the door-frame is an image of the river-goddess Ganga, and her attendant.
To the right of the porch-entrance is a wall niche with an image of Surya, on either side of which are Siva images: on the left as Tripura-sundara where he pursues the asura on a chariot driven by Brahma; and on the right as Lingodbhava, where he appears out of an infinite lingam. Brahma and Vishnu try to find the ends of the lingam by flying above and diving below, and eventually, acknowledge Siva’s superiority, and stand as worshippers at the centre.
Other wall niches of the temple have the guardians of the eight directions (ashta-dik-palas). To the left of the porch-entrance is Indra, the dikpala of the east (identified by his vahana, the elephant). To the left of Indra is Siva as Bhikshatana, the mendicant who seduces the wives of rishis while the enraged rishis raise their arm to strike him.
Next along the wall is Agni, guardian of the south-east, recognised by the flames around him. The blocks below have stories from Krishna’s life. Next is the dikpala of the south, Yama also the ruler of the southern region called naraka. Next is Niritti, the guardian of the south-west, who carried by a human vahana. Dikpala of the north and the God of wealth, Kubera, is shown seated with a mace in his hand. The dikpala of the north-west is Siva as Isana with his vahana (Nandi) and his trisula. Next is Vayu, the dikpala of the north-east, his emblem is a flag fluttering in the breeze.
In the north central niche on the sanctuary wall is Vishnu in his magnificent Trivikrama form. Below this are scenes from this story: Vishnu as Vamana receives water in a pot from the king Bali. Porch-pillars on this cardinal niche have fluted shafts and complex capitals with purnaghata motifs. The column brackets have kirtimukhas and human faces. A sixteen-armed image of Siva as Nataraja is placed in the principal niche in the west wall. Below him are dancers, musicians, Nandi and Ganesa.
Between the niches with deities, notice the elegantly modelled images of men and women with interesting hairstyles. They wearing diaphanous garments and hold hands or embrace. In one such space, a couple is shown, standing in a serene dvibhanga pose. The woman’s hand rests on the head of a child.
Base blocks below niches show various episodes from Krishna’s life. Here, Krishna is shown breaking the arjuna trees and thus freeing the trapped sons of Kuvera. Next Krishna is shown breaking the wheels of a cart under which the demon Sakatasura tried to trap him. In the next panel Krishna and Balarama are shown killing the demon Vatsasura who had taken the guise of a calf and concealed himself in their herd. The last block probably shows Krishna killing Kesin, the horse demon.
This temple in reddish sandstone is the most recent. The wall niches are more evolved and the cardinal niches are elaborate with pillared porch extensions, but the tower was left incomplete. Large guardian images are carved on either side of the entrance. They have a fiercer expression than in earlier temples and clasp their snake-entwined mace rather than gently leaning on it. Complicated pediments surmount the wall-niches. The niches also have distinctly projecting eaves that are in some cases supported by detached circular fluted pillars.
This sandstone entrance portal stands on a path to the Nav Brahma enclosure. Portals such as these are rare in Hindu temple complexes. No other examples remain from the Badami Chalukya period. The multifaceted pillars have square blocks at the top with sculpted scenes, and double-ribbed discs above as capitals. The lintel has images of the Navagrahas on vahanas. On this panel both registers show palanquins. A similar panel on another part shows Yama, with female attendants, above which is another seated figure (Lakulisa, perhaps) on a carved platform. Other panels show worship of the lingam, and (perhaps) scenes from the Ramayana.
This temple stands in a large courtyard (now part of a mosque) and is very different from the other Nava Brahma temples, so possibly from a later period. The shrine has no mandapa hall but has a large porch with square pillars. The tower is raised on a high square base and seems to have the shala-kuta arrangement of Dravidian temples rather than the sikhara arrangement of the other Alampur temples. The sukanasa projection in front of the tower is much larger than usual but the image in it is obscured.
The Kumara Brahma, is the oldest temple in this complex but it has both the pillared entrance porch and curved pyramidal sikhara. The walls, however, don’t have the elaborate wall niches seen in later temples. Simple square pillars at the front of the porch are sculpted in low relief. A panel here shows a group of men and women with luxuriant hairstyles, reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture. Pierced windows on the sanctum passageway are tall and narrow. Its sikhara has fewer stories (three) separated by the usual ribbed corner elements. Central projections on each face of the sikhara have diminishing gavaksas on each horizontal moulding. The sikhara is flatter does not soar above the temple as in the later style.
Alampur Site Museum
The Alampur museum maintained by the Andhra Pradesh State Archeological Office displays several figural sculptures, and wall and ceiling panels recovered from the flood waters of the Srisailam project. This beautifully preserved ceiling panel is one of the finest pieces with its crisply cut details well-preserved. A seven-hooded Naga king holding lotus buds is shown within a lotus flower framing his serpent tail.
An unusual sculpture is a polished image of the female divinity known as Lajja Gowri, (and sometimes as Aditi Uttanapad, Matangi or Renuka). Placed in a square, her hands rest on her knees and hold the stalks of small lotus flowers while a large open lotus crowns the figure, replacing its head. She wears arm bands, bangles and a bead necklace. Images of this deity are very rare even though her cult grew significantly in the 6th-10th centuries, with the general rise of Tantrism. Myths refer to her as Matangi, the “outcaste goddess” known for ignoring social rules. Elsewhere, she is Renuka, an outcaste beheaded by a Kshatriya, who grew a lotus in place of her head. Although within the museum, a separate room is reserved for this sculpture, revered as a fertility goddess by pilgrims visiting the Nava Brahma temples.
The museum has several Mahisamardhini images including this partly damaged sculpture where the asura emerges with a buffalo’s head, ready to strike his mace, while Durga calmly grasps his arm and places her foot on his horns to plunge the trisula into his neck. With another arm she draws an arrow from its quiver. Another interesting image is of Siva killing the Andhaka demon by thrusting a spear through his chest. This image of Siva is superbly executed and full of vitality as he slightly arches back and raises his foot to muster the force needed to kill the demon. There is also an image of a four-headed deity standing on a lotus, probably Varuna as identified by his noose, and the ocean waters curling up at his feet.
An inscription panel has a rare sculpture of a cat sitting on a lotus in a panel. Several sections from mandapa columns are also displayed in the museum: one shows the Mahishamardhini story where the asuras torment the gods before being defeated by Durga in a battle. Another shows Siva killing the elephant demon, Gajakasura, including the scene where he holds the skin of the elephant around him. Below this is the Narasimha story, with the disembowelling of Hiranyakashipu at the centre. There are also several ceiling sections here, with compositions in nine panels. One has Siva Nataraja image at the centre and Ashtadikpalas in panels around him.
Vira Brahma Temple
This temple is the northern-most of the group and is one of the most well-preserved. The entrance frame has river-godesses at the base, and Garuda at the lintel. The elaborate curved tower is in five storeys, each level demarcated by ribbed corner elements. The projecting ornate arch on the tower has an image of Siva as Nataraja. The damaged sculpture between niches to the right of the entrance is of Vishnu at Trivikrama.
This damaged but exquisitely modeled Siva dvarapalaka has his hair tied up in jewels while ornamental necklaces, girdles, waistbands, and armlets adorn the rest of the figure standing in a dvibhanga pose.
Between the wall niches are elaborate perforated windows. Above these are interesting sculptural compositions. In the example above, Siva as Dakshinamurthi faces south and sits beneath a banyan tree and upon a deer throne, and is surrounded by sages who are receiving his instruction. Another one has a broken image Varaha trampling the Nagas and rescuing Bhudevi. Yet another composition is of Vishnu as Ugra-Narasimha, disembowelling the demon Hiranyakashipu.
Only a few wall niches still have figures. The south-east corner niche has the dikpala Agni on his vahana (ram). The cardinal niche of the west wall has a pierced screen with a 16-armed Siva Nataraja image with supplicants, dancers, and musicians below. The pilaster to the left of this has Mahisamardhini astride an enlarged lion, shooting arrows at a buffalo-headed mahisasura.
Square blocks at the base of niches have interesting and unusual sculpture. The example above has images of unicorns. Another has elephants in various poses. In another, images of Ganesa, worshippers, and geese with foliated tails. Elsewhere are dwarfs, kinnaras, and elephants, unicorns, and yalis with riders.
There is elaborate sculpture inside this temple. The sanctum entrance has chauri-bearers standing on elephants. A ceiling panel above has a large lotus. Above the Garuda lintel are three miniature shrine-niches and between these are projections with images of ganas and dancers. Complex vegetal scrollwork and a beaded border decorate the rafters on the ceiling. Interior columns have seated lions at the base (reminiscent of Pallava architecture), fluted shafts and complex capitals.
Vishva Brahma Temple
This temple just to the south of the Vira Brahma is built of reddish sandstone blocks. The ornamentation is more sparse and more damaged. At the entrance, river-goddesses and the Siva-dvarapalakas leaning on clubs are carved in low relief. Pierced screens separated by pilasters allow light into the sanctum passageway. The basement platform of the temple has alternating projections and niches with miniatures lingas. The pediments above the niches are ornate with multiple miniature candrasalas. Flying gandharvas flank the pediments.
A 15 minute walk from the Nava Brahma complex, is the Kudali Sangameshwara temple, probably constructed by Pulakesi I (540-566 AD), and one of the earliest and grandest of the Badami Chalukyan temples in Andhra Pradesh. Once situated at the confluence of the rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra, the temple was dismantled during the Srisailam project and reconstructed on the outskirts of Alampur town.
The entrance is flanked by casually seated (sukhasana) images of the nidhi-purushas or personifications of divine attributes. Here, to the left of the entrance is the nidhi-purusha Sankha. Next to him Yamuna is in an arched tribhanga pose on a makara with an attendant next to her. Above the image of Yamuna is a luxuriant pair of geese, this type of unusual animal pediment is typical of this temple.
The temple is raised on a plinth whose outer edge is raised to form a perimeter wall that surrounds the pradakshina patha. This is a rare feature in Badami Chalukya temples, though comparable with the Pallava Kailasnatha temple at Kanchipuram. The south-east corner of this perimeter wall is developed into a complete shrine with a barrel-vaulted roof. The wall has a series of stepped projections that are carried up to the top, culminating in shala roofs with a candrasala at the centre. The projections have images of figures flanked by pilasters and sheltered by an overhanging eave. Between these projections are water spouts above kneeling elephants.
The pierced windows on the walls have fantastic pairs of animals above, with luxuriant tails. In this example elephants lustrate a seated figure of Lakshmi on this pierced window pediment. In another example, geese with decorative tails drink from a double lotus blossom. Elsewhere, water gushing out from miniature outlets below a medallion, is received by elaborate makaras with gana riders.
There is elaborate sculpture inside the mandapam. Here gana stands on a lotus medallion above, while below mermaid couples with fantastic tails are surrounded by waves. Women holding flowers are on either side.
About 2 km along the river (a pleasant walk) from the Nava Brahma temple complex is a group of temples at a site called Papanasanam. These temples are assigned to the 9th-10th centuries, a period when this region was transitioning from Rashtrakuta to Later Chalukya rule. The temples are clustered around the Papanasesvara temple which has a large mandapam with columns carved in a style similar to the Sangamesvara temple. The size of temples in this complex point towards it being patronised by local chieftains rather than royalty.
The typical temple in the Papanasanam complex is only a shrine with a pyramidal roof surmounted by a kalasa-pot finial. The outer walls of the shrine are undecorated but most temples have a sculpted entrance frame, some with dvarapalakas. One temple has an image of Gaja-Lakshmi (Lakshmi being ritually bathed by elephants) above the entrance and river-goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on either side. This largest temple in the complex, the Papanasesvara, has a large hall with elaborate ceiling panels and pillars with rounded capitals, makara motifs and sculpted panels. In one of the shrines inside it is an elegant Mahisamardhini image.
The ceiling compositions in the Papanasesvara are worth exploring. Each is composed of nine panels in three rows. The preserved example has an excellent sculpture of Siva as Nataraja. Gandharvas fly above him while below are his wife Parvati and his attendant Bhringi. Surrounding him are the Ashtadikapalas, protectors of the eight directions. Another one has Vishnu incarnations in each of the nine panels with (surprisingly) an image of Buddha at the centre.
Also noteworthy are the sculpture panels on the mandapa columns. In the example above, the Devas and Asuras are churning the ocean. Below this, framed by makara-toranas are the treasures yielded by the manthan, including Lakshmi, Uchhaishravas, and Apsaras. Another such panel shows Ravana in battle with Rama-Lakshmana on the right and Hanumana on the left. Below this are more warriors. In another column is Siva in the Tripurantaka form. He rides a chariot with Brahma as the charioteer. In yet another column is Vishnu in his Trivikrama form.
(Alampur can be visited in a day from Hyderabad. If time permits, the Adil-Shahi tombs and mosques at Kurnool can also be visited.)