Most tourists who visit Aihole, a temple town in Karnataka, climb the 100-odd steps to the Meguti Jain temple to catch the spectacular sunset from the hilltop. It never disappoints. But there’s another reason this ancient shrine is important.
Plum in the middle of the wall connecting the mandapa (assembly hall) and the garbagriha (sanctum sanctorum) is a 19-line inscription that speaks of the conquests of Pulakeshin II, one of the most prominent Kings in Southern India in the 7th CE. He presided over the dynasty of the Chalukyas of Badami.
The Meguti temple belongs to the early phase of the Chalukyas of Badami, a dynasty that ruled from Vatapi (Badami) and developed Aihole into a major centre of architecture along with other surrounding towns. The Chalukyas of Badami were great temple builders and the Meguti shrine is just one among hundreds of temples they built in Aihole, Badami, Pattadakal and Mahakuta. The region is known as a cradle of Hindu and Jain temple architecture and exemplifies both the Nagara style of North India and the Dravida style of the South.
Aihole is in Bagalkot district in Karnataka, on the banks of the Malaprabha River. It is said that Lord Parshuram, the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, after avenging his father’s death, washed his bloodstained axe in the Malaprabha River, giving the land its red colour.
The area was ruled at different times by some of the mightiest empires in South India. It came under the Satavahanas from the 2nd BCE to 3rd CE, followed by the Kadambas in the 4th CE, and then the Chalukyas of Badami, who ruled here from the 6th to the 8th CE.
Rise of the Chalukyas of Badami
The Chalukyas of Badami rose to prominence following the decline of the Kadamba dynasty, which ruled the Konkan and Northern Karnataka from the 4th to 6th CE. Apart from their extensive military conquests, the Chalukyas were great patrons of art and have produced some true masterpieces of ancient Indian architecture. They built the Meguti temple on a hilltop, 800 meters from the famous Durga temple. It is one of the early temples of the Chalukyas at Aihole, constructed in Dravida style.
The temple is relatively plain in design, with an image of a Jina in the sanctum. But the highlight of this temple is an inscription, known as the ‘Aihole Inscription of Pulakeshin II’ or the ‘Aihole Prashasti’ (eulogy).
The temple was built by Ravikirti, the Jain court poet of Pulakeshin II, in 634 CE. The inscription too is attributed to him. Ravikirti must have been an influential figure in Pulakeshin II’s court. Interestingly, he was also acquainted with the works of the greats of Indian literature, such as Kalidas and Bharavi, and even went on to compare his work to theirs.
The Aihole Prashasti he composed is a poetic rendition in the Sanskrit language but written in the old Kannada script. Written in praise of the Chalukya kings, it mentions the early rulers of the Chalukyas of Badami, Jayasimha Vallabhi and Ranaraga.
Not much is known about these early kings. It is Ranaraga’s successor Pulakeshin I, who is credited with being the kingdom’s first sovereign ruler. He founded the dynasty in around 543 CE and went on to rule a large part of central and peninsular India.
Kirtivarman, the son of Pulakeshin I, succeeded him in 567 CE. He defeated the kingdoms of the Nalas in Chhattisgarh, the Mauryas of the Konkan and Kadambas of Banavasi in present-day Karnataka. His younger brother Mangalesha, who ascended the throne in 598 CE, defeated the Kalachuris, who ruled Western India in the 6th-7th CE.
Pulakeshin II & His Conquests
The Chalukyas of Badami reached their zenith under Pulakesin II (r. c. 610-642 CE), the son of Kirtivarman. He was the greatest ruler of the early Chalukyas. During his reign, the early Chalukya Empire covered most of the Deccan region. However, his accession to the throne was not easy. A civil war broke out between Pulakeshin II and his uncle Mangalesha, which Pulakeshin eventually won. The war cost the Empire many territories but Pulakeshin II re-conquered and recovered them.
Ravikirti, in his poem, goes to great lengths to glorify the military conquests of his patron, Pulakeshin II. He says in the inscription that after ascending the throne, Pulakeshin II faced a rebellion from two rulers, Appayika and Govinda. While there isn’t any record of who they were, the inscription reveals that Pulakeshin II befriended Govinda, made him an ally and defeated Appayika.
Vanavasi (Banavasi), the capital of the Kadamba dynasty, was conquered by Pulakeshin II. The rulers of the Ganga dynasty of South Mysore and Alupa in Karnataka accepted his suzerainty. He also invaded the kingdom of the Mauryas of the Konkan and defeated them. In the west, he captured the regions of Lata and Malwa in present-day Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
Pulakeshin II’s most famous conquest was his triumph over Harshavardhana (r. 606-647 CE), King of the Vardhana (Pushyabhuti) dynasty. One of the most powerful kings of ancient India, Harshavardhana’s Empire covered almost all of north and north-west India, Kamarupa in the east and the land up to the Narmada River in Central India, the southern limits of his empire.
With a view to conquering the areas beyond Narmada, Harshavardhana marched towards the Dakshinapatha or the ‘Great Southern Highway’. His campaign was not successful. The Aihole Inscription mentions Harshavardhana’s defeat at the hands of Pulakeshin II, a moment of great pride in the Chalukya kingdom. It is said that Pulakeshin II assumed the title ‘Parameshvara’ (Supreme Lord) after defeating Harshavardhana.
Victory Over The ‘Maharashtrakas’
That’s not all. One of Pulakeshin II’s many conquests was gaining control over the area of the ‘three Maharashtrakas’, which comprised 99,000 villages. The precise area of these Maharashtrakas is a topic of debate among scholars, but some believe it comprised present-day Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Significantly, this is said to be the earliest known epigraphical reference to the word ‘Maharashtra’. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese scholar who visited India in the 7th CE, mentions Pulakeshin II as the ruler of ‘Mo-ho-lo-cha’ (Maharashtra). According to historian and author of Political History of the Chalukyas of Badami, Durga Prasad Dikshit, Hiuen Tsang may have noted the word from the inscription.
After his remarkable feats in the north and west, Pulakeshin II led a campaign in the eastern and southern parts of the subcontinent.
In the east, he conquered the kingdoms of Kalinga and Dakshina Kosala. He captured the fortress of Pishtapura in Andhra Pradesh, after defeating the Vishnukundins, who ruled from the 5th-7th CE. Pulakeshin II appointed his brother Kubja Vishnuvardhana as the Governor of Pishtapura, eventually leading to the formation of a separate branch of the Chalukyas in 624 CE, known as the Chalukyas of Vengi or the Eastern Chalukyas.
In the Aihole Inscription, Ravikirti goes on to mention Pulakeshin II’s campaigns in the southern kingdoms of the Pallavas, Cholas and Pandyas. He forged friendly alliances with the Cholas and the Pandyas but, according to the inscription, he defeated the Pallavas, forcing them to retreat to their capital Kanchipuram.
Relations between the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pallavas soured due to this campaign and resulted in a conflict between these two kingdoms, which lasted for several years. Pulakeshin II eventually returned to his capital at Badami but was defeated by Pallava King Narasimhavarman in 642 CE, and is believed to have died fighting. After Pulakeshin II, the dynasty weakened due to many internal disputes. During this time Badami was occupied by the Pallavas for around thirteen years. It was only in 655 that the dynasty was revived by Pulakeshin II’s son Vikramaditya I.
The Aihole inscription came to light due to the efforts of British historian and epigraphist John Faithful Fleet, who first interpreted it in 1876, followed by German Indologist Lorenz Franz Kielhorn in 1901. Since then, it has been studied extensively, reinterpreted and translated several times.
The inscription is a prashasti or a eulogy, whose main purpose is to flatter and elevate the writer’s patron in the eyes of the world, in this case, the Chalukyas of Badami and Pulakeshin II, in particular. While some of its contents are a source of debate for their interpretation, it still is one of the key sources for the reconstruction of the history of the Chalukyas of Badami.
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