Post-Gupta period, (ca. 550 C.E. – ca. 800 C.E.).
The Gupta Empire fell, in part, because of the invasion of the tribes of a branch of the Huns who entered India by the northwest. These tribes together with their king Attila also penetrated to Western Europe. The north of India was destroyed and fragmented into a multitude of small independent kingdoms, but during this time another political power had appeared to the south in the west of the Deccan: the Chalukya dynasty which ruled from around the year 550 until its defeat by the Rastrakuta around the year 760. The last stage of classical Hindu art developed under the sovereigns of these 2 dynasties. It is the period that receives the name of post-Gupta and lasted until the ninth century.
The Chalukya had their capital in Badami although the most important temples were located in Pattadakal, a place of sacred pilgrimage 15 km from the capital.
Pattadakal includes the two architectural types: the northern style (or Nagara style) represented by the Papanatha temple, and the Southern or Dravidian style represented by the Virupaksha temple. The temple of Papanatha, built at the end of the seventh century, has a sikhara with its typical curved edges and inside, huge pillars, which for their robustness remember those found at the Buddhist caves. These pillars were adorned with splendid figures of embraced celestial couples, musicians, and dancers.
On the other hand, the Virupaksha temple is of the Dravidian type. Built around 740, it is equipped with the type of tower characteristic of the southern style called vimana* which consists of a multi-storey roof, each smaller than the previous one, and forming a kind of pyramid that rises above the square room of the sanctuary. The vimana of the Virupaksha temple considered as one of the oldest known has only three levels. The temple, dedicated to the Brahmanic god Shiva, perfectly fusions architectural and sculptural forms which include numerous representations of episodes of the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata”.
The Rastrakuta dynasty, which succeeded the Chalukya in the west of the Deccan, renewed the art of the caves carved in the rock with the production of two monuments that must be considered among the wonders of the artistic heritage of humanity: the grotto of the island of Elephanta and the temple of Kailashanatha in Ellora.
The small island of Elefanta is located in the bay of Bombay, 10 km from the coast. There, in the second half of the 8th century, was carved an impressive grotto dedicated to Shiva under his three aspects (creator, preserver and destroyer). It is an immense square nave, 43 m long in each side, with twenty-six columns with high square bases and wide capitals in the shape of a smashed bulb. The sculptures that decorate its walls, despite their colossalism, have such fair proportions that they produce a feeling of tranquil beauty. The most characteristic of this temple is the quiet majesty, a little disdainful, of the carved faces in which a serene voluptuousness is expressed. The main sculpture is the tri-cephalic bust of Shiva, 8 m high by 6 m wide, called the Trimurti* or triple divine aspect. In the center, the face of glory; to the left, the destructor, god of death, terrible but necessary; on the right, the feminine face, smiling, which represents the maternal aspect, generator of life.
In the rocky hills of Ellora, abandoned by Buddhist monks, the Rastrakuta rulers launched a prodigious program of temple excavations completing seventeen cave-temples in a little more than a century. The most extraordinary of these caves is that of Kailashanatha, unique in its style and in the way it was built. Few monuments in the world leave such an indelible impression. Carved vertically in the rock, it is a gigantic monolithic building of colossal proportions (60 m long by 30 wide and 30 high), that was isolated from the mountain leaving around it a patio or empty space of 100 x 60 m whose walls are formed by the cut walls of the excavation. The huge block of rock thus isolated from the mountain was carved in the form of a temple, as if made by a giant sculptor. Nothing was added, not a single sculpture was brought from outside, everything was meticulously planned by the amazing skill of the architects and sculptors. This gigantic monolithic temple was internally excavated to reproduce with extraordinary precision the entire interior structure of an isolated temple (that is not carved in the rock, not a cave temple per se). It is estimated that it was necessary to evacuate more than two hundred thousand tons of rock when the temple was built at the end of the 8th century. The shadowy volcanic stone and the furious dynamism of the Kailashanatha sculptures evoke religious terror, the feats of the gods and goddesses of Brahmin India, full of tense spirituality.
While the Chalukya and Rastrakuta dynasties followed one another in the west of the Deccan, in the south along the coast of the Bay of Bengal near the present-day city of Madras, the Palava rulers built during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries the great temples of its capital Kanchipuram and its sea port of Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram). They were the true creators of the Southern or Dravidian style, which we have seen used in the Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal. Here, the characteristic architectural elements are the pyramidal vimana, which it has already been described, and the gopuram* or rectangular pyramids with steep slopes placed over the entrance doors of the temple precincts.
Among the temples of Kanchipuram should be noted that of Kailashanatha, built in the year 700, and that inspired the aforementioned temple of the same name in Ellora. On the contrary in Mahabalipuram port of the Palava kingdom nothing remains. Its walls and fortifications are today scattered ruins beaten by the waves of the Indian Ocean. The surrounding plain is full of huge sculpted granite blocks. They are the ratha* or temples carved in the shape of a celestial chariot, among which huge monolithic animals have been carved (a bull, a lion, and an elephant) and an immense relief of 32 meters in length and 14 in height that represents the descent of the Ganges, the sacred river, before the joy of all the living beings that come to receive him.
Gopuram: A monumental gatehouse tower, usually ornate, at the entrance of a Hindu temple, in the Dravidian architecture of Southern India. The Gopuram are topped by the kalasam, a bulbous stone finial. They function as gateways through the walls that surround the temple complex. The multiple storeys of a gopuram typically repeat the lower level features on a rhythmic diminishing scale.
Ratha: The Indo-Iranian term for a spoked-wheel chariot or a cart of antiquity. In some Hindu temples, there are shrines or buildings named rathas because they have the shape of a huge chariot.
Trimurti: (from the Sanskrit, meaning “three forms”). The trinity of supreme divinity in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified as a triad of deities, typically Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, though individual denominations may vary from that particular line-up. When all three deities of the Trimurti incarnate into a single avatar, the avatar is known as Dattatreya.
Vimana: The structure over the inner sanctum (or garbhagriha) in the Hindu temples of South India and Odisha in East India. In typical temples of Odisha, the Vimana is the tallest structure of the temple, as it is in the shikhara towers of temples in West and North India. By contrast, in large South Indian temples, it is typically smaller than the great gatehouses or gopuram, which are the most immediately striking architectural elements in a temple complex. In North Indian temple architecture, the superstructure over the garbhagriha is called a ‘shikhara’. However, in South Indian Hindu architecture texts, the term shikhara means a dome-shaped crowning cap above the Vimana.