Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 1999
Gary Michael Tartakov The Durga Temple at Aihole Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997. 153 pp.; 108 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (0195633725)

For thirty years, a significant voice in Indian art-historical scholarship has been Gary Tartakov’s, and though his interests and publications have varied, in this book he returns to his original area of expertise, the art of the Calukya dynasty (c. 542-757). The Durga temple (located in Aihole, Karnataka, a south Indian state) has inspired much scholarly speculation. Tartakov examines the Durga temple in two essays; in the first section he unpacks the layers of historiographic writings that engross this monument, and in the second essay he decodes the structure’s form and function. Although the two essays are self-contained studies, each of independent value, they supplement each other and enrich our understanding of the Durga temple.

In the first section, Tartakov reviews scholarship that fashioned how the Durga temple is discussed from earliest accounts starting in 1866 until the early 1980s. He even supplies excerpts from seventeen major scholars’ publications in the appendix along with the photographs published in their texts, allowing us to see what visual limitations they labored under. Today the Durga temple is renovated and a protected monument, but earlier visitors saw a dilapidated temple covered with rubble. Though early scholars misunderstood the visual evidence, and needed to do deeper scholarly excavations, so, too, the temple itself was covered with debris obscuring close scrutiny. Because of Durga temple’s “anomalous” form (which, after reading Tartakov, we can no longer describe as an anomaly), it has received diverging opinions about purpose and dating (ranging from the fifth to tenth centuries). Suggested dedication has spanned from Fergusson’s Buddha and/or Jina, to Burgess’ Visnu, to Cousens’ Surya-Narayana, with Siva occasionally mentioned as well as Durga (due to semantic confusion of Durga, a fortress, with the Goddess Durga), to the deity the temple was erected to honor, Aditya (or Surya, the Sun God), as presented by Nilakanta Sastri, Ramesh, Padigar (in part due to inscriptional evidence) and, finally Tartakov. In the process of unraveling presumptions, Tartokov demonstrates how personal agendas shaped scholarly discourse and how, once printed, texts sometimes live unchallenged. For instance, starting with Fergusson’s Buddhist architectural interpretation, based simply on the temple’s apsidal form, and his adamant Orientalist racial-religious evolutionist theory, it remained popular for a considerable time afterwards to convolutely assign a Buddhist association to the Durga temple, even when visual evidence challenged this assumption. Some uncritical books designed for the general audience still refer to the Buddhist architectural form of the Durga temple. Eventually, critical reassessments raised more compelling questions. In addition to the apsidal shape, there are a number of unusual architectural features to the Durga temple. Debates have centered on the tower’s “northern” (or nagara) form, which some scholars have dismissed as a crude replacement (an argument that Tartakov elegantly dismisses in the second essay); other arguments have focused on sculptural disparities, along with the already mentioned temple’s dedication. The value of the historiographic essay—besides, at times reading like a mystery, allowing more evidence to be revealed as time unfolds—is that by concentrating on a single monument that has attracted considerable attention, Tartakov has excavated embedded assumptions that often were necessitated by lack of evidence and knowledge, allowing the reader to see how changing methodological practices, along with increased intensity in scholarship, have altered perceptions in Indian art history in general.

In section two, Tartakov places the Durga temple into its “cultural context.” After a brief autobiographical summary of his own journey into the study of Calukyan temples, Tartakov proceeds to examine the monument formalistically. Although this would be of questionable value, for the temple has been described many times before, the fact that others have dissected the Durga temple is the impetus compelling renewed analysis. As the first essay demonstrates, imagined temple function, or unreliable analysis, too often has tainted discourse. Tartakov’s expertise on all Calukyan monuments (and solid knowledge of pan-Indian art) is crucial to this section. Rather than supplying a limited atomized formal review of a temple in isolation, Tartakov places each temple portion within the context of the whole Calukyan repertoire.

Beginning where one would first experience the temple, the gateway—a critical space to a Durga temple analysis, for it is here that the epigraph explaining that Komarasinga established the temple for Aditya is located—to all other compositional elements of the compound, a comprehensive analysis of the temple is presented; as is a comparative study of allied elements at other Calukyan temples, especially those that are datable. In this manner, Tartakov seeks to accomplish two stated goals: “One is recognizing the value of a thorough analysis of the concrete form of the fullest range of available monuments. The other is the value of identifying the regional dynastic tradition as the primary context of the temple’s material and social production” (p. 98). Calukyan monuments are built in two modern Indian states, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and not including all temples from both regions (as has been the case in most studies), neglects vital comparative data. Tartakov succeeds in Calukyan contextual placement of the Durga temple. In the process, architectural and sculptural idiosyncracies are transformed into intentional elements designed (probably in c. 725-30 C.E.) to elevate Durga temple into a masterpiece from Vijayaditya II’s reign (Komarasinga, the temple patron, was a local leader under the Calukyan king).

Not to distract from Tartakov’s effective analysis, it should be mentioned that Calukyan studies from the 1980s onwards, at the time his historiographic review ends, have progressed considerably, and his call for dynastic regional context studies has been initiated (notably by Carol Bolon and Susan Buchanan-Tartakov briefly mentions their work in the second essay). Also the indebtedness Calukyan studies owe to George Michell, though recognized by Tartakov, could be stated more fully. One cannot analyze a Calukyan monument (from Karnataka) without studying Michell’s extensive measurements, groundplan, and elevation drawings (as Tartakov’s book demonstrates), and in that sense I believe Michell’s contribution should be stressed in the historiographic essay.

Whereas situating Durga temple within Calukyan historical and architectural context is effectual, and the major contribution of this essay, the social context exposition lacks forceful illustration. At every available opportunity, Tartakov presents supportive evidence (or, at least, sound speculation) that the Durga temple functioned as an Aditya shrine; however, why and how Aditya operated within Aihole and Calukyan dialectics remains unanswered. Research is required into Sauras rituals, though this might be beyond the book’s parameters. Another fruitful spinoff might be investigation into the powerful merchant “Aihole Five Hundred” guild and their role in temple formation within Calukyan polity. The Aihole Five Hundred’s presence is discussed—Tartakov even suggests that Komarasinga could have been a leader within the guild; but an exhaustive reading of all the guild’s epigraphs could prove productive in explicating their commercial and religious links.

Minor quibbles aside, this book impressively records the creation of a monument twice: once, the scholarly layering of a temple, disguising its true appearance and the gradual deconstruction of encrustation; the second, the physical temple as composed in the eighth century and how the monument is situated within regional history. All said, Tartakov’s sensitive exploration of the Durga temple is a substantial addition to Indian art-historical scholarship.

Andrew L. Cohen
University of Central Arkansas