After the reign of Ashoka the Great, there was an interregnum of relative anarchy, with the collapse of two powerful dynasties, the Kushanas (236 AD) in the north, and the Andhras (225 AD) in the south. Buddhism too suffered from a lack of political patronage during this period, leading to its slow decline, despite the valiant efforts of its monks. Also notable was a corresponding slow-down I the arts and literature. Thus, in its effects, this period in Indian history may be said to be analogous to the end of the Greek empire in Europe (which coincidentally was almost contemporaneous).
A large part of the country came under the political control of the Gupta dynasty, which reached its zenith around 400 AD. The culture of the Guptas and their innate Brahmanism gave a fillip to the art, and in the field of architecture.
The Gupta era brought about discerning change in the field of art and architecture, a break from the mere copying of forms carrying over from wood construction, to a new sensitivity in the handling and use of stone. This is the first time that the use of dressed stone masonry is made, a major step in the evolution of building construction. With this, a radically different type of architecture began to evolve.
Hitherto, it seems that all Brahmin cal shrines were impermanent. Stone reliefs on the Stupas in Bharhut and Sanchi depict non-Buddhist rituals being held in the open, with merely a shed for shelter, ‘…formed of posts and beams covered with reeds and mats’.
A modest structure at Taiga neat modern Jabalpur is very good example. This has all the main characteristics of early Hindu temples–an inner garbha–griha surrounded b an ambulatory path or calla, an outer portico with columns in the front, and above all, a flat roof of stone.
Shiva temple at Deogarh in Jhansi district was constructed at the zenith of the early Gupta age. This temple is remarkable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, an effort is seen to augment the grandeur of the shrine by a raised structure above the garbha-griha, discarding the hitherto-used flat roof. Thus the upper part of the sanctum assumes a pyramidal shape, which when built would have been at least 40 feet (unfortunately, not much of the temple survives). Placing the whole structure on a pedestal, thus adding five feet more, further increases the appearance of height. The second noteworthy point is the portico–which does not face only in one direction. Instead there are four, one in each direction. There is also the usual carved exuberance on the pillars.
Almost contemporaneously, another similar movement was taking place in the south under the vigorous direction of the Chalukyas (AD 450 to 650). The main centre if this dynasty was at Aihole, in Bijapur district. Here we find almost 70 Brahmin cal shines and temples, all in stone. Similar to the Gupta examples, the temples at Aihole for the most part are flat-roofed (we will discuss the noteworthy exception). The chief difference from the Gupta temples is in the presence of a pillared hall or mandapa in front of the temple—this represents a noteworthy step forward in temple design. The two chief examples are Ladh Khan temple and Durga temple, both at Aihole.
The Ladh Khan temple is noteworthy, as it does not seem to have been originally intended for use as a shrine, but instead was probably the village assembly hall. This is borne out by the fact that it fulfils very few of the conditions necessary for a ritualistic Brahminical temple.
In stark contrast, but illustrating yet another architectural principle in its formative stage, is the Durga temple. This is an example of the form of a Buddhist Chaitya hall, adapted to suit the Brahminical ritual.
The apsidal hall has a small tower over its end to give the appearance of height.
It is interesting to note that in both cases, the temples at Aihole were adapted from existing communal buildings. However, in the process, the shrines became forerunners to the mighty temples to follow by providing, as a precedent, the early forms of the mandapa or Hall of Worship.
These humble shrines were the beginnings of the movement which would result in the rise of magnificent structures all over the country. It can be safely said that the lineage of the mighty cathedrals at Khajuraho, Dilwara and Lingaraja can be traced to these tentative experiments with the magic of stone.