India has a diverse cultural heritage with a common thread stitching everything together. The more you travel and experience different parts of the country, the more it becomes self-evident. How else can one explain the carvings based on Mahabharata and Ramayana tales in the Hoysala Temples of 12thcentury? As per historians, the epic age when Mahabharata and Ramayana actually played out in North India was from 900-520BC. Hoysala dynasty ruled most of the present-day state of Karnataka between the 10th and the 13th centuries. Thus, the artisans of Hoysala Empire sculpting war scenes of Mahabharata from soapstone speak volumes about the passing of the mythological legends from times immemorial. No wonder ours is considered to be one of the oldest living civilizations in the world!
Bangalore offers plenty of weekend getaways. If you are a history enthusiast or a student of architecture, paying a visit to the temple towns of Belur and Halebidu is imperative. A distance of 220 Km from Bangalore and frequent KSRTC bus services make this an accessible travel route. You can book a cab for a day from Bangalore or take a KSRTC weekend travel package from here. The drive is mesmerizing with paddy fields and distant rocky hills on both sides of the smooth tarred road.
Hoysalas were great patrons of art and architecture. They built close to 1500 temples to celebrate their imperial ambitions and establish their supremacy in the region. Chenna Kesava at Belur and Hoysalesvara at Halebidu are the most spectacularly ornate temples of this period. Both the temples are operational and are open from 9AM to 6PM.
King Vishnuvardhana commissioned the construction of Chenna Kesava temple (literal meaning Handsome Vishnu) to mark the victory over Cholas in the great battle of Talakadu. It took 103 years to complete this prodigious structure.
An hour and a half around the temple with a guide and I was convinced as to why it took three generations to build it! The temple is built on a raised star-shaped platform and the stone walls are embellished with intricate tales from Puranas, Upanishads and Epics.
It reminded me of many bedtime stories narrated by my grandparents in my childhood: The churning of the ocean (Samudra Manthan) and the fight between the gods (devas) and the demons (asuras) over the nectar of immortality, an array of arrows shot by Rama to kill Ravana, Arjuna hitting the eye of the fish with an arrow, Hanuman carrying the mountain of Sanjeevani herb, wedding of Shiva and Parvati, Goddess Durga killing Mahishasura, and Abhimanyu tangled in the chakravyoo.
42 Beautifully decorated pillars support the complete edifice. There is a 42-foot tall pillar in the courtyard balanced purely by gravity. One really wonders how it continues to endure the lashes of the weather from past 900 years without the help of any cementing material. It certainly exhibits the artisans’ knowledge of laws of nature.
Devdasis, young girls who dedicated entire lives to the service of a deity in the temple, were part of the prevalent culture. This formed the basis of another striking feature of this temple: Shilabalika/ Madanika (Bracket figure of a Dancing Girl).
There are 42 shilabalikas in the entire temple complex and each depicts a distinct aspect of the feminine charm and grace: Darpan Sundari (Beauty with a mirror), Shuka Bhashini (Lady having a conversation with her pet parrot), Tribhangi Nritya (Lady dancing stylishly by bending her body in three portions, considered one of the toughest Bharatnatyam postures), The Huntress (Lady aiming an arrow at a bird), Bhasma Mohini (Related to mythological tale of Vishnu taking the form of a damsel to kill Bhasmasura), Nagveena Musician (Lady playing snake-shaped violin), and many more. It’s intriguing to see how minutely the sculptor captured the expression of even the tiniest creature in these bracket figures. For instance, in one of the panels, a lizard is depicted with an open mouth ready to catch a fly in the background of a madanika. The attire and hairdresses of shilabalikas throw light on the openness and status of women in the society of those times. Shantala Devi, queen of king Vishnuvardhana was herself adept at music and dance. Many of these nimble figurines were inspired by her sublime beauty.
Around 16 Kilometers from Belur is Halebidu, the Old City. It was the regal capital of Hoysala Empire in the 12th century. Magnificent Hoysalesvara temple is the major attraction here. Similar to Belur temple, it is adorned with the exquisite portrayals of the mythological tales. Statues of Dwarapalakas (the watchmen) of the main deity, Shiva, are richly accessorized with ornaments and weapons. Two massive nandis in front of the temple are testimony of the splendid craftsmanship of the times. It took 90 years to build this temple but it was never fully completed. Like other Deccan kingdoms, by late 13th century, Hoysalas had spent their heyday in building gigantic temples instead of fortifying their towns and strengthening the cavalry. As a result, they were no match for the ferocious Khiljis. Under the plunder campaigns led by Malik Kafur, Hoysaleshvara temple was ransacked and the kingdom fell into a state of decay. Never to return to its past glory!
Hoysalas respected all religions of the day. Therefore you can see many Vishnu, Shiva and Jain temples in the region. Around 86 Kilometers from Halebidu lay one of the ancient Jain temples in the city of Shravanabelagola.
Take a flight of 600 stone steps on Vindhyagiri hill to view the world’s largest monolithic statue. The 58-foot tall statue of Gommateshvara was erected in 981 AD by Western Ganga dynasty. It’s hard to fathom how the construction and placement of the huge statue at the hill top was carried out in those days! The temple is full of inscriptions in a number of languages dating to various times from 600 to 1830. Chandragupta Maurya is believed to have spent his last days in meditation here. Every 12 years, hordes of devotees gather here to witness the Mahamastakabhisheka, an extravagant ceremony in which the statue is covered with milk, curd, ghee, saffron and, gold coins. The view of the city at sunset from the top of the hill is breathtaking. Ensure you enter the temple premises before 6PM.
Surprisingly, tourism has still not picked up in a big way in these glorious sites. Hence, very basic food and accommodation facilities are available. If you are planning a day trip by car, carrying packed meals would be a good idea. Guides are readily available and make the experience worthwhile with their elaborate story-telling skills.
Belur-Halebidu-Shravanabelagola has been collectively proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. By mid-2016 it is expected to be declared one! So go out and immerse yourself in these stunning tale teller constructions of the past!
India: A History by John Keay
This trip was originally published on Travel Tales.