“They say the past is etched in stone, but it isn’t. It’s smoke trapped in a closed room – swirling, changing, buffeted by the passing of years and wishful thinking. But even though our perception of it changes, one thing remains constant – the past can never be completely erased, it lingers like the scent of burning wood.”
– Marvel Comics, “Daredevil”
The state of Karnataka is endowed with some of the most scenic landscapes that the country possesses – dotted as far as the eye travels with clusters of plentiful coconut trees bent heavy with fruit, lush fertile green fields yielding bountiful harvests magnanimously sprinkled with massive medieval shrines transformed into exemplars of an otherworldly pursuit of architectural and artistic brilliance that the emperors who commissioned and the sculptors who constructed these indulged in, the entirety ringed by vibrant blue mystic mountains surmounted occasionally with rows of captivating white windmills as if mankind is continuously striving to complement the unparalleled tranquility benevolently bestowed on the beautiful state by the grace of nature. An unsurpassed epitome of this relentless quest of mankind to reproduce the designs of nature in the fabric of human (and therefore fallible) art and architecture, the Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction, and was commissioned by some of the wealthiest members of the city’s aristocratic and mercantile classes, prominent amongst them Dandanayaka Ketamalla (the commissioner of police) and Kesarasetti, during the glorious reign of Emperor Bittideva Vishnuvardhana (ruled AD 1108-52) who had only a couple of years earlier initiated the construction of an architecturally similar and likewise artistically superior shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment, in the neighboring serene township of Belur (refer Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex).
|Poetry in stone (V2.0) - Hoysaleswara Temple|
Notwithstanding the fact that Halebidu’s magnificent past has been ingloriously forgotten and it presently merely survives as a mediocre, densely cultivated village within the frontiers of the nondescript district of Hassan, the temple reflects on the city’s unmatched ancient cultural and architectural heritage as well as its enviable position as “Dwarasamudra/Dorasamudra”, the original capital of the formidable Hoysala Dynasty which reigned from AD 1026-1343 over most of Karnataka and parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and embossed throughout their vast territory an unmistakably visually prominent legacy of several excellent, exceedingly ornamented shrines. Not unlike the rest of Dwarasamudra, the architecturally outstanding temple, constructed over AD 1120-60 and christened “Lord of the Hoysalas” after Emperor Vishnuvardhan’s royal title, was also abandoned and relinquished to relentless wilderness and ruinous desolation during the reign of Emperor Veera Ballala III (ruled AD 1292-1343) following internal strife between members of the royal family and numerous plundering raids by fiercely fanatical-iconoclast Muslim armies led by Malik Kafur, the ferociously barbaric eunuch General of Sultan Alauddin Khilji (reign AD 1296-1316) of Delhi Sultanate. Thereafter, Veera Ballala III fled to the state of Tamil Nadu and Dwarasamudra was rechristened “Halebidu” or “Old City”.
The bewilderingly majestic temple building, seated on its enormous 5-feet high star-shaped platform (“jagati”), externally follows the sculptural artistic style idealized by its slightly older sibling at Belur and yet at the very first visual impression, one can undeniably state that its exceedingly ornamented facade and the sheer variety of artworks encompassed therein are not imitation, but further evolution of the latter – and although overall the angles and the protruding corners appear less distinctly pronounced and thoroughly simplistic, it is the noticeable emphasis on miniaturization and detailing that is the most noteworthy. The entire superstructure is composed of dark-green/blue-black hued chloritic schist (soapstone) which is extremely easy to chisel into ornately detailed patterns in its original form but transforms to tremendously resilient, unmalleable stone once exposed to the elements for years. One unquestionably perceives that the engrossingly committed Hoysala sculptor-craftsmen might have believed that even a layman visitor will comprehend each and every mythological tale etched in stone and reflect unyielding attention not only on the individualistic sculpture of each deity and mythical entity, but also on their bejeweled ornaments and composite physical traits – thus the unrelenting emphasis on even the minutest of details, the slightest of illustration of movement and the simplest of physical features, even when the sculpture is merely a fraction of an immensely massive panel portraying over a dozen divine beings and anthropomorphic mythological deities.
Furthermore, the extraordinarily accomplished artists did not merely restrict themselves to the artworks and ornamentation introduced by their counterparts painstakingly building the shrine at Belur, but unequivocally took their craft to an unparalleled zenith by introducing several decorative elements and depictions of sculptures, mythological tales and mythical folklores that are absent in the latter – thus there are representations of Goddess Kali, the unruly manifestation of primordial feminine energy who reigns supreme over sexual acts and inclinations and death and destruction; Goddess Saraswati, the patron of arts, music, learning and knowledge; Lord Kartikeya, the young and formidable General of the mighty celestial armies; Lord Krishna (aka “Govardhana Girdhari” or “The Lifter of Mount Govardhana”), the ostentatious playboy-strategist-statesman-cow herder-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived some 5,000 years ago and is regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, physically lifting the mountain Govardhana to shield the inhabitants of his domain from a merciless hammering of fierce hailstorms invoked by indomitable demon lords. This in addition to the ubiquitous sculptural illustration of other deities, most prominently of course Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu and their varied incarnations and aspects – the anthropomorphic, boar-faced mighty Varaha lifting the Earth Goddess Bhudevi from the sea of ether after defeating the demons who had imprisoned her; the terribly fierce and unimaginably powerful semi-lion, semi-human Narasimha furiously tearing apart the body of the demon Hiranyakashyipu; the benevolent, boon-bestowing, omniscient aspect of Lord Shiva flanked by his wife Parvati; the winged, muscular, multi-armed falcon-faced bird deity Garuda; the ten-faced, twenty-armed intellectual demon King Ravana of Lanka attempting to physically lift the massive Kailasha mountain, the abode of Lord Shiva; the supremely gifted archer-warlord Arjuna; the ten-armed Goddess Durga, a fierce manifestation of primordial feminine energy, piercing the body of buffalo-demon Mahishasura with her intimidatingly long trident; Lord Shiva furnishing his terrific trident and celestial drum and indulging in “Tandava” (the destructive dance of universal obliteration); “Gajasurasamhara”/“Gajacharmambaradhari”, that portrays a sixteen-armed combative depiction of Lord Shiva wielding numerous weapons of death and devastation while dancing blissfully upon the decapitated head of the slain elephant-demon Gajasura whose flayed hide he triumphantly raises and brandishes as an enormous cloak while his family and followers gaze wide-eyed terrified and deferential.
|"Gajasurasamhara" - The ecstasy of a triumphant God (V2.0)|
Exquisitely evocative is the intricate depiction of foliage of numerous varieties abounding on the immensity that is Govardhana mountain (so lavish is the sculptural treatment showered by the craftsmen that even the slightest of details – crowns of bananas dangling from trees, monkeys climbing the shrubbery and the snakes slithering around – can be observed in fantastic vivacity!), and yet my unquestionable favorite remains “Gajasurasamhara”, especially considering that here Lord Shiva is not revealed with his celestial followers and devotees but surrounded by extensive slithering snakes and horrific undead corpses with ghastly emaciated faces and protruding ribs worshipping him with drums and cymbals! Unbelievably, the impeccably flawless shrine envisages an enthralling profusion of exemplar ornamentation and an outstanding variety not only in the splendid array of larger sculptures that lines its exterior surface barely below the roof delineation, but also in the tiniest of the fantastical rows of creatures that mark its colossal base – counting vertically upwards from the base are fashioned eight individualistic horizontal layers respectively composed of charging elephants, fearsome lions, mounted horses, mythical “Makara” (entities possessing the body of a fish, the face and tusks of an elephant, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a peacock) and beautiful swans respectively symbolizing insurmountable stability, formidable strength, matchless agility, unchallenged might and elegant grace, punctuated by floral scrolls of foliage and creepers and miniaturized discontinuous depictions of tales from the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and the various Puranas, followed eventually with an extravagant flourish of hundreds of smaller, inconsequential crafted deities, celestial dancers and divine devotees.
The exquisite artworks and the years of toil that must have gone into their execution also give credence to the unforeseen span of time – nearly 86 years – involved in the shrine’s completion – however, for some inexplicable reason not documented in contemporaneous historic records, it is said that several portions of the shrine were never consecrated or even completed even though Emperor Vishnuvardhana’s successors Narasimha I (reign AD 1152-73) and Veer Ballala II (reign AD 1173-1220) had their chief architects embellish it with additional layers of ornamentation and sculptural artwork. As with the Sri Chennakesava Temple at Belur, the multitudes of sculptures and scroll work here too lend testimony to the incomparable skill of the architects and artists who were themselves so impressed and overjoyed by their own creations that they disregarded ancient Hindu architectural customs that prohibit artists and sculptors from signing their work – thus come to light the names, sovereign-bestowed titles and places of origin, but not the achievements and lives, of Kalidasa, Ketana, Ballana, Harisha, Damoja and Revoja.
But the vivid blossoming of poetry in stone does not cease here – the massive doorjambs that grace the spectacular facades mutate into an intricately convoluted sculptural rococo depicting Lord Shiva wielding weapons in his ten arms and dancing ecstatically to the tune of the celestial musicians flanking him amidst an eye-opening visual composition of sophisticated floral scrollwork and wave flourishes bearing as their apex the vicious jaws of a “Kirtimukha” (the ferociously wide fanged, lion-like face of an all-consuming demon conceived and originated out of thin air by Lord Shiva to destroy other, mightier demons) and eventually culminating in an elephantine mythical “Makara” on either side of the lintel whose skin and tail too transform into a sophisticated embellishment of foliage and elaborate artwork.
|Hoysala ornamentation - Epitome of miniaturization art|
The most spellbindingly realistic and artistically evocative statues are however those of the celestial guards that flank the entrances – draped with extremely fine jewelry and headgear that one would have been hard pressed to even be able to carve in soap and yet those tremendously skilled sculptors of yore crafted in stone, the divine figures, bearing tridents and drums wrapped with layers upon layers of writhing snakes and serpentine foliage not very differential from each other, are embossed upon layers of elaborate foliage and geometric patterns once more culminating into fierce Kirtimukhas, miniature Makaras and horrendous skulls. And yet, while one reflects upon the explosive bursts of artistic confidence and cultural development that prompted the sculptors to enthrallingly conceive and dexterously shape the extensively detailed nature of the ornate jewelry and celestial weaponry, one cannot fail to register explicable disappointment, in fact even sorrow, at witnessing that most of these otherworldly figurines were brutally disfigured and dismantled by the iconoclast Muslim soldiers led by the pitiless Malik Kafur – it is at once a discovery of ancient Hindu imperial magnificence and bourgeois grandeur and also of the cruelest of illusions that the unrelenting passage of the sands of time could wreak on unsuspecting humans – the illusion originating from hope, from belief, that even though we might wither and die and decay, our mere creations, be they sculptures carved in perennial stone or words in timeless literature, will survive the ravages of time and the exploitation and imprudence of fellow individuals.
|Those sculptors, these details!|
Somehow, standing there, gazing rapturously at the surrealistic filigree of stone adornments and shrubbery, I began to feel grievously ashamed about belonging to the ancient city of Delhi, whose remarkable achievements in the spheres of art and architecture I often profoundly and poignantly termed as notable enough to be classified as amongst those that can be termed as the pinnacle of civilizational heritage – after all, could not those soldiers, those seekers of worldly plunder, timeless fame and religious redemption, sense the intricacy of the stone jewels that I was looking at? Could they not visualize the sweat and labor of the sculptors who meticulously and laboriously toiled on crafting these? Could they not notice the enchanting textures, the ethereal impressions imbibed in stone by those expert craftsmen hopeful of being remembered through their hypnotizing creations, if not their mortal names and meager origins? How could they have failed to be mesmerized?
“Blessed are the braggart, the bully, the brute for it is the thoughtless thug – the nithing – and not the pitiful, picked-upon, penniless poor or the cursed and curmudgeoned mean and meek who shall surely stand to inherit the earth.”
– Stephen Edden, “The Wordsmith’s Tale"
Interestingly though, possibly a consequence of the aforementioned Islamic invasions, the elegantly sculpted smaller shrines (“Bhumija”) that are surmounted by pyramidal spires and border the wide staircases and were supposed to be studded with thoroughly carved and polished figurines are devoid of the same – ditto for the minor shrines and alcoves that line the interiors.
|Here myths come alive!|
The enchanting superstructure is divided internally into two exactly identical, parallel square sanctums located along the extremities, each facing east and accessible by a set of two entrances set perpendicular to each other along the corners of the adjacent sides such that the western side of the enormous temple delineating the rear of the twin sanctums is entirely devoid of any openings. The interiors are illuminated only by minute streams of sunlight tracing their way in through the formidably set entrances or the numerous square openings of the highly symmetrical stone lattice screens. The darkness further accentuates the forbiddingly straight vertical and horizontal lines that define the numerous deftly designed stone pillars and smaller shrines that support the immensely heavy roof, but it also succeeds in blurring the methodically detailed nature of the delicately carved stone roofs that grace the square hallways preceding the two sanctums and the exceedingly long and straightforward walkway connecting the two. The extensively conceived roofs of the large square hallways are supported upon tantalizing pillars passionately decorated with ornate strings of sculpted trinkets and meshwork patterns and culminating into lithe arched lion figurines supporting upon their heads brackets inset with voluptuous, finely proportioned celestial damsels crafted to perfection – referred to as “Madanika” or “Shilabalika” or “Salabhanjika” (literally translating to “breaking a Sala tree (Shorea robusta) branch”), each of the heavenly maidens, attired in fine thin draperies that barely cover their large breasts and hips, is adorned with jewels and ornaments and surrounded by followers and highly intricate foliage – sadly however, most of these were destroyed by the Islamic plunderers-pillagers and none survives in its entirety without its facial features disfigured with chisels and hammers and its limbs dismantled. Similar amorous figurines that gracefully existed within the telltale brackets fitted along the exterior walls have disappeared in their entirety, in all probability demolished and crushed irretrievably to bits and pieces.
One might be forgiven for believing that the discerning sculptors forgot to incorporate the unmistakable, renowned emblems of the Hoysala Dynasty – a young man battling a huge aggressive lion (some say a tiger) either with his bare hands or with a sharp-edged sword – but the insignia is nonetheless reinforced here as well, not constructed as massive sculptures defining exterior adornments, but once more as miniature, more complexly visualized panels inset along the bases of the smaller shrines lining the interiors and composed of a single piece of stone sculpted pattern-wise into layers depicting numerous mounted lions being engaged in dreadful mortal combat by a sword-wielding regal warrior. Legend goes that the dynasty’s mythical progenitor, Sala, was indulging in ritualistic ceremonies with his Jain monk Guru Sudatta Muni when a fierce lion (or tiger) pounced upon them prompting the terrified mendicant to pronounce “Hoy, Sala!” (“Strike, Sala!”) and later, following the gruesome battle and the slaying of the lion (or tiger), blessing the courageous disciple with vast territorial sovereignty that would soon flourish. Most architectural historians and wildlife experts however doubt that lions ever existed in this part of the country and that might explain the ill-conceived stone figurines that mark Hoysala temple complexes for they might have been envisioned by the otherwise superiorly talented artists on the features of tigers that are still abundant here. Other historians also point out that this mythical tale and its sculptural depiction gained credence following Emperor Vishnuvardhana’s vanquishing of the Chola armies from his territories and the lion in the sculptures is probably symbolically representative of the Chola insignia.
|Yet another corner!!|
The twin shrines, christened “Hoysaleswara” and “Shantaleswara” after Emperor Vishnuvardhana and his ethereally beautiful Queen Shantala Devi, too are adorned with resplendently ornate divine guards crafted from lustrous black granite and massive astonishingly impressive doorjambs – both house a single, substantially large “Shiva linga”, the universal, terribly simplistic rounded-pillar representation of Lord Shiva, unbelievably austere and barely encircled with a few garlands of vibrant fragrant flowers. It is said that both the sanctums were originally surmounted by enormous pyramidal spires that spatially followed the stellar pattern established by the shrine’s numerous angles and projections – however neither of the two towers have survived the vagaries of time and nature and can now barely be envisioned as imaginations drawn upon from similar towers that crown analogous exemplars of magnificent Hoysala architecture throughout the vast land of Karnataka. It is compelling to notice how the relatively straightforward interiors were transformed into an artistic extravaganza along the exteriors by matchlessly accomplished sculptors and consummate craftsmen through the employment of numerous angles and recesses in cohesion with hundreds of thousands of sculptural curves and miniaturization art in collaboration with an unequalled understanding of light and shadow play.
|Kali - Primordial destructive feminine energy incarnate|
On the eastern front outside the temple, facing each sanctum and sharing the enormous plinth with the temple structure, is a gigantic pavilion composed of flawless lathe-turned pillars (that is, they weren't sculpted by hand, but the roughly crafted pillar was mounted on a wheel and rotated so that its edges sweeped against a fixed blade/chisel that smoothly shaped its surface) and flanked by equally passionately conceived and manufactured smaller shrines – visually enchantingly, both the pavilions house imposing monolithic statues of the bull Nandi, the mount of Lord Shiva and a patron of spirituality and religious dedication, however the pavilion opposite the Hoysaleswara sanctum is considerably larger than the one opposite the Shantaleswara sanctum and also possesses towards its rear a small, minimally illuminated hallowed shrine dedicated to a 7-feet tall representation of Lord Surya, the Sun God. The narrow base supporting the heavyweight pillars along the rear side of each of the pavilion is decorated with a single row of substantially smaller sculptures and representations of deities very nearly identical to the superior ones that grace the temple building’s exterior walls.
Like several other medieval temple complexes scattered throughout Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Hoysaleswara Temple too was used to record inscriptions and legends commemorating military victories, religious conversions and heroic deeds – towards the rear of the majestic temple, one such inscription is emblazoned on a short cylindrical pillar embossed with figurines of soldiers severing their own necks with knives – dedicated to the elite personal bodyguards of Emperor Veer Ballala II, the pillar honors the memory of Kuruva Lakshma who was a dedicated “Garuda” (nomenclature derived from the mythological falcon-faced bird deity Garuda, the steed of Lord Vishnu) – valorous soldiers who followed their master like an ever-present shadow, protected him from all unforeseen threatening eventualities and committed suicide upon his demise, natural or otherwise. Kuruva Lakshma is said to have sacrificed not only his own life, but also that of his wife, family and associate officers – and was thus privileged with this celebrated monument, also locally referred to as a “Garuda Stambha” or “Garuda’s Column”. The inscription reads –
“No one before has set such a gallant example as King Ballala's great minister.”
What is however most heartwarming is that the shrine is surrounded by immense, neatly manicured lawns lined with rows of enormous, wide-canopied trees and flowering bushes and carpeted with vibrant green grass that appears to sparkle against the deep blue-black overcast sky. As mentioned in the previous post, the Bangalore (Bengaluru) circle of the Karnataka division of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has undertaken commendable restoration and conservation efforts for the maintenance and preservation of these magnificent ancient temples. Sprinkled occasionally throughout the landscaped lawns are archaeological finds such as enormous sculptures and engraved inscriptions – while some, like a massive monolithic insignia of the Hoysala sovereignty, a lavishly detailed 8-feet high statue of Lord Ganesha (the Hindu God of auspiciousness and beginnings) and an 18-feet high statue of Jain Tirthankara Mahavira are placed thoughtfully towards the rear of the shrine, others are scattered around or left inclined and grass-shrouded as if waiting to be discovered by visitors and devotees. Towards the rear side of the aforementioned elegant Nandi pavilions is mounted another smaller, similarly oriented but more gracefully carved sculpture of the bull Nandi, seated on a high pedestal and surrounded by a ring of red-hued shrubbery. In another corner is being managed a small archaeological museum dedicated to the display of hundreds of inscriptions, engraved memorials and smaller, individualistic sculptures discovered in the surrounding areas.
Despite its near-forested appearance and unmentionably tranquil ambience, Halebidu, like the rest of the hundreds of thousands villages scattered throughout the Indian subcontinent hides in its ancient bosom grand ambitions – peppering the landscape are numerous massive electricity pylons towering immensely high as if attempting, Atlas-like, to support the enormity of dark, rain-bearing black-purple clouds against which sparklingly contrast the flawless white windmills that, seated dominantly on their hill thrones, pierce the skyline like colossal extraterrestrial beings stepping around on their spindly tripods. Head closer towards Hassan and the brightly painted red advertisements of “Airtel” and “Apple Plywood” give way to violet banners of “Byju’s CAT coaching classes” and printed A4-sized posters for “Paying Guest Accommodation for Boys/Girls”. Yet, the general pace of life is unmistakably slow, the manner of doing business laid back like the gait of old men who traverse its numerous bazaars and teashops. Where not dug up into gargantuan craters by bulldozers persistently mining sand for construction, the abundantly fertile, grass-blanketed base of the dried up Dwarasamudra Lake behind the temple’s peripheries doubles up as grazing grounds for scrawny cows, long-horned buffaloes and hundreds of goats. The often inexistential roads that connect Hassan to Halebidu are characterized by their progressively undulating surface and transform into narrow, one-way strips of levelled ground in numerous, unbelievably long stretches where buses, I joke not, literally bounce and spring across the pockmarked surface like roller coaster rides. One cannot help but feel that the village is literally considering whether to sluggishly progress to a dazzling future or continue to exist in the shadow of its former glory. Wonder what would the Hoysala sovereigns be contemplating about this existential dilemma of their erstwhile impressive capital?
|A horde of tales and myths! - Halebidu Archaeological Museum|
Location: Immediately opposite Halebidu bus stop, Hassan district
Open: The temple complex remains open on all days except Friday from 7 am – 5 pm for people of all faiths, belief systems and genders.
How to reach: Hassan is accessible from different parts of Karnataka by regular KSRTC bus and Indian Railways train services. It is approximately 180 kilometers or five hours away by road from Bangalore. From Hassan, Halebidu is located about 32 kilometers or roughly one hour away by bus at the end of a journey that does take one on certain thoroughly pockmarked stretches of road winding through hill-flanked barren plains and fields. The bus service between Hassan and Halebidu is however not very regular and one might occasionally have to wait up to 30 minutes.
Entrance fees: Nil
Entrance fees for the museum: Indians: Rs 5; Foreigners: Rs 100 (Free entry for children up to 15 years of age)
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 3 hrs
Remarks – Footwear is not allowed inside the temple complex and shoes can be left at a makeshift counter near the staircase and retrieved afterwards following the payment of a modest sum (usually Rs 10 for two pairs of footwear).
Relevant Links -
Another Hoysala temple in Hassan - Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex
Suggested reading - Whc.unesco.org - Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysala