21 August 2015

Sri Pataleshwara Temple, Belur, Karnataka


“Travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse.”
– Thomas Fuller, 17th-century British writer-historian

In the shadow of the massive, ethereally magnificent Sri Chennakesava temple complex in the beautifully idyllic township of Belur sits an irredeemably forgotten, incorrigibly damaged and irreversibly mutated shrine transformed irrevocably into a melange of brilliant new and tarnished old that does little justice to the ruined remnants of its original unparalleled medieval ornamentation and spatial structure. This is the diminutive, squat temple dedicated to the "Pataleshwara" aspect (“Lord of the Netherworld”) of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction – barely heralded by a whitewashed traffic square indicating its presence and a sum total of zero presence on the internet, the small square shrine visually appears to be a beautiful exemplar of the unsurpassed architecture conceived and commissioned by the Hoysala Dynasty and displays similar remarkable architectural and artistic features including an overspilling profusion of dexterously carved, highly ornamented sculptures, a spatially stellar geometric structure and a dense abundance of mythological and mythical entities, deities and anthropomorphic creatures. It is however not documented when the temple was constructed or who financed it.


Sri Pataleswara Temple - A confusing assortment of medieval ruins and modern fixtures


The sculptures are skillfully carved, the hallowed canopies surmounting them and the scrollwork bands of floral foliage that surround them are delicately detailed and the miniaturization of the features, be it the jeweled ornamentation of the divine draperies or the smaller figurines of inconsequential musician-dancers and celestial followers, is in itself unearthly. Yet the figurines and the temple’s numerous features visually portray an eventful, malicious past which entailed irretrievable injury and mutilation to them at the hands of brutally iconoclast Muslim armies originating either from the mighty, territorially supreme Delhi Sultanate (ruled AD 1192-1526) or the southern sovereign Bahamani Sultanate (ruled Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, AD 1347-1527). The shrine appears to have been irreversibly wrecked and what presently exists in its place is a framework of glistening white marble supporting in its midst the devastated remains of the original hallowed entity. There still exist, albeit surrounded and flanked by a redeeming skeleton of flawless white marble that does not even structurally adhere to the unusual configuration of the original graceful temple, the artistically superior doorjambs vividly blossoming into an intricately convoluted sculptural rococo depicting Lord Shiva 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.


Poetry in stone (V3.0)


Embossed upon layers of elaborate foliage and geometric patterns once more culminating into fierce Kirtimukhas and horrendous skulls, are spellbinding realistic and artistically evocative sculptures of celestial guards and yak tail-bearers possessing tridents and drums wrapped with layers upon layers of serpentine foliage, 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. Lastly, there exists an array of divine figurines, predominantly Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God of life and nourishment) and their varied incarnations and aspects, most prominent among them once more being “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. Opposite the shrine sits a brand new black granite statue of the bull Nandi, the mount of Lord Shiva and a patron of spirituality and religious dedication, reflecting the occasional explosive bursts of sunlight that escape the impenetrable veil of dark purple-black clouds traversing the atmosphere overhead. The shrine itself is surmounted by a large glittering glimmering marble statue of Lord Shiva and a layered, domed roof that would have been tremendously hard-pressed to prove its similarity to the immensely long pyramidal spires that crowned the Hoysala shrines.


"Gajasurasamhara" - The ecstasy of a triumphant God (V3.0)


While one notices the mutilation of limbs and the destruction of facial features and animal figurines undertaken by the Muslim armies, one also cannot fail to notice that the shrine has been converted to a translucent parody of itself, displaying prominently its original ornamentation and yet effectively failing to be evocative or resplendent in its present tastelessly ostentatious appearance – couldn’t it have been better preserved for what it was? Wouldn’t those sculptures and carved arrays have appeared several times more mesmerizing and visually appealing without the gaudy application of tons of unmatched marble that merely succeeds in bringing its despoliation and embarrassment to the surface instead of compensating it structurally or spiritually? Couldn't the ruins have been preserved as they were? One wonders if a centuries old shrine can be transformed thus right under the nose of one of the most enthralling temple complexes in the subcontinent, a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site, then what about the unexplored, undocumented and nameless millions of medieval shrines and architectural/artistic paradigms scattered throughout the vast country?


Glitter!


Location: About 500 meters from Belur Bus stop, Hassan district (Coordinates: 13°09'46.3"N 75°51'49.6"E) 
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
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, Belur is located about 42 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. Regular buses ply between Hassan and Belur throughout the day.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Remarks – Footwear is not allowed inside the temple complex and can be left outside the courtyard.
Another temple located in Belur - Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex, Belur
Another temple located in Hassan district -Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple complex, Halebidu

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