Classic examples of Hoysala’s excellence in sculpture


THE Siva temple in Halebidu and its twin Vaishnavite dedicated to Chennakeshava in Belur, both in the Hassan district of Karnataka, together feature an astonishing pantheon of filigree Hindu deities intricately carved in stone. The extraordinary attention to detail and intricate magic worked by the chisel transformed a stubborn and demanding medium as stone into a charming open-air art museum. Built nearly a thousand years ago, the structures are an eloquent testimony to the refined aesthetic sensibilities of the Hoysala era. Despite the damage inflicted by the armies of Malik Kafur, the regional general of the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century, many of these sculptures have survived and have remained almost intact today. In fact, Belur Temple, located about 200 kilometers from Bengaluru, has been a living temple with daily prayers offered to the presiding deity continuously for nearly 900 years.

Halebidu, which was called Dwarasamudra, was once the capital of the Hoysala Empire which dominated most of Karnataka and even parts of present-day Tamil Nadu. It was abandoned in the 14th century when it was sacked for the second time by Malik Kafur, and hence the name Halebidu meaning “old encampment”. Daily worship was reestablished at the Halebidu Hoysaleswara Temple in the early 20th century, although it attracts art historians, architecture enthusiasts and tourists more than pilgrims.

Halebidu temple

The Hoysalas were feudatories of the Chalukyas who ruled from Kalyani (now Basavakalyan in Bidar district) in northern Karnataka. The Hoysalas dominated much of the Deccan from the 11th century. When King Hoysala Vishnuvardhana ascended to the throne in 1108, the kingdom moved away from Chalukyan influence and asserted its independence with happy consequences for the world of art, architecture, sculpture and culture. . The construction of the Halebidu Temple, a classic example of Hoysala’s excellence in sculpture, was built around 1121 CE, with the patronage of Ketamalla Setti, a merchant of the kingdom. Additions were made during the reign of Narasimhavardhana, son of Vishnuvardhana. This style of architecture and sculpture began to dominate structures built over the next 200 years throughout the Deccan. Many of these temples are in ruins today, but those that survive in and around Halebidu and Belur offer a glimpse of the Hoysalas’ penchant for excellence. They also offer valuable insight into the mores of Hoysala society.

Hoysala architecture is influenced by the Nagara style. Art historians and researchers still wonder if the style was brought in by artisans from the north. The cities of Hoysala are generally designed on a cosmic diagram with the cardinal directions forming the main axes and the temples at the central intersection of the axes. The capital itself was fortified and fortified, traces of which can still be seen today in Halebidu. The city was autonomous with a grid of streets. Stepwells and the temple reservoirs took care of the irrigation.

I visited Belur and Halebid in 2020, right after Karnataka lifted the lockdown. It was my second visit to these magnificent monuments. The generally bustling temple complex appeared abandoned; its vast emerald lawns devoid of the sound of footsteps; stalls selling souvenirs and food had been closed for lack of customers. It gave me the opportunity to feast my eyes on the amazing works of art at leisure and savor their exquisite beauty, unhindered and in peace.

I instinctively searched for the UNESCO World Heritage Site label, which has crowned many lesser monuments around the world, but was surprised to find that these exceptional structures had yet to do their brand. In fact, the UNESCO website acknowledges that art historians recognize the unusually complex sculptural art of the two temples as masterpieces of South Asian art; he even claims that they made the name Hoysala a synonym for artistic achievement. However, the two temples are only on the provisional list of heritage sites identified by UNESCO, awaiting final confirmation.

Hoysala architecture is a happy blend of the Nagara style of northern India and the Dravidian style of the south. A remarkable feature of these temples is that they were built on star-shaped platforms. The platforms themselves are adorned with friezes of mythical and contemporary creatures – yali, horses, elephants and Hans (swan) as well as processions of dancing girls and tribute bearers. The effect is that of a richly woven border of a silk garment, which embellishes and enhances the appeal of the carvings that adorn the walls of the temples themselves.

The carvings, both on the pedestal and on the main exterior structure, are intricate and rich in detail. Careful attention has been paid to the folds of the clothes, the intricacy of the adornments and the hairstyles of women that can compete with the latest fashion in the contemporary world. Vahanas, or vehicles, used by gods, such as Brahma Hans and the Garuda of Vishnu, and the serpent adorning the locks of Siva have been elaborately engraved, which makes them realistic; and battle scenes illustrate the type of weapons and armaments used in warfare during the period. The sculptures also bring everyday scenes from a bygone era to life that might otherwise have been lost to posterity.

Stone pillars

A characteristic element of Hoysala architecture is the perfectly proportioned stone pillars with circular rings. The perfection of the pillars has given rise to conjecture that they could have been turned in a lathe, although this is dismissed by historians as highly improbable, which makes them even more remarkable. The pillars appear polished like mirrors, reflecting the sun’s rays from different angles. The plinth above the platform is truly a sculptural symphony of religious and cultural iconography. Gods and goddesses, familiar scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam, musicians and dancers, hunting scenes, games, processions, battle scenes, eroticism, nothing seems to have been too complicated or too intimidating to sculpt. Curvy gods and goddesses in graceful poses, their torn muscles visible through the folds of their richly adorned clothing, the elaborate depiction of various ornaments adorning both men and women, including the signet ring on the women’s fingers, not to mention a fly perched on a bowl of fruit, all marvel at how long the sculptors have gone to make it look realistic. The lustrous hair of the dancing women is held together by choodamani, an ornamental headdress, and the strings of musical instruments seem to pulsate, evoking unheard-of melodies. It was possible to carve such meticulous and intricate details on the chlorite-shale stone, mined from the region. These stones were soft when pulled out but hardened when exposed to air. That is why they have been kept for posterity despite the passage of time when the elements must have taken their toll on them.

The architectural plan of the temples of Hoysala met the religious, cultural and ritual requirements of the time. Halebidu has three shrines to meet ritual requirements, which involves considerable mastery of mathematical and engineering skills. The exterior walls were designed as multi-pointed stars to create additional space and allow sculptors to express their excellence. The interior – rangamandapa – is supported by four ornate pillars. The roofs are mounted with elaborately carved panels. The mandapa is spacious enough to stage dance performances and must have sounded with the sound of cymbals and anklets.

Inscriptions on the site suggest the diverse professions of donors who have contributed not only to the construction of the temples, but also to its daily upkeep, including the salaries of priests and maintenance staff. These temples are also unique in that the sculptors inscribed their signatures on the panels. On one of the panels, the name Kalidasi is described as “Champion over the proud” or as Indra of the sculptors. Dasoja and his son Chavana, who emigrated from Balligrama to the present-day district of Shivamogga, find a prominent place among the sculptors who produced this wonder. There is a large archaeological museum within the grounds of the Halebidu temple. It houses artifacts from neighboring temples of similar provenance. In fact, there are many Hoysala temples scattered throughout the region, including Jain Basadis. (King Vishnuvardhana was a follower of Jainism before converting to Vaishnavism.)

The temple of Belur

Belur, 17 km southwest of Halebidu and 35 km from the city of Hassan, was said to have been the first capital of the Hoysalas. The Chennakeshava temple complex in Belur was the center of a walled city on the banks of the Yagachi River. The construction of this temple began in 1117 CE and lasted 103 years. According to inscriptions found at the scene, it was known as Velapuri. The Hoysalas even called it the terrestrial Vaikunta or Dakshina Varanasi. The inscriptions list the names of artists and sculptors employed, grants made to the temple, and renovations undertaken. Belur Temple is dedicated to Vishnu and is also richly embellished, not only with scenes from Vishnu Purana, Ramayana, etc., but also with Saivite deities.

The gate of Chennakeshava temple, guarded by Manmatha and his wife, each flanked by a nwarapalaka, or porter, is remarkably ornate. On the lintel above the two profusely sculpted makaras is a panel representing the flying Garuda. Above the Garuda is the lion-man, or Narasimha, tearing the bowels of the demon king Hiranyakasipu. The floral and serpentine arches surrounding the panel are a stone filigree study.

Inside the Navaranga room is a pair of giant sandals presented by the shoemaker community. The holy philosopher Sri Ramanuja was instrumental in ensuring that worshipers of all castes had access to the temple premises, and the sandals commemorate this. The pillars that support the Navaranga Hall are square, octagonal, 16-sided, round, lotus-shaped, star-shaped, or fluted and all are intricately carved. The lintels feature beautifully sculpted maidens, some in dancing poses, one looking in a hand mirror, and a lady holding a parrot. Above the beams and architraves rise frieze after frieze depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Despite the shared provenance of the two temples, my eyes detect subtle differences in their sculptural styles. Many Belur sculptures play sports chatris and are perhaps more degraded by the elements than those of Halebidu. Being a constantly revered temple since the 12th century may have led to a faster degradation of this monument.

As this was a visit during COVID hours, we had to rush the same day, returning four hours to Bengaluru. But the temples of Hoysala are to be enjoyed at leisure. Each stone has a story to tell, each sculpture, an appealing knowledge to share.

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