The Hoysalas of Karnatak

Lakshmi Sharath

This is a story that is set 1000 years ago. The story of South India and the various dynasties that ruled then. There were no sovereign states or boundaries as we know now. The Cholas, the Cheras, the Pallavas, the Pandyas, the Chalukyas, the Gangas, the Hoysalas, the Rashtrakutas, the Satvahahanas, the Kadambas, the Kakatiyas, besides the Vijaynagar dynasty or the Sultanat empire. The names emerge straight out of text books.

When I was studying history, one of our assignments was to map the various dynasties, mark and shade the boundaries in different colours and highlight the eras and dates. It used to be quite a task to remember the names that could not be pronounced, the various titles bestowed on the kings, to learn by rote the various battles they won and lost and the numbers by getting the chronology right... Somewhere down the line, the fascinating stories or the value of our heritage got lost in the class rooms.

Today as I walk down the Hoysala trail, I go back in time, down the eons of history. This is not a classroom session, but an attempt to bring back the romance of heritage, which goes back 1000 years.

"Hoy Sala" (Strike Sala!) said the guru Sudatta Muni to his student, Sala who was in an armed combat with a tiger that had entered a temple. The student struck the animal in one blow, immortalising himself and his victim. The guru was so pleased that he asked Sala to establish a kingdom and the Hoysala dynasty was established. The folklore became so popular that every temple of the Hoysalas has a carving of this story.

We heard it narrated to us by our guide in Belur, the erstwhile capital of the Hoysala dynasty who ruled parts of South India from 11th to 14th century. Historians dismiss the myth, but stories like these have a certain fascination about them.

The Hoysalas were not hereditary kings but they ruled for 300 years. They were natives of Malnad, Karnataka and were tribal chiefs who were subordinates of the Western Chalukyas. Some inscriptions show them as lords of the Male (hills) while some indicate that they were descendants of the Yadava clan. Historically though the first Hoysala family record is dated 950 AD and names Arekalla as the chieftain, followed by Maruga and Nripa Kama I (976 AD).

But the kings who shaped the dynasties were Vishnuvardhan and Veera Bhallalla who became independent from the Chalukyas All of them however are remembered today for their patronage to arts along with their exploits on the battlefield — a baffling 1500 temples built in 958 centres, of which the three famous ones are Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur.

We start our trail from Bangalore — the capital city which according to a legend owes its name to the Hoysala king, Veera Ballalla. The story goes that the king lost his way while hunting in a forest. After a long search he met an old lady in the forest who offered him shelter for the night and served him baked beans for dinner. To show his gratitude to this lady, the King constructed a town and named it as "Benda Kalooru" which means Baked Beans. Later in 16th century, a local chieftain, Kempe Gowda helped design this town and give it its modern shape.

We drive down to Hassan, an11th century town dedicated to Hassanamba, the presiding deity who is represented by an ant hill. The temple of Hasanamba is opened only once a year for about a week in October. Another 40 km and we are in Belur, originally called Velapuri, the capital city of the Hoysalas set on the banks of the river Yaguchi.

And this is where the "handsome Kesava", a six-foot idol of Vishnu or Krishna is housed in a beautiful shrine called Chennakesava Temple — where there is sheer poetry on the walls as each sculpture is a masterpiece and stories come alive from every stone.
It comes as no surprise that the temple took a century to complete. Started in the 12th century by Vishnuvardhana, who was earlier known as Bittiga, this temple was completed by Bhallala and it took a total of 103 years to build. The Chennakesava temple is flanked by several other temples, including the Kappe Chennigraya temple, built by Shantala Devi, Vishnuvardhana's queen. There seems to be several reasons why this temple was built.

In one of the first inscriptions engraved in this temple, Vishnuvardhana says that he has "built it from the wealth which he amassed from the sword." It is said that the temple was built to celebrate his liberation from the Chalukyas and was a declaration of his sovereign status. That is why he called the deity Vijayanarayana, a name later changed to Chennakesava. Another myth speaks of his conquest of Talakadu from the Cholas, which was said to have inspired the temple construction. Another folklore speaks of him returning to Hinduism from Jainism while his wife continued to patronise Jainism.

At the entrance of the temple, facing the shrine is the winged figure of Garuda, Lord Vishnu's vehicle (mount) folding his palms together. The temple is a classic example of the Hoysala style as it rises from a star-shaped plinth, one of the hallmarks of Hoysala architecture. Built out of soapstone, the facade of the temple is filled with intricate sculptures and friezes that includes elephants, lions, horses and episodes from the Indian mythological epics.

The lowest frieze has a series of 650 charging elephants jostling for space around the walls and each is different from the other. They symbolise stability and strength and are considered the weight lifters of the temple.

Next come the yalis which symbolise courage while the horses above them are for speed. There are panels with floral designs signifying beauty. Above these are panels depicting the epics — Ramayana and Mahabharata.

There are 48 ornate pillars in the temple, the most popular is the Narasimha pillar which is said to have been revolving once on its ball bearings. A small space has been left on it to be sculpted by anyone who has the talent. The Mohini Pillar is another beauty.

It is pretty dark in there and the guide highlights the pillars with the spot light. As the light tilts up, we look up at the pillars and are spell bound by the celestial nymphs that adorn them. They are called madanikas, shilabalikas and are exclusive to Belur. It is said that these bracketed figurines are inspired by Queen Shantala Devi and they epitomise the ideal feminine form.

Each pose of the madanika is different from the other and it depicts a mood. While all are amorous, they are not erotic. They display artistic skill and are depicted as dancers, musicians, drummers or hunters. There are totally 42 of them, four inside the hall on the ornate ceiling and the rest adorn the exterior walls of the temple. Some madanikas are the Darpana Sundari (beauty with mirror), "The lady with the parrot", "The Huntress". It is fascinating to see every single madanika and the detail in every carving.

There are 118 inscriptions in the temple complex, belonging to a period from 12th century to the 18th century, which give details regarding the construction, the artists, the grants and the renovations to the temple.

Another interesting myth relating to the temple is the story of the vanishing sandals. There is a pair of sandals guarded at the temple, believed to be Lord Kesava's sandals. However, the sandals were disappearing regularly. It was believed that the lord wears them to visit his consort in the hills. Hence, everyday, the local cobblers create a fresh pair for the deity.

The sun goes down and a group pose for pictures in front of the temple. It is said that Hindu temples were not just places of worship — they were also used as a court to impart justice, a treasure house, an educational institution, a cultural platform to promote the arts and a shelter for people to sleep as well. Belur's heritage is today housed in one temple complex, the Chennakesava temple.

Getting there

Belur is 222 km from Bangalore. You can drive down via Hassan and it takes about four hours. Accommodation is available at Hassan and Belur. Spend a couple of days and go to Halebeedu, Belavadi, Nugehalli and several smaller hamlets which house more such Hoysala temples, besides Shravanbelgola.

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