Glorious blend

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Southern entrance, Hoysalesvara temple, Halebid, Karnataka.-

The Hoysalas borrowed freely from the Chalukya and Chola traditions and created a style unique in many ways.

IN the medieval period, Indian kings began to directly patronise the making of temples. Unlike the smaller temples of the ancient period in which the art was sublime, the emphasis was more on making vast temples, whose grandeur reflected the glory of the Divine as also that of the king who built it.

By the 11th and 12th centuries, in northern and central India, great temples were being made in the Nagara style. The Dravida, or southern Indian, style prevailed in the magnificent temples that were being constructed in what is now Tamil Nadu. In the Deccan, which lies between North and South India, the Hoysalas, hill chieftains, gradually came to power, creating a kingdom in what is now southern Karnataka. Hoysala history is clear from the time of King Vishnuvardhana, who ruled from A.D. 1108 to A.D. 1142. Inscriptions show that the king, his wife and his ministers were generous patrons of temples.

The walls of the Hoysalesvara temple have the most profusely decorative sculptures of deities.-

Vishnuvardhana defeated the imperial Cholas in A.D. 1116. This was a landmark in the establishment of his dynasty. To commemorate his victory, he built a temple for Kesava, or Chennakesava, at Belur, and named it the Vijayanarayana, or the victorious Vishnu, temple.

The temple is a classic example of the ornate style of temple art under the Hoysalas. They inherited a rich tradition of temple building from the Chalukyas and the Cholas. The Chalukyas had made magnificent temples at Pattadakkal in the 8th century and at other sites. Further south, the Cholas had created great temples in the region that is now Tamil Nadu. The Hoysalas borrowed freely from both traditions and created a style that is a rich blend of northern and southern influences.

THE CHENNAKESAVA TEMPLE, Belur, is well known for nayikas, or beautiful women, made as bracket figures. These are called madanakais.-

The Kesava temple, dedicated in A.D. 1117, stands in a large courtyard and has a pillared mandapa, or hall, an antechamber and a shrine. It rests on a plinth, which follows the shape of the temple itself. The shikhara, or tower, is no longer there and this gives the temple a flat appearance today.

The mandapa was originally a pillared, open hall. A later Hoysala king, Ballala II, added carved window screens and these give the mandapa a more closed feeling. Such screens continue the tradition of western Chalukyan temples in the Deccan, such as the Lad Khan temple in Aihole.

The exterior of the temple is profusely sculpted in a manner that has come to be known as the ornate Hoysala style. Horizontal rows of carvings run around the structure in an ordered and highly organised design. Every inch of wall surface is sculpted, often in miniaturised detail. The temple has the richest surface texture seen in any temple in India. The bands of carving that go around the temple run for over 700 feet (210 metres). The lower bands have about 2,000 elephants carved on them.

THE HOYSALESVARA TEMPLE was built between A.D. 1121 and A.D. 1160 in the area of Halebid, known then as Dorasamudra. It was the capital of the Hoysalas.-

The exterior walls present the world of forms: the material universe around one. Here, this world is seen as a manifestation of the Truth beyond, which is in the garbha-griha, or womb-chamber, deep inside the temple. The Hoysala artist paid the greatest attention to detail. Every limb of each figure, every decorative design, shows this preoccupation and is remarkable for its intricacy, depth of detail and skilful craftsmanship. However, the sense of fluid movement and balance to be found in other contemporaneous Indian sculpture is not seen here.

The figures and decorative motifs are deeply undercut and stand out effectively against the dark shadows. The best-known sculptures here are of the madanakais, the bracket figures beneath the overhanging roof of the mandapa. Figures carved on pillar brackets are also a theme that continues from the art of the western Chalukyas of the Deccan. These are nayikas, or beautiful women, who are seen in Indic art from early times. They represent the fertile abundance of nature. The ornamentation and the fullness of the figures are similar to the idiom of the sculptures of nearby Kerala.

The sculptures are a celebration of beauty. The depiction of youthful maidens is considered by medieval texts to be an essential ornament of temples. Of all the themes presented by the Hoysala artists, dance appears to be the most favoured. One can see men and women dancing, with and without musical instruments. Almost all the deities can be seen in dance postures. This is a celebration of the beauty and the possibilities of the human form, which is imaged here as divine.

Animal friezes at the temple's base.-

The emblem of the Hoysala dynasty is a man killing a lion. This is based on the story of Sala, who was a tribal. He saved a meditating Jaina sadhu by killing a lion that was about to pounce on him. With the sadhus blessings, Sala rose to power and founded the Hoysala dynasty.

To create detailed images, the artists used chloritic schist, a stone that is appropriate for this work. It is very soft when quarried and becomes harder with exposure to air over a period of time. The softness of the stone made it possible for sculptors to chisel the minutest of details. The interior of the temple is as richly adorned as its outer walls. Each pillar of the mandapa is finely sculpted. Some have figures made on them, while other pillars are so smoothly chiselled that they appear to be lathe-turned. There is a central ceiling panel that is also carved in great detail. This is in keeping with the tradition of sculpted ceilings in North Indian temples. There are bracket figures of beautiful women in each corner of the central bay of the mandapa.

PROFUSELY DECORATED NAYIKA, Chennakesava temple. Nayikas represent the fertile abundance of nature.-

Some of the finest sculptures can be found on the pillars. The fluidity of lines and the subtleties of posture are remarkable. There is far less ornamentation on the figures, and they show a close relationship with the Chola idiom.

Many finely carved temples stand in the village of Halebid, known then as Dorasamudra, which was the capital of the Hoysalas. The profusely decorated temple of Hoysalesvara, built between A.D. 1121 and A.D. 1160, is the most prominent structure there. In the words of the historian Percy Brown, it is without exaggeration, one of the most remarkable monuments ever produced by the hand of man.

The Hoysalesvara temple has two separate but connected shrines made on a single platform. As in the case of the Chennakesava temple, the towers, or vimanas, are missing, giving the temple a low and flat appearance. Like the previous temple, the Hoysalesvara temple is profusely and intricately carved. No effort has been spared in creating a world of fine details and ornamentation, whose splendour also, perhaps, reflects the taste of the Hoysalas, who were hill chieftains. It is certainly very different from the simpler and graceful forms made under the Chalukyas and the Cholas.

AUSPICIOUS MAIDENS HAVE been an essential feature of Indian temples and stupa railings since the very earliest of times.-

There are miniature vimanas and grand dvarapalas, or guardians of the doorways, at the shrines entrances. The carving is dazzling in its minute work and wealth of detail. The dvarapalas stand in swaying postures and are heavy in the abundant portrayal of natures life force. Past them, one enters the spacious interior of the temple. The polished and carved pillars are reminiscent of the temple at Belur. The ceilings are, again, richly carved.

What strikes one the most in ancient Indian art is that though deities, animals, plants and common people are depicted, there are no portraits of kings or other specific individuals. Of course, for a brief while, such portraits came to be made during the rule of the Kushana kings, who hailed from far away China. In the late 12th century, in schools of art such as this, there were still no portraits of kings. In Indic belief, it is the ego that is the main source of all the pain and confusion in the world. The object of art is to help one realise the oneness and divinity of all existence.

PARSVANATHA JAINA TEMPLE, interior, Halebid. The stone pillars are so perfectly made that they resemble lathe-turned ones.-

However, by this period, and more so in this school of art, a change occurred. Artists, who earlier preferred to remain anonymous, now inscribed their names upon their works. However, a stylistic analysis shows that one cannot distinguish the work of one artist from another. As in earlier Indic schools of art, it is a collective style rather than individual ones. The region had a tradition of ivory and sandalwood carving, which continues to this day. Hoysala sculpture was probably influenced by this form of miniature art.

The shrine at the Santinatha Jaina temple, Halebid.-

The lowest section of the temple wall has rows of reliefs of animals and birds. Elephants stand for stability and power and have traditionally been made at the base of the temple as if to hold it up. Lions symbolise the courage with which one must face the confusion and turmoil of the material world. The care and patience of the artist is seen in the fact that no two lions are alike. In the upper sections of the relief, practically the whole Hindu pantheon is depicted, with an emphasis on the forms of Siva. Also on the walls are scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the main episodes of the Bhagavata Purana. By the 12th and 13th centuries, another change occurred in Indian art. Unlike before, numerous representations came to be made of the machinery of warfare. There was a new emphasis on depicting chariots and soldiers in extraordinary detail. This is also reflected in Konark in Orissa. This was quite unlike the art of the previous 1,500 years and reflected the new and urgent importance given to military preparedness in this period.

At Halebid are also finely sculpted temples made to the Jaina Tirthankaras. In keeping with the Indic tradition, there were no barriers to the patronage of temples of the different paths towards realisation. Many queens and generals of the Hoysalas were Jainas.

The Kesava temple at Somnathpur was made in A.D. 1268. The vimana of the temple survives and gives one an idea of how the modest-sized towers of Hoysala times would have looked. The emphasis was on profuse sculptural decoration rather than height. The three shrines of the temple have almost human-size figures of Vishnu in different forms. As Venugopala he is seen in his incarnation as Krishna, playing the flute.

THE TOWER OF the Chennakesava temple has fallen so its original architecture cannot be appreciated. However, this 12th century temple is profusely covered with ornate sculpture.-

The Hoysala temples mark one of the most exuberant periods of Indian art. The artists of this time must have been among the most assiduous in their detailed work and the most prolific in their output. The stylisation in medieval Indian art is marked here with less of the naturalism that was seen before. While every fingernail is carved, the breath of life, which animates much of Indian sculpture, has given way to profuse ornamentation, one that displays the grandeur of the Hoysala court and empire.

SCULPTED ANIMALS IN the lowest tiers of the frieze of the Chennakesava temple.-

The art of the ancient period was an art of the people. Guilds of artists created the great caves and stupa railings and the sponsors were numerous shopkeepers, merchants, farmers, housewives, monks and nuns. The purpose of the art was to move one away from all worldly concerns. In the medieval period, with the direct patronage of kings in the making of temples, the art changed. Instead of the early, free and frolicsome world of nature, it began to convey the grandeur and ornamentation of the royal court. Hoysala art has a singular style, where ornamentation is a principal object of the art, unlike the divine grace of the Chalukya period.