Hoysala heritage

Print edition : April 25, 2003

S. Settar, historian, on the history and craftsmanship of Belur and Halebid temples.

Considered the twin jewels of Hoysala art and architecture, the Chennakesava and Hoysalesvara temple complexes of Belur and Halebid respectively in southern Karnataka are among the most frequented tourist destinations in the State School excursion groups, back-packing foreign travellers, middle-class tourists from other parts of the country, families from nearby villages who come to pray and to admire the sculptures... there is an endless flow of tourist traffic to Belur and Halebid. And although there is not much on offer either in English or Kannada by way of popular guide books on the temples, not a visitor returns without feeling both exalted and humbled by the sheer beauty and craftsmanship that find expression in these temples.

The Chennakesava temple complex, Belur at sunrise.-

Around 1,500 temples in 958 centres, according to historical records, were built during the Hoysala period - between A.D. 1000 and A.D.1346. What spurred this energetic temple-building activity, and what was the historical context within which it took place? Who were the craftsmen and artisans who built these temples? What are the salient architectural and artistic features of the temple that the interested lay tourist should be alerted to, and how best can they be appreciated? Professor S. Settar, a distinguished scholar of the social, cultural and intellectual history of ancient and medieval Karnataka, and a specialist on Hoysala history, answers some of these questions in an interview to Parvathi Menon at the Belur and Halebid temples. Professor Settar, who currently holds the S. Radhakrishnan Chair at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, was Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research and former Director of the Institute of Art History.

It is important for visitors to the temples to equip themselves in a general way with some historical information about what they are going to see, Settar says. Unfortunately, there is not much available by way of popular and reliable guidebooks to the monuments. The Karnataka Tourism Department has not been able to meet this pressing requirement.

The Hoysala sculptor, Settar remarks, worked with an understanding of the role played by light and shadow on the carved walls. Photographing Hoysala sculpture is a challenge in itself as its richness, variety and configuration appear to conspire against the photographer. The photographs by Javed Khansalar, a Bangalore-based photographer, capture the temples in their detail and many moods.

(The main entrance to the Chennakesava temple complex is crowned by an ornate gopura or tower, built in the Vijayanagara style. Within the complex, the main temple of Chennakesava lies in the centre, facing east, flanked on its right by the Kappe Chennigaraya temple, and a small Lakshmi shrine. Set back on its left is an Andal, or Ammanavara temple. There are two graceful Garuda sthambhas, or pillars, in the main courtyard. The sthambha facing the main temple was built in the Vijayanagara period, and the one to the right of the temple was built by the Hoysalas.)

What is the historical context in which the temple was constructed and how did this influence its architecture?

In Belur in the 12th century was initiated a new style of temple architecture, which was new to the Gangavadi region, that is, the southern part of Karnataka. With the construction of this temple, Belur entered the history books, I mean, the history of architecture, religion and design.

The ruler who built this temple was Vishnuvardhana, who succeeded to the Hoysala throne in the first decade of the 12th century and completed this (temple) in A.D. 1117. He had a specific purpose in mind in constructing this temple. He was a subordinate of the western Chalukyas who later declared his independence from them. By liberating himself from their political authority, he also wanted to excel them in their own field. The result was the remarkable temple which certainly overshadowed the Chalukyan achievements in the field of arts.

Salabhanjika attendant with the signature of the artist at the base, Belur.-

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". He says that the main temple was built to celebrate his liberation from the Chalukyas. It was a declaration of his sovereign status.

That is why he called the deity Vijayanarayana, a name later changed to Chennakesava. Later myths suggest that he built this temple after he was converted to Sri Vaishnavism by Ramanuja. But the records do not support this. He built three temples in this complex - the Vijayanarayana, the Kesava and the Lakshminarayana.

There are 118 inscriptions in the temple complex, belonging to a period from A.D. 1117 to the 18th century. They record details of the construction of the temple, the artists employed, the grants and endowments given, and the renovations to the temple.

Mohini image on one of the pillars in the Navaranga hall, a fine but atypical representation of Hoysala sculpture revealing the influence of the Chola idiom on Hoysala art.-

If as you say Vishnuvardhana employed Chalukyan artists, then how does Hoysala sculpture mark a departure from the Chalukyan style?

Belur is the first temple built after the Hoysalas became an independent dynasty. The artistic vocabulary is still Chalukyan because the artists are Chalukyan. The walls are still not over-decorated, but in later temples this changes. Since the Hoysalas wanted to better the Chalukyas they did this in a variety of ways. Over-decoration may be the result of this.

In Belur, however, the tendency to over-decorate is not pronounced. Compared to what follows, for example at the Somnathpur temple, this is carved more discreetly. The artists have left uncarved spaces where required, although there is the beginning of exhibitionism here - the door jams, for example, are very elaborate. Here on the outer wall, the sculptures are not overdone. They are articulate, yet discreet with a dominating aesthetic element. If you go to Somnathpur you would see that everything is overcrowded and the sculptural elements suffer a great deal. There is an eagerness to confirm to a pattern, and there the art becomes craft. Hoysala artists had a weakness for minutia. Everything, down to a finger nail or toe nail, is done in perfect detail, as if the artist believed that the visitor would miss nothing.

Carved and polished pillars, each distinct in design and dimension from the other.-

The madanika carvings are among the most striking architectural features of this temple. Do they have any particular significance?

The madanika or the salabhanjika concept is very old, going back to Sanchi and the Buddhist legends. There is a fascinating symbolism that links the chaste maiden with the sala tree through the rite called dohada, or the fertilisation of plant life through the contact with women. The madanika concept drifted away from the main theme, and in course of time the madanikas became decorative pieces, put at an angle in the temples, so that those who circumambulate the temple could look at them and enjoy them. They served a specific architectural purpose as bracket figures. We rarely come across erotic madanika figures, but there may be nudes here and there. They also exhibit artistic skill. For example, as musicians, instrumentalists, drummers and dancers.

Among the free-standing sculptures in the temple there are several of a soldier slaying a lion. What do they represent?

The outer wall of the Chennakesava temple.-

This is the image of Sala. By virtue of this heroic exploit he becomes the leader of the tribe and gradually emerges as the king. More myths were built around him. For example, he killed the lion, which was ready to pounce on a meditating muni who in turn blessed him by giving him the power to rule. Such myths legitimise dynastic rule. The Sala symbol was Vishnuvardhana's creation and became the Hoysala symbol or crest, from his time.

How important is religious iconography in the Belur temple complex?

In the Belur temple, there is religious iconography but no sectarian extremism. There is tolerance and accommodation of other sectarian deities. Here, you can see a Siva or a Ganesha in a Vishnu temple.

The Chennakesava temple.-

But in the Somnathpur temple, sectarian rigidity is dominant in the iconography. There is not one image that belongs to another sect, they are all Vaishnava.

There does not seem to be too many representations of scenes of daily life in the sculptures on the outside wall.

There is not much depiction of economic life, but some broad themes of daily life are reflected. For example, if you see the cavalrymen you will notice how horses were reined, what kind of stirrup was used, how horses were decorated... A variety of stirrups were in use by the 12th century and with them the mounted archer becomes an important element of the cavalry. Then you have dancers, musicians and instruments depicted in abundance. The weapons held by the gods and secular figures are of fascinating interest as they reveal things used in daily life. However, carvings reflecting social life in Belur are not as many, partly because the narrative panels are few in the Belur temple, when compared to Halebid.

In Belur and Halebid, there are many examples of artists signing their names under their work. Isn't owning of art supposed to be alien to ancient and medieval art traditions in India?

Panel depicting the Hoysala ruler Vishnuvardhana, his queen and his courtiers, at the Chennakesava temple.-

The general impression is that the Indian art is anonymous. In my studies, however, I have come across a large number of artists owning their art with pride. They sometimes reveal fascinating details about themselves, their families, their guilds, their places of origin and so on. The guilds played an important role in the early phase, but by the Hoysala period they had became loose associations of artisans, or what I call phantom guilds. Even though the guild disappears, its memory haunts the artist. Of course caste, craft and community associations continued and they regulated community life.

Despite the profusion of carving, erotic sculpture is not a prominent trend in the Hoysala style.

One of the important characteristics of the erotics of Hoysala sculpture is that it is not exhibitionist. The artists handle this theme discreetly, but at the same time don't avoid them. Most of them are in a miniature form and located in niches and less conspicuous places. The temple was expected to contain these things because during circumambulation, novices and newly married couples were supposed to be initiated into the secrecies and intimacies of life through these representations. Many of the nude representations were also associated with Shakta practices.

We are now inside the Chennakesava temple, in the Navaranga hall, and what is most striking are the beautifully carved pillars.

An image of madanika. An attendant is depicted as picking a thorn from her toe.-

This is an ekakuta, or single sanctum temple. The most interesting parts are of this hall are the pillars and ceilings. The four central pillars bear the madanikas. They are large, impressive, and very well carved. It is unlikely that these were lathe-turned pillars. Parts of the pillar were most definitely churned by hand.

One of the most remarkable of the sthamba-buttalikas (pillar images) is present here. It is in a class by itself and is a fine specimen of Chola art with some compromises with the Chalukyan idiom. There were clearly some Chola craftsman among the local artists, as there is a marked difference between the Hoysala sculpture and this.

Look at the fluidity of the lines and the subtleties of the body posture. There is far less ornamentation, and her expression and anatomy are more close to the Chola.

We are now at Halebid, at the sprawling complex of the Hoysalesvara temple. What is the history of the construction of this temple?

A rare and beautiful Garuda pillar erected in memory of a devoted officer of Vira Ballala II, at the Hoyasalesvara temple, Halebid.-

When the Vaishnava complex, with the most ornate of Vishnu temples emerged in Belur in A.D. 1117, it obviously converted Belur into the most enviable religious centre in the Hoysala kingdom, even overshadowing the metropolis, Dorasamudra, or present-day Halebid. This apparently provided some provocation to the wealthy and influential Saiva citizenry of Dorasamudra, who lost no time to muster resources and skills to construct a monumental structure for Siva in the capital. There is little doubt that the initiative, leadership and even a major chunk of the resources for the construction of the temple came not from the ruling king (as at Belur), but from the merchant-aristocracy, the prominent of whom were Ketamalla and Kesarasetti. This large temple was ready in A.D. 1120. Its construction was taken up probably soon after, or even before, the temples at Belur, and were completed in about five years. Interestingly enough it was named after the ruling king, Vishnuvardhana Hoysalesvara.

The history of Dorasamudra, the capital, begins in the middle of the 11th century with the excavation of a tank on the bank of which the Hoysalesvara temple was later located. This means that the Dorasamudra tank preceded the Hoysalesvara temple by about three-quarters of a century. Dorasamudra emerged as a cosmopolitan capital with the construction of the Hoysalesvara temple.

The Hoysalesvara is a far more interesting temple than the Vijayanarayana temple, and at least three to four times bigger. It is a double temple, massive in size with interesting adjunct-shrines for Nandi and Surya, taller, bearing a more ornate outer wall. In fact it was the largest Siva temple built by the Hoysalas and one of the largest and the finest in the history of South India.

The outer wall carvings of the Hoysalesvara temple are much more ornate and profuse than the temple in Belur. What are the features of this style?

A Ganesha image at the temple.-

The outer wall plastic schema of the Hoysalesvara temples is unique even within the Hoysala school of temple architecture. Because of the height of this temple, the architect-sculptor was able to create for himself more space, horizontally and vertically, and present a variety of relief sculpture.

The wall, as you can see, is divided into three sections. The lowest at the base contains eight regular rows of reliefs, and eleven in all, revealing a variety of animals (elephants, horses, lions, crocodiles) and birds (swans) and also ingeniously wrought scrolls interspersed with interesting miniatures. As amazing as the patience lavished here is the skill, for no two lions are alike in the entire span that covers more than a furlong (200 metres).

The wall is conceived as a picture gallery, intended to meet the needs of every one who visits it. The most remarkable achievement of the Hoysala artist is in the manner in which he has captured the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the main episodes of the Bhagavata.

No other temple in the country reveals our great epics as effectively and exquisitely as the Hoysalesvara temple. In the middle portion of the wall, the entire pantheon of Hindu divinities are presented. It is a manual of Hindu iconography, especially of Siva.

A striking feature at the complex is the sthambha or pillar at the rear of the Hoysalesvara temple with carvings of soldiers cutting their own heads or brandishing knives. What does this represent? It also had a large inscription at its base.

Different from the `Viragals' or hero stones that commemorated the death of a hero defending the land, cattle or the honour of women, are the memorials that were erected in honour of the faithful subordinates of the rulers. Shadow-like, they moved, lived and disappeared from the world with him. These lenkas (heroes) were called jolavalis (those indebted to him for food) and velevalis (those who stood by him at all times, and especially at the time of crisis). They served him like the Garuda, or the vehicle of Vishnu. Such heroes were known as Garudas and their memorials, Garuda pillars.

This rare and beautiful pillar, erected in honour of Kuvara Lakshma, a devoted officer of Vira Ballala II, who ended not only his life but also the lives of his wife and his several bodyguards after the death of his master, is found in the Hoysalesvara complex. The event is narrated not only in words but also in inimitable reliefs on the shaft of the Garuda pillar. "No one before," reads the record, "has set up such a vira-sasana as king Ballala's great minister."

There is a popular belief that Ramanuja came to meet Vishnuvardhana and brought him under the influence of Sri Vaishnavism. What do the historical records say?

Myths have grains of truth but most often they hide the truth in such a way that it is difficult to uncover it. Historical records do not support this, although the myth has become deep deep-rooted. In fact he never met Ramanuja seems not to have met Vishnuvardhana although he certainly visited the Cauvery-Kanva region,, and there is no evidence to show that he built this (the Chennakesava temple) exclusively for Sri Vaishnavas. The myth says that Vishnuvardhana built five temples for Narayana all at the same time, for which too there is no evidence. As he said in his own words, he built the Kesava, Lakshmi and Vijayanarayana temples to celebrate his victories and not to mark his conversion. In the same year he patronised a Siva temple in Halebid. But later on, it is true, that in his very first grant after constructing thisthe temple, Sri Vaishnava priests, along with the garland garland-makers, temple servants, artists and other members of the establishment, are also provided for. This, however, does not prove anything. It is only in the later part of the 12th century and in the 13th century that Sri Vaishnavas consolidated their position here. There was a settlement of Sri Vaishnavas in the region near Bangalore a hundred years before Ramanuja, . It and it is likely that he Ramanuja came to meet them as a religious and spiritual teacher.

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