Classic examples of Hoysala excellence in sculpture

The filigreed carvings of the magnificent monuments of Belur and Halebidu in Karnataka bring alive mythology, and the mores of the Hoysala period.

Published : Apr 30, 2021 06:00 IST

The Hoysaleswara  temple, Halebidu.

The Hoysaleswara temple, Halebidu.

THE Siva temple in Halebidu and its Vaishnavite twin dedicated to Chennakeshava in Belur, both in Hassan district of Karnataka, together present a stunning pantheon of filigreed Hindu divinities painstakingly carved out of stone. The extraordinary attention to detail and the intricate magic worked by chisel has turned a medium as stubborn and fastidious as stone into a delightful open-air museum of art. Built almost a thousand years ago, the structures are an eloquent testament to the refined aesthetic sensibilities of the Hoysala era. Despite the damages 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 remain almost intact today. In fact, the Belur temple, located around 200 kilometres from Bengaluru, has been a living temple with daily prayers offered to the presiding deity continuously through the past nearly 900 years. 

Halebidu, which was called Dwarasamudra, used to be the capital of the Hoysala empire that held sway over most of Karnataka and even parts of present-day Tamil Nadu. It was abandoned sometime in the 14th century when it was sacked for the second time by Malik Kafur, <FZ,1,0,12>and hence the name Halebidu meaning ‘old encampment’. Daily worship was reinstated in the Halebidu Hoysaleswara temple in the early 20th century although it attracts art historians, architecture lovers and tourists more than pilgrims.

The Halebidu temple

The Hoysalas were feudatories of the Chalukyas who ruled from Kalyani (today’s Basavakalyan in Bidar district) in northern Karnataka. The Hoysalas held sway over much of the Deccan from the 11th century onwards. When the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana ascended the throne in 1108, the kingdom moved away from the Chalukyan influence and asserted its independence with felicitous consequences for the world of art, architecture, sculpture and culture. The construction of the Halebidu temple, a classic example of Hoysala excellence in sculpture, was built around 1121 CE, with the patronage of Ketamalla Setti, a merchant in the realm. Additions were made during the reign of Narasimhavardhana, son of Vishnuvardhana. This style of architecture and sculpture began to dominate the structures built during the next 200 years all over 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 a precious peek into the mores of Hoysala society.

Hoysala architecture is influenced by the Nagara style. Art historians and researchers are still debating as to whether the style was brought by artisans from the north. Hoysala towns are typically 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 walled and fortified, evidence of which can be seen in patches even today in Halebidu. The town was self-contained with a grid of streets. Stepwells and temple tanks took care of irrigation. 

I visited Belur and Halebid in 2020, just after Karnataka lifted the lockdown. It was my second visit to these magnificent monuments. The usually bustling temple complex looked forlorn; its sprawling emerald lawns bereft of footfalls; the stalls selling souvenirs and food had been closed for want of customers. This gave me an opportunity to feast my eyes on the amazing works of <FZ,2,0,12>art at leisure and savour their exquisite beauty, unimpeded and in peace. 

I instinctively looked for the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag, which has crowned many lesser monuments all over the world, but was surprised to find that these outstanding structures had not yet made the mark. In fact, the UNESCO website acknowledges that art historians recognise the exceptionally intricate sculptural artistry of the two temples as masterpieces of South Asian art; it even claims that they have made the name Hoysala synonymous with artistic achievement. Yet, the two temples are only in the tentative list of heritage sites identified by UNESCO, awaiting final confirmation.

The 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 have been built on star-shaped platforms. The platforms themselves are embellished with friezes of mythical and contemporary creatures—yali, horses, elephants and hans  (swan) as well as processions of dancing maidens and tribute bearers. The effect is one of a richly woven border of a piece of silken apparel, one that embellishes and enhances the appeal of the sculptures that adorn the walls of the temples themselves.

The carvings, both on the pedestal and on the main outer structure, are intricate and rich in detail. Minute attention has been paid to the folds of the clothing, the intricacy of the ornaments, and the coiffures of the women that can rival the latest fashion in the contemporary world. Vahanas, or vehicles, used by the gods, such as Brahma’s hans  and Vishnu’s Garuda, and the serpent adorning Siva’s locks have been etched painstakingly, making them look life-like; and battle scenes depict the type of arms and armaments used in warfare during the period. The sculptures also bring alive daily scenes from a bygone era which might have otherwise been lost to posterity.

Stone pillars

A signature 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 may have been turned in a lathe although this is dismissed by historians as highly unlikely, which makes them even more remarkable. The pillars seem to be polished like mirrors, glinting off the rays of the sun at different angles. The plinth above the platform is truly a sculptural symphony of religious and cultural iconography. Gods and goddesses, familiar scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Srimad Bhagavatam, musicians and dancers, hunting scenes, games, processions, battle scenes, erotica, nothing seems to have been too complicated or too daunting to carve. Sinuous gods and goddesses in graceful poses, their rip<FZ,3,1,12>pling muscles visible through the folds of their richly ornamented attire, 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 fruits, all make you marvel at the length to which the sculptors have gone to make it look realistic. The dancing women’s lustrous hair is held together by choodamani,  an ornamental headdress, and the strings of musical instruments seem to throb, evoking unheard melodies. It was possible to carving such minute and intricate details on the chlorite-schist stone, quarried from the region. These stones were soft when quarried but hardened when exposed to air. This is why they have been preserved for posterity despite the passage of time when the elements must have wrought havoc on them.

The architectural plan of the Hoysala temples answered to the religious, cultural and ritualistic demands of the day. Halebidu has three sanctums to accommodate the ritualistic requirements, entailing considerable mastery over mathematical and engineering skills. The external walls have been designed as multi-pointed stars to create additional space and scope for sculptors to express their excellence. The interior—rangamandapa—is held up by four ornate pillars. The roofs are mounted with elaborately sculpted panels. The mandapa is spacious enough for staging dance performances and must have rung out with the sound of cymbals and anklets. 

Inscriptions on the site suggest the diversity of the professions of the donors who contributed not only to the construction of the temples, but also its daily upkeep, including the wages of the 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 sculptors. Dasoja and his son Chavana, who migrated from Balligrama in present-day Shivamogga district, find pride of place among <FZ,4,0,12>the sculptors who produced this marvel. There is a sprawling archeological museum in the precincts of the Halebidu temple. It houses artifacts from neighbouring temples of similar provenance. In fact, there are many Hoysala temples scattered all over the region, including Jain basadi s. (King Vishnuvardhana was a follower of Jainism before he converted to Vaishnavism.) 

The Belur temple

Belur, 17 km south-west of Halebidu and 35 km from Hassan town, is believed to have been the first capital of the Hoysalas. The Chennakeshava temple complex at Belur was the centre of a walled town on the banks of the Yagachi river. Construction of this temple commenced in 1117 CE and took 103 years to complete. According to inscriptions discovered on the premises, it used to be known as Velapuri. The Hoysalas even referred to it as the earthly Vaikunta or Dakshina Varanasi. Inscriptions list the names of artists and sculptors employed, grants made to the temple and the renovations undertaken. The Belur temple is dedicated to Vishnu and is equally richly embellished, not only with scenes from the Vishnu Purana, the Ramayana, etc., but also with Saivite deities.

The Chennakeshava temple’s doorway, guarded by Manmatha and his consort, each flanked by a  dwarapalaka , or doorkeeper, is strikingly ornate. On the lintel above the two profusely carved makara s is a panel depicting the flying Garuda. Above the Garuda is the man-lion, or Narasimha, tearing out the entrails of the demon king Hiranyakasipu. The floral and serpentine arches surrounding the panel are a study in stone filigree work.

Inside the Navaranga hall is a giant pair of sandals presented by the cobbler community. The saint-philosopher Sri Ramanuja was instrumental in ensuring that devotees of all castes had access to the temple premises, and the sandals commemorate this. The pillars holding up the Navaranga hall are square, octagonal, 16-sided, round, lotus-shaped, star-shaped or fluted and all are intricately carved. The lintels sport exquisitely carved maidens, some in dancing poses, one gazing into a hand-held 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 of Belur’s sculptures sport chatri s and are perhaps more degraded by the elements than those at Halebidu. Being a continuously worshipped temple since the 12th century has perhaps led to faster degradation of this monument.

Since this was a visit during COVID times, we had to rush back on the same day, driving four hours back to Bengaluru. But the Hoysala temples should be relished at leisure. Each stone has a story to tell, each sculpture, a seductive lore to share.<z_sym_square_bullet>

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