On the last leg of our tour of Karnataka we visited the temples at Halebid (Halebeedu) and Belur.
My friend Ananthakrishna was emphatic that our tour of the world famous temples of Karnataka would be incomplete without a visit to the most ornate temple at Somanathapura near Mysuru. We, therefore, included it in our programme.
Until we were there, the names Halebeedu and Belur were just stored in some obscure corner of the brain along with the history of the various southern dynasties, which had held high their flags of independence against the relentless onslaught of the Muslim invaders from the north. It is amazing that while fighting endless wars to protect their freedom, the rulers of these dynasties also built some marvellous temples that are among the most astounding expressions of human creativity seen anywhere in the world.
Once there, it becomes apparent in an instant why connoisseurs of art and architecture – both foreign and Indian – have been profuse in their praise of the architects and sculptors who built these temples and decorated them with wonderful carvings and figures. But the choicest superlatives in written treatises fail to express the feeling one has on visiting these sites.
If the grandeur of Hampi even in its ruins leaves the visitor spell bound, and the temple architecture of Pattadakal, Aihole and Badami strikes one with wonder, the architecture, designs and sculptures of the temples of Halebeedu, Belur and Somanathapura together are nothing short of a rhapsody carved in stone that overwhelms the viewer.
Here the artists seem to have gone ecstatic with their creative urge and, with gay abandon, decorated the grand edifices from their base right up to the top spires with sculptures and designs chiselled with the dexterity of a goldsmith.
The small town of Halebid or Halebeedu, meaning the “old camp” was the capital of the Hoysalas for 300 years since the 11th century, when it was called “Dorasamudra” or Dwarasamudra. It suffered repeated raids and plunder by armies of the Delhi Sultanate.
During their reign the Hoysalas built over 150 temples at various places, but the best known among them are the ones at Halebeedu, Belur and Somanathapura. The magnificent Hoysaleswara temple at Halebeedu took over 80 years to build.
The Hall of the Temple
As the Hoysalas converted to Jainism in the 10th century, it is only natural that they would have built some Jain shrines. Indeed the are several of them in Halebeedu, located close to the Hoysaleswara temple. One of these is the Parshvanatha Basadi dedicated to Lord Parshvanatha. It is particularly noteworthy for the extremely well polished pillars and the ornately carved central ceiling of the main hall. One wonders about the skill of the craftsmen who brought the pillars to such perfect a finish.
Lathe-turned (!) and carved pillars
The invading armies of the Delhi Sultans sacked and destroyed the Hoysala’s capital city of Dwarasamudra (Halebeedu). In 1311 it was invaded by Malik Kafur, who is said to have taken away camel loads of jewellery, gold and silver. In 1326, it was attacked and ravaged by the forces of Mohammad bin Tughlak. After the repeated attacks and the killing of the Hoysala king Ballala III in a battle against the Sultan of Madurai in 1342 the Hoysals were forced to shift their capital to Belur.
Here, as in Halebeedu, they built a number of magnificent temples of amazing architecture and sculpture. The most prominent of these is the Chennakeshava Temple. This huge edifice, dedicated to an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is indeed a masterpiece.
The Gopuram of the Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
Besides the innumerable sculptures of various deities, scenes from the Hindu mythologies or exquisitely carved designs, the Chennakeshava Temple is most famous for is 38 free-standing bracket figures around the outside of the temple and in the hall of pillars. These Madanikas or Shilabalikas, depicting women in various moods, are specimens of the wonderful imagination and skill of the sculptors.
Shilabalika figurines at the Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
The Kesava (or Chennakeshava) Temple at Somanathapura near Mysuru is the most well-preserved among the temples we visited. Built in 1258, this extravagantly ornate temple is a perfect example of Hoysala architecture. It is now a monument maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The entire outer surface of the temple, virtually every inch of it, is intricately carved with scenes from the Hindu epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The highly ornate panels depict various scenes from other mythological literature. This temple is so elegant in its design and so exquisite are its ornamentation that we would indeed have regretted it if we had skipped it.
The Chennakeshava Temple, Somanathapura
A day’s visit to these temples gives one just enough time to have little more than a cursory look at these unparalleled pieces of art, and we wished we could savour them at a more leisurely pace.
Even then, just a glimpse of these marvellous creations, which are among the richest heritage of India, indeed of the whole world, leaves one wondering about the mindboggling skill of the architects and sculptors who toiled for years to produce such masterpieces under the active patronage of the Hoysala kings.