Weekly Feature - Aug 20 1999
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©1996 K. Kannikeswaran
Tradition Meets Technology
Some of the most magnificent specimens of South Indian temples are those attributed to the Hoysala dynasty of Karnataka. How this powerful dynasty got its name is a tale that must have been narrated time and again. Hoy Sa'la meaning "strike Sa'la!", were the words spoken to Sa'la ( legendary head of this dynasty) to kill the tiger. Since Sa'la tackled the tiger single-handed and killed him, this heroic deed took the form of the dynasty's name. The rulers of this clan were called the Yadava Kings who ruled with tremendous power after having defeated the Chalukyas and rose above all to become the paramount rulers even over the Cholas and Pandyas in South India. The Hoysala dynasty originally had their capital at Halebid (about 17 kms from Belur) where they ruled for over 150 years. However, it was attacked by invaders a couple of times during the 14th century, reducing the once grand capital to poverty and ruins. Thus, the Hoysalas shifted their seat of power to Belur which stood proud as a powerful empire back then.
At a distance of about 220 Kms from the metro city of Bangalore, Belur is considered as the Banaras of South and is thus also known as Dakshina Varanasi. A small town located on the banks of River Yagachi , it is but very popular for its marvellous temples which are among the best if one wants to study temple architecture. They are an architectural delight and one can spend days drinking in their beauty. The Hoysalas were brilliant builders who developed a new style of temple architecture. They conceived their shrines as star-shaped structures and not the usual cubical form. In this concept of the stellate, the main temple at Belur, is a show-stealer. Among the Hoysala rulers, King Vishnuvardhana who was also responsible for defeating the Chalukyas, built this impeccable masterpiece of a temple. The serenity of Belur is attributed to the celebrated temple of Channakeshava. According to inscriptions, the temple was built to commemorate his conversion from Jainism to Vaishnavism. He signalised his conversion by the erection of many temples of unsurpassed excellence, of which the temple of Chennakesava was no doubt the best. There is also another version where the temple is said to have been built to celebrate King Vishnuvardhana's victory of Talkad over the Cholas.
Before learning about the major assets of the Channakeshava Temple, it is essential to understand that the temples built in those days were not just limited to the cause of worship and religion. Infact a temple was built for five reasons, where apart from religion, it provided scope for a justice court, a treasure house, an institution to impart ethical education and fostered our various arts including music and dance.
The first thing that catches one's eye, is the beautiful ornamental Gopuram of the Channakeshava Temple. It stands tall , giving a feeling that one is entering a grandiose royal court. As one steps onto the temple's sacrosanct platform, in a corner of the vast courtyard are tossed a golden horse and a temple chariot. The winged figure of Garuda, Lord Vishnu's carrier, stands at the entrance, facing the temple, its palms touching in homage. The main structure of the temple, which is a stellar, stands as a homogenous architectural unit on a raised platform. The entire structure with its intricate Filigree gleams like metal. Chloritic Schist, a light greenish soapstone, hard as granite was used to create the complex. Every possible surface is covered with the most perfectly proportioned figures. The main temple is surrounded by other small ones such as those of Soumyanayaki and Ranganayaki, beloved of Sri Chennakesava.
There are also temples built for Narasimha, Anjaneya, etc. King Vishnuvardhana's senior queen Shantaladevi, a dance legend herself, built a temple in similar fashion to the main temple, which was called the Channigaraya temple.
The surface of the temple exterior is intricately filled with horizontal friezes, sculptured in succession from the bottom. Stories from the Puranas, Upanishads and other mythological stories have been executed in the most authentic way. The
Ramayana and the Mahabharata also have been included. There are also friezes of a variety of creepers and cornices with bead work . The lowest frieze is that of a series of 650 charging elephants around the walls and are all different from each other. They symbolise stability and tremendous strength and are considered the weight lifters of the temple. Next come the lions which symbolise courage while the horses above them are for speed. The creepers signify beauty. Thus, every piece of work is significant, having a meaning.
As you look up at the corners of the temple exterior, you are left spellbound at the ultimate sculptural beauties, that adorn it. The bracketed figurines called the Madanikas or celestial nymphs are no doubt the highlight of the temple's magnificant architecture. Exclusive to Belur, the Madanikas lift the glory of the temple to unprecedented heights of excellence. And there are as many as 42 of them, of which 38 adorn the exterior walls while the remaining four are placed inside on the ornate ceiling. The Madanikas are said to be inspired by the beautiful Queen Shantaladevi, epitomising the ideal feminine form. The variety of poses and subjects that these represent is something to marvel about. Each depicts a mood and all are amorous. 'The Beauty with a mirror-Darpana Sundari', 'The lady with the parrot', 'The Huntress', 'The Bhasma-Mohini' are some of the favourites. All these and more are carved with utmost care and clinical precision, making them come alive.
On entering the interiors of the Channakeshava temple, at the entrance one cannot help pausing a moment to look at the trademark of the temples of Hoysa'la dynasty, the royal emblem. The story of "Sa'la" killing the tiger as though comes to life. He has been immortalised along with the tiger and thus this heroic act has became the royal emblem of the Hoysala dynasty. This emblem is found at the entrance of almost all their temples.
If the temple's exteriors are out of this world, it is almost impossible to describe the greatness of its interiors which is even superior architecturally speaking. The presiding deity is the manifestation of Lord Krishna or Keshava and is called 'Vijaya Narayana' here. The beautiful image stands six feet tall and was installed in the sanctum of the main temple in 1117 A.D. There are about 48 pillars of various sizes, shapes and designs , bearing testimony to remarkable artistry. Inside, even in the darkness, you can see the shining pillars, each unique in its own splendour. The most popular being, the Narasimha pillar in the Navaranga, unique in its filigreed splendour. It is said to have revolved on its ball bearings once. A small space has been left on it to be sculpted by anyone who has the talent. It remains untouched. The Mohini Pillar also deserves a special mention which has been carved with great care and proportion. Here again, the spotlight is forever focussed on the four Madanikas on the ceiling.
If one is willing to spend enough time at Belur, there is no end to the pleasures one experiences in gazing at the different mythological tales that these time-tested monuments have to narrate. The temples create magic during the early hours of the day, just before sunrise, when a tranquil atmosphere surrounds them. This is the best time to enjoy and understand the poetry of these stone images. The transition from dawn to after sunrise is also something not to be missed. Suddenly the temple brightens up bringing with it the liveliness of the local devotees, who begin to throng in, as part of a daily ritual. A total different mood sets in, that of colour and light.