Just another nondescript village in north Karnataka? Not quite, realises Meera Iyer, after she discovers the Someshwara temple, a 1,000-year-old Chalukyan shrine, and the dazzling Doddabasappa temple, a 12th-century structure, at Dambal.
Never trust first impressions. This was the lesson I learnt, once again, when I visited a place called Dambal in north Karnataka recently. Hot, dusty, dry, with a row of tea shops where knots of turbaned men sat nursing cups of tea while stray dogs snoozed under the trees. This was my first impression and I was puzzled and I confess, slightly disappointed, for I had been led to expect something else. But another turn of the road and I realised one must never take a nondescript village at face value.
In some parts of northern Karnataka, almost every village boasts of an ancient Chalukyan temple. But Dambal is special even by these high standards. On my left was the Someshwara temple, a 1,000-year-old Chalukyan shrine. On my right was the magnificent Doddabasappa temple, also from the Chalukyan period, but considered to be a precursor of the more ornate style of architecture that flourished under the Hoysala dynasty.
The Doddabasappa temple is a Shiva temple, named for the large nandi in its outer porch. It is thought to have been built in the early 12th century. A stone inscription that was found in Dambal refers to a Shiva temple that was built here in 1124 AD; some scholars believe this record refers to the Doddabasappa temple but that the temple’s foundations might be a few decades older.
The temple is built of grey-green chloritic schist, the same stone that the Hoysalas used to build their famous temples in Belur, Halebid, Somnathapura and elsewhere. Most earlier Chalukyan temples, on the other hand, such as at nearby Gadag and Lakkundi, were built of sandstone. Artistically inclined masons prefer working with chloritic schist because this stone is slightly soft when freshly quarried or wet, and so is easier to carve than say, sandstone. It becomes harder and more brittle when dry.
The switch to a softer stone allowed for some richly carved walls, especially when compared to the relatively plain Someshwara temple across the street. But where Hoysala temples are adorned with gods and goddesses, here, the temple and pillars are decorated with…little temples and pillars. A little below eye level, each angle in the wall has a realistic carving of a palm-sized single pillar. Just above eye level are more profiles of slender pillars, soaring up high in singles and in pairs, each topped with a carefully carved, multi-tiered temple tower. Although there are other decorations – including elephants and pudgy, playful ganas – it is the pillars and towers that dominate the decorations.
Renowned architectural historian Gerard Foekema writes that this kind of ‘architecture decorated with architecture’ was common in the period around 1,000 – 1,300 AD but is rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Indeed, you can see these motifs in many Chalukyan temples in northern Karnataka. But to my inexpert eyes, of all the Chalukyan temples I had visited, these unique motifs seem the most prominent and best articulated in Dambal. Star-shaped structure
Another commonality with the Hoysala temples is the star-shaped plan. British architectural historian Henry Cousens described the plan as taking a square and rotating it about its centre. If you stopped the square eight times as it rotated, you would get a 32-pointed star, and a plan of the Doddabasappa temple. But with so many angles and projections in the star, the temple looks circular rather than stellate. These projections are carried all the way through the vimana (temple tower) to the very top, so that both the temple and the tower are an artistic composition of angles and planes that I’m sure would be a photographer’s delight.
One of the earliest to photograph the Doddabasappa temple was Henry Cousens himself, in 1885. Cousens’s pictures show the temple walls and tower in a state of some disrepair, with shrubbery growing on them. His pictures of the Someshwara temple show a shrine surrounded by trees, looking as if it were set in a forest glade. Today, both these temples are under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India. The shrubbery has gone and the temples now look well-maintained. But I wish a little of the earlier sylvan surroundings could have been retained, instead of the manicured lawns that have now been laid around the temples.
But why would anyone – king, general, merchant or religious leader – build such a grand temple in so tiny and remote a hamlet as Dambal, which has little more than a clutch of houses to its name? That would be because the Dambal of yore bore little resemblance to the Dambal of today. Around a thousand years ago, this village was a fortified town that went by the name Dharmavolal, or sometimes Dharmapuri and Dharmapura.
If you were to take a walk through the town in those days, you would have heard Buddhist chants, Jain mantras and Hindu slokas fill the air, for all three religions thrived here and had patrons among the wealthy. Inscriptions refer to several Shiva temples that were built here, including the Swayambhu, Malabeshwara and Kalmeshwara. Of these, only the Doddabasappa and the Someshwara temples remain. Nothing remains of the temple dedicated to the Buddhist deity Tara, which was built with contributions from several merchants, including some from the nearby town of Lakkundi. Nor do we know where the Buddhist vihara they also built was. Other inscriptions record gifts of gold that some wealthy people made to a Jinalya, or Jain temple, in Dambal. In fact, a few historians have suggested that the Someshwara temple could have originally been a Jain basti.
Was this why the Someshwara temple was so plain and dull, I wondered. But then I remembered: hadn’t Dambal just taught me not to trust first impressions? And indeed, though the Someshwara temple is far more muted and lacking in embellishments than its dazzling neighbour, this 1000-year-old temple has an atmosphere that grows on you. The forest that once surrounded it may have long gone. But here, you can still feel its quietude and serenity upon you.