Off the beaten track at Halebid

Travelogue


The Kalyani at Hulikere, said to be the childhood abode of Sala, the tiger-slayer. Photos by Meera Iyer

It was a breezy afternoon atop the rocky outcrop called Bennegudda hill in Halebid. In the distance, behind a clump of trees, we could discern the famed Hoysalesvara temple, the cynosure of all who came to Halebid. But we were there looking for the lesser known Halebid and for traces that hinted at the town’s past as the resplendent city of Dorasamudra (also called Dwarasamudra), capital of the Hoysala dynasty for almost 300 years.

Like any other capital city of yore, Dorasamudra, which became the Hoysala capital in the late 11th century, once had a fort. Reports of the erstwhile Mysore Archaeological Department indicated that a vast fort once encircled the city and that parts of the fort were visible in several places, including near the Hoysalesvara temple. And indeed, one of the places to see the merest hint of the old fort is between the temple and the lake, where you can see huge stones placed together to form a wall.

Hoysalesvara temple

However, it took a lot of imagination for the mind’s eye to see a grand fort based on the remains we saw, and we repaired, somewhat disappointed, to the obviously still grand and splendid Hoysalesvara temple (built about 1121 AD) to cheer ourselves up.  In its heydays, the Hoysalesvara was not the only temple, nor even perhaps the main temple in Dorasamudra. Near the college (which reports speak of as being where the palace once stood!) and just behind the Tourism Department’s hotel lies the vast Nagaresvara temple complex, which historians believe may have been the heart of the capital. Five temples lay clustered together in this complex, three of them on a north-south axis.

Excavations in the 1980s revealed the plinths of temples with the typical Hoysala star-shaped plan and the hallmark breathtaking sculptural scrolls. Archaeologists found that three of the temples were accessed by one large mahadvara or entrance. One of the temples was found to be a Jaina shrine.

All that remains of the Nagaresvara temples today are the basements, with scattered pieces of pillars, beams, and even the base of a linga lying around. Laid low by invaders, desecrated by vandals, the site is ignored by all but a few residents of Halebid who graze their cows, goats and buffaloes among the deserted ruins.

Bastihalli’s Jain temples

Other Jain temples still stand in Halebid, in the area known as Bastihalli, where there are three Jain temples, the Parsvanatha basti, the Adinatha basti and the Santinatha basti (1196 AD), all within one large enclosure. A long inscription near the entrance to the Parsvanatha temple mentions that since the temple was consecrated when king Vishnuvardhana was celebrating a battle victory in 1133, the deity was named Vijaya Parsvanatha. The temple was built by a son of a minister and general of Vishnuvardhana.

Bastihalli long seems to have been hallowed ground. In fact, the oldest inscription from Halebid was found behind these temples and dates to the mid 900s, during the Ganga period. Archaeologists and historians speak of the many temple mounds and ruins of Jain bastis that were found behind the three extant temples. One 15 foot image of a tirthankara that was found here in several pieces was reassembled and now stands in the open air museum near the Hoysalesvara temple.

Next up was one of my favourite sites in Halebid, the Kedaresvara temple, built almost a hundred years after the Hoysalesvara temple, by Ballala II and his younger queen, Abhinava Ketala Devi. The temple is a three-celled structure with a linga in one of the cells, but no worship takes place here. Though a mere 800 m away from the older temple, this little temple does not attract a swarm of tourists and its charm lies, in large part, in its utter solitude.

Fergusson’s interest

Writing in 1865, the eminent British architectural historian James Fergusson lavished praise on the builders of the ‘Kait Ishwara’, saying that if it were possible to illustrate it “in anything like completeness, there is probably nothing in India which would convey a better idea of what its architects were capable of accomplishing.”

Like in the Hoysalesvara temple, the large sculptures of gods and goddesses on the outer walls, more than 150 of them, can keep one engrossed for hours. Arjuna shooting at the fish during Draupadi’s swayamavara, Narasimha in all his terrible glory, Shiva and Vishnu in various forms, they are all there. Lovers of sculpture will also enjoy the epic narratives in the scrolls along the walls. I particularly liked the depiction of Bhishma dying on his bed of arrows. The Kedareshvara temple that Fergusson knew had a gopura over it, but with a tree growing out of it. Fergusson remarks that a small amount of money was all that was needed to restore the temple and adds that “as the country is ours, it is hoped the expenditure will not be grudged”! Undoubtedly, the expenditure was not grudged by the Maharaja of Mysore (in whose territories the temple actually lay!) for photographs taken in 1886 show the temple tower free of offending vegetation. But the tower collapsed at a later date and today, like the Hoysalesvara, this temple has no superstructure.

Village of Hulikere
Our last stop was at Hulikere, three km from Halebid, a village accessed by narrow roads that almost peter out into nothingness, and where people stop to stare at unexpected tourists. Inscriptional evidence points to a temple and a tank having been built here in the 1100s, by a certain Chattaya. We did not see the temple, but we found the tank at one end of the village. Women from adjoining houses stopped by to collect water for their washing and chatted with us about how deep the tank was and how beautiful.
We could only take their word for it, as the rains had filled up the charming little tank so that we could only see the tips of the famed sculptures.
We did not get around to asking if the women knew of the story of the founder of the Hoysala dynasty, tiger-slayer Sala. Distinguished historian S Settar writes in his tome on Hoysala temples that traditionally, Hulikere is where Sala is said to have stayed in his younger days. 

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