Taking the road less travelled

Taking the road less travelled

Bewitched by Hoysala architecture, Chitra Ramaswamy embarks on an exploration of some of the less-known edifices built by the Hoysalas

It is late December. The misty fragrance of the season, blending with the aroma of lush rural Karnataka, is beckoning. Having visited the famed Hoysala tourist circuit of Belur, Halebeedu and Somanathapura, we decide to explore some of the less-known but equally marvelous edifices built by the Hoysalas. Most of these structures lie cheek-by-jowl with flourishing villages, squired away in the remote areas of the State. Unfortunately, these ASI-protected monuments, unsung wonders of eras gone by, wear a desolate look.

Temple-building was at its zenith in Karnataka during the Hoysala reign between the 11th and 14th centuries. Several hundreds of them adorned the landscape of Karnataka during this period. While most of these edifices succumbed to the ravages of time and invaders on rampage, a few tens of them have survived, and are in a fairly good state.

What better way to begin the tour than with Halebeedu itself, but not the Hoysaleshwara Temple for which it is renowned! Yes, a stone’s throw away, but cut off from the tourist circuit, we come upon two sets of temple complexes: three Jainalayas that bespeak the glory of the Hoysalas, and the Kedareshwara Temple, built and patronised by Hoysala king Veera Ballala II and his queen, Ketaladevi.

The three basadis dedicated to Adinatha, Shantinatha and Parshvanatha stand regal even in ruins, but see few visitors. An 18-feet-tall idol of Parshvanatha, sculpted from black stone, adorns the sanctum sanctorum of the main basadi. A seven-hooded serpent hovers above the deity. The basadi, once named Dhrohagharatta Jinalaya, was renamed Vijaya Parshvanath Basadi, since its construction coincided with the victory of Ganga Raja, the commander of Vishnuvardhana Raya. Incidentally, all the basadis were built by Boppadeva, son of Ganga Raja, in memory of his father, and also to commemorate the victory of King Vishnuvardhana Raya.

The unique style of Hoysala architecture is immediately palpable as we enter the Kedareshwara Temple precincts. It displays the characteristic innovative ornamental embellishments and its walls are picture galleries, dense with carvings. We observe the typical scheme of the overall design of Hoysala temples in the star-shaped raised platform upon which the main temple is erected.

Visual feast

The platforms are sufficiently spacious to enable devotees circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum while tourists and art lovers move around to savour the life-like sculptural delights that the exterior walls contain. The carvings on the exterior are arranged thematically in horizontal tiers. As in most Hoysala edifices, here also, elephants adorn the lowest level, symbolic of strength, as they hold aloft the entire structure. Horses, floral scrolls, scenes from Indian mythology and the puranas make up the other horizontal narrow bands while larger figurines bedeck the upper reaches of the wall, sharing space with cornices, turrets and eaves. Unlike most South Indian temples, the Hoysala temples are neither very tall nor do they have a huge gopuram towering over the landscape. Bereft of colour, their appeal lies in the exceptionally detailed friezes adorning the walls, the ornamental lathe-turned pillars and the lavish profusion of delicate carvings on the dome-shaped ceiling of their assembly hall.
A gentle breeze ruffles wisps of corn and paddy plants as our car rumbles along a mosaic of dramatic landscapes as we move on to Doddagaddavalli, the birthplace of the veena maestro, Doraiswamy Iyengar. The Lakshmi Temple, set in scenic pastoral, was built in the 1100s during the Hoysala reign of King Vishnuvardhana. This is one of the earliest Hoysala temples, constructed by Kullahana Rahuta, a merchant, and his wife Sahaja Devi. The temple is unique in that it is a complex of four shrines that face the cardinal directions, not seen in South Indian temples until then. The star platform is absent and each of the shrines has a pyramid-shaped tower, only one of which is adorned with motifs typical of Hoysala architecture.

Lakshmi Devi, the presiding deity, stands in all grandeur, three feet tall, holding aloft in each of her four hands, the conch, discus, rosary and mace. The doorway sculptures are exquisite in their rendition. The ceiling of the main hall, inscribing the quartet of shrines, is supported by 18 lathe-turned pillars, and reveals carvings that reflect workmanship of the highest order. 

We are greeted by a pair of ornate elephants at the main entrance to the temple at Belavadi. The temple has three shrines, each with its own tower. One of the best and largest examples of Hoysala architecture, the temple is a visual feast. It is seven gates to heaven, and walking through a huge navaranga or assembly hall, the ceiling of which is richly bedecked with narratives from the Mahabharata, we come upon the presiding deity Vishnu, in the form of Veeranarayana, resplendent in silk robes and jewels. On either side of Veeranarayana are shrines dedicated to Krishna as Venugopala, and Yoganarasimha in the sitting, yoga posture.

Legend has it that Belavadi, known as Ekachakranagara during the epic period of Mahabharata, is where the Pandavas lived after escaping from their Kaurava cousins. A unique feature of this temple is that on Summer Solstice on March 23rd every year, the rays of the sun cross the seven gates of the temple, to gently fall on the deity in the main sanctum sanctorum!

Tall trees crowd the highway and form a gray-green tunnel through which we drive to reach the picturesque village of Javagal, 20 km from Belavadi. The plain temple exterior belies the wealth of artistry within. Scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata spring to life with dramatic effect before us.

The temple dedicated to Lakshminarasimha manifests all the characteristics of a typical Hoysala structure, with its star-shaped platform, lathe-turned pillars and the plethora of figurines and bas reliefs of gods and goddesses, apsaras, epic heroes and animals. Unlike some of the Hoysala temples of the medieval period that were massive, the predominant element at Javagal is the ornamentation. The trademark Sala-slaying-the-lion figure is conspicuous by its absence. The upper segment of the temple wall portrays towers and turrets on plasters representing Nagara and Dravidian temple forms in miniature, a characteristic unique to the temple here.

Unique features

The temple comprises sanctums for Sridhara, Venugopala and Lakshminarasimha. This is the only Hoysala temple that has a shrine for Vishnu as Sridhara. Though Sridhara is the temple’s central deity, over time, the temple has come to be known by Lakshminarasimha, the presiding deity. Legend has it that the statue of Lakshminarasimha was buried some place in the hamlet of Harihareshvarabetta, upon which a cow would empty her udder everyday. Further, the god is also believed to have given a vision to King Vishnuvardhana, beseeching him to install his idol appropriately. The high priest of the temple rues that Brahmotsava is the only event that draws some public attention to the temple.

Our last halt on this temple trail is Mosale, a farming village about 15 km from Hassan. After travelling approximately 10 km on the highway, we take a right turn into the narrow village road that is tarred and muddy in stretches, flanked by fields on the one side and mud-brick village houses on the other.

At the head of a narrow alley flanked by houses on either side, the twin temples dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva stand in all grandeur, though they wear a deserted look. Tucked away in nondescript environs, it is obvious that the temple has few devotees and fewer visitors. Upon seeing us, a couple of friendly locals rush to summon the temple priests. The duo of temples is undoubtedly hidden gems on the art map of Karnataka. Though humble in size, bereft of the star-shaped platform and assembly halls, the exterior walls display a profusion of sculptures in true Hoysala style.

The anaemic sun is sinking through a sky that is slowly turning red, pink and peach as we bid adieu to a segment of India’s rich heritage. But not without the heavy feeling that funds for the routine maintenance of these jewels in the crown of Indian architecture are hard to come by though they have been declared protected monuments. It is unfortunate that these treasures from the past are not being adequately maintained for posterity.

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