Feminine mystique of Belur

Feminine mystique of Belur

Gouri Satya describes the aura behind the perfectly-sculpted female statues at the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur.


The sculptural details on the walls of the Chennakeshava Temple, Belur is captivating. An aesthete is often drawn to this famous Hoysala temple town. The graceful statue of Chennakeshava, mesmerising Mohini, the four bracket figures and the details in the ceiling make the temple interiors most beautiful among the Hoysala temples, while the bracket figures, popularly called madanike, on the outer walls make me spend hours for their intricate details.

Pretty damsels

The madanike figures are famous for their grace and beauty. Each one of the intricately carved sculptures of women in different postures, salabhanjikas, displaying stylised feminine features, throw a magical spell for their splendid workmanship executed by master sculptors, some of whose names appear on them. The word salabhanjika has roots in Sanskrit, meaning breaking a branch of a sala tree. They are also known as shilabalikas, alasakanyas, devakanyas or apsaras. Salabhanjika figures are common in Indian sculptures.

The graceful sandstone sculptures representing young women in postures like dancing, playing on musical instruments, or grooming themselves, are richly ornamented, with complex hairstyles and abundant jewellery. The concept of a salabhanjika has emerged from ancient symbolism of fertility of plants through contact with a chaste maiden under a sala or asoka tree.

Women’s fertility also implies abundance and prosperity. Over a period, this symbolism of a maiden blossoming a tree by her tender touch underwent a change and salabhanjikas became figures of ornamental carvings. These carvings also serve as bracket figures placed at an angle inside or outside a temple, where devotees circumambulate.

While the interior ceiling of the 11th century Belur temple has four madanike figures, four of the 42 on the outer walls are missing. These youthful celestial dancers are depicted in various forms. Most of them are in tribhanga postures, body turned in three angles. On a few of these images, a legend seen at the pedestal mentions the name of the sculptor of that carving.

Worship of fertility is an ancient practice found in many civilisations. It symbolises cosmic creation, an eternal and auspicious process of nature. The beautiful or desirable in ancient Indian art is associated with fertility and auspiciousness. “What is auspicious is desirable because it is beautiful. The fact that beauty can awaken desire plays a crucial role in the cosmic creation. This double concept of beauty — as auspicious and as instigator of desire, contextualises the attitude towards women in Indian art,” says noted art historian Devangana Desai. Viewed from this angle, the voluptuous salabhanjikas assume significance in temple construction as divine beauties or surasundaris.

Swapna sundaris

Devi, in the form of ayoung damsel, kanya, represents blossoming maidenhood. There are also called young celestial nymphs or deva kanyas. Throwing their charm all around, they are playful and joyous. With them is associated vegetation — blossoming tender creepers and vines, flowers and trees, each one complementing the other.
The beauty of a young maiden arouses desire, a desire that is pure which can lead to spiritual awakening, which is a fundamental principle of tantric worship. It is apt to recall here the beautiful description of devi in Soundarya Lahari of Sankaracharya. It is with this significance the heavenly beauties find a place in temples, including many of the Hoysala temples, either in the niche of the columns or on the walls.

While these subsidiary shaktis are generally found on the outer walls of a temple, as fertility symbols and protectors, Mohini, is placed inside a temple. Mohini is the head of surasundaris; the queen of celestial nymphs. She is surottame. Hence, she is placed near the entrance to the garbha griha or the sanctum sanctorum. She draws the attention of a devotee first before he proceeds to worship the main deity. Together, the deva kanyas and their master, Mohini, lead the devotee to the divine presence of the chief deity in the sanctum sanctorum — a pilgrimage from material to the non-material.

The addition of voluptuous surasundaris in temple construction began around 800 BC when Vastu gained ground, though paintings of celestial nymphs — apsaras and musicians are seen in the 2nd century BC Ajanta Caves. They are found in a number of temples, including Angkor Wat in Cambodia. A temple without the figure of a woman is incomplete. It should be a combination of male and female symbolism to bear fruit. This is the idea behind adding the carving of a female deity in a temple.
These two-and-a-half feet images of surasundaris at Belur, are not installed just as decorative pieces. But, they have a spiritual significance. Each one of them carry deep messages that makes a trip to the temple a real pilgrimage to meet and surrender before the God, living in the main cell.

Apart from reflecting the social and cultural life of the period, with their abundant jewellery, costumes, musical instruments, dance postures etc, these madanikes also convey a message of reverence and sacredness.

Texts on Indian architecture mention 16 surasundaris in different poses like ‘a lady with a mirror’, ‘touching the sala tree branch’, ‘playing on a drum’ ‘dancers’, ‘a lady talking to a parrot’ etc, with specific names like darpana, torana, vidhichitta, mardala, nartaki shukasarika etc.

What’s in a name?

The madanike figures in Belur are, however, given names like darpana sundari, shuka sundari, vasantha sundari, sundari and kapi, bedithi, keshabandha, adhbhuta nritya, Durga nritya, Davane nritya, Venuvadana, Geethe, Mohini nritya, Rudraveenadhari, Keshapasha, Parnashabari, Poornamohini nritya, Vrishchika Mattu Yuvathi, Dwibhuja Sharada, Vyajana nritya, Nagaveena, Lasya nritya etc.

Apart from the 38 madanike figures between the eves on the outer walls, there are four in the navaranga hall inside, taking the total to 42. Significantly, there are 42 pillars inside the temple also. These four exquisitely carved figures on the corner columns in the ceiling eves excel even those outside the temple. They are known as madanike, Dwibhujadevi dance and Keshabandha.

A circumambulation of the temple, after seeing the graceful surasundaris and admiring the charming Mohini in the navaranga, my pilgrimage ends with a reverential worship of Lord Chennakeshava. I humbly return with a sense of awe and admiration wondering at the architectural excellence of the Hoysala craftsmen as well with a sense of divine contentment of having paid obeisance to the Lord supreme of Belur, Keshava the beautiful.


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