Divine, mythical allure

Divine, mythical allure

In our awe of gods and heroes, sometimes, we forget to look at the beautiful people around them. Gouri Satya describes these celestial damsels and their significance in our heritage.

 The Hoysala temples first seem to have been a blank slate, upon which numerous instances from life and beyond were carved, with precision and perfection. Among these carvings, the abundant presence of decorated young women in different postures, or apsaras, is noticeable.

 These intricately carved images throw light on life during the Hoysala period. We see how women were decking themselves up in a glamorous manner, with a variety of ornaments, beautifully designed attire and elegant coiffures. They were also good dancers and played musical instruments with ease and expertise.

The Hoysala craftsmen have tried to make these celestial damsels as realistic as possible, while at the same time, adding artistic beauty to these images. Apart from the salabhanjikas and bracket figures (madanikes) in the niches, the latter being the best among these beauties carved by the Hoysala masters, there is a variety of gracefully depicted young nymphs on the outer walls of the temples, which attracts attention of both the devout pilgrim and the mildly interested visitor. 

There are so many of them, that a visitor can just view them casually while circumambulating the temple, admiring these carvings or the women to whom the master sculptors have given life on stone. Courtesans have been in existence from days of yore. The Mahabharata and the Bhagavatha Purana also mention these angels. The latter refers to 45 apsaras while the Rig Veda refers to Urvashi. It is little wonder the Hoysala master craftsmen too chose to depict these devdasis, the dasis of Gods, on their temple walls in the later period between the 11th and 13th Centuries.

History repeats itself

Carvings of such young maidens, however, are not the exclusive gift of the Hoysala sculptors like Mallithama, Malloja, Dasoja and others. Paintings and carvings of such richly decorated sensuous women are found even in ancient cultures like Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Roman, Mayan and Chinese.

They have also been found during different dynasties that ruled India, like the Guptas and Cholas and even during the era of Indus valley civilisation. Carvings of the Hoysala architects have further contributed to this marvellous artistic tradition that has come down to us through the ages. 

These carvings of seductive women in various dance postures or playing a variety of musical instruments on the walls of the Hoysala temples or interiors could be any of the apsaras, the Gods, chiefly Indra, had in their courts. On many panels, one can see these apsaras on either side of the image of a deity or as part of a retinue. 

The bewitching Mohini, who provoked Bhasmasura to destroy himself, is perhaps the only carving that has been identified among so many courtesans seen on the walls of these temples. It is significant that Mohini stands in attendance near Chennakeshava, the chief deity, in the Belur temple. 

If images of Gods and Goddesses evoke religious feelings, these young and charming damsels transport us to the world of art. Of course, both are inseparable parts of totality (poorna). Apsaras are a special class of water deities. They are described as “irresistibly beautiful women who would entice men to consort with them and eventually lead the heroes to destruction.”

These beauties are also accomplished in music and dance. Some ancient dynasties are supposed to have descended from the temporary union of some particular apsara with a hero. They do not marry and settle down to lead a normal family life. 

Mythological references

Even in our Puranas, we have stories of apsaras like the famous demi-Goddess Menaka, enticing the meditating sage, Viswamitra, resulting in the birth of Sakuntala, and another apsara, Urvashi, trying to court Arjuna. Indra is said to have had 26 apsaras in his court. They include the famous Urvashi, Menake, Rambhe and Tilottame. They are said to have taken birth during the churning of the ocean (Samudra Manthana).

These stories of pauranic apsaras add credence to the theory of courtesans, who acted as paramours of Gods in their heavenly court or of kings in the royal harem. It is these courtesans who bathed for the pleasure of their kings in the royal baths, like the one in Hampi following the example of gopis of Lord Krishna in the river Yamuna. These secondary deities are the gopis of Gods and kings.

Vatsayana, author of the famous text, Kamasutra, devotes an entire chapter to courtesans and lists 64 qualities they should possess, including singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, drawing, writing and even fighting and wrestling. 

The Hoysala artists have not failed to attribute these qualities to their angels and nymphs – singing and dancing, drawing and writing, fighting, wrestling, and more. We find these celestial beauties on stone engaged in such arts. 

As one stands before these gandharva kanyas, the irresistible heavenly beauties, depicted on the walls of Hoysala temples, one cannot help but fall in love with them.

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