Where divergent styles merge

One of a Kind

Where divergent styles merge
Davanagere district is known for its emerald green rice fields, industries, and of course,  benne dose. But not known to many is that it is the region where different architectural schools came together resulting in unique temples with unusual plans. Unfortunately, their remote locations keep them away from tourist circuits.

Nilagunda is a village in the Harapanahalli taluk of Davanagere district. It was an important village during the reign of the Kalyani Chalukyas as it was in the proximity of soapstone quarries. It is referred to as Nirgunda in the inscriptions found at the temple. Nirgunda could be the name derived from the plant nirgundi, whose flower is offered to Lord Shiva. It could also be a reference to its location beside a lake — nir (water) and gundi (pond) in Kannada. There are many stones erected in the Bheemeshwara Temple’s compound with inscriptions on them. The earliest inscription found near the temple is dated back to 1087 CE and mentions lands being granted to Brahmins from the south, and this could mean that Nilagunda was an agrahara.

Rare confluence

On the outskirts of Nilagunda village, set on a tank bund, is the Bheemeshwara Temple built by the Kalyani Chalukyas in the 12th century. The location of the temple is such that winds reflect off the surrounding hills and is cooled by the nearby lake. As a result, you don’t feel the summer heat.

The east-facing temple is constructed in trikuta style and has three garbhagrihas one each on the west, north and the south. All three have their own antarala (vestibule) and share a common closed sabhamantapa (pillared audience hall). A mukhamantapa (front pillared porch) is attached to this sabhamantapa. A shrine dedicated to Surya (sun god) is attached to the mukhamantapa on the east. Only the central east-facing shrine has a superstructure which is an amalgamation of different styles, and the temple is considered as a non-mainstream Kalyani Chalukya temple with Hoysala influences. This temple represents the phase of transformation from Kalyani Chalukya to Hoysala style and is hence an important specimen of temple architecture in Karnataka.

While the northern and southern shrines are bereft of idols and superstructures, the western garbhagriha houses a linga representing Shiva and the deity is known as Bheemeshwara. Its doorway has Gajalakshmi as the centrepiece of the lintel and the dwarapalakas are flanked by female chauri-bearers at the jambs. The antarala doorway is profusely carved with dwarapalakas at its jambs. The makaratorana (lintel flanked by mythical creatures) has an exquisite representation of the Hindu trinity — Shiva with Parvati, Ganesha and Kartikeya are in the middle, Brahma with Saraswati on the left and Vishnu with Lakshmi on the right. There’s an intricately carved Gajalakshmi again as the centrepiece of the doorway just below the makaratorana. The doorways are a proof of superior sculpting quality of the time.

There are four subsidiary shrines around the western garbhagriha in the sabhamantapa. They house Saptamatrikas, Ganesha, Mahishasuramardhini and a Yaksha. There are four ornate pillars on a raised floor at the centre of the sabhamantapa whose roof is simple yet well carved. There is also a nandi placed here facing the west shrine. A large idol lies resting against one of the pillars of the sabhamantapa. It depicts Narayana in a seated position with Lakshmi seated on the folded leg. Unfortunately, some of the projecting hands have been vandalised. 

The outer walls have niches with repetitive designs. There are a few sculptures of gods which have been ravaged by wind and water. The sculpture of Ugra Narasimha is noteworthy. The vimana is well decorated with kirti-mukha motifs and sculptures of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara in various forms. Overall, the temple seems like it was finished off in a hurry because the main doorway to the sabhamantapa is bereft of any ornamentation in contrast to the other doorways and the outer walls have some plain niches prepared for carving.

A lone caretaker rests in the front porch and he too, like the locals, knows nothing about the significance of the temple. He pointed to the board put up by the Archaeological Survey of India when I prodded him for information. A few broken sculptures strewn around are the mute witnesses to the ravages of time on this temple.

Nilagunda is located about 30 km away from Harihar and 10 km from Harapanahalli. There are interesting architectural wonders nearby like the Harihareshwara and Mahishasuramardhini temples at Harihar, the Kalleshwara Temple at Bagali and the Mallikarjuna Temple at Kuruvatti.

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