Spectrum: Depicting art and faith

The unique features of the five Vishnu temples in the State, called as Pancha Narayana Kshetras, consecrated by Ramanujacharya

Under the patronage of Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana, philosopher and social reformer Ramanujacharya built five temples dedicated to Vishnu, with Narayana as the presiding deity. These temples have come to be venerated as the Pancha Narayana Kshetras of Karnataka. The temples in the order of their consecration are Thondanur Nambi Narayana, Melukote Cheluvanarayana, Veeranarayana in Gadag, Keertinarayana in Talakadu, and Vijayanarayana or Chennakeshava in Belur.  

Distinctive features

The sprawling temple of Nambi Narayana is set in the midst of sylvan surrounds in Thondanur or Thonnur. The temple, built of granite, is a blend of Chola and Hoysala architectural styles. The sanctum sanctorum has a Garuda pedestal on which stands an east-facing 1.82m tall deity, Nambi Narayana, carved out of a single saligrama stone with a kavacha made of panchaloha. Since Lord Narayana himself is believed to have graced Thondanur Nambi, a palegar of this region and disciple of Ramanujacharya, the deity goes by the name Nambi Narayana.

The ceiling of the dancing hall, called Shantala Nritya Mantapa, holds a delicate carving of Srichakra, surrounded by the ashtadikpalakas sculpted in characteristic Hoysala style. The ardhamantapa has the padukas of Ramanuja and, the seat from where he is believed to have delivered sermons to the five of his chief followers. A horizontal band on the pedestal on which the seat rests depicts sculptures of these disciples and the lion symbol of the Hoysalas. Several distinct features distinguish this temple from other Vaishnavite temples in South India. Traditionally, the image of Vishnu holds the chakra (disc) and shankha (conch) in the right and left hands respectively, but the deity here holds them in reverse order – the conch in the right and the discus in the left hand.  

The stone deepastambha in the open complex appears to be centrally placed when viewed from the temple interior. However, the same appears to the left of the main entrance doorway when seen from the temple’s garden complex. This is another unique feature of the temple. White Gulmohar (Delonix elata), which is the sthalavriksha (sacred tree of the temple), is said to have medicinal properties and is sought by devotees to get relief from inflammatory joint disorders, abdominal pain and scorpion bites.

Royal patronage

Cheluvanarayana Temple in Melukote is a plain, large temple built on a square-shaped piece of land. However, the pillars that hold aloft its long entrance are ornamented with sculptures depicting the pantheon of gods, and episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Having received royal patronage from the beginning, the principal deity, Cheluvanarayana, is richly embellished with jewellery.

A 1.5 feet high bas-relief of Raja Wadiyar with folded hands adorns one of the pillars of the navaranga. The Wadiyar kings, it is believed, presented to the Lord, gold crowns set with precious stones, known as Rajamudi, Krishnarajamudi and Vairamudi. The crowns, kept in the custody of the Government at Mandya district treasury, are brought out once in a year on the occasion of a celebration that has come to be known as Vairamudi Brahmotsavam. The festivity that takes place in March or April is a crowd-puller.

Warrior god 

Ramanuja installed Veeranarayana in warrior form as evidenced by his garb, the dhoti, worn as veerakacche. Though the temple itself was built in the 11th century during the period of Kalyani Chalukyas, it continued to receive patronage till the time of Vijayanagara rulers. 

The architecture of the east-facing shrine, which is located within a huge complex, is an interesting blend of Chalukya, Hoysala and Vijayanagara architectural styles. While the main entrance gate of the temple follows the Vijayanagara art form, the Garudastambha and rangamantapa conform to the Hoysala style. The sanctum sanctorum and the tower on top of it reflect rare models of Chalukyan sculpture.

At the temple entrance is the towering Garudastambha behind which lies the Okali well. A stone statue of Garuda with folded palms faces the Vaishnava triprundras close-by. A pair of stone elephants with broken tusks appears to be pulling the structure. A pillared hall opens into a courtyard that houses the aesthetically sculpted temple on a stellar platform, characteristic of Hoysala architecture. Lathe-turned, embellished pillars adorn the main hall leading to the trikuta structure at the centre of which is the presiding deity, Veeranarayana, facing east. 

The deity in battle-ready posture is five feet tall and holds in his right and left upper hands, the disc and the conch. His lower right hand is in Abhayamudra, while in his lower left hand, he holds the lotus in bloom. To his right is a gada (mace). He is flanked on the sides by 1.5 feet tall Sridevi and Bhudevi. It is believed that Kannada poet Naranappa, better known as Kumara Vyasa, composed Kumara Vyasa Bharata in this temple by invoking the blessings of the Lord. 

Ornate designs

Ramanuja installed the idol of Keertinarayana in Talakadu, 62 km from Mysuru. The idol, in a standing posture, carved out of saligrama stone in Hoysala style, adorns the sanctum sanctorum. The deity rises from a Garuda pedestal to a regal height of 10 feet, flanked by three feet idols of Sridevi and Bhudevi on the sides. Similar to Nambi Narayana at Thondanur, Keerthinarayana also holds the conch and disc in reverse order. The Lord’s consort, Sundaravalli Thayar, is to his left, while on his right are idols of Ramanuja and a couple of his disciples. Vishnuvardhana built the temple following his victory over the Cholas in the 12th century. The temple underwent renovation in recent times. 

Keertinarayana Temple, the only temple in Talakadu to have been constructed in the Hoysala style of architecture, is an ekakuta structure with a single garbhagriha, sukhanasi, navaranga — all axially arranged in the east-west direction. Ornate doorjamb and lintel at the entrance of the sanctum, and lathe-turned pillars in the spacious hall supporting a ceiling that is bedecked with floral designs are other features of the temple.

Poetry in stone

Chennakeshava Temple stands on the banks of River Yagachi and its ornamental temple tower faces Belur’s main street and looms large over the town’s landscape. As we enter the huge complex, we are greeted by the tall stone pillar which miraculously balances on its centre of gravity. The precinct, which has multiple shrines with the main one dedicated to Chennakeshava as Vijayanarayana, is an art connoisseur’s delight. The monument is famed for its sculptural brilliance, especially of the 42 bracket figures known as madanikas or salabhanjikas. These celestial nymphs, chiselled in myriad mirthful moods, reveal intricacy of carving with precision. 

Typically adhering to the Hoysala architectural style, the temple features the star-shaped platform, zigzag pattern of walls filled with figurines, carved doorways, lathe-turned pillars, and pierced window screens that ensure ample ventilation and lighting inside the sanctum. The exterior walls of the sanctum are picture galleries that portray human faith and emotions in their every shade. The shrines also have detailed carvings of the scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, perhaps not seen anywhere else in the country.

In true Hoysala style, there are tiers of friezes at the base, each level of which is thematically sculpted with marching elephants, lions, and warring horses. Above these narrow horizontal bands are rows of life-size idols of the pantheon of Hindu deities, dancers, musicians, hunters and soldiers, depicting the lifestyle of the era. 

While historians concur on the fact that the construction of the temple that began in 1116 AD took 103 years to complete, the reasons for its construction are debatable. While some believe it was built to commemorate King Vishnuvardhana’s victory over the Cholas in the Battle of Talakadu, others attribute its construction to the commemoration of the king’s conversion from Jainism to the Vaishnavism, inspired by its founder Sri Ramanujacharya.

An inscription in the temple affirms King Vishnuvardhana’s faith in Vaishnavism with the words “with faith in Lord Vijayanarayana, called Chenna.” According to a verse in the Ramanuja Divya Charitam, Ramanuja deputed Mudaliyandan, his chief disciple, to inaugurate the temple. No matter what the reason for the temple’s construction was, its magnificence is hypnotic. It is built of fine-grained soapstone and its plan is an artistic amalgam of geometrical symmetry, architectural precision and a randomness of sculptural opulence that reflects uniformity in asymmetry!

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Spectrum: Depicting art and faith

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