Eclectic architecture, elegant features

Eclectic architecture, elegant features

Temple-building tradition

When the distinguished sculptor Dasoja and his talented son Chavana migrated from their native land of Balligrame (modern Balligave in Shivamogga district) to Belur in the early twelfth century, they were only two among a multitude of artisans from various lands who moved into Hoysala land.

The Hoysalas were still nominally feudatories of the Chalukyas of Kalyana when the Hoysala ruler Vishnuvardhana built the Chennakeshava Temple at Belur in 1117 CE; but he was beginning to assert the military prowess which would see the Hoysala dynasty overthrowing their overlords and emerging as independent rulers in the late twelfth century. The Chennakeshava Temple was the first large architectural undertaking of the Hoysalas, and attracted artisans from far and wide, many of whom have left their signatures on their creations.

Though the then existing temple-building traditions in the Hoysala heartland derived from the Tamil Dravida, the new rulers favoured the architectural traditions of the Kalyani Chalukyas. Dasoja, Chavana and others who came in from places like Balligrame, Gadag, Lokkigundi (Lakkundi), Banavasi etc. were familiar with the Vesara style of temple-building, which was an evolved version of the Karnata Dravida tradition pioneered in the 6th – 8th centuries under the Badami Chalukyas.

But were there artisans who migrated from far north familiar with the Nagara traditions in vogue there too?

Miniature shrines

Northern Karnataka has seen the handiwork of artisans from North India from the days of Early Chalukya rule. Nagara temple architecture at Mahakuta, Aihole and Pattadakal being good examples. After the Early Chalukyan rule, it is only during the rule of the Chalukyas of Kalyana that we see Nagara shrine-types again, in Karnataka temples. Though entire temples built in the Nagara style are not too numerous, the style is profusely employed in the miniature shrines which adorn the walls of Kalyani Chalukya temples.

Hoysala artisans too showcased their familiarity with the various modes of the Nagara style in the miniature shrines of their creations. The Chennakeshava at Belur, the very first magnificent monument of the Hoysalas, was built in the Nagara idiom. The tower of this temple does not exist today. It is surmised that this tower was built in brick and stucco over the sanctum of the stone temple. Though a photograph from 1869 shows a rather inelegant tower topping the temple, the architectural historian George Michell feels that this was probably a clumsy replacement of the original Hoysala tower. The original tower, built in the Bhumija mode of the Nagara style, is echoed in the superstructures of the subsidiary shrines flanking the entrance steps of the Chennakeshava Temple.

A typical Bhumija shikhara consists of a multitude of simple Nagara spires arranged in storeys, so that they look like beads in a necklace strung vertically, with tapering vertical bands called latas on four sides of this arrangement.

Other Hoysala temples built in the Nagara idiom, apart from the Chennakeshava at Belur, are the Saumyakeshava Temple at Nagamangala, the Sadashiva Temple at Nuggehalli and the Mule Sankareshwara Temple at Turuvekere. Interestingly, these temples are all exclusively built in the Bhumija mode of Nagara.

The Saumyakeshava Temple at Nagamangala, built in 1170CE, too, has lost its Hoysala tower and currently sports a stepped tower built later. The Sadashiva Temple at Nuggehalli, built in the mid-13th century, has a unique Hoysala adaptation of the Bhumija tower as superstructure. Here, miniature Nagara towers are strung out along the eight latas of the tower, which is three-storeyed and rather squat in appearance. The crowning member, instead of the amalaka which adorns original Nagara Bhumijas, is a star-shaped squashed cushion-like component with projections corresponding to the latas of the tower.

Artisan’s signature

The Mule Sankareshwara Temple at Turuvekere was built in 1263 CE, by a Hoysala official called Somadandanayaka, who also got the well-known temple at Somanathapura built five years later. The temple has a tower which is another interesting adaptation of the Bhumija shikhara, by Hoysala artisans.

Miniature Nagara towers are arranged in storeys above the sanctum, and a squat, almost triangular central lata adorns the centre of each side. Here, too, the crowning member atop the shikhara is a unique cushion-like element with projections corresponding to those below on the tower. Interestingly, this temple is inscribed with the signatures of three artisans who worked on it, one of whose names - “Jakana” brings to mind the mythical Jakanachari.

There is another temple at Belur, which too has a whiff of the Nagara in its conception. The Sankara Temple is built in the Phamsana mode, but central latas and a Nagara plinth suggest that it was conceived as a Nagara form.

The Nagara temple-forms of the Hoysalas raise the important question whether they were built by northern Indian artisans who migrated to Hoysala-land. Michell feels that, given Hoysala engagements in Maharashtra and Malwa, it is quite likely that artisans from these regions migrated south to work on Hoysala temples. The doyen of temple architecture studies in India, M A Dhaky, however, opines that the artisans of “Hoysala-land had only the vaguest idea about what the Nagara form looked like.”

Architectural historian Adam Hardy, while conceding that it is possible that some Nagara specialists migrated to Hoysala land, feels that large numbers of local artisans would have trained alongside these, imbibing and transmitting the tenets of this non-native idiom to others.

Indeed, these Nagara temples of the Hoysalas hold important clues about the movement of artisans across the Indian subcontinent and the cross-fertilisation of ideas which have given us such a rich repository of monumental architecture as our heritage.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.)