I start from Hassan at 6:30 AM. There is a chill in the air. The sky is heavily overcast. While that reduces my chances of capturing the golden rays on a 900 old temple, I can photograph the exteriors through the day without having to worry of the harsh shadows that a sunny day would produce.
The town is just about waking up when I pull into Hallebid. The first pot of tea is being boiled on the just lit kerosene stoves. The roads are being swept with handmade brooms of dried coconut leaves creating huge clouds of dust. Sleepy eyed kids scatter grains for the chicken.
The temple courtyard is empty. I have beaten the day-trippers to it. I have an ancient site all to myself. For sometime anyway.
Hoysaleshwar Temple at Hallebid, in the Hassan district of the southern state of Karnataka in India
In the 11th century, Southern India is in a state of turmoil. The breakaway Western Chalukyas have ruled for a century. The bitter and constant turmoil with the Cholas has severely depleted the state resources. The kingdom is war-fatigued. A tribal chieftain called Nripa Kama , a tough mountain man, distances himself from the Chalukyas and quietly lays the foundation of a dynasty and an empire that will put perpetually Karnataka on the world map – 900 years before outsourcing. The Hoysala dynasty survives until the 14th century before it is laid to waste by the Mughals. For the first 80 years of the rule, the Hoysala kings stay under the radar of neighboring kingdoms judiciously building a harmonious kingdom.
Then Vishnuvardhana comes into power in 1108 CE.
Vishnuvardhana comprehensively beats the Cholas at Tallakad. In celebration, he started building the Chennakeshava temple in Belur. The merchants and royal patronage in Dwarsamodara (as Hallebid was known then) are fearful that the Chennakeshava temple will make Belur a more prominent city. Threatened, they unite under Ketamalla, a commander under Vishnuvardhana, and commission the Hoysaleshwar temple at Hallebid. The temple building starts somewhere between 1119 and 1140CE.
The temple is under construction for the next 86 years and is still considered to be incomplete. The temple is the antitheses of the Great Pyramid. The sheer size of the pyramids makes your jaw drop. The apparent detailed knowledge of right angles and hypotenuses, thousands of years before Pythagoras, blows the mind. Yet, there is nary a sculpture or carving in Giza. As if the effort in the structure was so monumental, neither the architect nor the builder had any energy left to think about aesthetics. Hoysaleshwar is structurally a simple rectangular box, 200 feet at the lengthiest and not very tall. With the most basic of the structure, heart and soul is poured in detailing every visible square millimeter.
Northern entrance to the Hoysaleshwar temple, Hallebid.
The temple is built on a raised platform (Jagati pronounced Jug-uh-thee)perhaps an attempt to raise the rather diminutive temple. While the platform provides a circumambulatory for the religious, it opens up amazing angles for the the photographers. (Centuries later Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinctive style would include a raised platform.)
The star shaped platform of Hoysaleshwar temple.
The platform is star shaped. The star shape is created by starting with a square and then rotating it twice, clockwise and anticlockwise by about 15 degrees. This simple innovation does two things. It gives the temple thrice as many corners. Corners that architects all over the world, new and ancient, love as the changing angle of the walls provides prime real estate to break the tempo. It also increases the total circumference providing more surface area to decorate.
I realize, without the walls zig-zagging, the onlooker would be inundated with several contiguous feet of intricate carving. The star shape shape creates nooks and niches that help focus attention on smaller portions of carvings at a time.
Beautifully detailed exterior of Hoysaleshwar temple, Hallebid.
The temple is profusely sculpted. The carvings are exquisite and extremely detailed. At the time, northern India was under the Mughal rule. Temple building activity in the North has come to a grinding halt. The sculptors are flocking south to find their daily bread.
Hoysalas provided them shelter and use them extensively in their ambitious temple building spree. The sculptors bring with them different styles and the confluence serendipitously gave rise to a distinctive Hoysala architecture.
Hand lathed pillars
The temple extensively uses hand lathed columns, in the porches on the east of the temple as well as in the main manthapas. The pillars inside have more intricate carvings than outside, with no two pillars similar to each other.
Besides being a place of worship all those years ago, the temple is a meeting place for head council, an evening hangout for a commoner, a theatre for music and dance aficionados.
At this early hour, with barely a soul in site, I experience the lighting of the first lamp of the day. A peep inside the camphor smelling dark sanctum reveals an ancient Shivalinga guarded by stone dwarapals (sentries)
The temple has two inner sanctums, as was the Hoysala style of building temples. This sanctum is dedicated to Queen Shantala Devi. She is renowned for her ethereal beauty. She is also an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer and frequently practice here. The stone behind the heavily vermillioned Nandi (the bull) is said to have been polished by her nimble footsteps.
I head out again. After all, one of the famous clichés here is you enjoy Belur from inside and Hallebid from outside.
1200 detailed jewels on the statue
My feet paused at this sculpture. Every jewel - about 1200 of them- has been detailed to the last millimeter . They are a living catalog of the 12th century Tiffanys. I cannot not take my eyes off it. I am sure the craftsman needed a decade to finish the statue. The amputated arms are a shorthand for “The Mughals have been here”. Either it is Malik Kafur in 1310 CE or Mohammad Tughlaq in 1326 CE. Even in the frenzy of destruction, the soldiers leave this statue alone, merely knocking off the two forearms.
The walls outside are decorated in bands. The elephants at the bottom, symbolizing strength. No two elephants around the 800 feet perimeter of the temple are alike. Above that, horses for speed. Then a band that depicts scenes from Ramayana, followed by mythical animals and birds. Every wall has a story and every story is worth hearing. It is important to be accompanied by a knowledgeable guide and a lot of patience.
One can only imagine this place at the height of its glory, a glory it enjoyed until Malik Kafur sacked it. It would be around then that the beautiful Dwarasamudra became Hallebid (or Hallebedu which means a ruined city). Hoysalas move their capital to Belur until the dynasty is extinguished in the mid-14th century. Two captains from the Hoysala army, Hakka and Bukka, created an empire that would to be another golden chapter in the Indian history. That empire would be called Vijaynagar.
I promise myself I will be back here, fully knowing it was a promise I may not keep. There are a 149 more such surviving Hoysala temples, each one more beautiful, within a few hundred kilometers of each other. Hoysala was one of hundreds of dynasties of Southern India. There is a lot more to see in India. Repeat visit is a not a luxury, It is a privilege that I can only hope to enjoy.
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Here are some of my favorite details.
The statue shows a dead bull in a battle. I love the way, the sculptor has decided to cross section the ledge to show the dangling tongue.
There is an ancient saying in Marathi. Loosely translated it says that for a boy at 16, every girl is gorgeous. This sculpture shows a well formed nymphet with a face of a donkey, yet the testosterone laden lad seems unaware.
A soldier peering through what appears to be a telescope while a battery of scud like missiles shower down on him.