My stomach is growling. I duck into a dim-lit hole in the wall. The powerful aroma of the southern spices makes me dizzy. I gorge on the softest of idlis dipped in the spiciest of sambhar. I pay for my lunch. A mere 20 rupees. 40 cents. Then I walked through the 900 year old majestic Dravidian gopuram of the Chennakeshava Temple. Life is beautiful.
The couple of decades of the 12th century is an empty slot on the shelf of world history.
Egypt is in early Islamic ages. The best of the years are already 2000 years behind them. Fatimid’s have recently fortified what is today known as Cairo and have already lost it to Ayuubids. America does not exist on the western map. The Anasazi in Mesa Verde have not yet moved into the cliff alcoves. They are content in their mud roof Kivas. Europe is in the middle of a thousand year darkness. England on one hand, is busy fending France and on the other, launching crusades to free Jerusalem. The papacy had not yet returned to Italy. Florence has not tasted Renaissance. In distant Cambodia, Angkor Wat is still on the drawing board as the Khmer regime aggressively expands. China had a population of a hundred million, already the most populous civilization. The Ming dynasty that will give the world the finest chinaware is still a 150 years away. The Easter Island statues were modern constructions. What is happening in Australia, is simply not known.
Standing in front of me is a temple complex that was taken up for construction that decade.
Like most temples in Southern India, this is a temple complex. A main beautiful temple surrounded by many other beautiful temples.
For a Sunday afternoon, the crowd is very light. A noisy group is escorting a just-married couple for heavenly blessings. The chaperoning nymphets are teasing the shy bride simultaneously making flirtatious eye contact with the bridegroom’s friends. An elderly couple is sitting slumped, shoulders touching - more for reassurance than support. Elsewhere, the local drunk is sprawled using an antique carving as a pillow. A vagrant boy is whooping after an irritated mongrel.
Back in 1117 CE, Vishnuvardhana does not leave a single stone unturned, no pun intended. The victory over the Cholas at Talakad has established the Hoysalas as a prominent dynasty. Vishnuvardhana mints new coins, starts practicing Vaishnavism, and commissions the Chennakeshava temple. (Threatened that this would make Belur more prominent, the merchants and royal patronage of Dwarsamodara - as Hallebid is known then – would soon commission the Hoysaleshwar temple).
There is a famous cliché in this area. Enjoy Belur from inside and Hallebid from outside. Here I am outside the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur and it is beau-ti-ful.
The extraordinary detailing of the walls boggles the mind. The star shaped jagati (platform), a novelty then in South Indian architecture, puts the relatively compact central structure on a pedestal.
Time to go in.
Beautifully decorated entrance to the Chennakeshava temple flanked on either side by sculpture of “Sala slaying the lion”
As I step inside the gabhara (the inner sanctum), the schist fights the heat and drops the temperature a delicious 10 degrees. A tang of camphor, essence sticks and flowers releases the mind. The eye takes several seconds to get used to the holy darkness. Sunlight is streaming through 28 latticed windows carved out of stone, each with a distinct pattern. The only other source of light are the wick-and-oil earthen lamps in the inner sanctum.
Once I am 20-20 again, I realize I am surrounded by ornate pillars, each made out of a single block of stone. All those years ago, the stone is first hewn into a rough elongated rectangular block. Then it mounted and fastened to a horizontal wheel and turned slowly. Several chisels are applied to get it into a cylinder. The chisels are then gradually pressed in to the the desired shape. The expert craftsmen finally handcraft the intricate details. The 48 unique pillars seem to exist for the sake of their beauty, not to support the roof.
Even an atheist like me thinks if there is God, this is where he would be.
48 pillars, each one with a unique design inside the Chennakeshava manthapa
This pillar, once upon a time in antiquity, moved on a central ball bearing. “No longer,” the guide whispers wistfully. He is not the only one whispering. Everybody around us is speaking in low hushed tone.
I walk around the pillar until I find the spot. A small area, a few square inches, left uncarved. Is the master craftsman is humbly acknowledging that his work cannot be perfect? or is he left the space as a challenge to anybody who think they can better him?
I notice the main pillars under the vaulted roof are special. Carved on them is a voluptuous celestial damsels adorned with hundreds of very well detailed ornaments. The priest looks at me, hands folded, not sure what all the fuss is about.
I shell out Rs.10 (25 american cents) for a government official to switch on a floodlight and point it at the roof. Beautifully carved and well preserved. Money well spent on a nuanced legacy bureaucratic idiosyncrasy.
In Europe, the umbilical between the art and the artist is never snipped. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Michelangelo’s Pieta. Brunelleschi’s Dome. Ghilberti’s Doors.
The Indian artist, on the other hand, is largely faceless. The prevailing practice at the time, ensured their names were buried with them.
Hence it is refreshing to see Vishnuvardhana allowing artisans sign their names and their place of origination on many of the sculptures in the temple.
I head out think I am heading back to the KSRTC bus stand in Hassan. Little did I know, the Hoysala’s had uncorked another vintage for me nearby …