Echoes of the powerful Hoysala dynasty – Belur

Almost 4 hours from Bangalore are the twin temple cities of Belur- Halebid in Hassan district of Karnataka. The road was good for almost 75% of the journey which is always a blessing and there were huge maps put up by the tourist department at two points along the route, displaying all important places nearby for wanderers like ourselves.

We went first to Belur to see the Chenakesava temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu built around 1117 CE. The beautiful carvings are all done in soapstone, which is extremely malleable when it is freshly quarried ( just like soap) allowing a sculptor to carve the most minute of designs with minimum of effort.

Chenakesava Temple, Belur.
Chenakesava Temple, Belur.

As soon as one enters the complex, it is a pleasant surprise to see the vast temple complex extending all around the main temple. Usually, temples are squeezed into narrow plots with little room to sit and enjoy the atmosphere of the temple.  One can almost imagine, crowds of villagers gathering here in all their finery to attend some festival or mela, and laughing, singing and dancing in abandon all those centuries ago.

The larger structure on the right of the photograph is the main temple and to the left is the Kappe Chennigraya Temple.

The Main Temple - Belur
The Main Temple – Belur

Although, I had just seen some old temples at Gujarat, I was immediately struck by the clarity of the soapstone carvings here. They are sharp and maintain almost all their details thus making it easier to understand the artists work.

The carving of Garuda, over the entrance to the main temple
The carving of Garuda, over the entrance to the main temple

Garuda was the vehicle of Vishnu and hence guards his front door. On top is Narsimha tearing apart the demon Hrinayakashyap alongwith the various incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The two carvings flanking the panel are apparently crocodiles and not elephants as I had assumed.

Incarnations of Lord Vishnu
Incarnations of Lord Vishnu

The first sculpture is Narasimha as he slays the demon Hriyankashyap while the second is the craving of Lord Vishnu in his Varaha avatar with Bhudevi sitting on his shoulder as he tramples a demon under his feet. They are both very interesting mythological stories that explain why Lord Vishnu had to take these forms to save the world. It was also fascinating to see the different renderings of the same image in one temple itself. For example, the Narsimha over the main door is different from the one above that was on the side wall.

Carvings on the main temple complex
Carvings on the main temple complex

I believe the first sculpture above is of Daksha, one of the sons of Brahma and the father of Sati, wife of Lord Shiva while the second sculpture is a bearded Lord Brahma. The third one is a complete mystery to me.

Depictions from the epics
Depictions from the epics

That’s Arjuna, shooting the eye of the fish on the extreme left. The others may well be similar characters from the epics.

 Lord Shiva and Nagas
Lord Shiva and Nagas

The first is Lord Shiva in an avatar that I have never seen before. He is dancing on the head of  a demon who had taken the form of an elephant and was subsequently killed by Lord Shiva. This form of Shiva is known an Gajasurasamhara, a name I was not familiar with. The other is of the Naag and Nagini, the king of the snakes.

Apart from these sculptures there are umpteen Salabhanjikas in various forms all over the interior and exterior of the temple, alongwith motifs of elephants, lions and horses on the horizontal frieze bordering the entire temple complex. I didnot takes photographs inside the temple but then I found a great photography site which featured great shots of the interiors as well as the exterior of the temple called Sandeep Photography.

After, visiting this temple, I feel as if I want to take up reading the epics in all their unabridged forms. Maybe I will.

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