Monday, October 4, 2010

Belur Temple: Makaras, Soapstone Masterpieces, A Little Rain

Our next stop was the Chennakesava Temple, about 40 KM from Hassan. Hassan is souless, muddy, and distinctly unwelcoming, but it is also a decent connecting point if you're intrepid enough to use public transportation to get from temple to temple. (I wasn't).

The incredibly smooth and circular pillars within. Hard to believe it's all soapstone and not some sort of poured metal.

The temple is Hoysala, like most of the historical monuments in this part of the world, and was commisoioned by the remarkably tasteful King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 CE. No one is entirely sure why he comissioned this temple- theories range from an architectural brag over victory in battle to a sudden (and pricy) conversion from Jainism to Vaishnavism - but everyone is happy that he did. Chennakesava is one of the true highlights of Dravidian art. The sculptures within remind the viewer of black and incredibly supple metal, as they have been polished and aged to a metallic gloss. They're actually made from soapstone, which provided a soft and easily worked medium for the small army of artists who worked on the complex.

Here, be interpreted.

Although the temple is rather small, the unbelievable detail of the figures - deities, animals, and people - within makes it a remarkably absorbing destination. You could spend hours in here with a magnifying glass and discover thousands of new things, and never get bored. The statues within were intended to represent every facet of life, from the mundane to the superlative and divine, and the temple succeeds in its mission: you'll find images of chariots, dogs, and day-to-day goings on interspersed with images of Shiva, Narasimha, and other iconic Hindu figures.

Well, if you could get the opportunistic and ignorant "guides" who prowl around here to leave you alone. (They are as common as cockroaches in India and just as impossible to kill or permanently drive off. Resign yourself now.)

The entrance to the complex features this huge Vijayangara-era Gopuram. It definitely bears a remarkable resemblance to the one in Hampi's Virpukasha complex.

The Belur temple is based off the standard Hoysala temple plan, with about twelve times more complexity then is the norm thrown in to liven things up.

One of the weathered but eternally charismatic statue on the outside of the temple.

The temple is built on a jagati or platform, which allows the worshipper to do a circuit around the outside of the building before entering. It's also a convenient way to get from entry-way to entry-way.

The Vimana shrine at the back of the building features a beloved icon of Vishnu. It was just being locked away when we got there, though we were allowed to stick our head in for a "donation" of 100 rupees or so. The ornate offerings of flowers are changed often - the idol itself is relatively small, but of obvious intrinsic importance. The icon has been in its position since around 1117 AD.

These guys, adorned in flowers, decorated the area near the sealed doorway. Hoysala art is a skillful combination of the ornate and the soft - the figures have a pillowy softness about their faces and hips, set off by the incredibly delicate and intricate appearance of their jewelry and background. The locals should be proud: it's a testament to them that this place has survived mostly unscathed since the 12th century.

Note the door guardians or dvarapalaka. I am extremely taken with these creatures. They're called makara, and can be found in spades in most Hindu temples. (They're also common in Indonesian Hindu art). They are usually considered to be aquatic beasts, and some theorize they are representations of a) a river crocodile, b) a river dolphin, or c) TRUNKO, a mysterious cryptozoological beast.

Guess which theory I like best. Come on. Try.

The temple's 48 supporting pillars are all quite obviously different from one another, giving the structure a sense of variety not pleasant in many such religious structures. A few of them have such an incredibly fine and smooth circular shape to them that it is hard to believe they were produced without the aid of machines. It is a shame that stone working is largely an entirely lost art. Some of the pillars feature madanikas, or "celestial damsels," all of them representing a different concept. They may also be popular because their breasts are immense. Not surprising, as they are intended to represent the ideal female form, modeled upon the apparently very foxy Queen Shantaladevi.

This cobra vehicle is used to wheel out the representation of Vishnu on festivals. The cobra represents Adishesha, a thousand hooded snake associated mostly with Lord Vishnu. The snake is a primeval image associated with water: his thousand hoods represent time and the divisions of time within it.

Puja offerings inside the temple.

I have got more photos of the outside of the temple, primarily because the lighting was better. Also, there's a lot of incredible stuff outside as well. This is a representation of Sala killing the tiger that attempted to kill his guru - the story that served as the origin of the empire's name "Hoysala". (Some say the Sala myth was developed considerably after the founding of the Empire, to make everything seem more legitimate. Well, I like the damned legend better).

Kneeling elephant statues. Elephants played a major role in pretty much every Indian kingdom of any note - Hampi features a series of incredibly elaborate elephant stables. I imagine the Hoysalas kept a mahout or two on the payroll as well. It is nice to know that such lovely statues can weather generations of tourists sitting upon them and yelling "TAKE MY PICTURE/SKETCH ME (prior to cameras)" to their friends.

Incredibly detailed rows of beasts and deities adorn the temple's outside. The repetition of fine detail is indeed impressive. This is a structural feature you'll find on most Hoysala-era temples. The style is, apparantly, called most correctly "horizontal treatment with friezes" which is not particularly sexy. The elpephants symbolize strength, the lions courage, and the horse symbolize speed.

I just like this picture.

A storm was coming in over the plains of the Deccan, and we got a small mist of raindrops as we walked around the temple grounds. This was refreshing in the way of Indian rainstorms - a welcome and natural respite from the stuffy and lingering heat of the day.

I wondered, mostly, why this place doesn't get more tourists. There is nothing quite like it in India - the Hoysala art style is distinctive - and it is exceptionally well maintained and taken care of. I suppose it comes down to infrastructure. A three hour drive over bad and livestock-heavy roads from Bangalore isn't something most people want to spend their vacation time doing. The only tourists seem to be a small scattering of Hindus on a spiritual outing, although I imagine their numbers climb when a special festival is afoot. A pity. On the other hand, I can't complain about having this magnificent place mostly to myself. I love little more then being able to tool around incredibly old stuff and be left entirely alone, just me and the occasional burst of raindrops.

No comments:

Post a Comment