Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Halebidu: Incredible Hoysala art, More Jain Stuff

Our final stop on the Belur circuit was Halbedu, where two architecturally important temples are located on the old Hoysala trail. There are two major temples in Halebidu - the first temple we went into was Hoysaleshawara, located about smack-dab in the center of town. It's a temple dedicated to Shiva, and was largely funded by his wealthy followers in the old Hoysala empire. It was built partly as an in-your-face gesture to the Vaishnava supporters who built the Chennakesava Temple at Belur. Ah, competition.

As at the Chennakesava Temple, the majority of the structures within are constructed from easily worked soapstone. Soapstone was dispensed with in favor of granite in the successive Vijayanagara dynasty - it's plentiful, and you can build really big stuff with it - but soapstone is tops when it comes to the creation of intricate and supple detail.

These bulls are Nandi statues, which can be seen in spades all over Karnataka. Nandi is the bull that Shiva rides, and the gatekeeper of Shiva and Parvati, his consort. The worship of a cattle god in the guise of Nandi can be traced all the way back to the Indus Valley civilization, which venerated dairy products and (thus) the cow. Cliffs Notes Version: this is why you have to drive around cows on the street in India. Nandi statues are often put at the entrance of temples dedicated to Shiva - he stands as the sentry, or gatekeeper to the inner sanctum.

I love the roofs in these Hoysala temples. You must spend some time looking up around here.

The temple dates all the way back to 1121 CE, and, like most Hindu temples, functions as a sort of building cum-learning device. Images from the Ramayana and other iconic works of Hindu literature are portrayed in vivid detail all over the walls. It was nice having Summa along to point out what each image represented and to narrate the stories for me. Sure as hell wouldn't have figured it out on my own. (As with most Indian tourist stops, the "guides" who follow you around usually know less then you do).

These rows of symbolic images mirror the temple at Belur. None of them are identical. The same goes for the repeating rows of symbolic animals.

My beloved makara (mythological guardian beast) makes another appearance here. Note the ornate swans above them, symbolizing beauty.

The door to the temple. I like the guys with their arms around each other here. Men do this all over India. Nothing gay about it.

Halebidu was sacked by Muslim invaders in the 14th century, but the temple (rather miraculously) avoided incurring much damage. It was renovated and now exists in a remarkably intact state.

This temple is remarkably steep around the edges. Probably helped keep the water away from it. This is not exactly a dry region.

Liked this austere looking woman a lot.

The second major temple at Halebid is the Kedareshwara temple, dating from around 1319 BC. It hasn't maintained its original form inside, but the outside more then makes up with it. The same repeating "bands" of animals are here, but most remarkable are the story-telling figures on the outside walls. They are portrayed with an inordinate and totally charming amount of personality. My camera decided this would be a fabulous time to die, so I was forced to switch to my Iphone camera. I'm pleasantly surprised, actually.

Details on the walls. Incredible. You could look at this for days.

Shiva dancing his cosmic dance.

I love the Dravidian method of portraying lions and other animals.

A very get-to-the-point portrayal of Yama, the God of Death. There's an even more distressing portrayal of the terrifying goddess Kali elsewhere, but the camera wouldn't cooperate.

After these temples, we made a brief stop at the nearby Jain basadi. They seem to get even fewer visitors then the other spots. Had to go wake up the guard so he could open the gate to let us in to the last one. There were a couple of these, and it's hard to find their names. The man who administered the temple was very small, and dark, and his eyes had the yellow of jaundice in them. He spoke no English, but my companions spoke Hindi (naturally), and by means of this we were able to communicate. He was deadly serious about his job and his position, and directed us to the remarkably shiny pillars within. They were made of soapstone, and so smooth and burnished by age that they reflected back blurry and mirror-like. He began making strange hand gestures in front of them. "It's a special feature of the pillars," Sumanjay explained. "He is saying that if you move your hands, or your arms, in a certain way, it will make a funny reflection."

This the daughter did. "It works!" she said. "He claims that it makes you look like an aspect of Shiva, with all the arms." I watched her wave her arms a bit. She was correct: the reflection came back with many arms. Other motions produced a snake, a tiger, and a spider. I somewhat doubt this was intended by the Hoysala architects. Time has, I think, given these pillars their special shine. But it is certainly an added feature.

The little man led us to the back of the temple, which featured a Jain image rather similar to that of the hill. A naked, "sky-clad" man with his eyes closed in seemingly blissful reverence, his legs stumpy, his body soft and feminine. It was a temple not in use, or not in anyone's memory: the stairs climbed up to the top of the statue's head so that worshippers could dump milk and ghee and honey over him during festival times. I was most interested in the bats: the bats that clung to the door that protected the statue, and fluttered half-heartedly around in the light of day. I thought of rabies, of course - rabies, swift and fatal, a disease that (doubtless) was not entirely easy to treat in India - but the bats appeal won out. When they flutter, though, one understands why ladies in the olden days were afraid that they might get tangled in your hair. The guide watched, stone-faced and weathered, as we oohed and ahhed over the bats. They were nothing new to him.

I stood outside of the temple, for a moment, and watched the landscape around me. It was a classic scene of the Deccan plateau, replete with tall coconut palms, and water buffalo in the field just over there, and fresh tropical flowers in reds and yellows, and little woven reed-huts of the local people. A rice paddy lay a little away, and there were women working in it, almost at the end of their day. The Deccan, is, I think, a landscape that is naturally pleasant and amiable to mankind. It is the sort of gentle and fertile landscape that is written into our DNA, and is the kind that sustains us. "Goodness," Sumanjay said, as she came up behind me. "I have had more then enough temples for the day, I think."

We loaded ourselves into the car, and so, back to Bangalore. Night time was falling, slowly and with a lot of orange, all around the Deccan, and it was a tropical sunrise and of the sort that I remember from my very earliest childhood in Florida. The hills of the region switched their lights on, and we passed by village after tropical village, full of kids in uniforms heading home from school, and men and women shushing their bullocks about the hindquarters with little palm flails. The huts were often made of woven palm, and resembled to a remarkable extent the sort of thing one might find at a tropical resort in California or Hawaii. "In the USA, we have huts like those in expensive tourist resorts. People think they add character."
"Really?" Sumanjay said. "They are nice huts, and very pretty, but they only last about three years. They're just home, or storage, out here."

We passed by the region that was known to harbor dacoits, but thankfully, it was not entirely dark as of yet, and we would have been able to made evasive manuevers if any had leapt out of the bushes at us. I for one did not harbor anything particularly valuable, other then a few thousand rupees and an Iphone. Of course, such treasures made possible by American decadence were doubtless more then enough to succor the average dacoit, who made his living in the most hand to mouth fashion possible. I thought of the thugees, the renowned (and charismatic) strangler-bandits of the raj era. They were finally brought to heel by one of the British administrators, who, quite cleverly, put them in a prision and set them to making crafts and greeting tourists, in lieu of hanging them. Smart man.

I managed to stay awake all the way back to Bangalore. I think this was four hours, but I am not sure. It is hard to figure out just when one has entered the area of a flat Indian city. There are always countless villages, and the highways are either invisible, taken-out, or otherwise rendered unusable. The street signs are few and confusing, even to Hindi and Kannada speakers, and the villagers rarely are able to give anything approximating directions. The rains of the monsoon make everyone confused, and make everyone (eventually) lost. "The road is terrible, he says, and so he'll divert and try to find a new one."

We got lost in this endeavor, of course. I guess we were about 50 Km from Bangalore, but with Indian cities, this means nothing whatsoever in terms of what time you will actually get home. There is the traffic to consider, and Bangalore's is some of the worst in India. The city began as a laid-back garden village, a Raj administrative center in the salubrious climate of the Deccan, and it's sudden and explosive growth after the IT explosion was tragically unplanned. So during peak hours - which of course, we were returning in- the entire city turns into a massive and rowdy traffic snarl, full of auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, buses, and God knows what else all seemingly converging on a single point, and all of them blasting their horns as loudly and as often as possible. We knew we were back in Bangalore, or at least sort of back in Bangalore, when the village traffic began to give way to slightly larger buildings, and then even larger, then even larger, and then we were in the Majestic region. Or at least we thought so. Sumanjay and the driver were no more sure then myself, and they conferred in break-neck Kannada about the matter, as I sat a bit pissed off against the door handle, and cursed Indian traffic. My dinner time was passing away, and this was, to me, a tragedy.

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