Nine hundred years from this time, a local chieftain took charge of the sword and went on to build a renowned empire that boasted of its brave men, intricate detail-focused artisans, magnificent women and its love for art and culture. Today, the tribe is well remembered as one that carved itself out of its subordination to the Western Chalukyas and named itself the Hoysala dynasty. And this was the time, in 1117 A.D. as per historical records, that a Hoysala leader – King Vishnuvardhana – decided to embalm the beginning of the glory of this new dynasty and commissioned the construction of the Chennakeshava temple in Belur district of Karnataka.
My trip to Belur is nearly a decade old. Yet, when I read that the temple itself has been standing strong for nine centuries now, my decade seems so insignificant that memories of the visit come flooding back. It was the season of pre-monsoon showers when areas around Bangalore are usually blessed with ‘romance in the air’. The weather can move from sunny to cloudy even before you can sigh about the dry heat. Blessed as we were on this history-enticing pilgrimage, the sky turned from bright white to a grey bright enough to highlight the lush green coconut palms swaying in the wind. As we stepped into the temple courtyard, a spray from the skies followed suit and only heightened the beauty of the ancient temple. After all, Chennakeshava translates to Handsome Vishnu.
True to Hoysala tradition, the Chennakeshava temple in Belur is built in the design of a star. The temple, true to the Hoysala tradition again, is built on a pedestal with zigzag walls. And as with the predominant Hoysala architecture, it is built of soap stone with pillars that still shine like metal. And while these are high level observations, there are intricacies that offer this temple a flavor distinct from other Hoysala architecture.
Garuda and the sthambha
Who better to welcome deities into the temple of Lord Vishnu than his dear mount Garuda. Attributed as the Indian name for the constellation Aquila, Garuda is a legendary humanoid bird that resembles the eagle. With hands folded in reverence and wings outspread, the statue of Garuda at the entrance of the temple is decorated with the carved intricacies of the finest strands of its feathers. It stands strong in front of a huge pillar called the sthambha. This pillar is believed to be a cosmic column that symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth.
Many ancient temples have this pillar erected in their courtyard; yet, the one at Belur’sChennakeshava temple stands unique for it is said that it stands on its own without a foundation.
Purify at the pushkar
As a mandate of the times, all big and important temples included a water tank called the pushkar that is used for physical cleansing before a devotee enters the temple. The pushkar in Belur isn’t a boastful one, but is wide enough to cater to a small group at a time.
A blueprint for future temples
A striking feature of any Hoysala architecture is that no inch of wall is allowed to remain without the sculptor’s art. Every nook and corner, every crevice and bulge on the outer walls of the temple is carved into intricate designs that speak a story of their own.
There are several striking features of Belur’s temple; yet one that caught my attention was the series of miniature temple-architecture carved into the entrance. It is believed that the artisans of the time gave a free vent to their design ideas and carved out blueprints of temples that they were likely to build in the future. These blueprints, if that’s what we can call them, are so intricate in themselves that one can clearly see the coiled body of a serpent, the muscles running through the hands of warrior, the conch and wheel of Vishnu, the smile on the lips of a mother carrying her child on her hip, curves on the awning… the list is endless.
Embalming the beauty of Queen Shantala Devi
A walk through the outer corridor of the Chennakeshava temple beckons one to get closer just to admire the beauty of some of its female figurines. Now, this isn’t a depiction of women of the times but the queen of King Vishnuvardhana – Shantala Devi. A beautiful and intelligent lady, Shantala Devi is said to have continued to follow Jainism even after her husband embraced Vaishnavism after learning of the culture under saint Ramanujacharya. Her independence and power is flaunted through sculptures in the temple’s outer wall. The most popular among these is the one where she is seen admiring herself in a mirror called the darpansundari. There’s another powerful sculpture showcasing her in a size enormous to that of her cohorts, where she is dancing in bliss.
The rotating pillar
The dark interiors of the Chennakeshava temple are adorned with pillars that are diametrically opposite to the exterior. They are plain, smooth and shiny with protruding rings around them and a splash of carvings. The roof is a story by itself, but if you ever visit the temple, do look for the intricate carving of Lord Vishnu is his Narasimha avatar in the centre of the ceiling.
I remember I thought aloud about the blandness of the pillars against the intricacies of the exterior walls and the inner roof. A passing guide who was walking down a group of foreigners through these pages of history turned around and said, “The architects were unable to complete the work”. Now, I doubt the validity of this because my eyes immediately fell on a pillar that was engraved with a variety of idols of Lord Narasimha in tiny temple structures of their own. History about the temple reveals that this pillar was rotatable in its times.
And as I turned around there was this beautiful statue of Lord Vishnu in his feminine form of Mohini. I took one look and stood rooted. Here was beauty personified. There was pride in the woman personified throughout the temple. It can’t get clearer about the value of women with wisdom in those times and the role they played in furthering a community of rulers, helping them grow from strength to strength until they reach a stage of denouement.