Let us not waste time with long enumerations of historical dates, battles, dynasties and machinations. The most important thing that matters for a tourist to Belur in Hassan district of Karnataka is the legacy of art. The Chennakeshava Temple is the first and foremost of the temple art of the Hoysalas. Coming to us from the 12th century it stands silent and solid. It tells us in its stone-carved images, the culture of our forefathers – the high art of dance, the elaborate hair styles, the infinite variations in jewellery designs, the eroticism acknowledged without taboo, the bravery of heros in battle, the legendary scenes from the great epics, the bold compositions of gods and goddesses…
Even an atheist or an uninitiated foreigner would do well to temporarily suspend his religious convictions so as to admire the excellence of art that is here. The details are fine and perhaps finer at the time they were first carved out of yeilding black soapstone. The weathering of stone has the effect of blurring some of the finest details but in many cases it smoothens out sharp edges due to the chisel. In this aspect, it is perhaps better today than it was in the 12th century when it was created.
While there is much that is secular, the religious sculptures are better appreciated by those who can identify with the themes they depict. Where the uninitiated may see a god against the backdrop of snake-coils, the knowledgeable will see Vishnu reclined on Adisesha while Brahma takes birth from Vishnu’s navel. Where the uninitiated may see Ravana doing penance, the knowledgeable will see Ravana lifting Mount Kailash, the mountain detailed with birds and animals in its forests and topped with the image of Shiva and Parvati. Familiarity with the epics is a definite value-add to a visit to this temple.
This temple is a balance of both secular and non-secular images, the latter generally excluded from the walls that surround the garbhagriha. Among the secular images, dancers take centerstage. The lady with a mirror (darpanasundari) is an often mentioned masterpiece but there are plenty others that are equal to it. One dancing sculpture has a perfect vertical alignment of tips of hands, the left breast, the tips of toes and the tip of the nose. Another dancer stands on one foot and balances herself by holding a rock-embroidered drapery, while a servant adjusts the toe ring on the other foot.
Without a guide (costing Rs. 150), it is impossible to understand the symbolism behind many of the images. Take the dancers for example. A raised toe indicates that the dance is about to commence. A dancer has a servant who has a servant of her own. Art historians were also social historians and they could see the social hierarchy in such a sculpture.
One small square part of the Narasimha Pillar is uncarved. One symbolic meaning of this is that god is formless. On the Mohini Pillar, is the perfection of the female figure. The head should consist of three equal parts for forehead, nose and chin. The body should stand seven times the length of the face. The face should be as wide as the waist. Finally, if the second toe is longer than the big toe she will dominate over her husband; and if you can see right through the gaps under her arched feet, she will bring wealth. Now these are tips the next time you go bride hunting!
The temple is shape like a star with many projections. This is to give more surface area for carvings. Placing the temple on a five foot plinth gives it a holy status. Friezes running around the plinth and the temple exterior contain images of elephants (strength), lions (courage), horses (speed) and stylized creeper motifs. As if all this were not enough for one day, I was introduced to the makara thorana, a celestial animal that has eyes of a monkey, trunk of an elephant, tail of a peacock, limbs of a lion, jaws of a crocodile, body of a fish and ears of a hog!
There are plenty of buses from KG Bus Station. I took one at about quarter to six. This was the bus going to Chikmagalur. Previous plan was to take a bus to Hassan, but since I got this one, I went direct to Belur. Journey was about 4 hours costing about Rs. 150.
KSTDC Hotel Mayura Velapuri @ Rs. 300 with TV and hot shower. They have dorm beds in two dorm rooms @ Rs. 75 per bed. To my surprise, I was informed that these are only to large groups. The Rough Guide to South India didn’t mention this important detail.
KSTDC Hotel Mayura Velapuri is a good place for dinner. They make fresh chapatis and daal. A meal can be had at under Rs. 100. They are others in town that are reasonably clean. Service is good. Lunch thalis are available from 11.30 am.