The healthy and benign rivalry between Belur and Halebid is like the one between Oxford and Cambridge. The people of Belur rightly claim that their sculptures are finer in detail and are masterpieces in conception and execution. The people of Halebid claim rightly that their temple is much bigger and by the measure of scale alone, better. Both are right, of course.
Belur isn’t impressive when you first see it. The temple is small and squat. It is only when you examine the details, the beauty of the temple hits you in little degrees. Halebid on the other hand impresses by its sheer scale from the start. On this scale, you see the exterior walls covered in every inch with carvings. When you start delving into the details, the nuances of posture and form, the movements of line and curve, you experience the beauty of the temple while being aware that the details are not as fine as those in Belur.
Belur is in a much better state of preservation since it was hidden within thick forests and hence escaped the conquering Muslim iconoclasts who have done their destructive deeds in Halebid. Yet there is still a great deal in Halebid to study and admire.
As a boy I read the Mahabharata and the Ramayana out of curiosity. The stories, filled with gods, weapons, fantastical beasts and battles, interested me. These stories were so intricately woven with elaborate names, relationships, morals, past lives and karma, that in time, such details got lost in my memory. Only the general flow of the stories remained. Thus, armed with little to aid my study of religious art at Halebid, I began to use my experience from Belur. Hiring a guide is expensive by Indian standards and at times I simply tagged along guided school groups who turned up in their noisy crowds.
While there is much that is secular – dancers, musicians, flower motifs, erotic art, animal friezes – it is religious art that captivated me at the Hoysaleshwara Temple and the Kedareshwara Temple at Halebid. Religious art is primarily found in niches filled with stone sculptures of gods and goddesses. Since they are on a larger scale in comparison to those at Belur, they are much more compelling to the eye and worth serious study.
The most beautiful sculpture is supposedly the dancing Saraswati. Keeping an enigmatic smile it is perhaps the Indian equivalent of the Mona Lisa. The dancing Lakshmi is a rare one for usually Lakshmi is seated on a lotus. The sculpture of Ganesha is splendid. His vehicle, the rat, is depressed below the line of the sculpture’s base. This little detail is symbolic of Ganesha heavy corpulent frame. The many armed figure of Chamundeshwari is another form of Durga or Kali. She is represented as stamping the iconic demon and in all glory with all her weapons, the chain of skulls, the severed head with blood dripping to the licking dog below. In many cases, it is only the paraphernalia that identify the gods and goddesses. It is the same with Harihara, half Vishnu and half Shiva, the former with his disc and the latter with his trident. In Halebid, I also recalled the story of Vamana avatar, the dwarf, who strode the world in three steps and thus destroyed the demon Bali. This sculpture is lively with the legs of Trivikrama splayed wide, one to the ground and the other to the sky. There is one excellent sculpture of Surya in one of the minor shrines, his chariot drawn by seven horses. Surya holds a half opened lotus in his hand. Three successive panels on one wall represent Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. In one panel, Indra rides his elephant. The motion of the elephant is captured well in the swinging bell and ropes.
Religious art also consists of panels depicting scenes from the two great Indian epics and tales surrounding the life of Lord Krishna. There are familiar scenes which are delightful once you recognize them:
- Arjuna fighting Karna. The former’s chariot flag bears Hanuman and the latter’s chariot flag bears the crow.
- Karna wounded at battle with arrows piercing his body and Krishna asking for his flesh and blood.
- Arjuna’s penance, his hunt of the boar and his bout with the hunter.
- Krishna lifting Mt. Govardhan which has the details of cattle, people, musicians, monkeys, birds, snakes and banana trees.
- The mace-wielding Bhima at battle, having made a pile of dead elephants that reaches for the sky.
- The Chakravyuha in which Abhimanyu found himself trapped.
- Bhishma resting on a bed of arrows, a striking sculpted panel.
- Rama giving his ring to Hanuman.
- Hanuman meeting Sita and later setting fire to Lanka.
- Hanuman in flight carrying the mountain bearing Sanjeevani while Lakhmana lies lifeless on the ground.
- Rama fighting Ravana.
The inside of the temple is no less interesting. There is a wealth of carvings. The doorkeepers in particular are masterpieces. In them are examples of what defines high art as opposed to immature and primitive art. In sculpture, form, texture, artistry and composition are only part of what makes a masterpiece. The most important aspect that exhibits excellence is in the making of gaps between rock and rock within the same sculpture; such as the space between breast and breast, the space between necklace and breasts, the space between one thread of decoration and the thing that it decorates.
The more than life size Nandis set in their mantapas bring true credit to the art of the Hoysalas. So do the world of details in all friezes, door frames, lintels, pillars, capitals and ceilings.
As I left the Hoysaleshwara temple after two long sessions, interrupted by lunch and a short walk to other temples and Jain bastis (which has many exquisite pillars), I chatted with a paid worker of the Archaeological Survey of India. Nagaraj has worked in the temple for nearly six years. For four years, he looked after the chappal stand. Recently he has been given the job of cleaning the temple. He has completed SSLC. Lacking further education, he is not qualified to become a guide. Guides earn much more and they require at least a Bachelors degree.
There are plenty of buses from Belur to Halebid and back.
I stayed at Belur at the same place as last night.
Hotel Sri Krishna just opposite the Hoysaleshwara Temple. Good service. They check if you want more without your asking for it.
There are good walks around the temple. The lake next to the temple leads the view to the hills beyond. It’s a great place for walking. I walked past between tomato fields, corn fields and cabbage fields. I walked to the village of Hulikere and then to the hilltop of Pushpagiri. Here there is an excellent view of the entire countryside of lush greenery, tall coconut trees, dotted settlements, the occasional bullock cart, the placid lake, the distant hills and the clear blue sky. They were serving free food at the math on this hill for it is full moon tonight. On this walk I met a villager from Hulikere. He was going to a nearby town. He has obtained a government contract to install some information boards at one of the tourist spots.