Sunday, March 01, 2015

Belur and Halebeedu, Happy Places Always: My Thoughts in TNIE today

Belur and Halebeedu temples, built in the 12th century, have always been amongst my most favourite places. I return, again and again, and they continue to take my breathe away. 

A hurried written train of thought on these temples is in The New Indian Express' magazine section today. Read it here, or see below.


Bow your head down, fold your hands and come inside the door, dear traveller. This shrine is not just a sculpture, it is a web of art.

I like to think that the Kannada poet laureate Kuvempu was as mesmerized by the Belur and Halebeedu temples when he wrote these lines of a poem as I will always be. The 12th century structures, separated by some 15 kms on the Hassan moodseeme, the dry plains, tend to always mesmerize, leave one speechless.

The remnants of the Hoysala dynasty are familiar picnic spots. Visiting family always called for a day trip to these two places when I was growing up. Home was a mere two hour long drive away on terrible roads. We didn't mind the bumpy rides at the back of a Jeep, we were young then, and the only roads our countryside had seen were bad roads. The tarmac on the roads here are still chipped away, the trees along the way have copper dust upon them. There are too many loud families picnicking and dirtying the quiet, but then, we were young families once too, I try to remember. Despite the constant now and then juxtaposed in my mind, these two temples are familiar, beloved and unexpecting, like a sense of home, happy and warm like mangoes on the sunyard of childhood.

In kindergarten perhaps, the picnic of the year was to these temples. Then we learnt about the Hoysala dynasty in history class. Then I went on to read G V Iyer's Shanthala in Kannada, an enduring favourite. Queen Shanthala, she of the perfect features and unsurpassed talent in dance and music, was the wife of King Vishnuvardhana, he who commissioned the Belur temple in 1117 AD for his lord Chennakeshava. The Queen is supposed to have posed for some of the sculptures herself. Every so often, she is said to have danced at the centre stage within the temple, her dance was her prayer to her god.

The guides still rattle off the same jokes I have heard all my life now. They are funny I suppose, if you hear them for the first time. The stories they tell when showing some of the sculptures have mostly stuck. There is the lady with the hand held mirror, just above one of the entrances at Belur. You could mistake her haughty look to be a vain one, or you could just call her a beautiful lady who knows her lovely she looks. There are the ones inside, overlooking the stage where the Queen once danced, whose bangles are said to slide up and down their wrists. Each of these were carved out of single blocks of soapstone, the bangles not slipped in later, but carved to perfection within the wrists. The guides point it out to you now, they don't move the stone bangles, fragile that they have become over the centuries.

My favourite is the most intricate pillar inside the Belur main temple. The minutely carved pillar is said to contain miniatures of all the main sculptures from the outside of the temple. There is one panel that is plain, smooth and shining from the millions of hands that have felt it. The story is that the main sculptor threw open a challenge to the future generations, daring someone to carve as well as him and his team. The other story is that he was but a humble artisan and left the panel empty to say that he was not the best, that there were and would be others better than him. I often wonder if this story is another of the rehashed anecdotes that the guides have made up, but I love it nevertheless. It is sometimes best not to know the facts.

The temples are cool inside, darkened further by the long shadows that the afternoon suns throws our way. I go look at the two rows of seven holes each that have been dug into the seats along the sides, board for an old game. No doubt the villagers came here to escape the harsh summers. I fleetingly wonder again whether the ruins of the Hoysala palaces remain. History lessons did not cover that, we just read about the temples.

But the temples are overwhelming as they are to allow for straying thoughts. This time I visit, it is the same music again, the song in my head that bounces off the pillars, each unique. It is like going home to familiar people, like always.

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