Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 02 October 2023

Hoysala temples on UNESCO heritage list

Source: By Yashee: The Indian Express

Three Hoysala-era temples in Karnataka recently made it to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, under the collective entry of ‘Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas’.

Hoysala temples are known for the rare beauty and finesse of their wall sculptures, and have been described as “art which applies to stone the technique of the ivory worker or the goldsmith”.

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, the three temples selected for the UNESCO list are important not just because they demonstrate their builders’ superior skill, but also because they narrate the tale of the politics that shaped them.

Which are the three Hoysala temples selected for the UNESCO list?

The three temples include the Chennakeshava temple in Belur, the Hoysaleswara Temple in Halebidu, and the Keshava Temple in Somanathapura.

The announcement was made by UNESCO on 18 September 2023, during the World Heritage Committee’s 45th session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. India submitted the nomination dossier for the temples in January 2022.

Who were the Hoysalas?

The Hoysalas held power in Karnataka from the 10th century to the 14th century. The dynasty began as provincial governors under the Western Chalukyas, but as the two dominant empires of the South, the Western Chalukyas and the Cholas, crumbled, the Hoysalas established themselves as rulers.

Two of the temples that made it to the UNESCO list are located in cities that served as the capital of the Hoysalas — earlier Belur, and then Halebidu (or Dwarasamudra).

When were the Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas built?

The Chennakeshava temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, was consecrated around 1117 AD by the mighty Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana, to mark his victories against the Cholas. It is thus also called the Vijaya Narayana temple.

The other Vaishnava shrine, the Kesava temple, was built in Somanathapura in 1268 by Somanatha, a general of Hoysala King Narasimha III.

The Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu is believed to be the largest Shiva temple built by the Hoysalas, and is dated to the 12th century.

What makes Hoysala architecture stand out?

One notable feature of Hoysala architecture is the use of soapstone, a malleable stone that is easy to carve. This is one of the reasons behind the abundance of intricate sculptures one can see on the temple walls. The sculptures include animalsscenes of daily life, as well as depictions from the epics and the Puranas. The jewellery, headgear, clothes, etc. of the detailed sculptures give an idea of the society of the times.

Another special feature of Hoysala architecture is the unique confluence of styles.

Historian Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, who works at Krea University in Andhra Pradesh’s Sri City, said, “Hoysala architecture is an amalgamation of three distinctive styles— the mainstream Dravidian architecture as represented in the Pallava and Chola temples; the Vesara style, the variant of the Dravida style that emerged in the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta temples; and then the North Indian Nagara style. The political dimension to this is the various military expeditions that the Hoysalas undertook, which led them to different regions from where they brought back masons, sculptorsarchitects who could visualise and actualise such temples.”

The temples are generally built on stellate (star-shaped) platforms, and have several structures inside the complex. The walls and pillars are covered in beautiful sculptures that, according to Shobhi, have “rich narrative and descriptive dimensions”.

An interesting feature of Hoysala temples is that they are ‘signed’ — the sculptors, masons leave behind their names, and sometimes a few more details.

Also, these Vaishnava and Shaivya shrines were built at the time Jainism was prominent in the region, and thus mark a turn towards Hinduism.

What makes the three temples on UNESCO list special?

While hundreds of big and small Hoysala-era temples still survive, these three are believed to be among the finest surviving examples of Hoysala art.

About the Chennakesava temple at Belur, K A Nilakanta Sastri writes in his A History of South India, “…the total number of pillars is 46. All of them, except the four in the central bay, are of different design so that the variety and complexity of the whole is astonishing.” It is believed that one of the sculptures, Darpana Sundari (lady with the mirror), is modelled on Shantala Devi, the queen of Vishnuvardhana who had the temple built.

The Kesava temple in Somanathapura is built in the shape of a 16-point star, and has three shrines, dedicated to KeshavaJanardhana and Venugopala. The Keshava statute, however, is missing now.

The Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu, Sastri writes, “was perhaps the highest achievement of the school, though its present ruined condition… renders it difficult to realise this…The infinite wealth of sculpture over the exterior of this temple makes it one of the most remarkable monuments of the world and an unrivalled ‘repository of religious thought expressed in plastic form’.”

Halebidu was raided by Malik Kafur, a general of the then Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji.

Why do no Hoysala buildings other than temples survive?

No known monuments other than temples, like palaces or forts, survive from the Hoysala period. Shobhi said this was not unique to the Hoysalas. “This is one of the paradoxes of the early medieval and medieval non-Islamic world, because the non-temple buildings were all built in either mud or brick or wood [and not stone]. So, except for some ruins in Hampi, nothing has survived in the form of architecture.”

Shobhi pointed out that the survival of temples over millennia underlines a very interesting fact. “When we examine why we should care about architectural heritage, one part of it is of course the beauty and the grandeur of what survives. The other part is also what doesn’t survive. Halebidu was sacked by Malik Kafur in the early 1300s. About 200 years later, the Deccan Sultanates came. There are sections that never tire of pointing out the damage done to the temples by outside invaders. But on the other hand, while the township was entirely destroyed, the fact remains that substantially, these temples have survived.”

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