The Hoysala empire was established by a brave prince who killed a tiger with his hands. By the time the empire faded out of history in the fourteenth century AD, it had gifted to the world scores of temples that can only be described as poetry in stone. There is not an inch of space in these temples where there are no sculptures, where the eyes and the hands of the sculptor haven't reached.
It seems like when the creators of these beautiful sculptures went about their creation, they were able to see in their mind's eye the astonishment rising in the eyes of those who would come centuries later to discover these wonders. It took about a hundred years to complete these temples. The FastTrack team started rolling from Kerala to see and experience the skill of these master craftsmen who had even sculpted the strings of a Veena in stone.
Guru said ... 'Hoy Sala'
It was a school of the gurukula system deep in the forest where the students learnt at the feet of their guru. Once a tiger attacked the teacher in the forest. Scared, the students started running away.
Except for one, who stood his ground and fought the tiger. The teacher commanded loudly to him, "Hoy Sala, hoy Sala." Hoy in ancient Kannada meant kill. The student, Sala, obeyed the command of his guru and speared the tiger. Hoysala was the empire established by that brave prince.
Even as we were listening to this story, a set of four diamond-cut alloy wheels was rolling toward that deep forest. Four pairs of eyes were anxiously watching, almost sure that a tiger will appear now. Those were not the king's soldiers but members the Hyundai Xcent travelogue team. The journey took us through Nagarhole national park.
Take the Kottayam-Mananthavady route to reach Kutta, and you are in Karnataka. From here, the drive takes you through thick jungles. The road stretches some 35 kilometers through the tiger reserve. Several deer and elephants could be seen but there was no sign of the tiger, not even any tiger tracks.
Even the drive through this beautiful forest is an experience. The forest road is open between 6 am and 6 pm only. Supposedly, those who drive through early in the morning can spot the tigers.
At Moorkel, we come across some old, crumbling buildings. The Tatas had apparently tried to build a resort in the jungle here long back. But half way through, those who had given the permissions after taking bribes, were caught and punished. Tatas got a black eye, our guide Uddesh recounted with a twinkle in his eyes!
With past Hampi trip experience, this time it was decided to have in the group someone who understood Kannada. And that's how we asked our friend Hari from Mananthavadi to which he agreed and joined us. “Ninathavaru manathalli.” We had got what we were seeking. We drove into the Kannada land with a new-found confidence.
Some may even think if you add a suffix lu and a prefix ho, you can manage to converse in Kannada!
The Xcent crossed KR Pattanam, once known as a rice basket, and reached Hassan. The roads were all well maintained but there were no signboards to guide travellers. Ask anyone on the way and the stock reply would be: “gaadi straight hogabuttu, dead-end alli right/left.” Means go straight and take left or right from the dead-end. But the Xcent was up to the task.
The little sedan can take tight turns on any narrow road. The highly responsive leather-clad steering and the reverse camera make Xcent a fun-to-drive vehicle in any city. The powerful AC and the rear AC vents were more than adequate to combat the high temperature outside.
By the time the Xcent reached Belur, it was night. We had booked our stay at the Karnataka government guest house. You might have heard that joke about the Malayali in Mars who demanded toll from Mangalyaan. Here was Rajappan chettan, welcoming us with a bright smile!
Belur of the Stone Maidens
The Hoysala kings constructed 92 temples in what is today's Karnataka. But the most famous ones are in Belur, Halebidu and Somanathapura near Mysore.
The sight of the temple gives you an indescribable feeling. Till then it had been jaded towns and houses that had no idea of architectural beauty all the way. But once inside the gateway tower of the temple, your hands fold in salutation to the gargantuan human effort that went into making it, and the otherworldly skill of these artisans. Here before us is a lotus crafted in stone. It is the Chennakesava temple. The name means handsome Kesava. The deity here is Vishnu.
When you enter the temple you will see Rati Devi and Manmadha but separately. The idea it tries to convey is that you have to enter the temple after keeping your emotions outside. But inside you can see a Rati-Manmadha statue. Don’t know what that conveyed.
The roof of the temple rests on 42 giant stone statues. Of these, 39 are beautiful stone maidens. Your eyes will first lock on the beauty who is preening herself looking into a handheld mirror. Don’t start saying here is another temple stereotyping women. The beautiful huntress next to the preening beauty will nip such thoughts. Wonder how her hair is made up in African style though.
There are more than a thousand statues of beautiful maidens in this temple, all adorned with various types of ornaments and dresses carved in stone. That is why some European once described this temple as the world's jewellery box. The variety of the ornaments and dresses is unimaginable. There are even women wearing modern dresses! If people wore jeans then, it would have been here too.
The construction of the temple was started by a king called Vishnuvardhana in 1117 AD. The statues of the beautiful women are in memory of his queen Santala Devi, who was also a skilled dancer.
The temple features statues of Makara, the mythological animal with the body of seven animals; the Hoysala emblem of a boy fighting the tiger; and Narasimham, Hoysala kings’ family deity. Your jaws will drop at the sharp lines of these statues cut from stone.
One interesting thing we noticed was that the names of the sculptors were embossed on the stones, much like the engineer's name is etched on the engines of Aston Martins.
Jaganachari was the main sculptor here. The temple was made out of soapstones brought from Tiptur. These stones are soft making it easy to chisel and carve but they also hardened with time, enabling them to withstand the vagaries of nature. The temple’s base features some 640 elephants engaged in various tasks. The base is shaped as a 32-pointed star.
In contrast, the temples of the Vijayanagara era have a square base. Inside the temple, the Narasimhastoopa- which is a small copy of the temple itself— is adorned with statues of gods and goddesses and 42 dancers.
Outside is another column shaped out of a single giant stone. Only its three sides touch the floor; you can see through the gap left where the fourth corner should be touching the ground.
This column rises to the sky as a symbol of the engineering excellence of those times. The temple itself is built using pivot-and-socket joints, without any cement or glue. After every explanation, the guide repeated: "old is gold." The temple at Halebidu is an affirmation to that.
It is 15 kilometres from Belur to the second temple. The roads are badly maintained. But the Xcent is unfazed. Its amazing mileage meant distance was not an issue. Halebidu means destroyed city.
The deity at the temple here is Siva. Here you find the Hoysaleswara and Santaleswara temples, the sixth and seventh biggest Nandi statues in India, and pictorial depictions of the Puranas. The Halebidu sculptures are also more beautiful. But the temple was damaged when the city was destroyed during the invasion of Alauddin Khilji.
Later, the British spirited away many idols and statues. Only 14 of the original 84 stone maidens are left now. The pillars here were made by yoking elephants to the stones and rotating them, much like how a traditional oil mill was worked. Some modern looking pillars can be seen among the ancient ones, standing out much like a crooked tooth among an otherwise neat row of teeth.
To make such abominations and install them among such beautiful works of art requires an enormously thickness of skin. Some European has etched his name to one such pillar. Goes to show that there is no difference between white Europeans and Indians when it comes to such things. Fortunately, we could spot no Malayali names among those. The Xcent rolled out of Halebidu in relief.
Back Through Thithimathi Forest
There is a long way to go to Kerala. But travelling through Nagarhole in the evening is not allowed. So we went back via Thithimathi forests. The Thithimathi range comes under Virajpeta forest division. The forest guard at Aanachowkur check-post is from Iritti.
Why is it that there are no restrictions on vehicles passing through these forests at night? Because it is a national park on one side of the road and state reserved forest on the other, it is legally not possible to impose such restrictions.
The guards here have only an electric light for company, and a hut that doesn't look much robust. Do elephants come here? Yes. And leopards jump and sit on the roof of the hut. We fire in the air to scare them away.
The road ahead is through thick forests. Some distance ahead, we see a truck stopped on the road. Some cars behind it were reversing. Should we break the queue and go ahead? No, we were determined not to show our Malayali habits. After 10 minutes, the vehicles ahead started moving. As we rolled ahead slowly, the reason for the block became clear: there is a big tusker on the road. If we had tried to be smart and moved ahead, he would have got a toy to play with!
It was midnight when we got back to Kutta. Again back through Tholpetti forests. A heavy fog hung over the forest roads. Even the Xcent's headlamps were finding it difficult to see through the fog. Nothing could be seen with the headlights in the bright mode. We were moving ahead with headlights in the dim mode when the wild buffaloes came into view.
If there are wild buffaloes, the elephants can't be far away. Next moment our headlights fell on a tusker. He was standing leisurely on the roadside, chewing on some vegetation. We gingerly crossed him, driving on the right side of the road.
Before crossing the next bend on the road, we had seen our third tusker. Hari told us you can expect to see elephants till you cross Begur forests; our only confidence was on the Xcent's powerful brakes.
While on our way back through the darkness, there was one question in the mind: why did those beautiful statues not have any eyes?
Back in Kottayam, the photos in our cameras offered the answer: If their eyes were also complete, those stone maidens would have taken a life of their own and become heavenly dancers. Those temples then would really have become paradise itself!