After the romp on the Sravananabelagola hills, it was time to move on to Belur and Halebid. Belur and Halebid are both examples of Hoysala architecture. The Hoysala dynasty had been powerful kings and the temple at Belur had been built to commemorate the victory over Chola kings. Like all great dynasties, this one had its own myths. The most popular one is about how the name ‘Hoysala’ came about. Apparently a boy was about to be attacked by a tiger and some kind passerby alerted him to this fact by screaming ‘Hoy – Sala’. Sala means ‘boy’. As legends have it the boy killed the tiger single handedly and went on to become the founder of the dynasty ‘Hoysala’. There are other versions of the story about the boy actually saving the passerby when he screamed ‘Hoy – Sala’. My favourite myth is that of the locals burying Belur when Muslim raiders from the north attacked. So only Halebid was disfigured. When the attacks were over though, the villagers realised that they had forgotten where the Belur temple had been buried. I bet just the endless speculations on where such a fairly sizeable temple had disappeared and how the taxpayers’ money had been wasted would have kept generations engrossed.
Halebid was our first stop. We piled out of the vehicle amidst a hoard of eager vendors and made our way to the temple complex. Even from a distance, you can make out that the walls are covered in an embarrassment of rich carvings. The temple is constructed in a star shape that is a trademark of Hoysala architecture. The walls have intricate carvings depicting scenes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other mythologies. One lovely panel I saw (and frankly among the few where I could figure out which scene was being depicted) showed Kumbakaran in the Lanka war, towering above the rest and about to go off to sleep as per his curse. Sadly the temple was never completed by the Hoysalas even though work had gone on for 80 years.
The inside of the Halebid temple matched the outside in its sculptures. The deities had fine filigree work done on their clothes. Apparently, the stone is Schist, which unlike granite makes such intricate work possible. After a quick tour of the inside, we checked out the famous monolithic Nandi. In true Indian style, contemporary graffiti was plentiful, covering reasonable portions of the Nandi’s rump. It is all very well to tut tut when one hears stories of fanatics destroying Babri Masjids or Bamiyam Buddhas. Honestly though, these silly urges to carve out names on historical works are as disfiguring. To add insult to the injury, the government has been trying to reconstruct some of the broken pieces in the sculptures with cement. All I can say is that they must have had very good reasons to do particularly shoddy work.
Post Halebid, all of us were ravenous and managed to catch a bite before heading to Belur. Belur is an active temple with arthis still being done to the presiding deity, Chennakeshava. We hired a guide, who began a methodical tour with the outside and pointed out various statues. One particularly interesting one showed a 2.5 feet figure of a princess with her leg raised behind her gently and her 0.5 foot lady-in-waiting pulling out a thorn from her foot. Apparently the carving is so fine, one can see the thorn the lady-in-waiting is using to pull out the thorn. The panel was perched on the roof though and we had to take our guide’s word for it. The finesse of the carvings down below however provided credibility. Inside the temple it was pretty dark and with the help of the guide’s torchlight, we saw detailed work of the statue of Lord Vishnu dressed up as Mohini. I fiddled around with my expensive camera cursing myself for the nth time about not having learnt to take nighttime pictures.
After a complete round with some lovely stories, we parted ways with the guide and just sat on some of the steps soaking in the beauty around us. Belur and Halebid are such popular names that you feel tempted to just ignore them as ‘tourist’ attractions. I am very glad I did not do it. And I must say I did feel a little smug that tourist attractions in India are definitely not as banal as the ones I saw in the U.S. couple of years ago. We really have some good stuff!
General tip: Hire a guide. Ideally if you can find a book that gives you info on the architectural details, the trip will be better (I could not find any).