Where God is in the details - Published on December 10, 2010 in The Deccan Herald Bangalore.

Where God is in the details
Bhagyalakshmi Krishnamurthy

Bhagyalakshmi Krishnamurthy visits heritage spots Belur and Halebid, and is smitten by the beautiful temples and the intricate carvings inside the ancient structures.

Belur and Halebid are not UNESCO World Heritage sites like Hampi and Pattadakal. Belur and Halebid are not as famous as Badami or Sringeri. They do not boast of the archaeological significance and antiquity of Aihole. But Belur and Halebid, we realised have beautiful temples which can, any day, hold their own against Hampi, Pattadakal, Badami and Aihole.

Though the two destinations are always referred to as Belur and Halebid, it is Halebid that came into existence first and is replete with legend and lore. Halebid, which means “the old,  ruined city”, was actually known as Dwarasamudra. It was the thriving and prosperous capital of the Hoysala dynasty in the 12th century and acquired its current name after Malik Kafur invaded and destroyed the region.

Halebid is significant for the Kedareshwara and the Hoysaleshwara temples, which according to records, was built over a staggering 109 years by about 20,000 labourers!

Set on the banks of a lake and surrounded by gardens, stand the two temples with the most beautiful and intricate sculptures of mythological characters, animals, shilabalikas or dancing women and many more; yet no two sculptures are the same.

There is a huge monolithic sculpture of Nandi, the vehicle of Shiva - an astounding fact is that it remains incomplete even after 86 years of labour! Many of the dancers or shilabalikas are believed to have been inspired by Queen Shantala Devi, King Vishnuvardhana’s wife, who was known to be a very beautiful and gifted dancer herself. She also seems to have been quite a feminist as historical records attribute many administrative and religious reforms of the Hoysala dynasty to her. Queen Shantaladevi was a follower of Jainism and this explains the three Jain temples in the vicinity of the Kedareshwara temples.

First Halebid, then Belur...

Belur came into existence after Halebid, when the Hoysala kings shifted there after the invasion of Halebid by Malik Kafur. It is home to the Chennakeshavaraya Temple which was built to commemorate King Vishnuvardhana’s victory over the Cholas at Talakad. It was also built as his tribute to Lord Vishnu as suggested by Ramanujacharya, the head pontiff of the Vaishnavite sect.

The temple, again set in a sprawling area, is also full of intricate carvings depicting various mythological characters and animals.

Guides will exhort you to look at the Darpana Sundari which has come to epitomise the temple. Because the interiors are dark, the authorities have installed a huge rotating light, which when switched on, shows the intricacies and the amazing detail that have gone into every sculpture, some even on the ceiling. It is worth paying the nominal fee and using this lamp.

The legend of Jakanacharya

A very interesting legend about the Belur and Halebid temples has to do with Jakanacharya, the sculptor who is said to have built them both. Jakanacharya, a very skilled sculptor from Kridapura village in Tumkur, Karnataka, was so passionate about his craft, that when he was commissioned to build the Belur and Halebid temples, he forgot everything including his wife. Jakanacharya put heart and soul into the temples.

Unknown to him, his wife delivered their son, Dankanacharya, who also became a great sculptor. When Dankanacharya visited Belur, he pointed out an error in the main idol and stated that there was a frog inside it. An enraged Jakanacharya challenged him to prove it and said that he would cut off his right arm if Dankanacharya was proved right. Dankanacharya proved his point, not knowing that Jakanacharya was his father and the father cut off his right hand. It was only after that they discovered their relationship.

Thereafter, Jakanacharya is said to have had a vision where Lord Vishnu told him to go back to his village, Kridapura, and build a temple. Jakanacharya did precisely that and the Lord is said to have given him back his right hand!

Kridapura, since then, began to be called Kaidala as kai means ‘hand’. The Karnataka government confers the Jakanacharya award every year, on outstanding sculptors and craftsmen in memory of this great sculptor.

Another bit of interesting information is that both temples are sculpted out of soapstone, a material which lends itself to intricate work.

This explains the very minute detail that is noticeable in every sculpture, big or small. Both temples stand on a pedestal, ensconced in a star-shaped precinct.

Here are a few pointers if you are planning to visit Belur and Halebid:

Try and visit them in winter, there is hardly any shade in the precincts of the temples and summer can be quite harsh. Do make it a point to use a guide and select an honest one. They do possess a wealth of detail.

The most comfortable way of visiting these two temples is to base yourself at Chikmagalur, which is a beautiful hill station in its own right!

Nestled in the Bababudan Giri hill range, Chikmagalur is just 40 kilometres away from Halebid and 15 kilometres away from Belur, thus making it possible to visit both of them on the same day. You can also base yourself at Hassan. The best way to reach Chikmagalur (222 kilometres) or Hassan (194 kilometres) is to drive down from Bangalore. You can also take a train from Bangalore to Hassan.

Do keep aside adequate time to explore the temples, it is worth it! They often say “The devil is in the detail”. In Belur and Halebid, God lives in the detail!
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Srirangam Gateway to Heaven Published in The Times Of India National Edition; Date: Dec 17, 2010; Section: Editorial; Page: 22

To devotees, particularly Vaishnavites, the Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam near Trichy in Tamil Nadu is their sacred gateway to heaven.

    Among the 108 temples in south India that are of utmost importance to Vaishnavites, Srirangam tops the list. Here, Vaishnavai saint Godha Devi is believed to have merged with the idol and attained salvation. According to legend the idol rose up from the celestial Milky Ocean. It is a large, monolithic black statue of Vishnu, reclining on Adisesha, the divine serpent. It was received by Brahma and left in his custody till Vishnu as Rama gave it to Vibheesana, the noble brother of the slain demon king Ravana.

    Vibheesana wished to carry it back to Sri Lanka. Rama told him that it was not to be placed down under any circumstances. Vibheesana needed to rest and perform his ablutions. He found a little boy and asked him to hold it. When he came back he found that the boy had placed the idol down and it was rooted to the spot. An angry Vibheesana chased the boy who was actually Vinayaka.

    The idol lay there for ages, deep in the forest, covered with vegetation, till a prince of the Chola dynasty, Dharma Varma, stumbled upon it and built a shrine to protect it. During the Muslim invasion, temple priests erected a wall and hid the idol and fled with a smaller deity. For 50 years, they moved from place to place and finally hid it in a ravine at Tirupati, another major Vaishnavite pilgrimage destination. Once the invaders left, the priests returned to Srirangam and reinstalled the idol. Since then subsequent kings of the Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagar and Hoysala dynasty from the 10th century onwards, have made significant additions to the temple. Today, the Srirangam Ranganatha Swamy temple is spread over 156 acres, making it the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world.

    Vaikuntha Ekadasi is the most important festival here. Hindus believe that the doors of heaven remain open throughout that specific day and a visit to any shrine of Vishnu this day ensures unfettered entry into heaven. At Srirangam temple the Paramapadha Vaasal or Sorga Vaasal, the Gateway to Heaven, is thrown open on Vaikuntha Ekadasi day at 4:15 a.m. for darshan. Busloads of devotees descend on Srirangam and wait for hours to get a glimpse of the Ranganatha idol. Preparations for the Vaikuntha Ekadasi here commence in October itself when the first of the 47 pillars of a grand mandapam (stage) is erected in the presence of shloka-chanting priests. Festivities begin well in advance, lasting nearly a month.

Most festivals coincide with seasonal changes, thus providing a strong market for the agricultural and horticultural offerings of that season. To the residents of Srirangam, Lord Ranganatha is a live entity. They address him in the first person; they visit him as they would visit a family member. When they enter the temple, it is with a sense of ownership coupled with an unshakable faith that He is there! It is as though they have made the journey from the temporal to the spiritual, a hallowed journey that infuses them with extraordinary strength to face life’s challenges.

    Today is Vaikuntha Ekadasi. 

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