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Land of the Hoysalas

This is a travelogue I wrote last year after a visit to Chikmagalur-Belur-Halebeedu. It has since been published in The New Indian Express

It is to coffee land, Chikmagalur, that we finally head to, after much deliberation. The idea is to take long walks in the coffee plantations, breathe the fresh spice-scented air, and unwind. Far away from the Internet noise that everyday life has come to mean for us ‘city types’. So, we land up at a homestay, a 13-km drive from the heart of Karnataka’s Chikmagalur town, also the district headquarters. While we manage to take a stroll or two in the coffee plantations, the constant rain means no trekking, and no outdoor activities. No signal on the phone, no signal on the iPad – leave us tearing our hair out wondering what to do, unused as we are to the silence and the sound of constant rain.
It is then that the manager at the homestay comes up with the idea of 
Belur - Halebeedu. Why not, we say. The husband and I both vaguely remember seeing Belur as school kids. And the story of the Hoysala dynasty is one we haven’t forgotten, thanks to history textbooks in school. So, Belur - Halebeedu it would be.
As we drive into Belur town, we can’t help but notice paint shops, shops selling agricultural tools, a clinic, a primary school...all jostling for space on a muddy road, made worse by a spell of rain. It is hard to imagine that an ancient empire flourished here some nearly thousand years ago. 
Belur was once the seat of the mighty Hoysalas, who ruled a major part of Karnataka.
Halebeedu or Dwarasamudra, 16 km away, was the 12th century capital of the empire. The story of the Hoysalas really goes back to that famous legend that most schoolchildren learn from their history textbooks. That of Sala slaying a tiger. Hoy-sala, meaning ‘go for the kill, Sala’.
Halebeedu’s temple complex, tourists stop and stare in awe at the emblem depicting the legend. But what will surely leave a lasting impression on them is the site’s brilliant temple architecture. The temples of Hoysaleshwara and Shantaleshwara, built on a star-shaped platform, are awe-inspiring, to say the least. Intricate sculptures of mythical swans and horses adorn every wall; stunning images of mythological characters are bound to take your breath away. An ASI museum with rows of sculptures is also worth taking a look.
If the architecture overwhelms you, as it indeed does, you can feast your eyes on the greenery around. A huge man-made tank in the same temple complex makes the ambience picture-postcard perfect. It is in fact this tank that gave the town its name – Dwarasamudra.
Having spent over an hour here, our driver tells us of another temple we must not miss. We drive a kilometre further from the main temple complex. Green fields and coconut trees add some detailing to a rather grey and cloudy frame. Soon, a temple comes into our line of vision. The Kedareshwara temple has no deity in it. There’s not a soul in the vicinity. The temple doesn’t attract the kind of visitors the main temples do. As we walk around the temple that we have all to ourselves, our driver brings us our packed lunch.
There, on a stone bench, we eat our rice and chapathis, quietly taking in the beautiful carvings and the grand structure, built on a star-shaped platform. It is as if we have trespassed into a time past. It is as if we have no sanction to sit there and check our twitter feeds – it is as if we have stealthily walked into someone else’s home. And who knows, the king and queen could be watching us.
A sobering and unnerving meal, that turns out to be, one must say!
Back and forth
Cut back to Belur situated on the banks of River Yagachi. As schoolchildren in bright blue uniforms walk to the nearby government school, and the largely agrarian town busies itself with raising tomatoes and chillies, two among the biggest crops they grow here apart from areca, I wonder if they think at all about the great ruler, Vishnuvardhana or his wife, Shantala, patrons of art and architecture. They once walked the same land as today’s farmers in Belur did. Lost in the battles of daily life, do people in modern-day Belur stop and stare at the grandeur their town is home to?

Tourists flock 
Belur and there are more than a couple of neat rows selling garlands and coconuts to offer to the deity, Chennakeshava, who presides over the star-shaped temple in the town. Tourists also can’t miss the tiny shops selling Hoysala emblems made of stone. And inside, enthusiastic guides will narrate to them the story of ‘Amarashilpi Jakanacharya’, a master sculptor.
The temple complex is vast, and there is a sense of calm, even amidst groups of talkative tourists. There are two shrines, the main Chennakeshava temple and the Kappe Chennigaraya temple commissioned by Queen Shantala.
Friezes with carvings from mythology and ‘shila balikas’ (stone sculptures of beautiful women) apart from the two huge Hoysala emblems on either side of the main shrine are bound to capture your imagination.
The complex also has a long many-pillared hall that runs through the length of the area. A ‘pushkarni’ or a step-well with intricate carvings completes the picture.
As we drive out of temple street and reach the main road again, we see a house painted in many colours, fortified with metal and glass, stands out like a sore thumb; its granite cladding jars the eye. The irony is obvious. Shops selling plastic containers in bright blues and greens come back into view. The business of life goes on. 


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