Besides inscriptions the sculptures, the carvings on and around Chennakeshva temple too act like historical documents reflecting upon not only art and culture aspect but also the norms and ways of social life of that time. I feel the Shilabalikas of Chennakeshava are a powerful statement about the way the women of that period led their life. They pampered themselves, they pursued their interests be it dance or instrument playing or hunting. They appear to celebrate being woman and I think placing of these women as brackets supporting the roof, connecting it to walls too is a powerful statement about their importance and place in social structure, specially as a supporting force, an adhesive entity. Let me introduce you to as many as I can.

1 –Let us start with Darpan Sundari, the most famous shilabalika, as she is also the emblem figure of Karnataka tourism department. She is on the left side of the main entrance door. The Sunadari is engrossed in looking at her image in a mirror in her hand. Look, even the mirror is carved with minute details like the handle and frame etc. Head to toe decked up with fine ornaments, hairstyle, her posture, movement of jwellery and clothes in synchronisation with her posture, the grace and beauty reflected is simply mesmerizing.

There are two women figures on one side and one on other side of Darpan Sundari towards the lower side of the sculpture. It is interprted that these are the assistants, maids of Darpan Sundari. One of the figures is carrying a monkey in her lap and is the smallest among the three, while the woman on other side appears to be looking at tall standing Darpan sundari. The deatais of ornaments of these smaller figures, their dress and hairstyle too are chiseled with precision and is almost similar to that of main figure.

Darpan Sundari

2- This one has a Damaru in hand and is dancing. Look at the foot above ground, the tribhanga mudra posture. I have read a drum dance; a traditional folk dance called Dollu Kunitha, ows its origin to a tribal community, kuruba Gowda of Karnataka. It was performed as a ritual while worshipping Shiva. Is the lady performing Dollu Kunitha? Her facial expression, eyes half closed, that smile playing on her lips clearly spell that she is enjoying a blissful mental state. Isn’t it astonishing that these craftsmen brought out the emotions too so perfectly on stones?

3 – This Shilabalika is remarkable for its hairdo. Look at the stylist bun. The turns and twirls of hair are so distinguinshigly clear.Hairstyles of these Shilabalikas, each and everyone come as a remarkable fashion statement. No two hairstyles are exactly same. Focus at the monkey pulling the saree of the maiden. She is looking at the monkey a bit annoyed or that could be an indulgent smile,and she is trying to shoo the monkey off with a stick in her raised hand.Is it really a monkey only or the sculptor created it as a symbol. This Shilabalika is attired in a way different than other shilabalikas. I feel the artist wanted to convey much more than what is apparently seen here.

4 – Shuk Bhasini is another quite popular shilabalika. She has a parrot on her hand and her lips are carved in a way that she appears to say something, that slight protrusion of her lips. She is talking to her pet parrot.Minute detailings in these sculptures is mind blowing. Shuk Bhasini too is accompanied by three small figures with similar hairdos and jwellery etc.

5- I am not very clear what this Shiabalika is holding in her hand but the expression of this one and one of the smaller figures reflects as if they are in a kind of indolent mood. The rings in her fingers, the head jewelry, everything is carved meticulously.

6 – Here dance practice is going on. Instrument players are accompanying her. Look at the sole of one foot perfectly placed in a dance stance, not fully touching the ground.

7- Here too smaller figures are playing on instruments but the lead figure is not dancing rather singing and playing cymbals. Her feet are not in a dancing mudra, lips are a bit parted so this Shilabalika loves to sing. Music and song is in the air.

8- This one appears to stand waiting for some one. The most remarkable part of this shilabalika is her hair. Look closely at that big bun and then long, thick bunch of hair cascading down. Did you mark that the long hair is perfectly pruned in a straight line and the big bun is held with a long clasper?

9 – And here is another interesting depiction. The lady is standing on one foot. She definitely is not a dancer so to maintain her balance she needed to hold that creeper. Her assistant is putting toe ring on her one finger while in her free hand she has another toe ring ready. The joy of dressing up, getting ready is so apparent on her face.

10- Speciality of this Shilabalika is the artist’s attempt to craft a transparent dress on stone. Pay attention to the design of the dress at the back of the lady and on one of her leg and impressions on upper part of body.

11—This one appears to play an imaginary flute or is it a kite flying posture. I think she is playing flute and a sombre tune at that. Isn’t that what her expression tells?

12 – This Shilabalika appears to be quite confident in her own skin, assured of her power and beauty. Look at that smug expression on her face and what her assistant is trying to do? Is it a mirror in her hand? Is she trying to show it to her and she does not bother even to cast a glance on that side? Is this gesture too has another symbolical interpretation?

13 – This Madanika is playing Nag-veena. One end of Veena is snake shaped.musicians are accompanying her.

14—here comes the drummer. An all girls band? She holds the stick to beat the drum and did you notice her second hand? She holds the drum at place with another hand and has placed it under the ropes of drum. Loved that detail. Each and every rope of drum has been carved so nicely and clearly. These minute details reflecting the imaginative power of the artists are the signature stamps of the sculptors of Hoyasala period.

15 – one hand of this lady is damaged and she is holding something in her other hand. Due to the damage its not very clear what she is doing exactly. However when we pay attention to her assistants, we find that one assistant is giving a tumbler kind of pot to the lady. Is the assistant giving her something to drink and the other one, what that assistant is doing? Two kind of interpretation is done for this frame. Some believe that it is depiction of holi playing celebration as one assistant is filling colour in pichkari. Other interpretaion is that the assistant is someone well versed with medicines and is preparing some potion or a kind of medicine to relieve the lady of her pain or ache. The other assistant has brought water to her. Looking at the facial expression of the lady , I incline towards the second interpretation. Don’t you think that she gives an impression of being in pain. Her half open eyes , drooping eyelids too seem to indicate that.

16 – here comes another special one. She is squeezing her hair dry after coming out of her bath. She is not yet ready hence not decked up with jwellery and is putting on only the minimum of ornaments.

17 – Another one with Damru and kartal in hand.

18 – this group is all ready for hunting or war. Bows on their shoulders are clearly stating their intentions.

There are 38 Shailbalikas as bracket figures adorning the exterior of the temple. I have talked here about 18 of them. Each of these graceful Shilabalika or Madanika stands under intricately carved creepers, laden with fruits and few of them having birds and insects too. These Madanikas are epitome of feminine beauty, grace; symbol of fertility, peace, prosperity and harmony. The splendid workmanship of the master craftsmen of Hoyasala period is at their magical best while giving life to these richly ornamented beauties with shapely eyebrows, pointed nails, graceful postures and varied expressions.

All pictures @ Sunder Iyer

Main shrine in chennakeshava complex at Belur

I walked upto the steps leading to Jagati, the star shaped platform with 32 angles over which the temple stands. Even before one raises foot to climb on the first step the miniature temples on both the sides of step invite one to stop.

The entrance to Garbhgrah and a view of smaller temple outside

I too was tempted but after stopping for a fraction of second, looking up and around, I inhaled deeply and went directly inside. I decided to come out later and let the art pieces carry me into their world but first I thought to have darshanam of Keshava and convey my gratitude for calling me to His doorstep. As I crossed the threshold and stepped inside, the darkness in the chamber made me stop. I looked straight over the heads of other devotees and the lamp in the Garbhgrah beckoned like a guiding force. From exterior to interior, it was like body to soul and at the farthest end Keshava smiled like the blue light at the deepest core of our soul. It was such an amazing experience that for few minutes I was rooted to the spot. And then gradually the eyes became accustomed to the dark and the unparalleled beauty inside started captivating me. But first I headed directly to sanctum, paid my obeisance to Lord and then moved back to get subsumed by the sculptural beauty around.

That source of light, the supreme being

The interior of temple is divided into three parts – Garbhgrah (sanctum), Sukhanasi(vestibule)navaranga (central hall). On both the sides of the door of sanctum stand dwarpalas – Jay, vijay. Above the door hangs an intricately carved Torana with many embleshiment. Above that stand a band of musicians and dancers and then are two makaras on both the sides with garland like, arc shaped finally carved image coming out from their mouth under which sit gracefully Laxami Narsimha. It is not easy to see every detail there as it is quite dark inside but then who is in a hurry to come out. Stand there inside for some time. Let your heart soak in the aura and eyes ready to be able to focus and the wonders start unfolding.

Have divine Darshanam and then enjoy every intricate detail

Navaranga mandapam, the central hall has many pillars but out of these the four pillars close to the dancing floor stand out due to their exquisite carving. These pillars and the ceiling between them is mesmerizing. The pillars are smooth, shining so much so that even though black in colours they sparkle in the darness of hall. Of course, for absorbing the finally carved details we need to throw some light. One of these four pillars is known as Mohini pillar.

An overview of central hall and vestibules with exquisitely carved pillars.

Navaranga and one of the vestibule

Mohini pillar depicts Vishnu in His Mohini Avatara. Her serene facial expression, stance of standing, the curves of body and with that swaying effect of intricately carved jewelry is astounding. How could such fine detailing be done on stone! And when it comes to detail these Hoyasala times artists and sculptors have surpassed all the limits. Take an example of this Mohini image. Along with various items of jewelry like necklace, anklets, waistband there is a thread hanging from left shoulder to waist. What is that? An Yagopaveet, the sacred thread and what that thread is doing on a woman image? Perhaps, the artist wanted to establish that this is Vishnu, a male deity in a woman form. What a flight of imagination and what a way to manifest that!

Mohini pillar

Another pillar here is Narsimha pillar. The entire body of the pillar is studded with fine filgree work, images of Gods and goddesses and various mythological episode. Besides this the shape of the pillar too depicts the ingunity of the sculptors. The rectangular base on which rests a circular end of the pillar, again a rectangular portion and then a circular portion with many horizontal layers and at the top the pillar gradually becomes narrow. I have not witnessed it but heard that this pillar has this specific structure as it was made with a purpose to be rotated on its axis. May be like those big prayer bells in Buddist temples and monestry the artists had something in mind. This pillar is very near to Garbhgrah.

The ceiling above these four pillars too is very intricately carved. Above each pillar is a bracket figure. These are Suk Bhasini, Gandharva dancer, lady drying her hair and Queen Shantala. These bracket figures are specialty of Chennakeshva temple, Belur and the outer wall of the temple has many specimens of this type.

Shukbhasini, a bracket figure
intricately carved ceiling over central hall
ceiling with two of the bracket figures.

The dancing floor on three sides leads to vestibules with doors opening to platform on east, north and south side. The platform with pradakshina path has flight of steps on these three sides touching the open temple compound.

From Garbhgrah now we are out on platform ready to enjoy the extravaganza of art and sculpture, a wonder world of masterpieces created by the artist and sculptors.

I love the symbolism in this picture — the body, the soul and the light source at the farthest end.

All the pictures @Sunder Iyer