A riot of colours interrupted my journey. Golden sunflowers nudged each other as they carelessly tossed their heads in the breeze. A montage of lush fields bordered by hills with rotating windmills on their summits rushed past. This simplicity lent charm to the surroundings as I leaned against the trees and took in the silence. This was not a pleasure trip but a journey that took me down history’s aeons. I was driving through Malenadu, the hill regions of Karnataka, in search of a capital town that remained lost amidst the huddled hamlets.
A villager stopped by and I asked him the route to Dwarasamudra. He gave me a vacant stare and looked vaguely at my driver. I tried again and this time I added the words Hoysala, capital and temple to the query. He responded with a toothless grin and rapidly gave directions in Kannada to my driver.
More than a thousand years ago in the middle of the 10th century, a dynasty was born in the Malenadu regions of modern Karnataka. They were the Hoysalas. They were not born kings, but were tribal chiefs who rebelled against the incumbent Chalukyas and went on to establish their own kingdom. There were 14 rulers who ruled for more than 300 years and their reign spread as far as Madurai in the south to Lakkundi in the north. Their capital was initially Velapuri and then it moved to Dwarasamudra. Today, we know the two towns as Belur and Halebeedu. My destination, however, was the ancient town of Dwarasamudra, where I was looking for the remains of this dynasty.
My driver brought me to the 12th century Hoysaleshwara temple in modern Halebeedu, built by the aristocratic merchants Ketamalla and Kesarasetti. The-star shaped temple, a masterpiece of the Hoysala style of architecture, was thronged by tourists who had probably just returned from a visit to the Chennakesava temple in Belur. Dedicated to Shiva and his pantheon of gods and goddesses, the main shrine here is named after the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana Hoysaleshwara, who commissioned the temple. The adjacent shrine, Shantalaeshwara, is credited to the queen Shantaladevi.
A guide gathered his group of tourists and announced that there are more than 500 relief sculptures on the outer wall of the temple. I paused to see the miniature friezes of elephants, horses and the mythical yalis. Stories from the Hindu epics and Puranas were carved in stone. As the tourists posed against the Nandi mantapas, I made my way into the temple where another guide explained the importance of a Garuda pillar. There were carvings of soldiers beheading themselves with swords.
“These are not just dedicated to Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, but to the loyal subordinates of kings who faithfully served them. The pillars are memorials to those who were like garudas to the kings.”
Narrating a story from the pillar, he referred to the sacrifice of a devoted aide, Kuvara Lakshma, who along with his wife Suggala and a thousand followers, ended their lives after the death of their king Veera Ballalla II.
The Hoysala kings are known for their temple architecture, but most of the temples today are either in ruins or in obscure villages waiting to be discovered. Historical records say that 1,521 temples were built by the Hoysala kings while only 434 survive across 238 centres. My search for Dwarasamudra took me to some of them. There were ruins of old temples, Jain basadis and even the remnants of an old fort and a palace.
Halebeedu means ancient abode and I found myself in the old village which was once the mighty Dwarasamudra. Benneguda hill is a witness to the once-powerful empire, which ruled from the 11th century capital. An ancient inscription in the village speaks of a battle fought here against the Kalachuriyas by Veera Ballalla II. A few tourists went boating on the lake. Interestingly, that seemed to be the foundation of Dwarasamudra, which probably means “entry by ocean.”
The ancient Hoysala kings ruled from Velapuri, or Belur, which was on the banks of the Yagachi river. hen Vinayaditya moved to Dwarasamudra in the 11th century, he decided to build a canal to channel water from Yagachi to the new capital. A tank was built and the Hoysaleshwar temple was later constructed on the banks of the tank. An inscription on the tank gives away the name Dwarasamudra which later became known as Halebeedu. “It means ‘old abode’ and we call it the old residence of Dwarasamudra,” echoed the voice of the guide as I walked away from the the throngs of tourists into the bylanes of the ancient capital.
Hardly a stone’s throw away but cut off from the tourist circuit is the nonchalant hamlet of Basadihalli with three Jinalayas. Dating to the period of King Vishnuvardhan, who was earlier a Jain called Bittideva, the basadis or Jinalayas are enclosed in the old Dwarasamudra town. A family enjoyed their picnic lunch as the watchman conversed with them. I walked inside amidst rows of ornate pillars and realized that the basadis have become the abode of bats.
The Archaeological Survey of India board gave us some information. Dedicated to Parshwanatha, Shantinatha and Adinatha, these Jinalayas were built in memory of Ganga Raja, the commander of the army, by his son Boppadeva and to celebrate the victory of the king in the battle of Bankapura. The 16-feet tall sculpture of Parshwanatha with the four Tirthankaras was a highlight of this basadi while the ornate pillars reminded you of the glory of the Hoysalas. Another tall pillar with a sculpture of Brahma stood outside one of them while the ancient well here was almost dry.
The afternoon breeze lifted my spirits as I followed the empty road in front of me. It ended in a much smaller temple called Kedareshwar constructed by Vira Ballalla II in the 13th century. Ironically, just a stone’s throw from the Hoysaleshwar temple, this shrine was devoid of tourists.
An Indian grey hornbill perched on a branch overlooking a water body. The shrill cry of parakeets interrupted my reverie. The children overcame their shyness and were willing to pose for pictures in return for chocolates. I continued my quest to see the ruins. With the Bennegudda hill looking down on them, the remnants of the old city stood silently. Around it, a strong stone fort was probably built. The fragments indicated that there seemed to have been a palace as well. The ASI plaque also mentioned three temples in this complex, of which some friezes still remained.
A few pedestals, including one with a Shiva linga, occupied the centre surrounded by carved stones, while a few headless sculptures were strewn around. This was the capital of a dynasty that once defeated the Cholas, subdued the Chalukyas, overthrew the Kadambas and Pandyas, and controlled the Kalachuryas before being destroyed by internal strife and finally ravaged by Muslim invaders in the 14th century.
The sky changed colour as dusk set in, casting a purple glow. I sat on the steps of the ruined temple and ruminated over the dynasty’s end. Somewhere in the middle of the 13th century, the Hoysala kingdom was divided between two brothers -- Narasimha III, who ruled from Dwarasamudra, and Ramanatha from Kannanur. The brothers fought over Dwarasamudra even as Narasimha III’s son Veera Ballalla III came to the throne. He eventually became the last king of the dynasty. Although he defended his capital, fought his uncle, and kept the neighbouring rulers at bay, the final blow came in the form of Malik Kafur, a general of Alauddin Khilji, who invaded south India in the 14th century.
The invaders forced Ballalla III to submit and looted him of 312 elephants and 20,000 horses besides jewellery of gold and pearls. Dwarasamudra was plundered and the temples destroyed as Ballalla fled to Belur and further south. A few years later, the king returned and attempted to rebuild Dwarasamudra , but the onslaught continued. As Dwarasamudra was further destroyed, the king fled to Tiruvannamalai, but died in Madurai while fighting the invaders. It is said the cruel blow came when “the captured king was slain and skinned, his skin was stuffed with straw and hung from the top of the walls from Madurai.” Ibn Battuta, the Morroccan traveller who was in the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq, the reigning sultan at the time, records this. I put the guidebook down with a heavy heart.
Outside the air became solemn as twilight set in. As the dynasty ended, Dwarasamudra disappeared into the dusty annals of history. Halebeedu took over from Dwarasamudra and found its place on another map – the tourist’s agenda. Lights came up at the Hoysaleswara temple as the last set of tourists posed for a picture against the monument and grabbed a piece of history unknowingly.The sun may have set on the Hoysala dynasty a thousand years ago, but they made sure they left their glory intact in the temples they built.
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