A Sunday trip (15 Nov) to Nuggehalli organised by INTACH turned out to be a rain-soaked picnic with showers of knowledge thrown in for good measure.
The rain gods showed no mercy and everyone in the group had to unfurl their umbrellas shortly after reaching Nuggehalli. For one man though, the rains hardly made a difference. It was the walk lead Prof. Raghavendrarao Kulkarni. A walking encyclopaedia on temples, he braved the rains sans an umbrella as he spoke about the history and sculptures first at the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple and then at the Sadashiva Temple both of them iconic temples built in the 13th century AD during the reign of the Hoysalas.
The highly ornate Lakshmi Narasimha Temple is symbolic of the excellent craftsmanship of those days. The original structure was built with soapstone procured from HD Kote around 1246 AD by Bommana Danda Nayaka, an aide of the Hoysala king Vira Someshwara. He is believed to have constructed the temple for the deities Lakshmi Narasimha, Keshava and Gopala on the behest of his guru Sri Pundarikaksha Somayaji. The temple stands at the spot were long time ago, sage Rushaba offered penance to Lord Lakshmi Narasimha who mighty pleased with his devotee is believed to have appeared in front of him in disguise. Around 1249 AD, Bommana Danda Nayaka also constructed the Sadashiva Temple in the vicinity of the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple. During that period, Nuggehalli was known as Vijaya Somanathpura and was famous as an agrahara (or place of learning). The name Nuggehalli came into existence somewhere during the reign of the Vijayanagara kings. ‘Nugge’ translates to ‘enter’ and ‘halli’ translates to village in Kannada.
Like most Hoysala-period temples, the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple is constructed on a star-like (or stellate) platform. Though the key deity is Keshava, the temple is named after Lakshmi Narasimha one of the secondary deities. The other secondary deity is Gopala. The temple was expanded in the 17th century AD during the reign of the Vijayanagar dynasty. Unlike the Hoysalas who favoured soapstone, the Vijayanagar dynasty chose to go for lime and mortar. The extended temple in the form of a large hall is in lime and mortar and dry masonry was employed to construct the walls. In contrast to the highly ornate soapstone marvel, the extension is as plain as can be. [Oops! I just realised that I did not click a picture of the entire temple. How embarrassing! ]
While the original temple only had one tower, the Vijayanagar architects went on to add two more towers over the secondary shrines of Gopala and Lakshmi Narasimha. But the beauty of the original tower makes it stand out to such an extent that the other two towers go more or less unnoticed. The inside of the vimana (or main shrine housing Lord Keshava) has four lathed cylindrical soapstone pillars.
The stunningly beautiful sculptures on the outside of the vimana were the works of Hoysala sculptors Mallitamma and Bhaichoja. Mallitamma was the chief sculptor and he decorated the north side of the temple. He started his career at the tender age of 16 and went on to work till he was 72. All his carvings at the temple bear his signature in Kannada. Signing below sculptures was a practice during the Hoysala period. Bhaichoja on the other hand decorated the south side of the temple and his signature can be found under a grand sculpture depicting Lord Vishnu in a relaxed posture. Bhaichoja was a very young man at the time of this assignment possibly in his 30s. Many art historians find his sculptures more creative and beautiful than that of the senior sculptor. Mysteriously, Bhaichoja never worked on any other assignment in spite of his immense talent. The Lakshmi Narasimha temple project was his first and last. Was he murdered by jealous rivals? Did he commit suicide? Was he maimed? There are no records supporting these theories. When I narrated this at home, my mother came out with another theory. Bhaichoja in all probability was Lord Lakshmi Narasimha himself in disguise. A point to ponder about!
Like all Hoysala temples, the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple does not have a path for circumambulation on the inside. Circumambulation has to be done either on the platform or around the temple. It was a co-incidence that our visit was on the same day as the kalyanamahotsava (an important festival) at the temple. Many devotees had flocked to the temple dressed in traditional Iyengar attire. The temple is a principal place of worship for the Iyengar community who are all Vaishnavites. Idols of the deities were being taken around the temple by groups of worshippers.
After a visit to the inside of the temple, Prof. Kulkarni took us through the narrative panels on the outside of the vimana. The Hoysalas believed in the concept of Bhagvatham which allowed the presence of sculptures of deities other than the presiding deity. Thus, in the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple which is a Vaishnavaite temple there are 24 forms of Vishnu including Keshava, Gopala and Lakshmi Narasimha; there is a Shiva sculpture too in the form of Harihara (half-Shiva [Hari] and half-Vishnu [Hara]); there is Ganesha; there is a sculpture of Brahma, the creator; Kama, the God of Love and his consort Rathi, the Goddess of Love to name a few. Goddesses Lakshmi and Parvati are depicted as dancers.
All the sculptures are carved above six frieze panels with moulded figurines. The six frieze panels are divided into two sections. The bottom-most panel consists of elephants. Prof. Kulkarni mentions that elephants are always placed on the base signifying that they are the weight-bearers. In between some of the elephants you can notice babies too! Above the elephants come the horsemen and above the horsemen is a decorative panel of foliage. Now the panels of elephants, horsemen and foliage constitute the first section. Above this section is the second section which consists of three panels. The bottom-most panel consists of scenes from the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Above this panel is one of beasts each having a crocodile’s head and lion’s body; topmost is a panel of swans.
Like most ornate Hoysala temples, every inch of this temple too is decorated. Even the corners are filled.
Notable among Bhaichoja’s sculptures are that of Brahma; Krishna and Rukmini on a swing; Kama and Rathi; Rathi’s vehicle Vasanta; the pièce de résistance being the sculpture of Vishnu in Ardhasukhasana (or relaxed pose).
Notable among Mallitamma’s sculptures are one of Arjuna shooting a suspended wooden fish seeing its reflection in the bowl of oil below.
The Lakshmi Narasimha temple is an ocean of sculptures each of them having a distinct anecdote behind them. Like Prof. Kulkarni said, it will take more than one visit to get a hang of all the stories behind the beautiful carvings. We couldn’t agree more!
Before embarking to the Sadashiva Temple, we had generous servings of authentic ‘Pulliyodharai’ or tamarind rice prepared on the occasion of the kalyanotsava. As accompaniments to the ‘Pulliyodharai’ were dollops of delicious ‘Sweet Pongal’ another popular preparation made from rice and jaggery.
As we walked to the Sadashiva Temple, the rain got worse. On reaching the temple premises, we realised that the temple was closed. Unlike the highly ornate Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, the Sadashiva Temple is non-ornate. When constructing this temple, the Hoysalas went for the North Indian nagara style with Bhumija structure. Like the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, the Sadashiva Temple rests on a stellate platform. Here too, the original structure was built with soapstone and latter additions were in lime and mortar using dry masonry.
As the temple was closed we missed seeing the Linga in the main shrine, the Nandi and other deities.
Around 4pm, it was pack-up time. We said goodbye to rain-soaked Nuggehalli!