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Published: April 5th 2009
My trip to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was brief, but, in the course of ten days, I dipped into a millennium of history at some fascinating points. From the Gangas to the Hoysalas to the Wodeyars, from the tenth to the twentieth century, each culture has left us fabulous evidence of the skills it harnessed in celebrating its gods and its rulers. And, of course, the British left their mark on this part of the former Raj.
My first stop was Hassan, a town that does not have much to commend it apart from its location, an hour away from several places of living history.
Heading back to the tenth century, my forebears were capering over the hills in plaid, the Picts against the Scots, and the Vikings’ ancestors dominating the north and the Islands. William the Conqueror was not even a twinkle in his father’s eye (in fact, his father was not even a twinkle in his own father’s eye). Europe was in the Dark Ages. Much of what remains of the art of the time looks childlike in its simplicity, and external sculpture has been significantly eroded by the elements over the last millennium. Yet several thousand
steps carved into the hill
Vindhyagiri Hill, Sravanabelagola
miles away, a military commander commissioned a statue to be built on top of a hill. His ruler and their antecedents were patrons of Jainism, a religion then in its zenith, and the statue was to be of one of the deities, Bahubali. But this was to be no ordinary statue. Standing 17.5m high, the monolithic Bahubali dominates the plains below. How the massive piece of granite was transported up this huge rock of a hill, and carved in the most simple and perfect outlines, is, to my mind, a miracle on a scale with the construction of the Pyramids. Half a millennium or more before Michelangelo, the statue is also anatomically and proportionally correct. The serenity on his face displays an enviable inner peace, and vines grow up his legs and body, reflecting his detachment from the world. Even the steps up the hill are a work of art, carved, as they are, directly into the rock face. At Bahubali’s feet, a priest accepts offerings and gives blessings to supplicants who have laboured up the six hundred or more steps. Incense and holy oil burn, fragrancing the heat of the day. I sit in a corner of the small
courtyard in front of the statue and marvel.
Two centuries later, we in Scotland have not progressed very far. We’re still running round in plaid and, if Hollywood is to be believed, blue face paint. We’ve advanced only to the extent that we are now fighting the English, having united most of the rest of the country to some extent. Chaucer is writing colourfully about pilgrims to Canterbury, but European art is still two-dimensional, flat and unrealistic.
In southern Karnataka, however, temples are being built at Belur and Halebid to celebrate the Hoysalas’ military victories, their exterior walls decorated in the most intricate, life-like and characterful detail. At the base of the walls, there are parallel rows of carving, each different and each imbued with meaning. Elephants illustrate strength, lions bravery, horses speed, flowers beauty, etc. Even here there is no template: each of the 1,200 plus elephants on the lowest tier is unique, for example. Further rows comprise pictorial representations of the Mahabharata and the Karma Sutra. Above these, vertical panels show dancing girls and different gods in their various manifestations. Again, no two figures are the same. The level of detail is phenomenal. A dancing girl
shakes a scorpion out of her robe after bathing; the scorpion is lurking just below the platform on which she is standing. Shiva dances inside the elephant demon to kill him, pulling apart the demon’s lower limbs as he does so; his thumb is clearly visible having already pierced the demon’s skin. In another of his many manifestations, Shiva unleashes a flood; turtles and fish are clearly visible in the torrent. A monkey tugs at the sari of a dancing girl; she reaches up on tiptoe for a branch with which to hit the monkey, her heel has left the ground. A particularly plump Ganesh sits on his mouse-vehicle, but the mouse’s claws scrabble for purchase under the weight; even the platform on which it is standing buckles under the god’s weight. Nandi, Shiva’s bull-vehicle, looks particularly disgruntled to be carrying his master’s consort, Parvati, as well; the goddess has two vehicles of her own (depending on her manifestation), so why add to the burden he has to support? I was enchanted.
Inside the temples, each of the pillars is different. Some have been carved using over-sized potter’s wheels, as it were, turned by elephants or horses, hence the
even circularity of the carving. Other pillars are multi-sided, the edges evenly spaced all the way up, from floor to ceiling, notwithstanding the different chunks of stone used to create the column. One pillar provides a carved summary of the temple’s external art, but one small panel has been left blank, a dare, if you like: can anyone complete this panel to the level of skill demonstrated elsewhere?
While some desecration has taken place - at Halebid, some of the carving was damaged by subsequent invaders; at Belur, locals have tried to remove panels for themselves - overall the level of preservation is extraordinary. I had to remind myself repeatedly that these temples were constructed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Much of the work looked so fresh and clean as to have been carved only a few decades ago.
Skipping forward a few centuries, the Wodeyars have come to power in southern Karnataka with their capital at Mysore. Now the contrast between art in the East and art in the West is more a matter of style rather than the level of sophistication, and my incredulity lessens. Yet the audio-guided tour around the city’s Maharaja’s Palace is
fascinating. This Palace was built comparatively recently - in the first decade of the twentieth century - as its predecessor had burnt down, but the architecture and the decoration of the various halls is very traditional and extraordinarily ornate: pietra dura inlay work from Agra (used extensively on the Taj Mahal), beautifully painted stained glass, wonderfully moulded silver doors, bright turquoise paintwork, detailed murals showing the lengthy royal procession at the annual ten-day Dusshera festival. My only complaint was that I couldn’t whiz back in time to witness the spectacle of a pubic durbar in full session, the ladies in their glorious saris in the gallery, the maharaja and his entourage in turbaned splendour, each sitting according to his rank and role at court.
Across the road, the Jaganmohan Palace houses an eclectic variety of art and memorabilia collected by the Wodeyars over the centuries, some of it painfully kitsch, some intriguing, some plain weird, some hypnotic. The “Glow of Hope” painting gorgeous and evocative in its simplicity, a young woman illuminated only by the candle she is holding. Faded black and white photographs showing Brits formally but excessively dressed in three-piece suits at a function in Mysore in
regimented vegetables at Devaraja Market, Mysore
the 1930s. Polar bears inexplicably painted with black faces. Black-necked cranes beautifully painted onto fine porcelain. Sickeningly, an ornate ivory palanquin: a reminder, anthropomorphising the elephant bearing it, of its dead compatriots. An extraordinary and extensive set of wooden furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay: hardly comfortable but undeniably impressive. And a familiar face: a marble bust of Sir Walter Scott.
Mysore’s wonderful Devaraja Market actually predates the Maharaja’s Palace, having been built in the first half of the nineteenth century. For the most part, this is a market for locals not tourists, and the quality of its fruit and vegetables would put Western supermarkets to shame. Enormous amounts of care and attention go in to displaying the produce, carrots evenly built up to create a wall, pyramids of even-sized onions and coconuts, banana leaves washed and piled up neatly, baskets of identical green chillies, pots of wonderfully fragrant spices. Ecstatically, I sms’d my Indian friends, “I could live here!”
Moving forward in time only now a few decades and travelling for a slow, winding five hours down the road, I find myself in the old British hill station of Ooty. Here the air is delicious: a welcome change from
the pollution of the last fortnight of Asian cities. It actually gets cold at night: I buy a large shawl embroidered in traditional red and black by the Toda people, one of the original hill tribes from this part of the Western Ghats. All around me is agriculture and cultivation. This is the fruit, vegetable and tea basket of southern India. On a hike the next day, my guide pulls carrots out of the ground and plums off the tree for us to munch. Their sweetness, so freshly picked, is unexpected and welcome. Sadly, however, the town is going the way of most Indian towns. Even here in the mountains, the town centre is crowded, noisy and polluted, and my first impressions have been tarnished by driving past a vast open sewer.
But this is India: its incredible and varied heritage, its fabulous works of art and architecture, its modern-day hustle and chaos. A country struggling to heave its huge population into the twenty-first century, remembering the past but looking to the future, torn between tradition and change.
I’ll be back.
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