the Hoysalas: brigand chiefs who became kings

In my last post I told you that all the public walls of Bangalore are painted over with scenes of ruins of our historical monuments, and larger-than-hoarding depictions of our beasts and birds and beaches. I am sitting in the Cafe Coffee Day by the highway at Hirisave, a hundred and ten kilometers west of Bangalore, and I see that the exhortations in Bangalore to celebrate the past of Karnataka are succeeding, and Bangalore is emptying itself this Christmas weekend, and in the process local tourism is shaking off a sluggish year. I am on my way from Hassan to Bangalore, and though it was the other lane that was full, and my lane was free, I am cross, because the cars from the other lane were spilling to ours and surging into us and drove us off the road a few times. Two fresh accidents were proof of the risk, but the sight of them was affecting no one.



This cafe is normally two tables full, but when we came in today only one table was free, with the leftovers from the last party littered on it. Brown and chocolate cake were smeared on the couches and the cushions, and fliers lay about, selling New Year celebrations at the Serai in Chikmagalur. The floor was full of crumbs and I kicked around to tidy it a little, and saw that cake crumbs are stubborn—they stay put or they stick to the shoe.

The tourists who have filled this cafe and the highway are headed to the ghats, to rest there among the quiet coffee, and to trek into the forests, there to turn inward; none may miss a visit to the monuments built by the Hoysala dynasty over four centuries, beginning tenth century, AD.

The Hoysalas began as men of the hills, of the thick jungles that matted the hills. They were virile, industrious, fired by a vitality that their environs imparted to them—qualities which they put to use to prey on traders carrying merchandise to the plains from the sea, or offer the traders protection against other forest brigands. Their other profitable occupation was to swoop down to the plains on marauding excursions, and bring home pillaged grain and stolen women.

Then, as now, these plains were irrigated by small reservoirs. Every few minutes on the road on these plains you notice a reservoir, which have provided water for centuries, to peasants under the Hoysalas, under the Turks, under the Vijayanagar kings, under British rule, and now to peasants in our socialist democratic republic. The plains were created by clearing the plateau of trees, and at the time we are discussing now, the clearing covered areas of today’s districts of Hassan, Mysore, and Tumkur.

click to enlarge…In time, the plainsmen began to employ the hill-folk for protection of plainsmen from plainsmen in dispute, or for protection from man-eating tigers and leopards. They began to civilize a little, and came under the influence of Jain preachers. In the meantime, they began also to feel the need for protection for themselves, on account of uncertainties spawned by the wars between the northern and southern and eastern kingdoms. The fittest among the brigand chiefs emerged their leader, and the brigand-turned-ruler began to collect taxes from the plains—the brigand had become king.

It was a favorable time for the king who'd just begun his career. There appeared a period of calm when the surrounding kingdoms did not pose much trouble, and lesser kings offered their daughters in marriage. In that time of calm he consolidated a kingdom, and, shortly after, became a feudatory of the Chalukyas who ruled north of him.

Thus did the brigand chiefs from the Western Ghats rise to kingship. Just then, in the mid-East, the golden age of Islam had commenced, and the Turks had directed their ambitions eastward to India, and had begun a march that would in four centuries bring them to the Hoysala. In those four centuries, the Hoysalas would extend their kingdom to cover much of the peninsula, wrest sovereignty from the Chalukyas, change their faith from Jainism to Vaishnavite Hinduism, reach glorious heights in art and architecture and literature.



The Turks would go over treacherous mountain-passes to the northern plains of India; they would conquer Delhi and turn southward and come over the Sahyadri mountains to the Deccan plateau, and subdue the feuding southern kingdoms. The last Hoysala would fall to the Turk.

Today, we have only the temples from that time, apart from a public bath, some basic structures, and many tall stone-tablets (virgals) that are the records of the time. The virgals are in temples and also in remote places in the plains and in the jungles, across the vast stretch of the old kingdom, where they stand alone, bearing their fading stories on them. The temples are unarguably superb achievements, not so much for scale as for craftsmanship. But there is not one palace that has survived, not one house of a nobleman, or merchant, or commoner. Was there a secretariat? There isn’t a sign of it. Only the temples exist.

That is where they are headed, all these tourists.
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Here's the blog of a young backpacker who has often been to the places of the Hoysalas.

Also, Payaniga's Belur photo.

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