trifling with history in Halebid

Two minutes before arriving in Halebid a farm came up, its house painted in pink and green fluorescent colors completely foreign to this region, but our eyes were drawn beyond the startling walls of the house to a mound shaped like the smooth top of a giant sarcophagus fifty meters behind the house. The mound, we went in and saw, is indeed a grave, a burial performed by nature, of what would once have been a temple, which you can guess from the pieces of granite sticking out of the mound: capitals, pieces of friezes, broken lintel, sections of columns. Some pieces are carved all round, some on one or two faces, and all of them are of the class of the Hoysala.

The mound is overgrown with grass, prickly and hard now in this hot, dry season. There are short trees over it and around, and in their shade you can take relief offered by an occasional whisper of a breeze. What is the right action regarding the dead thing that is buried there? Exhume it and put together the members that have been smashed by man and crushed by nature? Put back into the garbha one of the many idols that are strewn everywhere in this capital of the Hoysala, and consecrate it, and begin prayers? And have the Nikon and the Canon and the Leica arrive with their owners to cock a look at this photogenic art of nine centuries ago? Or is it best that bygones be bygones, and so leave alone the grass and the trees and the teasing breeze and let them soothe the body and revive the soul of the rare visitor in this small, private property?

The owner thought we were from "the department" and wouldn't change his reading even when we assured him that we weren't, wishing not to worry him. But he wanted us to be from the department, with the hope that there lurked an omen in our visit. He has arranged a daughter's marriage for later in the month.

We went to the quieter Jain temples behind the Hoysaleswara temple, where the carvings are fewer, and the austerity of the Jain religion prevails. Before Shanthinatha, an old lady with her saree and blouse rumpled, her hair mussed up, swayed as if in a trance, and sang with the great Meera's fervor. Her song wasn't melodious, yet it was pleasant. But she didn't know the thirthankara before her was Shanthinatha. Another visitor told her whose statue this was, and also that the next temple is for Adinatha, and next to that, facing the main gate, for Parshwanatha. In all the time we were there no more than ten persons visited, and two of them arrived with us, and retired to a corner and the man laid his hand on the woman's lap, and she cut his nails.

The Jain temples in Halebid

Prayers are offered daily to the three thirthankaras by the two Jain families in the village at the feet of the temple terrace. When they were new they'd have been terribly important, with Queen Shanthala their patron, and the completion of the Parshwanatha temple coinciding with a great victory for King Vishnuvardhana against a northern enemy.

The manicure done, the couple left along with us, only a few steps ahead.

The State has no doubt regarding the benefits that it can pick from the past. To add color and shine to itself, it has installed a huge hoarding before Halebid's Hoysaleshwara Temple with pictures on it of the principal political actors in the ruling party, and of their favored guru, all arranged with due attention to protocol. The State recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the ascension of the great Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara, whose portrait is alongside the other pictures, but quite apart from them. Krishnadeveraya’s dynasty assumed power some distance north, in Vijayanagara (Hampi), soon after the last Hoysala fell to the Turk. I tried to take a picture of the sweeping view of the Temple complex, but the hoarding hogged the foreground.

Down the street from the temple, a white lady had discovered a better opportunity. Under the noonday sun, in the summer's heat, Halebid’s women had lined the entire embankment on the town’s side of the Dwarasamudra tank that the Hoysala built nine-hundred years ago. They were doing their daily chore of washing the clothes of all the ones at home. There were enough colors and depth and width to challenge all the cameras on the white lady’s person—she had three of them, I think. Her only problem was the harsh noon-light, but she seemed to know how to handle it, so intense was her focus. I wanted that picture, too, but I hadn’t the courage to raise my camera at women who had lifted their dress to the knee, and were quite wet. So I went a distance on the bund and took aim with my Leica X1 with its 24 mm fixed lens and got no color and no story in any of my many shots.


I turned left and a vision of the splendor of the place when it was a capital appeared to me under the blazing sun. There, across this lake, on the promontory, the thin veneer of trees dissolved to reveal the Hoysaleswara Temple and, behind it, the Jain temples, and next to the Jain temples, by the lake shore again, the Kedareshwara Temple. Behind the temples, near the Royal Bath, the Hoysala's Grand Palace floated in rarefied air, but the man-made lake that lay before me began to glitter and I blinked and blinked and fell back to my time.