Over a thousand years ago a sadhu (ascetic) was attacked by a tiger. Seeing a tribal warrior nearby he called out for help: 'Hoy Sala! Sala!' Without hesitating a man, named Sala, rushed towards the tiger and plunged his spear into its side. Legend credits this courageous man with being the founder of the South Indian dynasty which took its name from the sadhu's cry ('Hoysala') and adopted the symbol of a man killing a tiger as its emblem. The Hoysalas are the least known of South India's kings, whose only enduring legacy after they outgrew their tribal and warlike beginnings were the temples at Belur and Halebid near Hassan, 180 kilometers (112 miles) west of Banglore, and at Somnathpur, 45 kilometers (28 miles) east of Mysore. No other from of Indian art of architecture is as ornate and intricately decorative as theirs, nor, perhaps, as suggestive of languorous sensuality.
In 1116, King Bittiga repudiated Jainism and returned the Hoysalas to the Hindu fold, renaming himself Vishnuvardhana. In the same year he defeated the mighty Cholas and, to celebrate this victory, ordered a temple erected at Belur, 38 kilometers (24 miles) from Hassan, in honour of Channakesava, an incarnation of Vishnu.
The temple took 103 years to build and in a classic example of the Hoysala style. It rises, like a rococo wedding cake in stone, from a star-shaped plinth, one of the hallmarks of Hoysala building design. From the base upwards, there is an extraordinary wealth of decorative detail; every available inch is crammed with intricate carvings. Line upon line of friezes form bands around the temple, each depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. In one frieze, 650 elephants jostle one another in a continuous line.
All the Hoysala temples are constructed of a kind of soapstone which when freshly quarried is soft and yields easily to the chisel but which hardens after exposure - a characteristic that made it possible from the stonecarvers to achieve a remarkable degree of detail. Many people, however, find the Hoysala style florid and over-decorated.
The tradition of anonymity that conceals the identity of Indian craftsmen is absent at Belur (and Halebid). The name of its architect, Jakanachari, has come down to us, as well as the signatures of his craftsmen.
Many of the figures of full-bosomed women depicted at Belur are believed to be portraits of King Vishnuvardhana's queen, Shantala Devi. She was a famous dancer, a woman of great wit and intelligence, and there is a stone portrait of her just inside the temple's eastern entrance. Her husband, the king, stands beside her, mustachioed, bejeweled and justifiable proud.
The Halebid temples and palaces that the visitor sees today were once part of the last Hoysala capital, located 16 kilometers (ten miles) east of Belur. In 1310, a Muslim army swept down from Delhi on a rampage, brutally killing its citizens and looting its treasures. Any hope that the city might be rebuilt was crushed forever in 1326 when a second onslaught wrought greater destruction and brought the Hoysala empire to an end.
And yet the remains are magnificent. The main temple is dedicated to Shiva and, as at Belur, was built by King Vishnuvardhana. It conforms, with its star-shaped base, to the pattern of all Hoysala temples but is the most intricately decorated. Only in darkness of the inner sanctum where the stark black lingam, the symbol of Shiva, is still worshipped is there any suggestion of simplicity.
Elephants are believed to denote stability and perhaps it is their sturdy support that has helped the temple to weather the centuries, for an intricately carved line of them winds around the base. Above them are many bands of finely detailed friezes, each with extraordinary examples of superb craftsmanship.
The two-meter (six-foot) devara-palikas, or door guardians of the temple are imposing in height, but what holds the eye is the unbelievable lace-like fineness of the carving. At Halebid the eye can easily become confused by the wealth of ornate carving on the temple and it requires an effort to focus on small details. As at Belur, it is the celestial woman who have the greatest appeal. Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, is shown dancing and Shiva dances too, as Nataraja, the Lord of the Cosmic Dance. Krishna himself dances, but on the great rearing hood of a demon serpent.
Surprisingly, the temple is unfinished. Stonemasons and sculptors laboured for 86 years and stopped suddenly for reasons unknown.
The huge 17.7-meter- (58-foot-) high monolithic statue of Gommateshvara Sravanabelagola stands on the summit of the 143-meter (470-foot) granite Vindhyagiri Hill. The site was established in the ninth century and remains one of the most important Jain pilgrimage sites in southern India. Every 12 years (next in 1993) the great statue is given a ritual libation. The town is 170 kilometers (106 miles) from Bangalore and 60 kilometers (37 miles) southeast of Hassan.