Temple Architecture in India

A review of Forming Dōrasamudra: Temples of the Hoysaḷa Capital in Context, by Katherine E. Kasdorf.

Despite more than two hundred years of systematic documentation and analysis, southern India’s rich corpus of temple architecture remains a wide-open field of research. Previous studies have tended to treat their subjects as isolated monuments, dissociated from the wider built and social contexts in which they were produced and functioned. One exceptional inquiry challenging this trend is the multi-disciplinary, decades-long investigations of the Vijayanagara Research Project, which succeeded in considering that medieval capital’s monuments as integrated components of their larger urban environment. Katherine E. Kasdorf’s dissertation similarly seeks to broaden our understanding of how individual monuments, when considered together, can contribute to a fuller reconstruction of their historical milieu. Her site-contextualized study examines the temples of Haḷēbīḍ, primary capital of the Hoysaḷa dynasty from the mid-eleventh to mid-fourteenth centuries, when it was known as Dōrasamudra.

Kasdorf’s dissertation comprises six chapters, two introducing the subject and her methodology for its study, and four presenting either a single or group of related temples at the Hoysaḷa capital. A rich collection of figures, most photographs taken by the author illustrating the primary material that informs her study, a bibliography, and two appendices follow. Chapter 1 orients the reader. Here Kasdorf provides a good description of the site, detailing its primary topographical and built features. Next she presents a useful characterization of Hoysaḷa temple architecture, tracing its development through innovation and the adaptation of earlier regional modes of temple construction. She argues for the new mode’s distinctiveness from its precursors, as well as for the appropriateness of the dynastic term “Hoysaḷa Style.” Throughout the dissertation, Kasdorf maintains a close association between this unique temple style and the identity of the Hoysaḷa polity, and especially of its capital city. Chapter 1 continues with a valuable historiographic survey of the site’s study, beginning in the earliest years of the nineteenth century, and the author locates the initiation of the trend toward considering its temples as isolated objects with its very first art-historical analysis by James Fergusson in 1866. As she points out, Fergusson never actually visited Haḷēbīḍ. Her first chapter’s concluding methodological section is a sort of response to Fergusson and so many art historians who succeeded him. With the stated goal of reconstructing more fully Hoysaḷa-period Haḷēbīḍ’s context—a concept whose construction and limits she deftly discusses—Kasdorf lays out the diverse range of data she will examine. Secondary literature from a variety of disciplines, along with museum and archival work, are important sources of information, but detailed fieldwork—time on the ground, precisely what Fergusson and others neglected—obviously forms the core of the author’s research.

A second introductory chapter provides the political history of the Hoysaḷas and discusses their network of capitals, from which Dōrasamudra emerged as the primary dynastic seat by the 1130s. The author also expands upon her previous chapter’s description of the site, its topography, and the patterns of urbanization she reconstructs from the surviving archaeological evidence. Particularly important to her analysis is her reconstruction of the city’s principal Hoysaḷa-period thoroughfares and the “nodes” of activity and investment from a variety of Dōrasamudra’s elite that emerge at both the intersections and termini of these arterial roads.

Chapter 3 is the first of Kasdorf’s four in-depth examinations of temples constructed around one of these urban nodes. Its subjects are the city’s most famous monument, the Hoysaḷēśvara temple, and, to a lesser degree, the now largely dispersed material record of the nearby Nagarēśvara-site temples. As the city’s most impressive, innovative, foundational temple, it is no wonder earlier authors dwelled on the Hoysaḷēśvara, even if their exclusivity was problematic. Kasdorf’s treatment of this key monument is authoritative, masterfully bringing together visual and epigraphic evidence to correct, refine, and greatly expand all previous analyses of the building. As she does throughout the dissertation, her close scrutiny of inscriptions (here a land grant providing important foundation details) is impressive and results in the extraction of a wealth of data that she brings into conversation with other evidence (here a near-parallel foundation inscription from the alternate capital Bēlūr) to develop ideas that truly push forward our understanding of these temples’ wider social, political, religious, and built contexts. Combined with the visual evidence, Kasdorf convincingly theorizes that through their patronage of impressive monuments carrying dynastic associations, patrons from multiple elite groups—here merchants and royalty—participated in a common, self-conscious project to create an image of Hoysaḷa sovereignty and society. Visually, she argues that it was through the creation and deployment of a distinct stylistic idiom in the major temples of the capital that these multiple elites demonstrated the wealth, power, and prestige to which Hoysaḷa society laid claim. This new stylistic idiom was one that adroitly integrated a temple’s architectural and sculptural articulation to create a visual experience viewers never before could have experienced. Kasdorf identifies the singular hallmark of this idiom—limited to twelfth-century Dōrasamudra (at the Nagarēśvara-site temples and the now-ruined Hūcēśvara, in addition to the Hoysaḷēśvara)—as a particular treatment of the outer corners of the structures’ elevations, which were many due to their stellate plans, by which the profuse, large-scale figural imagery of their sculptural panels turned the corners to unite the compositions on either side of their facets. These “Sculptural Corners” were the key to Dōrasamudra’s unique stylistic idiom, resulting in the effect of continuous sculptural friezes that ran around the wall of the temple and harmonized with similar bands of sculpture on the monuments’ tall, complex basement moldings. This integration of sculpture and structure was highly localized in time and space: outside the capital, and by the thirteenth century within it, the two are not unified. Kasdorf looks for the unique idiom’s explanation in a particular workshop formed and based in the city. While she argues against attributing its deployment to royalty per se—and instead to wider patronage devoted to the development of the city—she does not ignore the obvious ways in which the Hoysaḷēśvara temple especially must have been constitutive to the identity of the dynasty and its state.

In contrast to the famous Hoysaḷēśvara temple, Chapter 4 turns to Dōrasamudra’s lesser-known Jain temples and, in particular, the Pārśvanātha Basadi, consecrated in 1133. Kasdorf’s treatment of this material is no less comprehensive than for the celebrated monuments, and she similarly subjects both the inscriptional and physical evidence to rigorous examination. Located at a second important node in the urban landscape, south of the previous one and very near to the palace compound, these temples were the products of a multiplicity of patronage: courtly, royal, Jain, and mercantile. Quite unlike the Hindu examples from the last chapter, the exteriors of these temples are relatively unadorned, and it is instead their interiors on which the author—quite clearly moved by their beauty—concentrates her efforts. In particular, it is the presence of colossal images of the Jain saints within their sancta that marks these monuments as unique. Kasdorf’s argument, convincingly drawn from both the inscriptions and the presence of these colossal images, is that these temples demonstrate an attempt by their patrons to bring the religious power and prestige of south India’s premier Jain pilgrimage center, Śravaṇa Beḷgōḷa, to the center of the Hoysaḷa capital.

Similarly, Kasdorf argues in Chapter 5 that the ca. 1200-1220 royal foundation of the Kēdārēśvara temple, located at the eastern terminus of the road leading straight to the palace at its other end, functioned as part of a larger project of strengthening the capital city’s ties with a powerful regional religious group—in this case the Śaivite Kāḷāmukha order. An effort intended to localize the authority of the Kāḷāmukha deities at the capital and to strengthen existing ties between the religious group and the Hoysaḷa dynasty, the venture additionally asserted a degree of Hoysaḷā influence in the politically contested regions to the north whence these deities originated. Kasdorf’s consideration of the temple itself, initiated in Chapter 3, is among her dissertation’s most impressive efforts. The monument underwent massive changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the author expertly subjects to detailed analysis widely dispersed materials from a variety of sources—the epigraphic record , museum and archival materials, and the visual evidence of the temple and the larger corpus to which it belongs—to reconstruct its Hoysaḷa-period form and significance.

Chapter 6 is the last of the author’s examinations of temples constructed around one of Dōrasamudra’s nodes of activity. Here she moves away from the more-established political and religious centers of the city to look at barely-known monuments in a neighborhood near the northern terminus of the road, which she identifies as the capital’s rājamārga, near where it would have entered the city’s walled enclosure. More modest temples of still-elite, if less prestigious patronage, these monuments help to map more fully our understanding of the capital’s twelfth-century social topography, Kasdorf’s stated aim throughout the dissertation. She brings these temples into conversation with the more-celebrated monuments to their south, situating them stylistically and chronologically in the now-expanded framework of the Hoysaḷa capital, and with them convincingly demonstrates that Dōrasamudra still holds much unconsidered material to yield to further studies of its entirety.

Kasdorf’s conclusions both identify critical themes that emerge from her four case-study chapters and suggest lines of enquiry that may further advance a fuller understanding of the period and the capital city at its political center. Consideration of spatial relationships and what they might reveal about patronage and use is, she argues, a crucial tool to countering the tendency of generations of scholars who approached monuments in isolation from their wider contexts. We cannot understand how a period’s most extraordinary surviving monuments functioned without also considering the urban frameworks in which these key monuments were located. Only after casting the net wider can one usefully return to the task of unlocking, with these keys, what might be revealed about the goals of the patrons and the artists who created them. Kasdorf recognizes the tension between understanding “great monuments” and the urban contexts of which they were a part, and she legitimately locates in the uniquenesses of key monuments the most promising clarifications to questions of meaning and intent. The very questions that demand elucidation, however, cannot be known from their distinctiveness alone. Her study, when more widely known through publication, has—in the company of very few peers—the potential to initiate evermore serious scrutiny of this particular medieval capital and to catalyze a multitude of more holistic examinations of India’s neglected urban centers.

John Henry Rice
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Primary Sources

Hoysaḷa-period built remains of Haḷēbīḍ, Karnataka
Inscriptions collected primarily in Epigraphia Carnatica
National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen
Indian Museum, Kolkata
Mackenzie and Bowring Collections, British Library, London

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2013. 388 pp. Primary Advisor: Vidya Dehejia.

Image: Hoysalesvara Temple. Wikimedia Commons.

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