In a country full of exceptional things (to the impoverished westerner’s eyes), I found it remarkable that the temple holds such a central role within a community. I suppose that being brought up in an environment when church was attended once a week, and what went on during the intervening six days was something else, did little to put it at the centre of the community. And did little more than make me a tad cynical about centres of religious protestation. During our trip we visited a number of temples, large and small, colourful and plain, in cities and in the countryside; regardless of any of their attributes, they are looked after, attended and enjoyed. As well as pujas, blessings and spiritual comfort, the temple is also a place of meeting, a place of entertainment, a living canvas of culture and a huge schoolroom where history, myth and legend are entwined with the curling smoke of the incense.
The two temples of Halebid (or Halebeedu) and Belur (Belaru) had all this and more. The temple complex at Halebid is extravagant in very subtle ways. The wall carvings are prolific and fascinating; the construction techniques difficult to comprehend. Yet these carvings tell many stories and not just through their representation. Completed in the 12th century CE, its friezes depict the stories of the Hindu canon: Shiva, Parvati and others appearing in their manifold representations, each tableau telling its tale, the minor detail offering the necessary nuance to ensure that the correct message is relayed. Unfortunately for this traveller, little has been retained but I am sure that a return visit lasting several weeks might commit 1% to memory - but probably less!
However, one can still be impressed by the craftsmanship and marvel at the intricacy of the carvings. For the Hindu family this is the perfect place where stories can be passed on, where the imagery will reinforce the moral of the tale, and where, as the child grows up, all of life is laid before them, including the demands of adulthood - at a height of six foot. Another thing of note is that many of these friezes look as if they have been damaged, and indeed they have. The swords of rampaging invaders striking the heads off men, horses and elephants so that at chest height, figures are incomplete yet those below and above have remained unscathed - except for the ravages of time and weather.
As well as the carvings on the exterior walls, the pillars inside the temple - which hold up its roof - are breathtaking in their design and individuality - no two are alike. The dark and cool interior offers a refuge from the spring sunshine, yet looking out, through the passage, the glossy blackness of the interior sucks the daylight into the shrine.
Later we travel to Belur for evening puja at the Channakeshava Temple. Legend has it that fearing an attack similar to its neighbour, the citizens of Belur covered the temple in sand so that the marauding hordes would not find it and thus the amazing carvings here were kept intact. The temple friezes may not compete with those at Halebid but the intricacy of the carvings of the statues of dancing figures demand the question: How did they do it?! The fine detail, the intricacies and the finesse is outstanding - fingers, toes, jewellery, head dresses, all in wonderful 3D clarity.
As the sun sets, people are entering the precinct through the large gate and we join the queue to attend the puja. Outside, families walk around the temple precinct, chatting; children run and play tag; one boy has his mobile phone and takes pictures of a group of his siblings. A girl in green steps out across the courtyard, safe and confident. Here the temple really is at the centre of the community.