“This is going to be one hell of a summer”, Jonathan said as he bobbed in the backseat of an Innova that was trudging down the dusty roads, towards Belur, Karnataka
It’s winter here in India, Rose replied nonchalantly from the front seat as the vehicle passed the sunflower farms flanking both sides of the roads.
The temperature is like that in Melbourne, don’t you think? asked Ashita curiously, eyeing both of them.
No, I didn’t mean the temperatures; I am talking about the adventure ahead! Jonathan chimed.
Jonathan, Rose and Ashita were architecture students in Australia and had become great friends. After seeing Ashita’s project plan around temple architecture in India, Jonathan had decided he would join in to see some architectural marvels over the summer. Not to be left behind, Rose too had jumped on the India trip plan.
They were being hosted by Ashita’s family in Bengaluru and in their long list of travel itinerary they included Belur, Halebidu and Tanjore.
Ashita’s father worked with the ASI–Archeological Survey of India and had arranged for special study passes for the three of them. This would give them access to the temple premise early in the morning before the actual opening time.
By the time they reached their hotel it was already evening and so they decided to visit the temples the next day.
‘We should reach the temple by 6am. We would get a good 1.5 hours before it opens to public. That should be enough time for us to collect the photographs and other material for our project. We could talk to the ASI and local priest in the afternoon’, said Ashita as she made plans for the next day.
She called up the local office and informed them about their plan.
Early in the morning Jonathan, Rose and Ashita set out towards the Belur temple.
A calm and serene premise greeted them.
“This is just mind-blowing” Jonathan exclaimed as he saw the expansive star-shaped platform.
“This is one of the twin temples- Chenna Kesava in Belur, the other one–Hoysaleshwar is in Halebidu where we will go next. The temples are known for their amazing carvings. Both the temples took nearly a century each to be built and are completely made of black stone. They are known for…” Ashita was reading from a tiny black book that she was carrying. She had a habit of writing detailed notes about her research.
As she raised her head, she realized both her companions had wandered off in different directions, deeply engrossed in observing the beautiful carvings.
Jonathan was taking pictures in a flurry and talking into his voice recorder to make notes.
Rose seemed lost in her thoughts, as if she were meditating. As she traced her hands on the exquisite carvings, a tear rolled down her cheek.
Ashita walked up to her and put a hand around her shoulder while whispering. “ Hey!… Are you alright?”
“How can anybody have the heart to damage such lovely creations?,” Rose brushed her tear and quipped with sadness in her voice as she looked at a vandalized dancing woman’s figure.
Ashita rubbed her shoulders and said equally disheartened, “Invasions, weather or poor upkeep, each time we damage a structure, we lose a piece of our heritage. Sadly, there isn’t much we can do.”
Are you here to lament or would you be interested in some magic? Said a voice behind them.
Magic! Ashita turned to find a young boy of 20 something dressed in a crisp cotton shirt and a grey pant. His ID announced him to be a guide.
“I don’t think we need a guide. We are students, here on a study tour,” Ashita said, sounding a bit irritated.
“Then I think you will find my services valuable,” said the boy confidently
“Hog appa, berevranna hidi,” (find some other customer) Ashita said in Kannada and started walking to the other side.
“Sure, then I take it you are not interested in knowing the architectural and engineering marvels of this temple?” said the boy with dignity.
Something about the way he said it made the girls halt and turn. By now Jonathan too had joined the troupe.
“Hello, I am Suresh. An architectural enthusiast and working as a guide during my college break, the young boy explained as he stretched his hand for a handshake”
Jonathan took it and quickly got into conversation with Suresh
“Apart from the touristy bits, I would like to draw your attention to the engineering techniques used in ‘assembling’ these temples. The stones were carved and then put together using the locking systems like gridlocks, interlocks and the pin and socket system. It is amazing and truly unbelievable for a structure designed in the early 12th century.” said Suresh with pride in his voice.
But it is not just this, there is more. Come with me and I will show you real magic.
It intrigued the three, and they followed Suresh inside the temple.
‘Architectural ingenuity’ is a better word here, Suresh, said Rose helpfully while walking behind him.
Just then Jonathan pointed at a plain-looking pillar and wondered about the stone polishing techniques used in the 12th century. ‘This must be around 12 feet tall and at least 2-3 feet wide! Add to it they have some wondrous shapes in here’.
‘And that’s just the beginning’, said Suresh, and he nodded towards the inner sanctum
He took them to a darker corner of the sanctum, where there was a colossal figure of a ‘God’ with a crown made of skulls. The whole figure was made of a monolith rock.
They had to use mobile flashlights to truly appreciate the beauty of the statue.
‘This one looks like it was polished with modern machinery,’ Rose said as she inspected the statue
“Archeological Survey of India does not undertake any such activities at these heritage sites. This is an engineering marvel from the 12th century and the same goes for every statue, pillar or figure in this premise.”
“The real magic that I want to show you is this.” Suresh pulled out a small twig from his pocket and put it into the eye sockets of one skull in the crown. It went right through!
If we shine a light here, you can see that the whole ‘skull’ is hollowed out.
‘Wow! There are at least 12 skulls here and they are all perfectly done, precise to the centimetre! And how did they hollow out stones with such precision is beyond me.’ cried Jonathan.
‘These temples took a century to build, but there is no variation in terms of effort, knowledge or finesse. I am not sure if we could replicate today with all our modern equipment’, observed Rose as she touched the finely carved necklace around the statue.
Ashita had walked towards the wall opposite to the statue.
‘What is this here’, she said as she walked closer to another statue. She was looking at another monolith statue that was holding a lot of tools.
‘This is the statue of Vishwakarma–the architect, designer and engineer of Gods’
Woah! I like that, said Rose, laughing as she joined Ashita and Suresh.
‘The tools look so unique and there are so many of them. These are beautiful, almost real and there is a glow to this one’ said Rose as she stepped ahead to touch one that was held in the left hand of the statue.
Suresh was quickly by her side and stopped her before she could touch it.
‘Let me take a look’, he said and Rose stepped behind obediently.
The glow seemed to emit from a weapon or tool that was there in the statue’s hand. It looked like a sundial but a miniature one.
‘The statue looks like you Suresh, Jonathan said as he observed the two faces under the mobile flashlight.
Suresh however wasn’t paying attention. He was looking closely at the sundial like instrument, ‘It is almost time.’
‘Time for what?’ Ashita asked
‘Huh, mmm ….There is great conjunction visible today. You will see it from the temple courtyard. Right above the sanctum for around 50 seconds more. Jupiter and Saturn’s orbits are perfectly aligned right now and seem the closest to one another. It is normally not visible to naked eyes, and hardly ever does it happen this close to the Earth.’
But the glow.. Ashita’s voice trailed.
‘It must be the conjunction light’ said Suresh hastily.
‘Let’s rush! You don’t want to miss the once in a lifetime phenomenon.’
All of them rushed outside to the courtyard to catch the glimpse of the great conjunction. And truly, right above the sanctum, they could see two brilliantly lit planets that were almost hugging each other.
After the initial flurry of clicking pictures, they looked around but didn’t find Suresh with them. Jonathan went back calling, “Hey Suresh, you will miss it mate! Come fast.”
But Suresh was nowhere to be seen.
The temple was empty.
Rose and Ashita too were just behind him.
‘Where did he go?’ wondered Rose
‘Where did the statue go? Ashita said, touching the plain smooth wall that had replaced the Vishwakarma statue. It was right here wasn’t it’ she asked horrified.
Both Rose and Jonathan stood rooted. What had just happened?
Ashita found her voice first, “Was this even real?”
Suresh is gone, the statue is gone and the glow! There is no glow to be seen here anywhere.
Jonathan wondered “Was this some supernatural phenomenon or was he an alien? Was the statue some wormhole or an interdimensional gateway?”
“Now that I think of it, I am sure he was a time traveler.”
Rose just looked from one to another as fear crossed her face. ‘What if people think we did something to the statue here?’
They were acutely aware of the sounds of people coming from outside. The temple was open to the public now.
Just then the temple priest walked in, ‘Ah! You must be the architectural students and you must be Ashita’ he said.
‘I hope you had enough time to study the statues and the temple architecture. It will be busy after this.’ He said with concern in his voice.
Ashita collected herself and blurted, ‘Yes, we had enough time. I was just wondering if the Vishwakarma statue of this temple is as beautiful as the book states.’
‘Vishwakarma statue? I don’t think there is one here, said the priest as he passed the now plain wall.
Though there are a lot of beautifully carved statues in some dark corners here. They feel so real; they just seem human, he said, laughing nervously.
All three of them looked at one another and twitched.
For the statue, you might have to ask at the ASI office outside.’ said the priest after some thought.
All three of them picked their books, camera and laptops, muttered a quick thank you and made their way out as hundreds of tourists and locals made their way in.
The story is a work of fiction, however the temples mentioned here -Belur and Halebidu temples are real and so is the artistry there. The temples have some stunning carvings done in soapstone that has endured the test of time, invasions and vandalism.