Belur, Halebid and Somnathapura: How Hoysala temples got World Heritage Site tag

Belur, Halebid and Somnathapura: How Hoysala temples got World Heritage Site tag

Years of toil, hard work and documentation, a 500-page dossier...the INTACH Bangalore team was on its toes

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Majestic Hoysala temples of Belur, Halebid and Somnathapura in Karnataka were recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ever wondered what really goes on behind the scenes to get a monument on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list?

In India, efforts began in 2014 to get UNESCO to include the nearly 1,000-year-old Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid in Karnataka on the World Heritage Site list. The Somanathapura temple was added later.

The Hoysala temples, often described as 'poetry carved on stone', went on the tentative UNESCO list in step with the world organisation’s mandatory two-step process.

Long, tedious process

"A long, tedious process is involved in getting a monument into the UNESCO Heritage List," says Meera Iyer, convenor, INTACH Bangalore, which had prepared the nomination dossier on the Hoysala temples to be submitted to the World Heritage Committee.

A couple of years after the Hoysala temples went on the world heritage tentative list, the Karnataka government’s department of archaeology, museums and heritage approached INTACH Bangalore to prepare the nomination dossier on the Hoysala temples to apply for the heritage site tag.

Two volume dossier

Work started on the two-volume dossier in 2019, and it took INTACH Bangalore three years to complete this comprehensive document, which runs into 500 pages. This does not include the three annexures, which contain maps of the area, measured drawings of the temples, laws governing these places, protected areas etc.

Says Iyer, “This dossier is not just detailing the architectural brilliance of the temples. One volume itself is 272 pages long and filled with data, maps, figures and another volume just devoted to site management.” The team, however, was just following a format dictated by the World Heritage Committee.

Out of the six criteria stipulated by the Committee, the Hoysala temples met two, according to the INTACH team. Also, the temples met the committee’s demand for what they call the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ (OUV)

Under the OUV, the INTACH team had to articulate why these temples are unique, how they compare with other similar world heritage sites in India and elsewhere in the world and which belong to the similar period. For example, the Prambanan temple, a Hindu temple in Indonesia (the second largest temple in south-east Asia after Angkor Wat) was compared with the Hoysala temples.

For this reason, the INTACH team also had to visit many temples like the Chola temples in Tamil Nadu, Khajuraho, temples of contemporary periods like the Solankis and Chalukyas in western India, to explain what makes the Hoysala temples unique.

INTACH Bangalore team with ICOMOS expert at Belur site in September 2022

Two criteria

For the OUV, the Hoysala temples have to meet two criteria required by the committee. One is that the temples had to represent ‘masterpieces of creative human genius’.

“This means we had to elaborate on their workmanship, how the stones have been carved, he use of light and shadow, the juxtaposing of the large and small sculptures, etc,” says Iyer.

“What’s interesting about the work in the Hoysala temples is that many of the sculptors, nearly 200 of them, have carved their names on their work, to the guild or the place they belong. One such sculptor had simply said he was from Nandi. It gives us a glimpse of their society,” says Iyer, who was 'delirious’ (and 'incoherent' with joy when the Hoysala temples got the World Heritage Site tag.

The Hoysala temples also fulfilled another criterion namely the ‘interchange of human values’. It showed that the temples had an impact on developments in architecture of that time with their unique stellar architecture or star- shaped plan, explains Iyer.

“There is an interchange of ideas here as their work showed that the Hoysala artists were familiar with work from other areas and had used a combination of styles to create their own style,” elaborates Iyer.

Experimental Hoysala artisans

Pankaj Modi, conservation architect and head of project division in INTACH Bangalore, also echoes her view. "What makes the Hoysala temple artisans distinctive is that they incorporated styles from other regions like western and central india and experimented to create their own styles,” says Pankaj. They were innovative with the materials like the soft schist stone they used and you see different variations in each temple, he adds.

To Pankaj, the Hoysala temples are grand, and the artisans understood the materials very well and did wonderful carvings. "The carvings are the highlight of the temple," he points out..

Site management plan

The volume 2 of the nomination dossier contains the Hoysala temples site management plan. This part detailes everything connected with the protection of the temple sites in the long term, how the structures will be cared for; chalking out the protected boundary, the buffer zone and how all this will be managed and regulated.

“This became the hugely debated part of the submission,” says Pankaj.

This is because after the International Commission for monuments and sites (ICOMOS) expert visited the temple sites for a review, they wanted the Vishnu Samudra tank to be included as part of the Chennakeshava temple in Belur as the heritage site. However, after a lot of discussion, the area was only included in the buffer zone.

“UNESCO also wanted us to clearly state the composition of the Committee set up to oversee the temple's protection, the five-year plan and to list the department which will be in charge of the sties. Naturally, they want to ensure the site is well protected," he says.

How will Pankaj describe the experience of working on the dossier? “Overwhelming,” he replies, with a laugh.

“We did intense surveys, extensive research on the temples to understand the architecture, in terms of their sculpture, materials and context. We had to understand their inscriptions which explains their times. We interacted with many experts, and art historian, Sharda Natarajan played an integral part,” he says.

Geologists, conservation architects, who had worked on similar temple architecture were also consulted as much as ASI, who had worked and managed these temples and had knowledge of their inscriptions, also gave their inputs.

The completed dossier was submitted to the ASI in 2021, which went to the world heritage committee in 2022. An expert from ICOMOS visited the sites to evaluate them and it was a rigorous seven day process, says Pankaj. The review was completed in September last year and finally a year later, the Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas was decalred as a World Heritage site.

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