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    Madanikas at Chennakeshava Temple, Belur

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    A group of thirty-six large relief sculptures of women, the Madanikas are positioned on a series of brackets on the roofs and pillar capitals of the mandapa of Chennakeshava temple, Belur. The temple and its sculptural programme offer a unique perspective of Hoysala courtly culture, especially the professional identity of artisans. The Madanika statues are accompanied by inscriptions on their bases, which bear details of their sculptors including names, guilds, and places of origin.

    The madanikas are female figures sculpted inside a leafy, arboreal frame, often with a lotus flower as their base. They are made of soft chloritic schist, allowing them to be carved with lush detail, including headdresses, jewellery and costume. The figures are naturalistic in form, with rounded bodies, sensitive facial expressions and hand gestures, and gracefully positioned limbs. They are shown engaged in a myriad of courtly activities, including hunting, clutching a palm-leaf book, stroking the strings of a vina, striking cymbals, gazing into a mirror, and drying their hair after a bath. The stylistic features of madanikas vary, and this heterogeneity in detail has been read by scholars as a marker of the heightened individualism of the artists.

    Among the names of sculptors inscribed on the statues are Chavana, Dasoja, and Malloja, accompanied by elaborate titles. It is possible that these titles were granted to them by the Hoysala court as a reward for their skill: sculptors appear to have been highly mobile and sought-after professionals in the mediaeval Deccan, with some names inscribed on statues in temples across a span of hundreds of kilometres.

    The iconography of the madanikas, who are accompanied by arboreal imagery, has been connected to those of yakshis. Scholars have suggested that they were produced as a symbol of the incorporation of local deities into the worship of the nature goddess Vasantika, venerated by the Hoysalas. This interpretation is, however, controversial. A more commonly accepted view is that they helped establish the status of the Hoysala ruler Vishnuvardhana as a major patron of the arts, thus legitimising his rule as an independent sovereign.

    The madanikas appear to have been added to Chennakeshava temple late in its construction in the early twelfth century. They then came to be frequently depicted in Hoysala temples. Madanikas appear to have been retroactively installed in the Brahmeshvara Temple in Kikkeri (in present-day Mandya district, Karnataka) after it had already been completed in 1171. At least eleven madanikas at this site appear to be copied from examples at Belur.

    Chennakeshava temple continues to be a major tourist attraction today, and the madanikas are among its most famous and recognisable features.



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