The Harihara temple is a small, east-facing edifice, consisting of only a sanctum and a pillared-hall. Though there is no enclosure wall around this structure, the approach to it is marked by a small gateway. The latter highlights the importance of this otherwise rather insignificant monument. Though it is difficult to date the temple accurately, on stylistic grounds it may be assigned to a fairly early phase of Vijayanagara temple building, perhaps the fifteenth century. At present a linga is enshrined in the sanctum, but whether or not this is the original cult object is not known. Since Harihara is worshipped both in the iconic and aniconic forms, it is possible that this is the original murti. This temple had not been noticed in any of the earlier writings on Vijayanagara city. However, the local people consider it as a Harihara shrine.
Harihara, or Sankaranarayana, is a composite deity, half Lord Shiva and half Lord Vishnu. Undoubtedly, the worship of this god arose out of the strong desire for rapprochement between the partisans of the two major and often antagonistic sects of Shaivism and Vaishnavism, by emphasizing that Shiva is Vishnu and Vishnu is, conversely, Shiva and that they are together essential for the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe. Hence, in the representations of Harihara, the right half from head to toe is endowed with the aspects and attributes of Shiva and the left half with those of Vishnu.
The great centre of this deity in Karnataka was the Hariharesvara temple at Harihara, in Chitradurga district , on the bank of the Tungabhadra River. That this was already an important religious centre of this cult by the mid-twelfth century AD is revealed by inscriptions. It continued to be important during the Vijayanagara period. Harihara was a popular divinity during Vijayanagara times. Two kings of the Sangama dynasty and a few princes were named after this god. The popularity of Harihara worship during this period was due to the attempt made by the rulers to defuse the animosity between the votaries of Shiva and Vishnu. Naturally, therefore, one would expect to find a number of shrines and sculptures of this god in Vijayanagara, but surprisingly, there is only one temple that can be definitively identified as that of Harihara at Hampi. Also, there are only two sculpted representations of this god in the entire site: one a rock-carving and the second a pillar-relief.
The entrance gateway of Harihara temple is a simple eight-pillar structure. Its pillars are monolithic, the four central ones cut into three cubical blocks, separated by two octagonal sections. The ones at the end are monolithic blocks, square in section. There are no reliefs on the pillars. The exterior of the temple is quite unremarkable. The basement comprises three courses, which are unadorned, except for a carved image of Lord Ganesha, flanked by two female attendants, on the east-side. No superstructure is extant over the vimana, and the eaves over the mandapa, now only partially extant, are of the inclined type.
In the interior, the monument comprises a mandapa, open on the east and enclosed on the north and south sides. Within the mandapa are six detached pillars and eight engaged ones. The two centre pillars in the eastern end comprise three cubical blocks separated by two mid-sections that are sixteen-eight-sixteen sided. On the cubical blocks there are pillar-reliefs. There are a few reliefs on some of the other pillars as well, but the rest of the columns are plain monolithic blocks, square in section. The interior of the sanctum is also plain. Its ceiling is raised to form two rotated squares with a lotus medallion in the centre. The architecture and the sculptural details of this temple deserve appraisal because of the subtle touch of artistry on stones. Of greater significance is the presence of the vahanas and attendant animals of the two deities on the walls of the mandapa. On the south wall, near the entrance, is carved Lord Hanuman in heroic pose and seated Nandi. Opposite these, on the north wall is Garuda and a large coiled snake.
The reliefs on the two central pillars of the east row are even more important indicators of the temple's identity. The south side one has Shaiva themes exclusively, while on the northern pillars are Vaishnava ones. The Shaiva reliefs include that of Bhiksatanamurti, three reliefs of the four-armed standing Shiva showing different attributes; a seated Shiva, Shiva in dancing pose, Devi embracing the linga, Shiva as Markandeya-moksa, as well as a standing Shiva and Parvati , a linga being worshipped by a cow devotee, and a linga by itself. On the second pillar the most prominent among the Vaisnava themes are the dasavataras: Matsya , Kurma, Varaha , Narasimha , Vamana , Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, Balarama, Jina and Kalki . Also present are Venkatesa and Surya. The iconographic pattern on the door-jambs and the two pillars appear to be deliberately arranged as if to signify that the temple itself is the body of Harihara, the right side being Shiva and the left Vishnu. On other pillars of the mandapa are a mixture of Shaiva and Vaishnava themes and other reliefs: a seated Vishnu, Matsya, Kurma, Rama, crawling Balakrishna, Kaliyamardana Krishna, Yoga-Narasimha, a linga with a snake protecting it with its hood, Lord Ganesha, the Shaiva devotee Vyaghrapada, Surya, ascetics, elephant, squatting lion and so on.
Besides this temple to Harihara on Hemakuta, epigraphical, literary or archaeological sources do not reveal the existence of any other shrine dedicated to this composite deity at the site. The Harihara temple on Hemakuta hill, though small and fairly unremarkable from the point of view of its architecture or sculpture, is of significance on a number of counts: its prominent location on a hill noted for its mythic associations and sanctity, its being the only definitively identifiable temple to god Harihara at Hampi, its unusual iconographic themes, its interesting epigraphs and the fact that it probably remained in worship for a fairly long period during the Vijayanagara times and continues to be in worship, though on a low scale, even today. It is also, perhaps, the only small temple at Vijayanagara that has an entrance gateway of its own.
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