Meet Mallitamma and his signature sculptures in Hoysala temples
The annals of Indian history are not just littered with dates of battles fought and won but by the lists of many monuments built by kings and their generals. These may be “world heritage sites” or a dusty temple in a nondescript town, but almost all monuments are attributed to the greatness of the rulers who built them. However, if you scan through the inscriptions, somewhere deep down one reads the name of a humble sculptor who has breathed life into the stones. Most of them, are either forgotten or simply put unknown. The Chalukyan and Hoysala sculptors were however exceptions. They ensured that posterity remembered them by signing off on the very rocks that they carved and even today, they are known by the signature campaigns they have left behind. And that One such is a sculptor called Mallitamma who lived in the 13th century carving stones into pieces of art and left behind masterpieces in Hoysala temple architecture for posterity to know.
There is very little known about the origin of this prolific artist, but signatures speak for themselves. Curiosity got the better of me as I started reading about him and visiting temples that he had built. Driving around Malenadu or the Hoysala country, I came to a small town called Nuggehalli, located near Hassan. It was initially an “agrahara “ established by Bommanna Dandanayaka, the general of Vira Someshwara, and the town was called Veera Someshwara. Home to the 13th century Lakshmi Narayana and Sadashiva temples, Nuggehalli introduced me to Mallitamma, who has more than half a dozen temples to his credit starting with the Amriteshwara temple in Amritapura to the famous Kesava temple in Somnathpur
Speaking to the priest, I learnt that he had apparently lived in the “agrahara” and had overseen the construction of the temple. His work is seen on the northern and western niches of the temple and his signature on the images of Vishnu and Indra. The temples are known for the magnificent Hoysala architecture although they are off the tourist circuit.
Mallitamma, like many other artists like Amarashilpi Jakkanacharya moved from one village to another, looking for work. His initials “ Ma” or “ Malli” as he sometimes signs off can be seen in several towers and walls of temples. I visited Haronahalli, Govindanahalli, Javagal, and Koravangala, mostly towns around Hassan where Mallitamma’s penchant for Lakshmi Narasimha temples can be seen. He became almost synonymous with Vaishnavite iconography that he was probably commissioned by kings and generals to build temples for them. And they became masterpieces of Hoysala temple architecture.
However, Mallitamma’s greatest work, which probably was also his swan song is the Kesava temple at Somnathpur near Mysore. Built by Somanatha, a general in the army of Narasimha 111, the temple is considered one of the best of Hoysala temple architecture along with the temples and monuments in Belur and Halebeed. As historians have documented, Mallitamma ‘s autograph can be seen in more than 40 sculptures in this temple and another 20 on the northern tower of the shrine. As I looked at his creation, I realized that Mallitamma’s greatness would have probably been lost to the world but for his initials on the carvings. Next time, we visit a temple, let us also spend a few moments appreciating the artists and sculptors who have carved the masterpieces.