Poetry of Stones- Hoysala temple II: Belur

Legend has it that Sala was on a hunting mission at the Sahaya mountains when he heard the cires “Poy Sala” – “Strike Sala” by a saint who literally cried a tiger while performing his religious rites in the temple of the Goddess Vasantika at Angadi (now known as Sosevuru). On hearing this, Sala diligently performed his duties and stabbed the tiger. The incident was recounted and renamed as “Poysala”, now corrupted to Hoysala. This led to the birth of the Hoysala emblem. Sala has been identified as the first historical figure or progenitor of the Hoysala family. For more than three centuries, the Hoysala of the Yadava descent ruled a major portion of southern Karnataka.

Architectural Charcateristics:

The Nolamaba (late 8th – 11th century) and Western Ganga (350 CE – 1000 CE) dynasties – predecessors of Hoysalas in Southern Karnataka – constructed both Hindu and Jain temples inspired by Tamil heritage. In contrast, the Hoysala rulers were influenced by the Western Chalukyan architecture and employed their craftsmen as well. An abundance of figure sculpture covers almost all the Hoysala temples, a fact that is largely facilitated by the use of Soapstone, which allows fine detailing and clarity alongwith durability. Overall, the Hoysala style is said to depict a harmonious blend of the southern Dravida and northern Nagara styles and is known as the Vesara style. Further details on architectural characteristics of Hoysala temples can be checked out here. This post is the second part of the series dedicated to this unique symphony of human ingenuity. You can check out rest of the series here.

Chennakesava temple, Belur

Belur is a sleepy town in Hassan district of Kannada, that would have slipped into the realm of incognity very easily if it wasn’t for the presence of staggering Chennakeshava temple. Once known as Velapura, an early Hoysala Empire capital, the soapstone temple can be described as a sculptural wonder that we are fortunate to witness today, all thanks to Hoysala ruler Vishnuvardhan who commissioned it as a commemoration of his victory against the Chola Viceroy of Talkad.

Bittideva was the original name of Vishnuvardhana. According to some beleifs, he relinquished Jainism and embraced Vaishnavism under the influence of Ramanujacharya and built number of temples in both phases. The active Bhakti movement in conjunction with the royal patronage resulted in vast temple building campaign across the expire. Hoysala rulers emphasized on oneness of God and practiced religious tolerance, which was meticulously followed by commoners. It is said the founding family of the Hoysala dynasty were an interesting amalgamation of religious beliefs – King Vishnuvardhana was a Vaishnavite, his elder brother Ballala I was a devout Shaivite, while his queen Shantala was a Jain devout. The broad-minded patrons promoted all sects with equal support. King Vishnuvardhana further emphasized his unbiased outlook by carving Shaivite sculptures on the walls of Vaishnavite temple or vice versa. There’s a reason why the place has been referred in inscriptions as ‘Dakshin Varanasi’ ~ The Benaras of the South.

The main temple of Kesava measures 178 ft by 156 ft has been constructed in typical star-shaped floor plant on a raised platform. The temple consists of a star-shaped garbhagriha (sanctum), a sukhasana (vestibule), and a navaranga pavillion (large hall with polished pillars). Here is a grouping of each section of the temple and its architectural uniqueness.

Exteriors of Chennakesava

The exterior of the temple is an exemplary display of 12th century artisty from the Hoysala empire. The exterior of the temple has a jagati or railed parapet, each layer carved in symbolism – the elephants at the base reflect strength, while the lions above them were a symbol of courage; and rows of horses above them stood for speed. Above the beadwork are small female figurines in projected ornametal niches.

The east gate is a proud display of all things Hoysala – the Hoysala emblems on either side of the door, a depiction of durbar from King Vishnuvardhana reign where the king is seated with a sword in his right hand and a flower in his left. To his left is his queen Santaladevi with her female attendant. To the right of the king, a little two the front, are two seated gurus. At their back are the disciples. If one observes closely, the rich ornamentation between the disciples and the royal courtiers can be easily distinguised. The panel above the durbar of Vishnuvardhan depicts Kesava flanked by Garuda and chuari-bearers.

Lord Ranganatha (aka Vishnu) reclining on Adishesha and Brahma seated on a lotus emerging from the navel

The exterior walls also bear eighty large images of Gods and Goddesses. Unlike the walls of Kesava temple at Somnathapura or Hoysaleshwar temple at Halibeedu, these are more spaced out. And considering the obvious grandeur of these specimens, I think it was a right call by the artists!

Bracket Figures

The exterior wall surrounding the Navranga has eight sections. On each section, measuring 2.5 ft in height, there are finely carved, ornate sculptures that are mounted on the brackets, just below the eaves of the temple. Each of these sculptures respresent an apsara, also known as Madanika. Researchers have documented that these figurines are a representation of social life of the queens since their upbringing often put them in the unique position of gaining knowledge in various disciplines such as music, drama, dance, literature and even adveturous sports such as hunting. Each figurine is mounted on top of a oval lotus pedestal and showcase a skillmanship that is almost a homage to the feminine form and beauty.

Many of the brackets also showcase the proclivities of royal family towards art and culture especially considering the fact Queen Santala was known for her proficiency in Indian traditional dance forms.

Hoysala queens enjoyed varieties of indoor and outdoor games. The queens relaxed by engaging themselves in various outdoor and indoor activities depending on the season and climatic condition, besides their involvement in the field of music and dance.

Apart from the bracket figures, the Madanikas are also depicted as miniatures on the tailed parapet of the exterior walls.

Entrance gate doorways

The doorway of the east gate is flanked by two statues of Manmatha and Rathi respectively. Apparently, entering through this gate signifies that you have given up desires or ‘Kama’ and entered the world of divinity.

Manmatha (on left) and Rathi, his consort (on right)

The panel above the east gate doorway showcases Garuda, the vahana (vehicle) of Vishnu, flanked by makaras with thir floriated tails. Above Garuda is Lord Narasimha slaughtering the demon Hiranyakasipu. Decorated creepers on either side of Narasimha showcase the ten incarnations of Vishnu.

The panel above the north entrance depicts Garuda with Kesava

While the hall does have three entrances on north, east and south directions, it’s the east one that faces the shrine.

Interiors of Chennakesava

According to the legend, King Vishnuvardhana dreamt of Lord Keshava who asked him to build a temple for him in Belur. The statue of Chenna Keshava (Chenna ~ handsome, Kesava ~ one of the 24 form of Vishnu), flanked by consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi, is housed in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple as the primary deity, where pooja has been regularly done since approximately 850 years. As such, photography of the main shrine is strictly forbidden. This was a lucky snippet I could capture because I was too focussed on the carvings on top!

The makara torana above the sanctum doorway is beautifully carved with elements that are unique to Hoysala architecture. The center of the panel shows Lakshminarayana seated. Flanked on either side are makaras, an imaginative creature and the vehicle of choice for Lord Varuna. On the back of each makara is Lord Varuna seated with his consort.

The sukhasana doorways flanking the inner sanctum were set up in 1381 AD following the orders of Vijayanagara king Harihara II as a supportive structure for the room. Richly carved dvarpalakas, namely Jaya and Vijaya, guard the inner sanctum.

From the sanctum and its doorways, you step in front on to the navaranga – the central hall, which is encolsed by four pillars at its corners. Other than the four central pillars, there are additional 48 pillars within the Navranga, each unique in their design. Some support the roof, while others are for decorative purposes. Despite the fact that there is little light within the temple, these pillars actually glisten as if they are made of metal.

Pillar of repute here would be the Mohini pillar, located significantly closer to the inner sanctum. The female figure is said to depict Mohini, the female form taken by Vishnu to destroy Bhasmasura, a demon who used to turn any individual to ash by placing his hand on their head. The entire sculpture is carved of black stone, locally known as Krishna Shila, unlike the remaining sculptural reliefs of the temple which were made of soft soapstone. The interesting feature of the statue is the presence of a looped thread hanging across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist. This is known as the yajnopavita, a symbol of a person (typically a man) who has mastered the Vedas and undergone the Upanayana ceremony.

The most attractive and splendid pillar from the hall collection would be the Narasimha pillar, easily identifiable with the red vermilion marks made by the devotees. The pillar is a true testament to the ingenuity of the builders and artisans of the temple, built with a ball-bearing axis at the bottom and the top (like a rotating mechanism) that enables it to the rotate on its own axis. The entire pillar is carved with fine filigree work depicting various episodes such as Samudra manthana, Ravana shaking Mount Kailash and other carvings of various deities.

The four central pillars of the Navranga supports a large domed, highly decorated and elaborate ceiling. The four central pillars additionaly behold four madanikas, gracefully arranged.

It is believed that Chenna Keshava walks frequently to the hills of Baba Budan nearby, to meet his consort. This is why the cobblers of the town offer footwear in the temple, which are said to vanish miraculously. Well, since footwear is not allowed inside active Indian temples, you dont have to worry about mysterious disappearances.

Interesting fact:

Since I was in UK, I had the opportunity to visit the British Museum in 2019 during one of my random appearances in London. I was lucky to come across two of the missing bracket figures that are cosily sitting as part of the museum collection. The bottom of the plaque says “1962, 0721.1, Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund” along with a descriptive text of the origins of the sculpture.

Pro tip:

Belur is at a distance of 3.5 hrs (150 km) away from Mysore while Halebeedu is 143 km away from Msyore. The distance between the two towns is 17 kms, i.e. around 30 minutes. I had made Mysore as my base for 5 days owing to the Dussera celebrations, hence I decided to combine Belur and Halebeedu as a day trip and rented a car.

Other than the inner sanctum or the shrine, there is absolutely no restrictions to photography. Make sure you carry a flash (if you are using a DSLR) or have your nightmode settings on (for your phone) when you are photographing the temple interiors. Its absolutely exquisite, and equally crowded. Wide lens can be used if its not obviously noticeable. For instance, my dad uses cannon for his photography and his wide lens has a very distinctly white body, and hence, he was flagged by the security personnel at the temple.

The Hoysala series:


Along with the oral narration from the guide at the temple, the specific stuctural references has been taken from the following books. If anyone is interested in using the images, request you to hit me up and attribute.

  • Architectural Wonder: The Chennakesava temple at Belur, and
  • The Glory of Hoysala Queens: Belur Chennakesava temple by Rekha Rao

Related (and not-so related) Posts:



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