Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hoysala Sojourn.. Part 1 – Belur

“Solo travel is an experience like none other and allows you to enjoy a destination on your own terms.” – Really is !

Few terms I set for myself for the journey
  •       Use only public transport, unless options evade.
  •       Dawn to dusk – be on the move.
     Both met to the maximum extent !
Plan was to do a three day trip covering Hoysala era structures at Belur, Halebidu and Shravanabelagola.  I preferred to stay at Hassan, which is very well connected to the said places and has a reasonable options to offer a traveler.


          Day1 : Chennai - Bangalore - Hassan
          Day2 : Hassan - Belur Chennakesava Temple  - Halebidu Hoysaleshwara Temple
          Day3 : Hassan - Sharavanabelagola - Banaglore - Rerturn to Chennai

Hoysala Empire

"The Hoysala era is one that contributed enormously to the development of several creative fields as well as spiritual and humanistic thought. During their reign, the Hoysalas built more than 1500 temples all across their empire of which only a little over 100 survive today. Art historians recognize the exceptionally intricate sculptural artistry of the Chennakeshava temple at Belur and the Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebid to be among the masterpieces of South Asian art making the name of Hoysala synonymous with artistic achievement." - UNESCO

The Hoysala empire was a prominent Southern Indian Kannadiga empire that ruled most of the modern-day state of Karnataka between the 10th and the 14th centuries. The capital of the Hoysalas was initially located at Belur but was later moved to Halebidu in the 11th century by Vinayadithya.

One of the most important kings of this dynasty was Vishnu Vardhana and he commissioned the building of the Belur temple. Vishnu Vardhana was originally a Jain but was converted to Vaishnavism by Sri Ramanuja. His wife was Queen Shantala Devi, a Jain and a noted dancer.


The Chennakeshava temple at Belur is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.  Construction was started in the year 1117AD by Vishnu Vardhana, and it took 103 years to complete. It was completed by his son Narasimha I and grandson Veera Ballala II.  “Chenna” means handsome and Keshava is Vishnu.  There are 24 forms of Vishnu, Chennakesava is the most beautiful form.

As always, history with multiple versions, this temple is said to be built by Vishnu Vardhana to commerate his victory over the Cholas in the battle of Tallakad.  Also the other version goes that this temple was built when mighty king adopted Vaishnavisim under the influence of Sri Ramanujacharya.

I hired the service of a guide Mr. Narayana.  Guides are a must to help us trigger the exploratory path in monuments of such grandeur.  Guides use reflective glass (of sun rays) as pointers to help us see the minute of aspects in each of the sculptors.  Other object used is thread to demonstrate the minutest of points.

Gopura - Chennakesava Temple

As you enter the Chennakesava temple complex, you are greeted by the gopura built during the Vijayanagara rule.  The Ekakuta (single shrine) temple of Belur is know for the inner beauty in comparison to its counterpart at Halebidu known for external beauty. 

The Hoysala temples are characterized by typical star shaped ground plan which gives them high surface area with an elevated platform for elaborate carvings. Star shaped base has 32 angles and stands on a wide elevated platform which raises 3 feet abive the ground level. It is 178 feet long (east-west side) and 156 feet broad (north-south). The Shikhara surmounting atop the sanctum came down and is no more present.

Central structure consists of:
  • Garbhagriha (Sanctum)
  • Sukhanasa (Vestibule)
  • Navaranga (Central hall)
The temples at Belur are carved out of Chloritic Schist colloquially called Soap stone quarried from Tumkuru.  This particular stone is soft like soap and thereby gives the sculptor the ease of carving and attains granite like hardness when exposed to atmosphere.   Soap stone does not lend itself to tall structures and thereby you don’t see the grandeur displayed by the Cholas with granite building massive structures.

Sala fighting the Leogryph

Nearing the sanctum, the most prominent sculpture that you encounter is that of the Sala attacking the mythical beast leogryph (combination of tiger and lion).  This is the emblem of Hoysala dynasty which is the portrayal of “Sala” (first ruler of Hoysala empire) who fights and defeats the leogryph which attacked his guru.  “Hoy” in Kannada means “strike”.  “Sala – Strike the tiger” became “Hoy-sala”.

Makara Torana

Over head decoration at the entrance of sanctum depicts fireceful lord Narsimha and the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. 

King Vishnuvardhana, queen and their guru Ramanujacharya are depicted.

Elephant in different moods, every one is unique - 644 of them.

Base row of friezes
Outer Walls

The outerwalls are adorned with rows of friezes.  The lowest layer has 644 eplehants in different moods and no two are alike.  
  • Elephant symbolizes stablity and strength.  
  • Next band has lion heads which symbolizes courage.  
  • Third row has horsemen symbolizing speed.  

The outer wall of the temple from bottom on-wards has tiers of minute sculptures consisting of rows of elephants, lion faces, creepers, ornamental frieze, dancers in small niches, female sculptures in between the pillars, and episodes of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The outer walls of the temple complex are classified into the Social section (Walls with Mandnikas) and the Spiritual section.  Every inch of the shrine is filled with intricate carvings pieces put together similar to Lego sets.  Basically the whole temple complex is put together through press fit construction which could be dis-assembled any point in time.

Walls with Madanikas 

The most acclaimed sculptures that adorn the temple’s superstructure are the finely proportioned celestial damsels crafted to perfection and surmounted on brackets of 38 pillars.  These pillars support the substantial roof of the shrine.  These damsels are referred to as “Madanika”.  Another 4 four of them adorn the inner part of the temple.

These clestial beauties depicted under the sala tree are inspired by Shantala devi, the beautiful queen of King Vishnunvardhana.

Madanika #1 - Darpana Sundari
Darpana Sundari - This is the first figure of a charming lady admiring her beauty in the mirror.  The youthful lady with perfect features is considered epitome of feminine beauty and grace.  If you very closely observe, there are other details of a lady holding a monkey on one side and a bunch of grapes on the other.

Sculptors have gone in great detail and each of the stucco has a world to speak of.

Madanika #12 - Bhashmasur Mardini-Mohini dance.

Madanika #35

Depicts a woman who has been recently married and who toe is being adorned by a toe-ring.  She is holding onto a vine for balance.

Thribangi Ntritya Madanika #8

A lady is dancing stylishly by bending her body into three portions, one from the waist downward, other from the waist to the chest and another upwards. This is said to be the most difficult one, so far no other dancer has been able to exhibit. This is apparently one of the most difficult postures to achieve in Bharatanatyam.

Madanika #14

Walls with Divinities

Vishnu and Lakshmi

Ravana Anugraha Murti

The arrogant ten headed demon king Ravana lifting up Mount Kailasha, the abode of Shiva.  One can see miniature figures of animals, demi gods deities carved on mount Kailasha and Lord Shiva and Parvathi sitting atop the mountain.  Tale goes that, Lord Shiva pinned Ravana down and Ravanas hands were crushed under the mountain and he prayed for forgiveness.

Kali slaying the demon

Favorite god of Hoysalas - Narasimha 

Shiva dances in triumph on the decapitated head of the elephant
demon Nila, while stretching the elephant's skin over his head like
 a canopy.

Arjuna aiming the fish eye
Arjuna the Pandava prince aiming at the eye of fish by looking at the reflection of fish in bowl of oil below.  This sculpture used to emnate sounds when tapped, locals enthusiasm led to its current state.

Varaha Avatar

Prototype temple which was built and took 20 years to build before the actual temple complex

Deepa Sthamba

42-feet tall “Deepa Stambha” (“Pillar of Lights”) erected on considerably smaller star-shaped pedestal is a scientific wonder in itself – a gravity pillar balanced only by its own weight, it touches the pedestal at merely three points and sheets of paper and cloth can be passed from one end to another underneath the pillar.

Temple Interiors

The temple of Belur known for its internal beauty has lot to showcase like the ornate carved panels, pillars, ceilings, doorways etc.  In the current form, there is hardly any natural light that is able to sneak into its interiors.  Over the year additions of curtain walls to the navaranga mandapa by successive rulers resulted in this state.  ASI has made provisions for sodium vapour lamp for visitors to enjoy the beauty of intricate sculptures.

The navaranga hall has 48 pillars of which central 4 are hand chiseled and the remaining are turned on monster lathes.  The central four pillars have the beautiful work of Madanikas on them.

The main shrine enshrines the beautiful 6 feet image of Chenna Kesava - meaning beautiful Kesava.  The deity also goes by the name Vijayanarayana.

The door-keepers (Dvarapalakas) are elegantly executed on the Sukhanasi (vestibule) doorway.

Dwarapalaka - So ornate (LHS)

Dwarapalaka (RHS)

Another masterpiece in the hall is the Narasimha pillar which used to rotate on its on own axis.  As roof came doown, it stands locked today by its weight.  It is decorated by minute reliefs and miniature shrines.  Put together, it has about 108 deities.  

Narasimha Pillar

A small blank space is wantedly left by the sculptor to challenge any one who could fill in if he can, a befitting work to the class of pillars reliefs.

Note the intentional gap left by the sculptor

Pillars carved on monster lathes

Present day Gold Harams got their inspiration from the yesterworld

The central carved dome standing on four central pillars is large domed ceiling of about 3.05 meters (ten feet) in diameter, 1.83 meters (six feet) deep and is one of the most elaborately decorated.  It is called the Bhuvaneswari and is made of five pieces and the initial structure was designed so as to dis-assemble the five pieces by rotating the central pinion.  

The bhuvaneswari represents the central universe and is adorned with friezes decorated with carvings of drummers, musicians, dancers, lotuses.  There are scenes from Mahabharata and this ceiling is considered one of the profusely carved ceilings in India.

Bhuvaneswari - the central ceiling is elaborately carved

Central hollow pendant is that Narasimha on a lotus bed.  Keenly observe the lotus petals with intricate work.


Dancing figure of Queen Shantaladevi

Beautiful lady in conversation with her parrot

Ghandarva Dance
The epitome of artchitecture inside the Navaranga hall is the Mohini pillar.  The pillar is cut   vertically on a sixteen pointed star plan and is decorated with a narrow band of filigree work.  Mohini is   enchanting female form of Lord Vishnu.  As per guide, the structural composition of Mohini is perfect    as the body parts is in a multiple of forehead mesurement.  The enchanting female form is flanked by Garuda and a Chauri bearer.

Mohini - Female form of Vishnu

The door jambs of the sukhanasa and garbhagriha carry across intricately carved Makara toranas on the exterior. Its has a fine figure of Lakshmi-Narayana in the centre has excellent filigree work. The Makaras at the side bear Varuna and his consort on the back.

The temple with its exquisite carvings leaves one spell bound and actually multiple visits are required to capture atleast bare minimum of what the King and his band of sculptures wanted to showcase to the world.  The sculptures also carry the signatures of the sculptors and there was stiff competiton amongst them to showcase their prowess.

This is my second visit to this temple in a decade and after coming back and reading through the pages about the temple, i still feel to have done a half baked job.

The next astonishing fact is that the other major temple that the Hoysalas commissioned in their other twin capital Halebidu (Dwarasamudra) incredibly even surpasses this one in terms of sculptural artwork and ornamentation.  Lets have the journey of Halebidu in part - II of this writeup.

Few quick facts concerning Belur:
  • Belur is located about 42 kilometers/ roughly one hour away by bus from Hassan.
  • Frequent KaSRTC buses ply to Belur from Hassan.
  •  Hassan is 200 Kms from Bangalore and is connected by Bus and Train.  Bus would take about 4 hours to cover this section and have high frequency.  Trains are very few.
  • Hassan has good options for stay and food.
  • Belur does not offer good hotels/ restos. Better to take some food packets.
  • Location: 500 meters from Belur Bus Station
  • Temple Timings: Open every day from 7 am – 6 pm.  The sanctum is closed from 10-11 am, 1-3 pm and 5-5.30 pm.
  • Entrance fees: Nil
  • Photography/Video charges: Nil
  • Time required to cover: Roughly 3 hrs
  • Guide hired: Mr Narayana 9844464771

1 comment:

  1. Very nice.Best wishes for more and more visits of such nature.