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Sculptural Eldorado Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur

The Hoysala rulers are now consigned to books of history but the temples they built are still frequented by millions – devotees, tourists and scholars – mainly for the astounding sculptural embellishments on the walls unparalleled in the annals of Indian temple architecture.

The Hoysalas were warrior chieftains who established a great dynastic rule (1108-1310) between the Malaprabha and Kaveri in Karnataka. To a certain extent the Hoysalas adopted the Kakatiya tradition of architecture for their temples – triple shrined, cruciform ground plan and pillared navranga halls, to which they added the most splendidly carved friezes of gods and goddesses, damsels and demons, animals and warriors.

In 1117 Vishnuvardhana built the Chennakeseva temple at Belur, located on the bank of the river Yagachi, to commemorate his victory over the Cholas at Talkad. The main shrine entrance is guarded by twin statues of a youth slaying a tiger and two miniature vimana models flanking the stops leading to the 1.5 mere high stellar platform. The compact struc6ture and its perfect proportions are striking. The wealth of sculptured friezes is at once bewildering since from the base to the projected eaves every inch of available wall surface is covered with the most exquisitely sculptured images. But the Hoysala sculpture reaches its apogee in sculptures of celestial maidens, carved with a marvelous plasticity of modelling and imbued with the most accomplished grace and elegance. These madannikais or celestial beauties, depict the various occupations of their indolent life style – nursing pets, dancing, admiring their own beauty in the mirror, warding off a playful monkey, frightened by a scorpion. These small figures under the broad eaves stand out in their fantastic jewellery, elaborate coiffures intricately pierced, scrolled and scalloped canopies. For these figures alone. Belur temple would be India’s greatest but there is much more.

Pillars in the navranga hall are lathe-turned, ingeniously carved and marvelously smooth. No two pillars look alike. The hall is triratha, on a diamond-shaped plan with entrances on the east, north and south sides. The ceiling is a modified utksipta type with concentric rings ornamented with figures. Look at the four figures of a scintillating beauty: these were modelled after, it is believed, the queen, Shantaladevi. In fact, she was the model for many a Hoysala apsara figure. At the center of the hall is a polished stone platform on which the queen danced in praise of the Lord Chennakeseva.

Outside, on the vimana, the Hoysala sculptors have done the most marvelous work – unending rows of nearly 650 elephants, horses, lions, birds, warriors both mythical and real, each piece differently postured on the wall are the bigger panels with sculptures of gods and goddesses in scenes from the great Indian epics – the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Bhagwat Purana.

The huge walled court at Belue contains three other smaller temples: the Channigaraya temple built by the queen, Shantaladevi, completed by her son later; the Soumyanayaki and the Andal temples behind the main edifice; and the Veeranarayana temple. These temples also contain splendid places of sculpture and would claim much admiration for their splendour but for their existence under the shadow of this magnificent Chennakeseva temple. The 1175 Ballaba II who contributed the great jali (lattice) screens, also built the Vasudeva Tritha pond to the north-east of the court.

The Belur temple was damaged when Ganga Salar of Kaburgi, Deccan commander of Tughlaq’s army, invaded the temple for its huge treasures of diamonds and gold. The much needed repairs to the structure were done by the Vijayanagar rulers when they came to power under the Hoysalas. In 1397, Gudu, a general of Harihara II, constructed the storied gopuram to replace the ruined gateway. The architectural styles of the main temples and this gopuram present the most striking contrast of magnificent traditions. The Navranga hall of the Channigaraya temple had to be rebuilt. At this time was added the deepasthambha yagyashala in front of the Chennakeseva porch. But the much dilapidated and ruined tower crowning the Chennakeseva temple had to be removed entirely in case it collapsed and completely destroyed the interior.

The most striking feature of the Belur temple, as of all other Hoysala shrines, is its high plinthed star-shaped jagati (platform) on which the edifice has been built. The gorgeous sculptured panels are positioned at a convenient height so that you don’t have to crane your necks to observe all the details.

About 17 kilometre eastward from Belur stands Halebid, the capital of the Hoysalas after Belur. It was called Dwarsamundra, a lake dug up for the welfare of the people. Here Ketumalla, a general of Vishnuvardhana supervised building of a double-shrined Shiva temple, named after Hoysaleswara and Shantaleswara. The core structure was nearly complete in 1142 but sculptural embellishments continued for another three generations, still left uncompleted when the Khiljis in 1310 and Tughlaqs in 1327 invaded and plundered the town.

The Hoysalas dedicated this temple to Shiva, as the Belur temple was dedicated to Vishnu. On the southern side entrances are two small Nandi shrines. These Nandis carry some exquisitely carved ornamentation, jewellery and garlands. Their postures are so natural, that they appear to smile.

The fantastic bas relief friezes deeply carved on the chloritic schist cover the entire exterior which is the most prolific exhibition of scenes and motifs. The epics come alive on the drama petrified here forever. The lowest frieze depicts some 2000 elephants with riders and trappings, each in unrepeated stance, horses, mythical beasts, floral motifs like illuminated scrolls, miles and miles of it wrapped around the base. The 280 larger images of the deities, mostly female, are heavily bedecked with ornate jewellery and fabulous garments. They stand under a canopy of most luxuriant foliage. They hair styles are stunning from 20th century standards. There are 14 Shiva-Parvati groups besides some figures of Ganesha – amused, dancing and irate – still the most lovable of the Hindu pantheon. The dwarapalas (doorkeepers) at the southern and western entrances are carved with an insatiable appetite for detail. The Halebid temple is the greatest exhibition of sculpture on which Indian art can claim the highest rank in the world. Besides the Hoysalesvar temple Halebid has a few more temple of the highest craftsmanship. The Jain Basti temples are contemporaries of the Hoysalesvara temple. Despite their change of faith from Jainism to Vaishnavism, the rulers showed admirable religious tolerance in funding these temples. The western-most Parsvanath shrine is magnificent with its 32 pillared pavilion. Pillars in the Navranga hall are so exquisitely polished as to reflect the viewers. The ceiling in the typical Hoysala style, has been carved in intricate patterns, hardly visible in the darkness in the interior. The 14 feet high image of Tirthankara Parsavanth has a seven hooded cobra over its head. The two other shrines of Adinatha and Shantinatha are small but elegant structures. At the southern end stands a water reservoir with stone steps descending to the water surface.

Still further down the unfrequented road stands the dilapidated shrine of Kedareshwar, built by Viiraballa II and his queen Abhinava Ketla Devi in 1219. After much restoration, this temple has regained some of its lost splendour. The themes on the sculptured panels are from the Hindu epics. Praised as a gem of Indian architecture by the renowned critic Fergusson, the Kedareshwara temple is a classic example of Indian temple architecture. The interior has now been sealed to prevent any further damage to the structure. Still a marvelous work of art.

To the north-east of the Hoysalesvara temple lies a vast stretch of sand covered debris of a number of temples which have been excavated recently. These grand temples bore the havoc of devastation let loose by the Khiljis and the Tughlaqs. They not only plundered, burnt and shattered sculptured facades but dug up the foundations, leaving scattered in the whole area thousands of fragmented pieces. Some of the friezes on the lower jangha have been reassembled to show the superior standards of workmanship on these temples. Dozens of Shivalingas and their receptacles still lie in the debris. Some have been placed on reconstructed platforms. Within the compound of the grand twin temples some excavations have revealed existence of many smaller temples. At the south-west corner stands the Huccheshwar temple in sheer ruins. Walking past the open museum of sculptures and across the road some remains of the embankments of the large artificial lake, which gave the city its name Dwarsamudra (gateway to the sea), can still be seen. The present name Halebid, meaning the old capital, came after the invasion in 1310 and 1327, when the Hoysalas were vanquished.

Both the Belur and Halebid temples suffered heavily during the two invasions hence their features are only a matter of conjecture. It is the triple shrined-temple of Somnathpura, near Mysore, which is the best preserved among the Hoysala temples. Built in 1269 by Somnath a high official under Narasimha III, this temple is dedicated to Prasanna Chenna Kesava. Set within an enclosed courtyard, with 64 cells in the pillared corridors, the temple stands on a platform. The towers over the three cells in the sanctum are small in height. The image of the chief deity – Kesav, is missing but those of Janardana and Venugopal in the northern and southern cells are still there. The interior has contained some of the most ornate pillars and intricately carved ceilings, particularly the one with a lotus bud.

The exterior is covered with the most lavish display of 194 sculptured images of gods and goddesses. Here Krishna is the presiding deity. The sculptures depict him playing a flute and subduing the seven hooded cobra. Vishnu sits reclining on the coils of the sheshnag (cobra) – representing the immanent sustaining power of the universe.

Other prominent examples of Hoysala temple architecture are to be found at Godavalli, Nagamanga, Koramanga, Harhara, Nugihalli and Arsikere. Most possibly because of direct royal patronage and presence, the temples at Belur, Halebid and Somnathpura show this Hoysala style at its highest perfection. Also for the first time in the history of Indian temple architecture, sculptors were allowed to carve out their names on the panels they made. Hence we have such names as Ballanna, Bochana, Kedaroja, Devoja among a host of them. Some had titles which read ‘champion over sculptors’, ‘a tiger among sculptors’ a lion to the elephants titled sculptors and a pair of large scissors to the necks of titled sculptors! The name Jakkanachari, however, has been associated with the most splendid work of at Belur.


Badami, or Vatapi as it was once called, is redolent with the fragrance of years gone by. In its temples and fort, Badami preserves an important chapter in the history of architecture in Karnataka.

Located in North Karnataka (550 kilometres from Bangalore), Vatapi was the capital of the Chalukya empire founded by Pulakesin I in the 6th century A.D. The Chalukyas are remarkable not simply for their military conquests or expanding the boundaries of their kingdom. In fact, the Chalukyas are to be credited with pioneering a new architectural style, examples of which can be seen in Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal and other neighbouring areas. They built a number of temples and other monuments that marked the beginning of the Hindu style of architecture.

During the medieval period (AD 600-1200), architectural styles in India became systematized and various temples and monuments subscribing to the different styles were built all over India. Initially there were two essential styles – the north Indian Indo-Aryan Nagara style and the South Indian Dravidian style. During the reign of the Chalukyas there evolved a new style which combined the best of the Nagara and Dravidian styles. Called the Chalukyan style, this style manifested in many cave temples dedicated to Brahmanical deities as well as many Buddhist chaityaalayas and Jain monasteries.

It is interesting to study how the synthesis took place under place under the Chalukyas. Mutual relations between the Pallavas, the creators of the Dravidian style and the Chalukyas resulted in many Dravidian style temples being built in the Chalukya kingdom. The Malgitti Sivalya at Badami is typical of the style.

The cave temples of Badami which date back to 600 and 700 AD are carved out of sandstone hills. Each has a sanctum, a hall, an open verandah and pillars. What makes these cave temples remarkable are the large number of exquisite carvings and sculptures. In the skillful hands of the Chalukyan artisans, the sandstone seems to have become as pliant as putty. There are many beautiful murals as well.

The free standing stone temples in Badami provide information about the development of the Chalukyan style of architecture as many seem to have been experimental constructions. The early temples do not seem like temples at all and appear to be large court halls to which shrines were attached. The Laadkhan Temple at Aihole belongs to this earlier phase of Chalukya architecture. The temple complex at Kintigudi appears to be from the same period as evident in the simple design and lack of stylized decorations. The next phase of development is visible in the Gowdaragudi temple which is a more complex structure. The pinnacle of this style is revealed in the temples of Pattadakal and Aihole which combine beauty and functionality, ornamentation and architecture in a harmonious blend of the North and South.

It is said that the better known caves of Elephanta and Ellora were patterned on Badami. The Chalukyas of Vatapi thus initiated an architectural style which eventually culminated in one of the masterpieces of that age – the Kailashnatha temple at Ellora built by Krishna I, the Rashtrakuta ruler whose dynasty succeeded the Chalukyas of Badami. The Kailashnatha temple has been hewn out of an entire hillock cut out from the parent hill and combines the best of cave and free standing temples. Badami can thus be credited with inspiring many such buildings of unsurpassable beauty.

Today, nothing remains of the past greatness of Aihole and Badami except some stone temples and lithic records. But they do make for an interesting study of the evolution of Indian architecture.

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