Monday, 26 November 2018

Belur & Halebid: Finest Examples of Hoysala Art

When it comes to ancient Indian art, the best examples are all associated with temples. While the erotic art of the Khajuraho Temples is famous, the Chennakeshava Temple of Belur and the Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebid are perhaps a little less famous, but are no less beautiful and magnificent. These are temples that were built by the Hoysala ruling dynasty of the South India and represent some of the finest achievements of the people this country in architecture and sculpture. I visited the temples in February of 2017, but before I tell you more about them, let’s take a look at the dynasty which had them built.


Around 1000 CE (or AD, if you prefer), there were two major powers in South India – the barely 25-year-old Chalukya Kingdom, with its capital in Kalyan and the 150-year-old Chola Kingdom with its capital in Thanjavur (Tanjore). The 11th century was a period of great prosperity in South India and it was around this period that the Hoysalas first emerged as feudatory chiefs of the Chalukya Empire in the mountains on the border of the modern day Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. They would remain a small power until 1116 CE, when the first great Hoysala chief, Bittiga, defeated the Chola governor of Talakad and annexed large parts of the Chola Empire. Bittiga was a follower of the great Vaishnava reformed Ramanuja and hence, assumed the name Vishnuvardhana and to celebrate his victory had the huge Chennakeshava Temple of Belur built and consecrated in 1117 CE. Vishnuvardhana then turned on his former masters, but with the Chalukyas he would be less lucky and by 1123 CE, in spite of his initial successes, he found himself back to square one, acknowledging the overlordship of the Chalukya. But one thing had changed – the Hoysalas were no longer a small power. They were now a feared military force. To celebrate, another massive temple was constructed in a city that was then called Dwarasamudra, between 1121 and 1160 CE. We now know the city as Halebid or Halebidu (meaning old capital) and the temple is known as the Hoysaleshwara Temple.

For the area around modern day Hassan and Mysore, traditionally only a buffer between the Chola and Chalukya empires, a period of unprecedented prosperity began. The Hoysala would continue to expand, achieving complete independence under Vishnuvardhana’s grandson, Ballala II, who came to be known as Viraballala, meaning “the brave Ballala”, after he joined the Yadavas of Devagiri in attacking and destroying the Chalukyas of Kalyan. The Hoysalas had become so powerful that the Chola Empire now asked for their assistance against the Pandyas of Madurai. Against the Pandyas the Hoysala had limited success, although the war allowed them to absorb even greater parts of the Chola Kingdom into their empire. But by 1311 CE, a new and unstoppable enemy appeared on the South Indian horizon – Muslim forces of the Delhi Sultanate, led by Malik Kafur. The Hoysala King Ballala III chose to pay tribute to Kafur to avoid the destruction of his capital city. Further invasions under the Tughlaqs eroded the independence of the Hoysalas completely, and some 200 years after the empire had been founded, Ballala III accepted Tughlaq overlordship. He would go on to participate in the 1329 uprising that ultimately led to the foundation of the Vijayanagara Empire. The Hoysala Empire ended with the death of Ballala III in 1342 CE.

The Hoysala Emblem at Belur


Evidence of the tremendous prosperity of the Hoysala Empire can be found in the prolific building activity that happened during this period. Some 100 Hoysala era temples can still be found in Karnataka, in various states of preservation. Some, like the Allalanatha Temple of Kondajji have disappeared entirely, while others like the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple of Javagal are remarkably intact. While the temples appear different, they are all basically variations on the same theme.

Hoysala temples consist of multiple parts which are connected to each other to each other, as opposed to temples in Tamil Nadu where each part is free-standing. The simplest Hoysala temple consists only of a cella and a hall, connected by a vestibule. The cella contains the idol and is usually only entered by priests, while the hall, which may be closed or open, is where the devotees gather. In front of the temple, there is often an open porch. Above the cella there is usually a tall tower, known as the “Vimana”. A temple with only one shrine has only one tower, and is called “ek-kuta”, while one with two is called a “dvi-kuta” and one with three is called a “tri-kuta”. There is a stark contrast between the interiors of the temple and the exterior. The interior usually has a simple, square floor plan, while the exterior is deliberately complicated, often taking the form of s star, a staggered square, or a combination of both. This allows for multiple projections and niches on the exterior of a temple, each of which is covered in profuse decoration.

Hoysala era temples are dedicated to one of two religions, Hinduism and Jainism. The Jain temples are quite plain and therefore less interesting. The Hindu temples themselves are dedicated to two different sects – Shaiva, i.e. those dedicated to Lord Shiva, or Vaishnava, i.e. those dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is possible to understand which sect a temple belongs to from its name. If the name of the temple has the suffix “esvara” (also spelt eshvara, ishwara etc.), meaning “Lord of”, then it is Shaiva temple. The suffix may be added after the name of the person building the temple, the village it is in, the royal dynasty which commissioned it, etc. Thus, when a man named Buchi, living in the village of Koravangla builds a Shiva temple, it comes to be known as Bucheshvara. The object of veneration in Shaiva temples is the phallus or “linga”. Around the temple may also be found a stone bull, “Nandi”, Lord Shiva’s mount. Vaishnava temples, on the other hand always bear the name of the deity the temple is dedicated to. The most common deities are Keshava or Chennakeshava (meaning the beautiful Keshava), Lakshminarasimha and Lakshminarayana. The prefix Lakshmi indicates that the idol of Narasimha or Narayana is worshipped along with his consort, Lakshmi, who is generally found seated on the idol’s left knee.

Panoramic view of the Chennakeshava Temple, Belur


The profuse decoration on Hoysala temples is made possible by their choice of stone - chloritic schist, also known as soapstone, potstone, or steatite. Potstone has two qualities which make it a great choice for such temples – first, it has a much finer grain than sandstone or laterite, which allows for very fine carvings, and second, potstone is very soft when quarried, but turns very hard on exposure to atmosphere, meaning it could be carved easily, and once ready, could be depended on to survive the ravages of weather. For a good contrast, look at the laterite that many of the temples in Bishnupur in West Bengal are made of. Laterite is very hard and coarse grained, therefore these temples have no decoration at all. The only decorative elements in Bishnupur are on terracotta tiles, which, being clay, are naturally easy to work with but do not survive as well as stone.
Sculptures in Halebid

The thing that makes both the Belur and Halebid temples look somewhat strange is that both are missing their “Vimana”, the tower above the sanctum. It wasn’t easy trying to find out what happened to them, but a number of websites and books say that around 1879, the Vimana of the temple at Halebid was dismantled, because it had become damaged and was threatening to collapse and damage the sanctum. How it became so damaged and who dismantled it I haven’t been able to find out. But the thing that guides keep repeating - “the Muslims destroyed the temple”, that doesn’t seem likely, especially considering how the king paid tribute and accepted their suzerainty specifically to avoid destruction of his capital. Anyway, when it comes to temple sculpture, it doesn’t make sense to discuss a Vimana which doesn’t exist. Under the superstructure, which isn’t there any more, there are projecting eaves that run all around the temple. Below that there is a row of pilasters and decorative towers, then a row of large images of deities and their attendants and then 5 or 6 rows containing, from top to bottom, birds, monsters, scenes from the epics, vegetal patterns, horses and elephants. There are some minor differences depending on whether the temple of the new or the old kind, but mostly, this is the scheme of things. We can now look at the specific temples and try and make sense of them.


Entrance to the Belur temple

The first thing that threw me off at Belur was the gate – there was a gopura on it! You know, that pyramid-like thing that you often see over the gates of South Indian temples. But I was under the impression that the gopura evolved at a much later time. Turns out, I was right. That gopura was added during the Vijaynagar Empire period. Through the gate, you enter a large compound. The central attraction is the Chennkeshava Temple, but there are the large number of structures scattered all over. The map on Wikipedia is accurate and very helpful.

Madanikas of Belur

By Hoysala standards, Belur is a simple temple – an ekakuta, a temple with a single shrine and a vestibule and an open hall. It is the proportions that make it impressive. The shrine is double the usual size while there are 60 bays in the open hall instead of the usual 13. Some 50 years after the temple was built, stone screens were added in the space between the round pillars, which is a pity because the fantastic interiors are now shrouded in darkness. This is an architectural element that was later used in other Hoysala temples. Belur’s Chennakeshava was the first major Hoysala temple to be built, and as such serves as a prototype that was later replicated and refined.

Madanikas of Belur

From a distance, the Chennakeshava temple appears plain. Once you get closer, you realise that the area around the main entrance is profusely decorated and even the stone screens are extremely beautiful. But the standout feature of the temple, the one that everyone wants to take photographs of, are the Madanikas. Madanikas have their roots in “dohada”, a concept in Hindu thought in which a plant becomes fertilized through contact with a young woman. The symbolism changed over time and morphed into the “Salabhanjika” or Madanika, a decorative image of a woman standing under a “sala” tree. The feminine physical features of the maiden, such as breasts and hips are often exaggerated. The 20 or so Madanika images of Belur are acknowledged by academics to be among the finest examples of the genre in India.

Madanikas of Belur

While they are extremely beautiful, their erotic appeal is undeniable and I found myself staring at them just a bit too long through my telephoto lens. So much so, that the guide jokingly warned me that if I was too distracted by the sculptures, I would step off the ledge I was standing on and seriously injure myself. The sculptures depict women doing various everyday things – dressing up, drying hair after a bath, going for a walk in the park with a child and a dog, and dancing in ecstasy. The artists clearly couldn’t resist the temptation to show off, and in several statues, ornaments such as bangles have been carved in such a way that they can be moved or twirled. The artists also have signed their sculptures here, which is another rarity in India. But the signatures are in Haleganada, or old Kannada, so good luck reading them!


Entrance to Hoysaleswara Temple, Halebid

The Hoysaleswara Temple of Halebid is significantly different from the Chennakeshava Temple of Belur, and in many ways, the two temples are opposites. Where Belur is an ekakuta, in Halebid we find a dwikuta, or a temple with two shrines inside, facing each other, like Siamese twins. The open halls have been closed later with stone screens, like in Belur, but the screens here are plain, as are the interiors of the temple, unlike Belur. The scale here is also smaller than Belur, but still larger than other Hoysala temples.

Halebid wall images

Where the Hoysaleswara Temple stands head and shoulders above everyone else, are the images on the closed back of the hall and the side of the shrines. Starting from the left hand side of the southern entrance and ending with the right hand side of the northern entrance, they form one continuous row of 240 images which depict the entire Hindu pantheon. As a Bengali Hindu I was surprised when I recognised Kali in the row. These wall images are large and they are lavish and the fact that there are so many of them together creates an overwhelming effect. The fact that the two shrines have a star-like external plan means that the exterior has a large number of niches, making it possible to accommodate all the wall images.

Halebid wall images

But, like Belur, the temple’s tower is missing. What exactly happened to it is somewhat difficult to say. Our ASI guide at the site kept pointing to minor damage here and there on the walls of the temple, and repeating in a doomsday voice – “they destraaayed it, the Musleeems”. If you want to see what a Hindu temple looks like after a Muslim iconoclast is done with it, take a look at the Martand Sun Temple in Anantnag, Jammu and Kashmir. By comparison, the Hoysaleswara temple appears to be in fine shape. But, Islamophobe or not, I would recommend taking an ASI guide with you for the temple tour, unless of course you are an expert in Hindu mythology and know all the stories. If you don’t, the guide will point out individual sculptures to you and tell you the stories, which can be both entertaining and educational, if you are prepared to disregard his interpretation of history.

Halebid wall images. Kali on the right.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh


  • For full frame shooters – I would recommend a 24-70 2.8 and at least a 70-200, if not a 300. For those shooting crop sensor consumer grade cameras, an 18-135 is a great all-in-one solution, but you may want to carry a telephoto lens such as a 55-250 or 70-300 for close-ups of those sculptures. The interiors of the temples are dark and as such, you might want to carry a prime such as the nifty fifty 50mm 1.8.
  • Winter would be the best time to travel and for photography in these parts. I was there in February, and although the weather was still warm, the light was great.
  • I would advise you to spend an entire day at each temple, but in case you can’t, I would suggest visiting Belur in the morning and Halebid in the afternoon.
  • Both temples are ticketed monuments, but this is ASI we are talking about, so prices are modest.
  • There are a number of lesser-known but beautiful Hoysala temples scattered around Belur and Halebid. You can find out more about them here.


My friend Prasenjit Das for arranging for my stay and transport in Karnataka
My chauffeur Prakash, a gem of a guy
My mother and sister who never ran out of patience
The wonderful people of Karnataka


Rowan, Yorke M./Ebeling, Jennie R. - New Approaches to Old Stones (Equinox, 2008)
Chugh, Lalit - Karnataka's Rich Heritage – Temple Sculptures & Dancing Apsaras (Notion Press, 2017)
Bloomfield, Maurice - The Dohada or Craving of Pregnant Women: A Motif of Hindu Fiction (Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 40 (1920))
Foekema, Gerard – A Complete Guide to Hoysala Temples (Abhinav Publications, 1996)

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