After all the Hoysala temple hunting over the last few months, we were ready to pay homage to the pinnacle of Hoysala art – Chennakeshava temple, Belur. We were unsure if the temple would live up to its name and fame,given that we had visited some exquisite examples of Hoysala architecture.
A few hours at Belur convinced us that this undoubtedly, is the best of Hoysalas’ art that stands. The iconography is par excellence and the twist in the tale,is the abundant prominence given to women.
The temple was commissioned by King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 AD. Scholars are divided about the reasons for the construction of the temple. The military successes of Vishnuvardhana is considered a probable reason.Some scholars believe Vishnuvardhana commissioned the temple to surpass his overlord, King Vikramaditya VI of the Western Chalukya Empire (who ruled from Basavakalyan), after his initial military victories against the Chalukyas.
According to another theory, Vishnuvardhana was celebrating his famous victory against the Chola dynasty of Tamil country in the battle of Talakad (1116 AD), which resulted in the annexation of Gangavadi (modern southern Karnataka) by the Hoysalas.Another theory points to Vishnuvardhana’s conversion from Jainism to Vaishnavism (a sect of Hinduism) after coming under the influence of saint Ramanujacharya, considering this is a predominantly Vaishnava temple in sculptural iconography.
Our take: We lean towards the victory over Cholas as the violent inspiration for the temple. 2 main reasons being –
- The image of the lion/tiger subduing the elephant is every where in the main temple. The elephant represents the great Cholas and the lion/tiger represents the Hoysala kings.
- The recurring theme of Ugra Narasimha – right from the toranas on the entrances to the ceiling of the main hall to the wall panels. Everywhere you turn, you will see this image of Narasimha killing hiranyakashipu and unlike other Narasimha figures in various temples, these actually show Lord Narasimha pulling out the asura’s entrails.
Tip: When in the main sanctum, pay the ₹30 camera charge and ask the lady to light up the ceiling. You have to experience the detailing and intricacy of the sculptures in person, no words or pics will do it justice!
The temple took a little more than a century to build, from the time it was sanctioned and has had multiple well known sculptors contributing to the designing. The most famous of them is Jakanachari, the master craftsman of the said era.
The temple is an epitome of artistic detailing, with each frieze, panel, ceiling and mini temple capturing every small detail of size, shape & form. Right from the small bells that adorn anklets to various weapons of war, every detail is just about perfect. Miracle indeed that all of this still stands, as on date and having survived the vagaries of nature and changing fortunes of the land.
Twist in the Tale
Coming to the twist in the tale – This is probably the only Hoysala temple that exemplifies the female form. The outer walls and ceilings of the temple are woven with figures & images of women in normal everyday routines – grooming themselves,dancing,playing instruments etc.
Shanthala Devi, wife of King Vishnuvardhana who commissioned this temple, was perhaps the muse for the recurring theme, given her profession as a fine dancer. Local folklore also mentions that the ‘Shilabalikas’, maidens adorning the top of each pillar, are modeled around Shanthala Devi.
Shilabalikas or śālabhañjikā are a unique icons of this temple. It’s hard to miss these beautiful women in various forms atop every pillar in the temple.
Kappe Chanigaraya Temple
The belur temple complex consists of multiple temples of which the Kappe Chanigaraya temple is one of of the better known temples. The Kappe Chanigaraya temple gets its name from a frog found living in the Chennakesava idol that was carved for the temple.
As the story goes, Jakanachari left his family and entered the services of the various kings of Hoyasalas and produced works by which, his fame is upheld even today. His son Dankanachari grew up and decided to go in search of his father and reached Belur . At Belur , the Chennakeshava temple was in the course of being erected, where the young man remarked that one of the images had blemish. Challenging this remark, the sculptor, who was none other than his father Jakanachari ,vowed to cut off his right hand, if any defect was to be found in the image.
In order to test this, the figure was covered with sandal paste and to everyone’s surprise ,the paste dried everywhere except on the navel. On further examination, a cavity was found which contained a frog, sand and water. This way, the idol got the name of “Kappe Chanigaraya”(Kappe=Frog in Kannada). He had no choice but to cut off his right hand as per his word. On further inquiry about the boy, they became aware of the relationship between the sculptor and the boy.
Source – Team G Square
Around the temple complex
The Belur temple complex consists of the main temple, Kappe chanigaraya temple, Sowmyanayaki temple, Ranganayakai temple, Pushkarni and a Dancing hall.
One part of the complex that most people ignore is the pillared walkway that adjoins the temple wall right next to the temple pond. This walkway contains an assorted mix of idols & sculpture from various periods, which have probably been bought here from various places. Some of the interesting idols that caught our eye
Route & Road Conditions
- Bangalore – Hassan: 4L toll roads with many many pit stops on the way.
- Hassan – Belur: 30 kms of good 2L roads but do watch out for the speed breakers and medians that crop up at the curves.
If you have a weekend and plan to visit Belur, you could also visit the following temples nearby
- Veeranarayana temple, Belavadi.
- Lakshmi Devi temple, Doddagadavali.
For more details, please read our Tour de Hoysala post.