Saturday, December 1, 2007

Belur and Halebid - Unique Temples

Belur & Halebid
A must-see for all students of architecture, history and fine arts

I have visited numerous temples in India. But the temples of Belur and Halebid built by the Hoysala kings are unique.
Some one has written that “the Hoysala temples are to South Indian architecture, what the Parthenon is to Greece and the Pyramids to Egypt”.

The Hoysala kings were great temple builders. During their rule (1000 AD to 1346 AD), 1,500 temples were built in 958 locations.


Today, Belur and Halebid are two insignificant towns 16 km apart in Karnataka (South India). But during the 11th to 14th centuries, these two towns were the glorious capitals of the Hoysala kings, who came to power around 1000 AD after defeating the Chalukya kings.

The Hoysala kings were able rulers and ruled for almost three and a half centuries.

Belur, located on the banks of the River Yagachi, was the original capital of the Hoysala kings. The capital was shifted to Halebid (formerly known as Dwara Samudram (Gateway to the Ocean).

But Muslim armies invaded Halebid in 1311 AD and again in 1327 AD razing the grand capital into shambles.

The capital was shifted back to Belur.

Temples in Belur

Chennakeshava (meaning handsome Vishnu)

The most beautiful temple in Belur is the Chennakeshava temple.

King Vishnuvardhana, the most illustrious Hoysala king, started construction of this temple in 1117 AD to commemorate his victory over the Cholas at Talakad that year.

The construction of the temple took more than a century and was completed after 103 years by Vishnuvardhana’s grandson Veera Ballala II.

The main entrance is guarded by two identical statues of a youth killing a tiger.

I walked around and inside the temple and marveled at the thousands of the most exquisite sculptures and statues of elephants, horses, lions, swans, depictions of mythological events, and scenes from the Indian epics.

The ceilings and walls of the temple are full of intricately carved images and figures of birds, animals, and dancers in various shapes and postures. Scenes of important episodes from the Hindu epics are depicted here.

Beautiful, highly polished, pillars turned on lathe, adorn the Navranga Hall.

Each pillar is different.

These statues have unrivalled, unimaginable, fluidity which makes them vibrant and almost alive.

I also saw statuettes displaying all forms of modern-day fashions and different hairstyles including ponytails, a variety of ornaments, skirts, Bermudas, shoes, and slippers.
The statues of the 42 ‘madanikas’ or celestial dancers were inspired by Queen Shantaladevi, who was the very epitome of voluptuous beauty. She was the Indian counterpart of Queen Cleopatra.

The Hoysala architects were so meticulate for detail and perfection in their art, that the earrings of the dancers actually rotate and beads of perspiration glisten in the hairs of some.

I saw some students making sketches of these carvings and statues.
These places are a must-see for all students of architecture, history, and fine arts.

As I entered the temple, the temple priest had just started the puja.
Surprisingly, daily worship continues in the Belur temple even today making it one of the oldest living temples in the country.

Temples in Halebid

There are two beautiful temples in Halebid - both dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The idols are in the form of Shivalinga (the phallic form of Lord Shiva).

Both temples have large monolithic statues of Nandi (Lord Shiva’s bull) facing the entrance,

The first temple is the Hoysaleshwara Temple.
Its construction was started by the Chief of Staff in 1121 AD.
Although construction continued for 87 years, the temple was never completed.

The other temple - Kedareshwara Temple - was built almost two centuries later - in 1319 AD.

On my journey back, as I drove down to Hassan, I reminisced on what great travellers, historians, and architects had written about these places.

They have highly praised the statues.
Many have described them as masterpieces and gems of Indian architecture.

These statues are made of steatite which is initially soft and easy to
work with, but gradually hardens with prolonged exposure.

Uniqueness of these temples

One unique feature of these temples is that they have been constructed on star-shaped bases unlike the normal square-shaped bases of most Indian temples.
Belur temple stands on a single star base while the Halebid temple has a twin star base.

Another unique feature is that unlike other temples where the artists do not leave
their names, the artists and sculptors of Hoysala have broken away from tradition and
signed their sculptures.
They have engraved their names, titles and even the place of their origin at the foot of their creations.
We know that Jakkanna Achari was the Chief architect of these two temples.

Originally, these temples had the typical high tower above the main temple that fell or were removed.


Belur and Halebid both are small towns having small hotels offering only basic amenities.
It is therefore better to stay in Bangalore, Mysore or even Hassan.

Getting there

The nearest airport is Bangalore. 222 kms from Belur.

The nearest railway station is Hassan. 34 kms from Belur.
Bangalore to Belur 222 kms. 4 hours drive.
Belur to Halebid 16 kms.
Belur to Hassan 34 kms.
Belur to Hospet 330 kms.
Belur to Mangalore 124 kms.
Belur to Mysore 149 kms.


There are also a number of ancient Jain temples around because the earlier
Hoyshala kings were Jains.

Do visit these temples.
When you visit these places, do hire a trained guide.
He will take you on a timeless journey into history.

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