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The baroque extravagance of the Hoysala temples in the State of Karnataka is evidence of the creative genius of bygone times that has weathered the centuries. Here we rediscover two of the most beautiful and extravagant temples, those of Belur and Halebeed.

Across lush green paddy fields and sky scraping palm groves, the visual splendour of the Hoysala temples reveals itself. Here the celebration of life finds expression in stone and is frozen in the eternity of art. Built over a span of three hundred and fifty years, these temples are unique examples of highly sophisticated sculptural expression that seek to represent the myriad faces of everyday life. Although there are about 1,521 temples spread over a number of sites like Somnathpura, Nuggihalli, Mosale-Marle, Harnahalli, Javagal, Santigrama and others, the temples at Belur and Halebeed are perhaps the two most beautiful.

Most of the temples were built during the reign of king Vishnuvardhana (1106 and 1142 A.D) who is considered to be one of the most illustrious of the Hoysala kings. He had these magnificent temples built in order to celebrate a series of war victories and to pay obeisance to the divine power that had crowned his exploits. In fact, the very name ‘Hoysala’ was born during his reign. In 1117A.D. he felt the need to trace his descent to an uncommon ancestor and so he invented a legend in which the hero Sala exhibits extraordinary courage and defends a meditating sage from a tiger’s attack. Since the sage bade Sala to strike, he also blessed the warrior with a new name Hoysala – ‘Hoy’ meaning ‘to strike’ and ‘Sala’ meaning the striker – and a land to rule. So was born the Hoysala dynasty of Visnuvardhana.

Entrance of the Temple at Belur
Entrance of the Temple at Belur

Belur and Halebeed did not share the same religious leanings. While Belur was dominated by the Shri Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu), with some Shiva temples also located in the town. Halebeed on the other hand was dominated by the Shaivas (devotees of Shiva) with positions of importance also enjoyed by the Jains. A typical Hoysala settlement was planned to accommodate followers of more than one faith, care being taken to create space and freedom enough for worship, ensuring religious and social life without any sort of hindrance. An excellent example of inclusiveness.

The temples at Belur were built under the personal supervision of King Vishnuvardhana. This is perhaps the reason why it radiates the spirit of royal grandeur. On the other hand, the Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebeed, which is the largest ever temple built by the Hoysalas was built by the Shaivas as a mark of respect for their beloved king.

Interestingly, the Hoysalas built temples in imitation of what they believed to be abodes of Gods, imbuing them with awe-inspiring elements that were designed to create in worshippers the overwhelming feeling of being in the presence of the Divine. For example – pavilions erected for the wedding of Shiva and Parvati with images and reliefs representing a joyous gathering of Gods, including Indra, witnessing this event. The ornate temples are decked from the base to the pinnacle with variegated and floral designs, carvings depicting stories from the epics as well as of wars between gods and giants and enhanced by fascinating foliage, startling creeper designs, bell motifs and groups of statuettes. 

The 'Hoysala' symbol
The ‘Hoysala’ symbol

The Grand Plan

The stellate appearance of the Hoysala structure was its chief hallmark. Construction was done in three stages. In the middle was a wall of earth and rubble. This was encased between granite stones and then came the outer wall dressed with chloritic schist, the stone most abundantly available in the region. The Hoysala architect exploited schist to the fullest advantage. This stone not only determined the shape of the structure but also its artistic quality. Greenish or bluish or creamy-gold in colour, schist was known for its homogenous texture and was eminently suited for carving. Thus it was used for intricate carving while it was soft and served structural purposes when conditioned by the sun, wind and rain, following which it gained metallic strength.

The ornate temple walls
The ornate temple walls

A variety of temples were built. The simplest was the single sanctum one (like that at Belur,) and the most complex ones had five sanctums dedicated to five different deities, connected to one another by a common hall. The Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebeed has two sanctums. These are structurally linked together to form a single unit. Not only the size but also its structural alignment makes this temple unique.

Few monuments of medieval India could match the Hoysala temples in their intricate and richly detailed miniaturised sculpture. Due to the elaborate narrative and exquisite detailing the Hoysala artists came to be known as the most expressive artists in the history of Indian art. The outer walls of these temples have ornate bases, intricately carved horizontal and vertical blocks, windows, railings and doorways. The blocks were laid in a manner that resembled a star. The central portion of the outer wall is dominated by alternately projecting and recessing vertical divisions in close accordance with the ground plan. Between each division is an ornamental pattern. Endless rows of images set up on rows of friezes of the base as well as the ornate railings with miniature images make these temples unsurpassed for delicate detail by any in the world.

The outer walls
The outer walls

Perforated screens or windows found on either side of the doorways to the inner cells, link the railings to the beams. While the screens are covered with abstract geometrical patterns, the brackets linking the railings have figures carved on them. All doorways have door attendants or Dvarpalas. The arch above the doorway is embellished with an extremely intricate sculptural frieze. The frieze consists of a dancing god or goddess with the entourage assembled around the deity.

Perforated windows
Perforated windows

The interiors of the temples are as beautiful as the exteriors. A slightly raised floor formed into a dais is invariably found in the centre. The four pillars which stand at the corners of this dais bear the central ceiling. Stone benches made of heavy schist slabs, well paved and polished, line the interiors and are a feature unique to these temples. The ceilings are delicately carved with figurines of dancers, musicians, warriors as well as cult deities, their consorts and attendants. Audience galleries meant for royal families find a place of importance in the interiors and as a recorded slice of history we have the names of donors inscribed on the walls of the niches and the mini temples inside the main sanctum sanctorum.

A remarkable feature of the architecture is the appearance of pillars that are popularly known as “lathe-turned pillars”. Made of schist these pillars have an exquisite finish and appear to have been turned on some kind of primitive lathe. Each pillar is divided into five sections: the base, the shaft, the capital, the abacus and the corbel. There are star shaped and bell shaped pillars as well as those that are round, octagonal and sixteen sided.

Continued in Part 2, The Master Sculptors

Author: Dr G B Deglurkar
Photographs: Namrata Khandekar-Boileau
Source: Heritage India Volume 1 Issue 1 (2008)



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