Splendours of the Hoysala Empire: Belur (Part I)

Last weekend, my mother and I attended a rivetting lecture by none other than Dr Chitra Madhavan, renowned historian and scholar in history and archaeology. We had earlier attended a day long seminar in late 2013 at the Chennai Mathematical Institute by Dr Madhavan and this had actually opened our eyes to a lot of details in South Indian temple architecture that we had never known before and we had recently been to Belur and Halebid in Decembre 2014. So when we got to know that Dr Chitra Madhavan would be talking about Hoysala temple architecture with specific respect to Belur and Halebid we just knew that we had to go. Here’s some facts that I picked up from the lecture accompanied by my own photos from Belur.

The Hoysala empire was in prominence between the 10th Century AD and the 14th Century AD is what is modern Karnataka. The first mention of the Hoysala empire appears around 1006 AD. One of the most important kings of this dynasty was Vishnu Vardhana- and he was also the king that commissioned the building of the Belur temple (and many others). Vishnu Vardhana was originally a Jain (called Bitti Deva) but was converted to Vaishnavism by Sri Ramanuja. His wife was Queen Shantala Devi- a Jain and a noted dancer.

The emblem of the Hoysala dynasty was that of a person called ‘Sala’ who fights with and defeats a tiger that was attacking his guru. The term ‘Hoy’ in old Kannada stood for ‘to strike’ and hence the name Hoysala. We are not sure if this is just a folk myth or actual reality. One of the first things you encounter when you are inside the temple compound of Belur is this magnificent rendition of the Hoysala Legend.

Sala Fighting Tiger- The Legend of Hoysala
Sala Fighting Tiger- The Legend of Hoysala

One of the alternate interpretations given to this emblem was that this was also supposed to represent Vishnu Vardhana’s defeat of the Cholas- the tiger being the emblem of the Cholas (and the emblem never making an appearance before that particular victory). However as in so many other things in history we will never know the true origins of this particular motif.

Vishnu Vardhana lived between 1108 AD and 1152 AD. This encompassed the reigns of  at least three famous Chola Kings in Tamil Nadu (the neighbouring state)- Kulotunga Chola, Vikrama Chola, Kulotunga Chola II and Raja Raja Chola II. Incidentally this was also during the reign of the famous king Suryavarman II who built the Angkor Wat in Cambodia. What an amazing time in history it must have been when every king tried to surpass each other- not just in military might but also in their devotion to God- when they built like Gods!

The Chennakesava temple of Belur was originally called the Vijayanarayana temple (once again we are not sure of the origins but it is believed that this name was given to celebrate Vishnu Vardhan’s military victories- especially against the Cholas). The temple was commissioned in the early part of the 12th Century. It is built of a soft stone material that is actually called Chloritic Schist (and when I was taking down notes during the lecture the only reason I knew how to spell Schist was because I had visited the Grand Canyon about 5 months ago and had read about the Vishnu Schist or the basement rocks that are some of the oldest rocks you can see in the canyon). Chloritic Schist does not lend itself to tall structures unlike granite which was widely available in Tamil Nadu and hence used by the Cholas to build the massively tall Vimanas  of the Big Temple (Brihadeesvara Temple) and Gangai Konda Cholapuram. But Schist lent itself more easily to intricate carving. This led to the temple builders choosing a star shape for the temple- which means you have the walls pleating in and out- giving the architects not only a lot more wall space to play with but also plenty of opportunites for play of light and shadow. And how well they used it!

Intricate Carvings- Walls Pleating In and Out
Intricate Carvings- Walls Pleating In and Out

We have already met the Elephants of this temple in a previous blog post of mine. The interesting thing to note is that the pierced windows were not put in during the time of Vishnu Vardhan but during the later reign of King Baldala II.

There was also a difference in architectural styles in use in the temple. The main Gopuram of the temple (and it is only thanks to Dr Chitra Madhavan that we first identified the difference between a Gopuram and a Vimana) is built in the Dravida (South) style- however the main temple itself does not conform to this style.

The front lintel of the temple has this amazingly intricate work of Garuda carrying a ‘Ugra Narasimha’ (An enraged Narasimha- an avatar of Vishnu). This is probably the only temple in the region that has this depiction. I incidentally did not get a clear photograph of the front lintel- however Dr Madhavan explained that the garland like circular structures that surrounded the Narasimha each had one version of the Dashavatar carved inside them. Wow!

Front Lintel of Belur Temple
Front Lintel of Belur Temple

Inside the sanctum you can witness delicate carvings on a sunken ceiling (called Bhuvaneswari) and also a number of fascinating pillars. Some of these pillars were carved using a device similar to a lathe whereas others were hand carved. One of the pillars actually acts as a kind of index pillar and has a miniature depiction of almost every other sculpture in the temple (I have to admit we missed this during our visit- oh well!)

Apart from the elephants the other piece of architecture that stands out are the carvings of Madanikas (celestial nymphs) that stand at an amazing 45′ angle between the pillars and the roof. Like the elephants each one of these Madanikas are unique (there are close to 42 of them) and one of the most famous ones is that of Darapanasundari (the lady with the mirror).

Darpana Sundari
Darpana Sundari

The intricacy and the details of the carving make you wonder just how much time, effort and skills these artisans must have put into this project.

Some other captivating photos from the temple

Madanika chased by a Monkey
Madanika chased by a Monkey
Bracket Carvings on the Wall
Bracket Carvings on the Wall
Entrance to the temple
Entrance to the temple

One of the good things about the Belur temple – as against a lot of contemporary temples is that the names of the main architects/ sculptors have survived in the inscriptions. These are Dasoja and his son Chavana. It is also said that the similarity in the carvings were maintained because most of the sculptors came from the same guild. Well, hats off to them!

I hope you liked this post. Have you been to Belur? Or have you had a chance to listen to Dr Chitra Madhavan’s lectures in Chennai? You must, if you are interested. My gratitude to her for the knowledge she freely imparts through these speeches.

In my next post I will talk about the temple at Haleibidu.

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18 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for posting this fascinating information Sukanya, I have been to Belur several times and tried to visit as many Hoysala village temples as I could, and they are all wonderfully decorated. Your photos are a splendid record.

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Thank you so much. This was my first time visiting and I was so impressed- I will definitely visit again. How many temples have you visited around the region? Any other smaller temples you could recommend?

      1. Oh, Sukanya, there are so many, Mossale, Koravangala, Arsikere, Javagallu, Somnathpur. When I visited Korvangala I met Mr Venkataramach who took me around many of the temples, and there are some good books on the subject. While there I found Gerard Foekema’s two volumes on Hoysala Architecture very helpful.
        Regards, John.

      2. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

        I’m going to make a note of this and definitely revisit the area. I’ve only been to Somnathpur in that list.

      3. A lot of rumbling around on local roads, but well worth it. A guide who knows the area would be a help.

  2. Lav says:

    So very interesting! Amazing to think all this was put together almost a 1000 years ago!
    Very nice write up!

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      1000 years ago they had far more devotion to these aspects of life and spirituality!

  3. nivs24 says:

    You have lots of patience! I usually go click click click and barely absorb the information. That’s why we need informative posts like yours. To catch up with history 🙂

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Thank you Nivs. I used to be like that too but then I attended a lecture in 2013 and that changed my perspective. There are so many interesting stories out there. Have you been to Belur?

      1. nivs24 says:

        Nope. I have checked out Halebidu, Shravanabelagola, Hampi and Somanthpur. 2 and 3 were my fave!

  4. Nirmala says:

    I am thinking of the apsaras of Cambodian temples when I see the madanikas! So many costumes and hairstyles!

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Indeed I think it was the age when people came up with similar thoughts and ideas across different parts of the world

  5. Apar says:

    Beautiful write up Sukanya! Devotion and skill indeed were high on the charts that many years ago. Literature, art, sculpture – must have been interesting time to live in indeed.

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Yes I think it would have been fascinating. Sometimes I wish I had a time machine. Don’t you?

      1. Apar says:

        Definitely would have loved to have been there.

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