Temple Tales From Belur

I used to hear people rave about the marvelous architecture of the Hoysala Temples of Somnathpur, Belur, and Halebidu. The nature-lover in me didn’t pay much heed to all that until I visited Somnathpur last year. The stunning architectural brilliance of the Chennakesava Temple was beyond all my imagination. My mind was all set to explore the Belur and Halebidu temples. It was last week that I could finally visit these two places.

Pic 1: Exquisite carvings of Gods and Goddesses on the temple exterior.

My cousin sister and brother-in-law were visiting me in Bangalore when we went on an impromptu road-trip to Sakleshpur. On the way back we planned to visit the twin towns of Belur and Halebidu, as all these places are within a few kilometers of each other. Located in the Hassan district of Karnataka, the twin towns are nestled on the banks of River Yagachi. Famous for their 12th century temples, Belur and Halebidu are approximately 200 Km away from Bangalore making them perfect destinations for day trips from the city.

Pic 2: This sculpture, one on either side of the main doorway depicts Sala, the founder of Hoysala dynasty, slaying a tiger.

It’s a common experience that a place loses its appeal when a lot is talked about it. The hype created around it falls flat when you actually experience it for yourself. I would have kept my expectations low had I not seen the Somnathpur Temple. I was certain though that Belur and Halebidu Temples wouldn’t disappoint. And, so it was! They stood up to their reputation and exceeded my expectations by several measures. I wouldn’t hesitate to claim that these are among the most impressive temples in India.

I will restrict this post to Belur and write about Halebidu separately.

Pic 3: Notice the three rows of elephants, lions and horses at the base. There are 642 elephants and no two elephants are the same.

Often referred to as Belur Temple, the actual name of the temple is Chennakeshava Temple. ‘Chennakesava’, literally means ‘handsome Kesava’, Kesava being another name for Lord Vishnu. Built in 1117 A.D., it took 103 years and over three generations to complete the temple. The temple is well-preserved and is considered to be the best of the 92 Hoysala temples in Karnataka. It is a functional temple with the main deity being Lord Vijayanarayana, one of the many avatars of Lord Vishnu.

Pic 4: A carving of Narasimha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who was the family God of Hoysala Dynasty.

The elegant sculptures on the temple walls and ceilings are a true testimony to the unimaginable ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Hoysala Dynasty. Such creativity is unthinkable in today’s era. One almost starts questioning the pride and arrogance we display over our technological advancements and the human progress we believe we have made. Each and every stone has stories weaved through the detailed and intricate carvings. Words can never do justice to the sheer mastery of the artisans who transformed these ordinary stones into architectural marvels.

The artwork at Belur Temple is divided into two sections. The first half is social while the second half is religious or spiritual. It’s important to avail the services of a Guide to understand the details of the various artwork and we did that for a fee of Rs.450.

Pic 5: The temple Gopuram in the background, which was constructed later.

Typical of the Hoysala architecture, the temple is hoisted on a star-shaped platform. Built of soapstone, no binding material has been used to construct the temple and the stones are sort of assembled and locked into one another.

The outer walls are lined with sculptures depicting stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Upanishads. The base is carved into a row of 642 elephants. No two elephants are the same and each carving is perfect to the smallest detail. Elephants symbolize stability. Above this is a row of lions and then a row of horses. The former symbolizes courage and the latter strength. (Pic 3 and Pic 6).

Pic 6: The intricate detailing on every slab of stone is mindboggling.

There are 40 carvings of celestial nymphs or Madanikas in the exterior, each displaying various Bharatnatyam postures. These carvings are supposedly inspired by Shantala Devi, the Queen of Vishnuvardhana, who was an exemplary Bharatnatyam dancer. The unfathomable imagination of the artisans who created these Madanikas are sure to take your breath away and each one is associated with a unique story of its own. The elaborate artworks of these Madanikas makes you feel like they can just pop into life at any moment. An interesting feature that stands out is that certain sculptors have left behind their signatures engraved in the stone.

Pic 7: Some of the Madanikas. The one at the center is the most famous and is known as ‘Darpana Sundari’
Pic 8: The Madanikas again from a different angle. There are 40 of them.

Overlooking the various entrances of the temple are ornamental horizontal works of art, one where Lord Vishnu is depicted as Narasimha, another where Lord Vishnu is with his consort Goddess Lakshmi. Inside the temple are 48 pillars, each one is unique in its carvings and design. The Narasimha Pillar is worth mentioning and can be easily spotted with the vermillion marks all over it. Back in the years, this pillar could be rotated due to the presence of ball bearings on the top.

Pic 9: The pillars inside the temple. There are 48 of them, each with a unique design. On the extreme right is Narasimha Pillar, which used to rotate earlier. This pillar is also treated as a deity.

In the temple courtyard is the Mahasthamba or the Gravity Pillar. This is a 42 feet pillar, built out of a single stone and stands without a base being held in place just by the force of gravity. Also, in the temple courtyard is a big tank known as Vishnu Samudra, the water of which is perhaps used for temple rituals. Small turtles and fishes swim around happily live in this tank. Sadly, I do not have pictures of the tank and Gravity Pillar. I just didn’t click. [Most of these pics are not clicked by me, credit to my bro-in-law]

It’s impossible to capture the details of the temple through the limitations of words and vocabulary. This architectural marvel appeals to the senses, something that and can only be experienced.

Pic 10: One of the other temple entrances that remain closed now.
How did we get here?
We rented a self-drive car and drove from Bangalore to Sakleshpur. On the way back from Sakleshpur, we followed Google Maps to direct us to Belur.

Author: neelstoria

Traveling, Gardening, Trekking, Hiking, Storytelling, Writing, Nature, Outdoors, Yoga, DIY

22 thoughts on “Temple Tales From Belur”

  1. We have been so fortunate in our lives, I try to never regret anything. But I do regret my U.S. education was focused on Western Civilization and the only thing I learned about India was from a book I read as a teenager [60+ years ago] by a fellow who rode a bike across the country. We have seen many amazing things, but nothing like the carvings at these temples.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. These are truly amazing carvings, do wish you could see them. Nothing can be totally captured through pictures. When it comes to architectural wonders, Taj Mahal is what’s immediately connected to India being one of the seven wonders of the world. These carvings and sculptures should be a must visit too.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What an amazing place! As you said, words cannot do enough justice to this stunning marvel – though your words gave me an excellent feel of the tour. These places, along with Hampi, have been on our family to-visit list since childhood; and somehow they have never materialised. Thanks for this virtual visit. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

          1. I accept your kind compliments with due humility, Neelanjana, but the fact remains that it is the depth of interest in the subject matter that determines the expression of words – embellishment with pompous sounding phrases is just the garnish.
            So…I stand ground with due respect to your keen sense of understanding of human relations, history, art, architecture (hey…the doors too!). I know my bounds… 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Brillianly penned down the experiene of exploring the place, called “Kalasagara”, meaning an “ocean of Art”. Being a partner in crime with you this time, I fully agree with your observation that the beauty of the intricate stone carvings cannot be captured in photos, it can only be explored and experienced! What amazes me further is the wonderful work of art was created approximately 1000 years ago and today’s artisans perhaps won’t be able the match skill! So proud of our rich heritage and Sanatam Dharma!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Really gorgeous photos and such an interesting place. I’m always really blown away by the beauty that comes from such dedication. imagine – 103 years to build. Possibly one’s great-great-grandchildren could be working on the same project you are. Coming from a place where a project rarely lasts more than a couple of years I can barely get my head around that idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It truly is mindboggling and completely unimaginable in today’s times when we just want everything at jet speed. We have no patience in the simplest of things, let alone taking so much time in creating something so wondrous. Thank you for reading, Todd. Hope you’re doing well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This post makes me really really want to go back to India. In my month-long journey across southern India, I also went to Karnataka but only visited Hampi (plus an overnight stay in Bangalore). I wish I had more time to see the Hoysala temples in Belur, Halebidu and Somnathpur. I love the photos in this post as they capture the intricate details of Chennakesava Temple in Belur so beautifully. Happy New Year, Neel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope once the pandemic is left behind, you make another trip to India and even more importantly you leave with some good memories of India. South India does have a lot to offer to a traveler and it’s worth spending some dedicated time in this region of India.
      Thanks for reading my post. And, once again apologies about my delayed response.

      Liked by 1 person

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