The Hoysala temples in Karnataka’s Belur, Halebeedu and Somanathapura, which boast a distinctive style of temple architecture, are India’s official nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List 2022-23.

Carvings at the Hoysaleswara temple at HalebeeduHoysaleswara temple, Halebeedu
Features Heritage Friday, March 25, 2022 - 17:01

I was on a heritage sojourn to discover the sculptural extravaganza of the Hoysala temples at Belur, Halebeedu and Somanathapura, which form part of the ‘Sacred Ensemble of the Hoysalas’ – India’s official nomination for consideration as UNESCO World Heritage sites for 2022-23. The genesis of Hoysala architecture can be traced back to the period from 1050 to 1300 AD, when the Hoysalas developed a distinctive and extraordinary style of temple architecture beautifully demonstrated at these three temples. The star-shaped structures are decorated with some of the most intricate and delicately carved stone sculptures, which bear testimony to the artistic exuberance of the Hoysalas.

Belur

The Chennakesava Temple in Belur, an art connoisseur’s delight, is my favourite. Known for its ethereal quality, it is sheer poetry in stone. Built in observance of the victory of the Hoysalas over the Cholas in the great Battle of Talakad, it took 103 years to complete.

As I approached the towering Gopuram, the winged figure of Lord Vishnu’s carrier Garuda, facing the temple, grabbed my attention. So did the remarkably tall stone pillar in the courtyard, with nothing to balance it but its own centre of gravity. My appreciation spanned across the friezes of elephants marching in a single line, each different from the other, mythological figures, military scenes, dancers and musicians, and elaborate decorative motifs. Distinct themes embellish the rows above, mainly culled from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

But it is the angled bracket figures depicting the madanikas (celestial nymphs) – 38 outside and four inside – found exclusively at Belur that steal the show. One can see the elegant, expressive nymphs singing, dancing or going about their daily chores, adorned with a wealth of detail in their makeup, jewellery and coiffures. The 600 different hair styles that the sculpted beauties flaunt is a sight to behold. All around the temple, the three-dimensional figures of deities and dancing girls are chiselled with astounding finesse and realism.

But the piece de resistance is the stunning sculpture of the Darpana Sundari (lady with a mirror) – the epitome of beauty, grace and charm. Another sculpture outside the temple depicts a lady with an anatomically impossible 360 degree turn of her body.

In the dark interior of the temple, I saw more interesting figurines. The distinctive pillars, lathe-turned and embellished with a profusion of carving, strikes one’s attention. The life-size statues of Vishnu, Lakshmi and other Hindu deities adorning the 48 perfectly polished pillars, with their elegant geometric designs, seem to step forth from the stone. The Narasimha Pillar once revolved on its ball-bearing foundations. One pillar picturing a dancing lady features bangles that can be moved up and down on her arms, while another has a headdress with a tiny, movable ring.

Halebeedu

The next stop was Halebeedu, the ancient capital of the Hoysalas originally known as ‘Dwarasamudra’, just 16 km away from Belur. Their architecture is similar. But while the interiors at the Belur temple seem more beautiful, in Halebeedu, the exterior of the Hoysaleswara temple is an eye-catching revelation.

As you enter the Hoysaleswara temple, the doorway with its elaborate makara thoranam grabs your attention. Its walls are richly carved with an endless variety of Hindu deities, sages, stylised animals, birds and friezes depicting the lives of the Hoysala kings. It is divided into two chambers, one each for Shiva and Parvati, with both entrances presided over by large Nandis (Shiva’s bull). The carvings also flaunt scenes of historic battles, child Krishna’s frolics, Shiva and Parvati’s embrace and Ravana hoisting Mount Kailash.

The walls are covered with layer upon layer of frieze, beginning at the bottom with an endless procession of sturdy elephants, symbolising stability. Above them is a row of lions, their courage surmounting the strength and wisdom of the elephants. Then comes a row of horsemen engaging in battle, another of mythical four-legged animals, above which is a layer of peacocks, and finally, vignettes offering an insight into the daily life of the Hoysalas: hunting, warfare, worship and amorous dalliances. But the scenes depicting dancing and music predominate.

Somanathapura

The lesser publicised, exquisitely carved, star-shaped, triple-towered Keshava Temple at Somanathapura was the last stop in my Hoysala temple-hopping spree.  It has been extolled as one of the best preserved and the only complete one of approximately 80 Hoysala temples in the Mysore region. It underscores the design excellence and delicate craftsmanship of Hoysala architecture.

Built in 1268 by Somanatha Dandanayaka, a minister of King Narasimha III, the temple’s design is attributed to celebrated sculptor and architect Janakacharya. The temple with triple towers stands on a chiselled plinth, surmounted by three pyramidal vimanas (shrines). It boasts intricately carved friezes on its outer walls. Beautifully sculpted images of gods, goddesses and scenes from the epics, as well as the remarkably ornate ceilings in the pillared hall, will take your breath away. Bands of friezes cover the exterior walls of the Keshava temple.

The temple, stellar in shape, has three profusely carved pinnacles with a common Navaranga and stands on a pedestal. The three sancta sanctorum once housed beautiful idols of Keshava, Janardhana and Venugopala. Today, the idol of Lord Keshava is missing. The other two, however, continue to adorn their space in their original form.

Both Belur and Halebeedu, which were nominated as ‘The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas’ for the World Heritage list, have been in tentative consideration since 2014. The Keshava temple was subsequently included as part of the serial nomination process.

If these three monuments are approved for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they will be collectively viewed as a single nomination, with the new ones being an extension of the original property. There is also a possibility of more monuments being clubbed for serial nomination as the ‘Sacred Ensemble of the Hoysalas’, if they fulfil the UNESCO criteria. 

All photographs by Susheela Nair.

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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