What awaits tourists at Karnataka’s Hoysala temples, newly declared World Heritage Site

The genesis of Hoysala architecture can be traced back to the period from 1050 to 1300, when the Hoysalas developed a distinctive style of temple architecture, one that is beautifully demonstrated at these three temples.
Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu
Hoysaleswara temple at HalebiduSusheela Nair
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The Hoysala temples at Belur, Halebidu, and Somanathapura, which form part of the Sacred Ensemble of the Hoysalas, have been declared as UNESCO World Heritage sites. This distinguished recognition that marks the 42nd UNESCO World site in India is indeed a gift to Karnataka on Ganesh Chaturthi day. “Four years of hard work by INTACH Bengaluru Chapter (along with Government of Karnataka and Archeological Survey of India) have culminated in this momentous decision. Momentous because Karnataka has not had a World Heritage Site in the cultural category since the 1980s. These stunning temples will now get the attention they deserve,” said Meera Iyer, who is the convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Bengaluru Chapter.

Both Belur and Halebidu, which were nominated as ‘The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas’ have been in the tentative list of World Heritage sites since 2014. The Keshava temple in Somanathapura was subsequently included as part of the serial nomination process. There is also a possibility of more monuments to be clubbed for serial nomination as Sacred Ensemble of the Hoysalas, if they fulfil the UNESCO criteria.

The genesis of Hoysala architecture can be traced back to the period from 1050 to 1300, when the Hoysalas developed a distinctive and extraordinary style of temple architecture, a style that is beautifully demonstrated at these three temples. The star-shaped structures are decorated with some of the most intricate and delicately carved stone sculptures that bear vivid testimony to the artistic exuberance of the Hoysalas.


The Chennakesava Temple in Belur is an art connoisseur’s delight. 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. The towering ornamental Gopuram, the winged figure of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s carrier, at the entrance, facing the temple, and also the remarkable tall stone pillar in the temple courtyard, with nothing to balance it but its own centre of gravity, are some of the highlights of the temple.

Appreciation starts right from the friezes of elephants, marching in a single line and 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.

It is the angled bracket figures depicting 38 madanikas or celestial nymphs outside and four inside, found exclusively at Belur, which steal the show. One can see elegant and expressive nymphs singing, dancing, or executing their daily chores. They are 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 that adorn the outer pillars are chiselled with astounding finesse and realism.

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 a 360 degree turn of her body that is anatomically impossible.

Chennakesava temple
Chennakesava templeSusheela Nair

The distinctive pillars, lathe-turned, embellished with a profusion of carving strikes in the dark interiors of the temple, are other interesting sculptures. The 48 perfectly-polished carved pillars with their elegant geometric designs, and life-size statues of Vishnu and Lakshmi and other deities seem to step forth from the stone. The Narasimha Pillar once revolved on its ball-bearing foundations. One pillar of a dancing lady features bangles that can be moved up and down on her arms, and another has a headdress with a tiny, movable ring. The embellishments on the ceiling are wondrous; in places the carvings are floral or serpentine.


Halebidu or Hoysaleswara, the ancient capital of the Hoysalas, originally known as Dwarasamudra, is equally impressive. Though similar to the Belur temple, the interiors at Belur are more beautiful, while Hoysaleswara’s exterior is more eye-catching.

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

Ribbons of sculpted friezes wind their way around corners and projecting facades. The walls here 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 a row of horsemen engaging in battle, then a row of mythical four-legged animals, above these 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.


The lesser publicised, yet exquisitely carved, star-shaped, triple-towered Keshava temple at Somanathapura is extolled as one of the best preserved and the only complete one of approximately 80 Hoysala temples in the Mysuru region.  It speaks of the excellence of design and delicate craftsmanship of Hoysala architecture.

The temple with triple towers stands on a chiselled plinth surmounted by three pyramidal vimanas (shrines) and boasts of 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 itself, stellar in shape, has three profusely carved pinnacles with a common Navaranga and stands on a pedestal. The three sanctum sanctorum once housed beautifully carved idols of Keshava, Janardhana, and Venugopla. Today, the idol of Lord Keshava is missing but the other two still adorn the sanctum sanctorum in their original form.

Chennakeshava temple, Belur
Chennakeshava temple, Belur

Inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage sites list brings a number of benefits like international recognition and prestige, legal protection under the World Heritage Convention, access to funding from World Heritage Fund, and increase in tourism revenue. But myriad problems like poor connectivity, lack of accommodation and inadequate parking facilities continue to confront the tourists visiting Somanathapura. The present scan-and-pay system has added to their woes due to poor internet connectivity.

Though there is an increase in tourists visiting Somanathapura during Dasara, footfall is low on weekdays. To give a boost to visitors, regular KSRTC shuttle service from Mysuru should be introduced. Somanathapura should also be included in the itinerary along with other tourist attractions in Mysuru. Additionally, manual ticket purchase at the counters should be resumed.

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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