The relics of the past live and breathe in our midst, undeterred by the oft-quoted ravages of time – raids by history’s most pitiless pillagers, decades of scrawling by inveterate lovers, numerous attempts at purloining their most beautiful parts... and what not. In much the same way, the carved Hoysala temples of Karnataka remain testaments to an indigenous architectural and sculptural antiquity.
These shrines and monuments — which at one point of time numbered about 1,500 — showed off their makers’ dominance and power. Thousands flock to marvel at their distinct sense of temple architecture every year, not only from neighbouring Bengaluru but the world over. The circuit – Belur, Halebid, Belavadi and arounds – can be explored with Hassan (182km W) as the base.
From Hassan, Belur is a 50-minute drive to the northwest and Halebid is about the same distance, but to the north. From Halebid, one can drive down to Belavadi, which is just 15 minutes from here, and pop by at the village of Mosale and the town of Javagal on the way.
Chennakesava Temple, Belur
Belur was one the two seats of the Hoysala kingdom, and the evident excess here will astound the visitor. The exquisite carvings on the friezes almost lead one to believe that the main structure, set upon a raised platform, was made with wood and not stone. The present gopura is a brick structure which, in 1397, replaced the earlier mahadwara that was razed in a raid by Mohammad bin Tughlaq.
Originally a Vijayanagara-period marvel, the structure of the ekakuta (single-shrined) Chennakesava temple saw several significant additions during the reign of the Hoysalas. Their emblem – a Hoysala king slaying a lion (symbolic of Chola rule, it is believed) – is a major draw here. The star-shaped temple is famous equally for its gorgeous slate stone carvings (running into some 4,000), shilabalika sculptures, and a 50ft deepasthambham.
Hoysaleswara Temple, Halebid
Dedicated to Shiva, this magnificent temple is similar, in terms of architectural aesthetic, to the Chennakesava temple. The carvings, however, are more elaborate, and narrate tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Halebid temple is also famous for its figures, whose moods are conveyed by their vivid poses. Nandi figurines, too, are in abundance here. Close by is the Jain Basadi complex, which is definitely worth a dekko.
Just one kilometre from the Hoysalewara is another Shaiva temple, the Kedareswara temple. It has three shrines lined up along a common central corridor, and a raised jagati (a path for circumambulation). The structure today is more of a grand ruin. If you walk a little over a kilometre to the south, you would reach the Hulikere Kalyani, an ornately done stepwell-style pond set in the midst of serene environs.
Veera Narayana Temple, Belavadi
Unlike the other Hoysala temples, this trikuta structure, built at the crack of the 13th century, is more of a marvel of architecture than sculpture. The main hall is an astounding congregation of 108 soapstone pillars whose lathe-turned roundness glints from far away. The play of light and shadow in the nrityamandapa is a perfect foil to the unbridled vanity of the pillars.
Talking of architectural wonders, the temple’s northern shrine is star-shaped and the southern one a square, but the difference is concealed nicely by the ornamentation on the outside. Between them both is a flight of steps that provides access to the roof, which in turn is an excellent spot to view the carvings on the shikharas and the sukanasi of the shrines.
A good idea for a more extensive temple trail would be to drive to Javagal (12km) and Mosale (21km), both of which offer two Hoysala sites worth your while. The former is home to the serene trikuta Lakshminarasimha Temple, with a workmanship that is more relaxed than in the average Hoysala temple. The Nageshwara-Chennakeshava temple in Mosale is another specimen of laidback Hoysala style, but is a must-visit purely for its matchless rural backdrop.