Belur and Halebidu: Ruined capitals of Hoysala

I had a belief that the carvings and sculptures of the Sun temple at Konark, Odisha is the zenith of a sculptor’s expertise. But now, after visiting Halebidu and Belur, I am certain to have discovered a higher summit. Although it hits my pride of being an Odia, I must accept that the sculptors of Hoysala empire were more proficient than ours.

These rich temples built in the 12th century (started in 1121) were plundered and destroyed by Ala-ud-Din Khilji, Islamic ruler of Delhi Sultanate as evident from the hundreds of mutilated sculptures of the temples. Most of the sculptures are without heads and hands, yet what remains is enough to testify the expert craftsmanship of the artists of that time.

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                                         Lord Narashimha

After visiting Shravanabelagola (Click here to read), I reached Halebidu at 2:15 PM after taking a bus from Hassan. It was little late than what I would have ideally liked. The temple is about 150 meters from the Halebidu bus stand. There are two Shiva temples within the same premises- One is the Hoysaleswara Temple ( by the king) and the other is Shantaleswara (by queen Shantala Devi). Standing on a raised platform with 64 corners, the temple is made out of Chloritic Schist (or soapstone). The walls of these temples contain sculptures with the most intricate carvings you will ever see. Various events from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are carved on the walls. Apart from it, there are numerous carvings of Shiva-Parvati, Lord Narashimha, The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara along with many sculptures of celestial dancers, musicians, animals, flowers etc.

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Draupadi washing hair with Dushashan’s blood
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Epic battle between Arjuna and Karna

Inside the temples, there are natya mandaps and the garva griha (sanctum sanctorum). There are many beautifully carved statues in the interior walls and pillars. Many statues and pillar are incomplete too. It is strongly recommended to hire a guide which costs Rs. 250 for a group of 5 people. The guides here speak different languages (I heard guides speaking French too). Without a guide its impossible to identify the stories that the sculptures depict.

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Monolithic Nandi Bulls

The temple also contains two monolithic Nandi bulls (mount of Lord Shiva) in the eastern side entrance of each temple. These monolithic bulls rank 6th and 7th in the list of largest Nandi bulls. The one by the king in front of Hoysaleswara (top in the picture) is larger than the one by the queen in front of Shantaleswara (bottom in the picture) but the later is more artistic than the former. The bull in front of Shantaleswara has a polished finish to it with close attention given to details; bells, flowers and even skin folds have been meticulously carved.

It took me around 1 hour to explore the temple with the guide. Try to extract as much as you can from the guides. They will try to hurry you but take your time and try to get more details.

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After completing Halebidu, I went to Belur. Belur became the capital of the Hoysala empire after Dwarasamudra (present day Halebidu). I boarded a private shuttle from Halebidu which took about 40 mins to reach Belur bus stop. The temple is about 500 meters in the right from the bus stop. The main deity of Belur is “Chennakesava” (the handsome Vishnu)Like Hoysaleswara temple, this temple is also filled with ornate carvings. The Belur temple, though smaller, has more intricate carvings and unlike the Hoysaleswara temple, most carvings in this temple have been spared by the invaders and are hence in their original forms.

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Chennakesava Temple at Belur

At the base of the outer walls are friezes of charging elephants (six hundred and fifty of them) which symbolize stability and strength, above which are lions which symbolize courage, and further up are horses which symbolize speed. Above the horses are panels with floral designs signifying beauty above which are sculptures with depictions from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Apart from the Chennakesava temple, there are shrines of Kappe Chennigraya, Veer Narayana, Lord Narashimha, Goddess Saumyanayaki, etc. It is strongly recommended to hire a guide to know about the details of these sculptures which is otherwise impossible.

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The Gravity Pillar

Another important attraction of this temple is the Gravity Pillar. This 42 feet high monolithic granite pillar, also known as Kartika Deepotsava Stambha, has no foundation base. It is placed in a star shaped platform where it stands by its own weight. It was installed by Bice Dandanaayaka (the commander of King Devaraaya) in 1414 and has been standing ever since baffling the visitors.

I fear my words won’t do any justice to the immaculate artistry of these temples. Maybe pictures will do a better job so I would let the pictures do the talking:

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Lord Vishnu and Mata Laxmi
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Divine Trinity of Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu
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Gatekeepers of Lord Vishnu: Jaya & Vijaya  
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Arjuna during Draupadi Swayambar(right) & the Lady with mirror(left)

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After spending about 1 hour at Chennekesava temple, I walked back to the Belur bus top after sunset. Then I boarded a bus back to Bangalore and reached Bangalore at midnight. Overall it was one of the most satisfying trips which presented a deep insight into our own rich culture which we have been losing over the centuries. I would strongly recommend to visit these marvels of our culture and sense the essence of the glory days that these ancient sculptures behold. ❤

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