Chennakeshava Temple at Belur

chennakeshava temple
Photo By Vishaal Bhat

A famous center for exquisite Hoysala architectural marvel, Belur, in Hassan district. It is famous for its celebrated Chennakeshava temple, whose carvings are a feast for the eyes.

Location: Belur is located in the Malnad region, on the banks of the river Yagachi, at about 222 km from Bangalore, 34 km from Hassan, and 149 km from Mysore.
Weather: Warm and dry most of the year
Temperature: Summer Max 35c, Min 23c Winter Max 30c, Min 22c
Best time: Almost throughout the year
Languages: Kannada & English

Located in the Malnad region, the famous Bababudangiri or Bababudan Hills are visible at a distance. Bababudan Hills is the famous coffee plantation area, where coffee cultivation was introduced for the first time in India. The hills are also famous for its Dattatreya temple and the Muslim Dargha. It also the source of river Yagachi which irrigates a large area, including those in Belur.

History

In 1100 A.D., it was the capital of the Hoysala king, Ballala I. His able and the most popular Hoysala king, Vishnu Vardhana, succeeded Ballala in 1106 A.D. He changed his faith from Jainism to Vaishnavism, influenced by the great saint and philosopher, Ramanuja. In commemoration of this and his victory in wars, Vishnu Vardhana, also known as Hoysaleswara, built several temples for Vishnu. The largest and the most beautiful of them is the Vijaya Narayana temple at Belur.

Later, Belur became a sub-capital but retained its fame for the renowned temple. Inscriptions reveal that the temple was constructed by Vishnu Vardhana in 1117 A.D. and it was designed and executed by the great master-sculptor Jakanachari. He carved out the main images single-handed.

A story narrates that at the time of the consecration of the Chennigaraya Temple, Jakanachari’s son challenged that the idol had a blemish in its navel. Accepting the challenge and offering to cut off his hand, which had executed the idol, Jakanachari examined the image and found in it a frog and a little water. According to the promise he had made, he cut off his hand. With his single hand, he constructed the present Vijaya Narayana temple.

The earlier temple built by Jakanachari, now called the ‘Kappe’ Chennigaraya Temple is beside the main temple of Vijaya Narayana. There are also a few other minor temples, dedicated to Somanayaki, Viranarayana, and Andal in the courtyard of the main temple.

The star-shaped Chennakeshava temple has an imposing tower, brick gopura, to the east, facing the main road of the town. As one enters through this door of the tower, one sees the exquisitely carved temple and its flagstaff in front of it with a figure of Garuda, eagle, the celestial vehicle of Vishnu. It is situated in a large courtyard enclosed by a high wall and surrounded by the small shrines.

The Chennakeshava temple, built on a platform, consists of a garbhagruha or sanctum sanctorum, a Sukhanasi or vestibule, and a Navaranga or cell hall. It has three entrances, facing east, south, and north. The eastern gate is the main entrance and is the best of all the doors with elaborate carvings. Besides the two beautifully carved gate-keepers or Dwara Paalakas on either side of the walls, are the scenes of Vishnu Vardhana, with his renowned wife Shanthala Devi, a great dancer by herself and who remained a Jain, despite the king changing his faith.

On the other side, there is the carving of Ballal II holding court, with their attendants. Near the steps of the temple, there are excellently carved small towers with small cells. There are also the crests of Hoysala kings, Sala killing a lion with his sword, from which the dynasty came to be known.

The Majestic Architecture of the Hoysalas – Chennakeshava Temple

Beginning from the sides of this main doorway runs a railed parapet, on which are sculptured eight friezes, like all other Hoysala temples. The friezes depict elephants, cornice with beadwork, scroll bands with gods, men and animals, cornice with beadwork, small female figures, female figures between pilasters, eaves with beadwork, and a rail of figures, each frieze more beautiful than the other and each elephant different from the other.

These friezes run throughout the outer wall of the temple. Many of them also have scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharatha in miniatures. Above this are the perforated screens with carvings on them.

Above the screens and just below the eaves are the most famous figures of the Chennakeshava temple. Known as ‘Madanikes,’ these bracket figures around the temple, nearly 40 in number, are the pinnacles of architectural excellence of the Hoysala sculptors. These female figures, either playing musical instruments or dancing, are serene and amorous.

Those worthy of attention at the Chennakeshava temple are:

  • beauty and the mirror,
  • damsel talking to a parrot,
  • damsel at the toilet,
  • the lady preparing to syringe rose-colored water upon her lover,
  • modesty and the monkey (a monkey pulling the saree of a lady),
  • huntress,
  • a lady dressing her hair or Chauri bearer,
  • a woman painting a picture on board,
  • drum dancers and a boy, probably Krishna, playing on flute and dancing,
  • Vina dancer,
  • lady plucking fruit,
  • a huntress with a bag,
  • beauty and the scorpion (a frightened lady wringing a scorpion from her saree),
  • fan dancer,
  • a royal lady getting a ring put on her toe by an attendant and
  • a damsel keeping time with her foot to music.

Each figure is adorned with interesting details and absorbs the attention of the visitor.

Beyond the railed parapet or Jagathi, there are nearly 80 finely carved images of various gods and goddesses. The notable among them are Narasimha, an incarnation of Vishnu, digging out the internal organs of the demon Hiranyakashipu, Shiva and Parvathi on mountain Kailasa being lifted by Ravana with elaborate carvings, Bhairava and Durga, Lakshminarayana, Thandaveswara, and Mahishasura Mardhini.

The work inside the hall is even more finely executed. The hand-lathe turned stone pillars in the Navaranga Hall are of extraordinary beauty and variety of design – square, octagonal, 12-sided, 16-sided, 32-sided, lotus-shaped, star-shaped and the like. The noteworthy pillar among them is the Narasimha pillar and the Mohini pillar. The Narasimha pillar used to be turnable on its axis earlier.

The Mohini pillar is noted for its filigree work. The Sukhanasi doorway has two elegantly executed door-keepers or Dwarapalakas. The main deity, Vijaya Narayana, in the sanctum sanctorum is a handsome figure. The sizeable domed ceiling in the center of the Navaranga is another piece of excellent artistic workmanship, with four exquisitely carved bracket figures at the four corners.

The bracelet of the damsel with a parrot and the head ornament of the dancing Saraswathi can be moved. These figures are said to have been inspired by the beautiful queen Shanthala Devi. The Chennakeshava temple stands out as a veritable museum of Hoysala art and architecture.