While tourists flock in large numbers every month to the Chennakeshava Temple of Belur and the Hoysaleshwara Temple of Halebid, there are exquisite Hoysala era temples in hundreds of villages scattered around Karnataka that receive few or no visitors. The Hoysala Empire was extremely prosperous and the kings and rich individuals across the empire commissioned stone temples that have survived invasions and the ravages of time. In 1978, Dutch professor Gerard Foekema visited Karnataka for the first time. Over the next few years, through repeated trips, he was able to thoroughly document every Hoysala era temple still surviving. While there are some 100 temples or temple ruins still in existence, for the tourist, a visit to a dozen or so of these temples will prove interesting. But to understand Hoysala temples, we need a bit of background on the Hoysalas.
WHO WERE THE HOYSALAS?
From modest beginnings around 950 C.E. (or A.D. if you prefer), the Hoysalas would emerge first as local chieftains under the Ganga dynasty of the South and then the Chalukyas. By the beginning of the 12th century, they had managed to overthrow their overlords the Chalukyas and fought off the Cholas, overrunning their territory in Talakad in 1116 C.E.. To commemorate this victory, the temple at Belur was built and consecrated the following year. By 1200 C.E. the Hoysala kingdom had reached its zenith and as seen elsewhere in India, military prowess went hand with religious revival. In the areas around Mysore and Hassan, traditionally only a buffer between larger kingdoms began a period of unprecedented prosperity. Also at this time, a new and more luxurious building material was introduced – potstone, which replaced the older sandstone, allowing for temples which were much more richly embellished. And then suddenly, by 1311, it was all over. Muslim armies loyal to the Delhi Sultanate invaded the South and appeared in Halebid. The last great Hoysala king, Ballala III chose to pay tribute to the armies, to avoid a long siege and destruction of his kingdom. By 1320, Ballala III had accepted the suzerainty of the Tughlak Sultans of Delhi and this Hoysala independence ended. The Hindu kingdoms of the South would rebel against Delhi and their return to power and independence was led by two brothers, Harihara and Bukka in 1329, who established the Vijayanagara Empire. When Ballala III died in 1342, Harihara and Bukka did not allow his son to become king and for the first time in the history of the South, a single Hindu empire encompassing the whole of South India was born. But with the rise of the Vijayanagara Empire, potstone was replaced by hard granite, which did not allow for fine carving, and thus, the era of Hoysala architecture ended with the dynasty that began it.
|Closer look at the Shikhara of the Veera Narayana Temple, Belavadi|
UNDERSTANDING HOYSALA TEMPLES
Hoysala era temples are dedicated to two religions, Hinduism and Jainism. The Jain temples are quite plain and therefore less interesting than the Hindu temples which are richly embellished both on the inside and outside. The Hindu temples themselves are dedicated to two different sects – Shaiva, i.e. those dedicated to Lord Shiva, or Vaishnava, i.e. those dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is possible to understand which sect a temple belongs to simply from its name. If the name of the temple has the suffix “esvara” (also spelt eshvara, ishwara etc.), meaning “Lord of”, then it is Shaiva temple. The suffix may be added after the name of the person building the temple, the village it is in, the royal dynasty which commissioned it, etc. Thus, when a man named Buchi, living in the village of Koravangla builds a Shiva temple, it comes to be known as Bucheshvara. The object of veneration in Shaiva temples is the phallus or “linga”. Around the temple may also be found a stone bull, “Nandi”, Lord Shiva’s mount. Vaishnava temples, on the other hand always bear the name of the deity the temple is dedicated to. The most common deities are Keshava or Chennakeshava (meaning the beautiful Keshava), Lakshminarasimha and Lakshminarayana. The prefix Lakshmi indicates that the idol of Narasimha or Narayana is worshipped along with his consort, Lakshmi, who is generally found seated on the idol’s left knee.
When it comes to architecture and floor plan, Hoysala temples consist of multiple parts which are connected to each other. The simplest temples contain just two parts – a garbhagriha (literally womb house) or small hall which contains the idol, which is generally only entered by the priest, and a large hall outside the shrine, where the devotees gather. Above the shrine is a large tower, known as a “Vimana”. More complex floor plans may consist of a closed hall, an open hall, and a covered porch. A smaller tower on top of the hall, in front of the “Vimana”, is called a “sukanasi” or nose. Temples are usually built on a raised plinth, known as a “jagati”, which provides a path to devotees for circumambulation of the temple, which is an important part of the worship rituals. The interior of the garbhagriha will generally contain 1, 2 or 3 shrines or “Mantapa” and there may be further minor shrines in each corner. The floor plan is always a square, a staggered square, a star, or a permutation and combination of all of them. This gives the exterior of the temple a large number of recesses which are richly decorated with carvings of deities and scenes from Hindu epics and mythology. Hoysala temples are generally made of soapstone.
BHAIRAVA TEMPLE – PUSHPAGIRI
GPS Coordinates – 13°11'17.5"N 75°59'31.6"E
Directions – 3.7km to the south of Halebidu
Not much of the historic character of the Bhairava Temple of Pushpagiri is left, thanks to it being an extremely active temple. The same dilemma is faced by old and active religious sites belonging to any religion. Take, for example, the Grand Mosque of Mecca. For a history enthusiast such as me, preservation of the old structure would have been preferable. But as the number of pilgrims to Mecca increases every year, the mosque has had to be torn down and expanded repeatedly, to accommodate them. The exterior of the Bhairava Temple has been thoroughly modernized, iron railings have been added and the exterior has been painted, which disturbs me to the most. But thankfully, the interiors have been left mostly undisturbed and are in good shape.
Pushpagiri is a small hill town, surrounded by farmlands and forests on all sides. The Bhairava Temple is located within a small courtyard. Entry into the courtyard is through a stone gateway, which contains carved stone pillars. Decorative carvings are found on the outside of the gate as well. Inside, the temple is small and contains a single pillared hall and a single shrine. The floor inside the small hall has modern marble, but the walls and the ceilings are mostly unchanged. The delicate and intricate Hoysala carvings can still be seen on the pillars and in particular around the doorway to the shrine and the ceiling. Bhairava is a fierce manifestation of Lord Shiva, so this is a Shaiva temple and it continues to attract a large crowd of worshippers from the surrounding villages. Photography rules in the temple are somewhat unclear, but I didn’t find any boards prohibiting photography, nor did anyone object to my taking photographs even of the temple interiors.
VEERA NARAYANA TEMPLE – BELAVADI
GPS Coordinates - 13°16'55.1"N 75°59'44.4"E
Directions – 12km north of Halebidu
The Veera Narayana Temple of Belavadi is impressive more because of its unusual architecture than its sculpture. Commissioned around 1200 C.E. by Hoysala king Veera Ballala II, the temple features 3 shrines, two of which are attached to the lateral sides of a large hall. Thus when one enters one sees a large hall with two shrines facing each other. Behind this large hall is a smaller hall and behind that is the third shrine. The entire temple was built in two stages, with the large hall of 59 bays being a later addition. One of the unique things about the Veera Narayana temple is that the northern shrine, to the right, as one enters is star shaped, while the southern on is square shaped, but their external ornamentation hides this difference. The western shrine is older than the other two and shows all the standard features of Hoysala architecture but is completely plain on the outside.
In the centre of the courtyard stands the brass “dhwaja stambha” or flagpole. An important feature of South Indian temples, the dhwaja stambha is not used for the flag of the nation, or the empire that had the temple commissioned, but for the flag of the deity housed in the temple. The top of the dhwaja stambha will typically contain 3 horizontal bars or perches, said to represent the Hindu trinity of Gods, i.e., Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The flag is hoisted to mark major festivals at the temple. Seasonal agricultural produce may also be hanged from the dhwaja stambha, to dedicate it to the Gods. The Veera Narayana Temple of Belavadi is one of the only Hoysala temples where access to the roof is possible, through a set of stone steps at the southern end of the hall that connects the northern and southern shrines. Although ASI has placed a barb wire coil over it, my sister and I simply moved it aside and climbed to the roof to get a closer look at the fine carvings on the shikharas of the shrines as well as the “sukanasi” or nose. This is an opportunity that no visitor should miss, in my opinion.
LAKSHMI NARASIMHA TEMPLE – JAVAGAL
GPS Coordinates - 13°18'03.5"N 76°03'35.7"E
Directions – 13 km northeast of Halebidu
For most cricket-obsessed Indians, the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the name Javagal is former Indian fast bowler Javagal Srinath. Indeed, this is the village from where his family originated, and while Srinath has been brought up in Mysore, his uncle’s house still exists in the village and villagers will happily point it out. The Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, as the name suggests, is a Vaishnava temple and the principal deity is Narasimha, the half man half lion incarnation of Vishnu, who is associated in mythology with the destruction of the demon king Hiranyakashyap. Narasimha here is accompanied by his consort, Goddess Lakshmi. The other two shrines of this trikut temple are occupied by two other incarnations of Vishnu, Venugopal (playing the flute) and Sridhara. But only the shrine containing Narasimha has a tower above it.
The Lakshmi Narasimha Temple of Javagal was commissioned around 1250 C.E., and as such is an example of the newer kind of Hoysala temples. Through the large stone gateway, a path leads to the temple which sits on a raised platform or jagati, which provides devotees with a pradhakshnipatha or a circumambulation path around the temple. The external decoration of the temple is profuse but of a more relaxed character, when compared to Halebidu. Like all Vaishnava temples, there is no depiction of Shiva on the temple anywhere, but the sculptures do depict scenes from the Ramayana.
CHENNAKESHAVA TEMPLE – ARAKERE
GPS Coordinates - 13°22'29.6"N 76°07'45.9"E
Directions – 24km northeast of Halebidu
Clearly not in the same class as a lot of the other temples, this simple and small temple is beautiful nonetheless. This is a trikut type Vishnu temple and according to the ASI website, was built in the 13th century. The three shrines inside house Vishnu as Chennakeshava in the west, Venugopal in the south and Lakshmi-Narasimha in the north. There is a single shikhara above the western shrine which has a sukanasi or nose in front of it. The outside walls have crude representations of various aspects of Vishnu in addition to secular sculptures interspersed with slender tall pilasters and single pilaster turrets. To the left of the entrance is a large stone tablet with writing in ancient Kannada containing details of the temple’s construction. The temple is active and is currently maintained by the ASI. There are multiple villages called Arakere in Karnataka and there are even other villages called Arakere with other Chennakeshava Temples. To ensure you don’t lose your way, use the GPS coordinates provided. Photography inside the temple is prohibited; however, it may be photographed from the outside. The keys to the temple are with the villagers since the priest comes in only a couple of times a week.
ISHVARA TEMPLE – ARASIKERE
GPS Coordinates - 13°19'06.0"N 76°15'36.0"E
Directions – 45km northeast of Halebidu
The Ishvara Temple of Arasikere, constructed around 1220 C.E., has only ordinary sculptural decorations but when it comes to the floor plan, it is perhaps the most complex and unique of all Hoysala temples. This is a Shaiva temple and Ishvara is one of the names of Lord Shiva. It has a single shrine containing the phallus or “lingam” representing Lord Shiva. The shrine is topped with a “shikhara” or tower and has recently been topped with a rather ugly looking bull. The shrine is shaped like a star, but not a star with identical points, according to Foekema, but three different kinds of star-points. But what sets the temple apart is the open hall. It looks like a 16 pointed star and one look at it and you immediately know that this is not like any other Hoysala temple you have ever seen. The roof of the open hall is shaped like a dome. Inside a beautiful lathe turned pillars and all along the edges are stone benches, making it a good place to gather and rest. Photography is not permitted within the temple, but the temple may be photographed from outside. The temple is in regular use.
KEDARESHWARA TEMPLE – HALEBID
GPS Coordinates - 13°12'31.9"N 75°59'54.7"E
Directions – 1.2km southeast of Hoysaleswara Temple, Halebid
There is a saying in Hindi – “diya taley andhera”, darkness beneath the lamp. While tourists spend hours at the Hoysaleshwara, few visit the stunning but lesser known Kedareshwara Temple which is just a little over a kilometre away. It follows a usual pattern of Hoysala temples – 3 shrines connected to a central hall via a vestibule, built on a raised platform or “jagati” which provides a “pradakshinpatha” for devotees. The temple is larger than usual and the exterior contains exquisite carvings second only to its more famous neighbour. But the temple’s superstructure was lost in a restoration attempt more than 100 years ago. Those who admire figure sculpture should plan to spend several hours here writes Foekema. As the name suggests, this is a Shaiva temple, but the imagery on the walls are both Shaiva and Vaishnava. 1.4 km south of the temple is the religious pond of Hulikere, which is another marvellous example of Hoysala architecture.
DIGAMBAR JAIN TEMPLES – HALEBID
GPS Coordinates - 13°12'31.3"N 75°59'42.3"E
Directions – 650 metres south of Hoysaleswara Temple, Halebid
The Jain temples of the Hoysala period are often kept out of discussions about the architecture of the period, since they are considerably more plain than their Hindu counterparts. The Jain temple complex of Halebidu consists of 3 temples dedicated to Parshvanatha, Shantinatha, and Adinatha. The two larger temples of Parshvanatha and Shantinatha consist of an “ardhamandapa” or half hall and a “mahamandapa” or large hall. The smaller Adinatha temple has a “garbhagriha” (literally womb-house) and a hall. While each temple is plain from the outside, they contain beautiful lathe-turned pillars inside with delicate carvings. Inside each temple is a large statue of a Jain “Tirthankara” or spiritual leader. The Parshvanatha and Shantinatha statues are 18 feet tall, while the Adinatha image is smaller. Curiously, an image of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning is found inside the Adinatha temple. In front of the Shantinatha temple is a large stone pillar, with what looks like a box on top. This structure is found in many modern Jain temples as well and is called a “manastambha” or column of honour. On top of the manastambha, there is usually an image of a guardian “yaksha”. It takes 30 minutes or less to cover the entire complex, but I would suggest that visitors enter each complex. In the tremendous heat of Karnataka, the temples remain very cool. The roofs contain beautiful carvings as well, and the floor of the Shantinatha temple has a mirror-like shine, which can be quite incredible to look at. These temples are called “basadi”, which is a corruption of the word “basti”, meaning settlement, although in colloquial use basti is used to imply slum.
LAKSHMI DEVI TEMPLE – DODDAGADDUVALLI
GPS Coordinates - 13°05'45.6"N 76°00'13.8"E
Directions – 24.5km southeast of Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
The Lakshmi Devi Temple of Doddagadduvalli was built in 1113 and is architecturally unique. The temple itself is located within a walled compound which has 4 small shrines in each corner. The temple itself has 4 shrines. 3 are in one cluster to the south and share a common small hall, while an oblong extension to the hall connects it to the 4th shrine. Each shrine has a shikhara and a nose or sukanasi. Within the compound, just a few metres to the northeast of the main temple there is another free-standing shrine. Thus one compound presents a total of 9 shrines!
You enter the compound through an ornate stone gateway in the eastern wall. There is a smaller gate in the western wall as well. Inside the temple, the largest of the shrines is dedicated to Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. Another shrine contains a “lingam” or phallus which is a symbol of Shiva. But of interest to me was the shrine immediately to the left of the entrance. While the interiors of the temple are intricately decorated, this shrine stands out. On both side of the door are two frightening looking stone “dwarpalas” or gatekeepers with various scary characters peeking out from behind them. Inside the shrine is a black stone female figure. When I had trouble identifying the deity, a villager explained that this was “Kali”. I was surprised because I was from Calcutta (Kolkata), where Kali is worshipped everywhere, and yet this was nothing like any Kali image I had ever seen. He explained that while the most famous Kali in India was that of Kalighat in Calcutta (Kolkata), that was the “rudra murti” or fierce, warlike form of the goddess, and hence she had her tongue stuck out. This wasn’t and hence looked unfamiliar.
The free-standing shrine is dedicated to Bhairava, the fierce form of Shiva. This is a Shaiva shrine, but the naming, in this case, doesn’t follow the standard scheme.
ALLALANATHA TEMPLE – KONDAJJI
GPS Coordinates - 13°07'08.0"N 76°03'57.7"E
Directions – 32km southeast of Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
Nothing remains of the Allalanatha Temple of Kondajji, save its remarkable Allalanatha, i.e., Vishnu image survives. This is single-shrined temple contains an extremely large and beautiful idol carved out of black stone. All the descriptions I can find on the internet by bloggers say that the temple had been in a completely ruined state for a very long time, with only the sanctum sanctorum intact. I found the whole temple had been rebuilt with modern brick and concrete. The temple is active and photography inside and outside is permitted. However, considering how little there is to see here, I would say this is one temple that you can skip.
LAKSHMI NARASIMHA TEMPLE – HARANAHALLI
GPS Coordinates - 13°14'48.7"N 76°13'25.5"E
Directions – 54km east of Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
Haranhalli has 2 Hoysala temples, one Shaiva and one Vaishnava, both constructed around 1235 AD. The Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, as the name suggests, is Vaishnava. The plan of the temple is fairly straightforward – a raised plinth or jagati with a trikuta or temple with three shrines on top. The principal shrine has a tower and a sukanasi or nose on top and all 3 shrines are connected to one central hall. When it comes to external ornamentation, the temple does have 6 frieze panels but large parts of the exterior are left blank. There are a couple of friezes with horses and elephants which are beautiful, but overall, there is very little ornamentation to be seen here. Foekema says that of the two temples in Haranahalli, this is the more beautiful one. The temple is in regular use and the priest, who lives nearby was happy to open it up for us.
SOMESHVARA TEMPLE – HARANAHALLI
GPS Coordinates - 13°14'50.9"N 76°13'35.3"E
Directions – 54km east of Chennakeshava Temple, Belur/34 metres east of Lakshminarasimha Temple, Haranahalli
The Someshvara Temple contains only one shrine on a raised plinth, topped by a shikhara and a sukanasi or nose. While the external decoration here is of finer quality as compared to the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, there is a lot of inconsistency. What makes the frontage look ugly is the stone bull which sits atop the door, no doubt a modern addition, and a primitive looking stone shrine added to the South of the main entrance. But, compared to the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, which is in regular use and looks well-maintained, the Someshvara Temple looks almost abandoned. The garden around it was unkempt, the temple looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years and in the falling light at the end of the day, it looked positively haunted. The tower is richly decorated and with patience, you will find stuff worth photographing. The interior of the temple, if you manage to gain entrance (I didn’t), is richly decorated according to Foekema.
LAKSHMINARAYANA TEMPLE – HOSAHOLALU
GPS Coordinates - 12°38'32.8"N 76°28'43.3"E
Directions – 110km southeast of Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
Somewhat similar in appearance to the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple of Javagal, the Lakshminarayana Temple of Hosaholalu is both incredibly well preserved and amazingly complete. However, the exterior decoration, though of fine quality, is of a monotonous and repetitive nature, and thanks to a new entrance being added recently, the original entrance with its flight of steps has now been lost. The temple is built on the usual raised plinth and contains 3 shrines. The central shrine is topped by a shikhara and a sukanasi. This is a Vaishnava temple and almost all of the 120 images on the walls are Vaishnava. Among them are 24 depicting Vishnu in 24 different positions. The Ramayana may be found in friezes in the western corner of the southern shrine and the Mahabharata in the northern niche of the central shrine. Inside, the 3 shrines contain images of Venugopala, Narayana, and Lakshminarasimha.
VISITING LESSER KNOWN HOYSALA TEMPLES: SUGGESTIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
This post by a member of the Team BHP car review forum provides a lot of essential details about covering the lesser known Hoysala Temples and served as a useful guide to me. While most of the temples are under the ASI, several are maintained by rich, private individuals. Since most of the temples are active, the usual rules with Hindu temples must be observed – shoes must be left outside, no smoking, drinking or eating inside the temple complex. But perhaps the best part about visiting these temples is that the locals are always happy to have a visitor. If you find a temple shut, do not be disheartened. The village elders usually hang around the temple and if you ask them, they will send someone to call the priest who will open it up for you, no questions asked. Since most of these people are not guides, I thought it would be impolite to tip them for showing me around, but at most temples, I did leave some money in the donation box. In Karnataka, if you don’t speak the local language, i.e, Kannada, it isn’t a very serious problem. Most young people seem to speak English, while a few also understand Hindi. I had a car with a Kannada speaking chauffeur, so he did most of my translation for me. Hassan is a convenient base for exploring the Hoysala temples of Karnataka.
MORE STORIES FROM KARNATAKA
- My friend Prasenjit Das for arranging for my stay and transport in Karnataka
- My chauffeur Prakash, a gem of a guy
- My mother and sister who never ran out of patience
- The wonderful people of Karnataka
Foekema, Gerard – A Complete Guide to Hoysala Temples