Belur – Chennakesava Temple

This is a story that is set 1000 years ago..The story of South India and the various dynasties that ruled over us..There were no sovereign states or boundaries as we know now ..The Cholas, the Cheras, the Pallavas, the Pandyas, the Chalukyas, the Gangas, the Hoysalas, the Rashtrakutas, the Satvahahanas, the Kadambas, the Kakatiyas, not to mention the Vijaynagar Dynasty or the Sultanat empire.. The names emerge straight out of text books .

When I was studying history , one of our assignments was to map the various dynasties , mark and shade the boundaries in different colours and highlight the eras and dates..It used to be quite a task to remember the names that could not be pronounced , the various titles ascribed to the kings ,to learn by rote the various battles they won and lost and to play the number game by getting the chronology right..Somewhere down the line, the lure of the stories or the value of the heritage used to get lost in these classes..

Today as I walk down the Hoysala trail , I go back in time, down the eons of history ..This is not a classroom session , but an attempt to bring back the romance of heritage and enjoy a journey that is about 1000 years ago ..

The Hoysalas were not born kings but they ruled for 300 years . They were natives of Malnad, Karnataka and were tribal chiefs who were subordinates of the Western Chalukyas. Some inscriptions show them as lords of the Male (hills) while some indicate that they were descendants of the Yadava clan. Historically though the first Hoysala family record is dated 950 and names Arekalla as the chieftain, followed by Maruga and Nripa Kama I (976) .

But the kings who shaped the dynasties were Vishnuvardhan and Veera Bhallalla who became independent from the Chalukyas All of them however are remembered today for their patronage to arts along with their exploits on the battlefield – a baffling 1500 temples built in 958 centres, of which the three famous ones are Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur …

We start our trail from Bangalore – the capital city which according to a legend owes its name to the Hoysala king, Veera Ballalla. The story goes that the king lost his way while hunting in a forest. After a long search he met an old lady in the forest who offered him shelter for the night and served him baked beans for dinner. To show his gratitude to this lady for having saved his life, the King constructed a town and named it as Benda Kalooru which means Baked Beans. Later in 16th century , a local chieftain, Kempe Gowda helped design this town and give it its modern shape.

We drove down to Hassan , an 11th century town dedicated to Hassanamba, the presiding deity who is represented by an ant hill. The temple of Hasanamba will be opened only once in a year about a week in October.Another 40 kms and we were in Belur, originally called Velapuri , the capital city of the Hoysalas set on the banks of the river Yaguchi.

And this is where the “handsome Kesava” , a six feet idol of Vishnu or Krishna is housed in a beautiful shrine called Chennakesava Temple – where there is sheer poetry on the walls as each sculpture is a masterpiece and stories come alive from every stone ..

It comes as no surprise that the temple took a century to complete. Started in the 12th century by Vishnuvardhana , who was earlier known as. Bittiga.., this temple was completed by Bhallala and it took a total of 103 years to build. The Chennakesava temple is flanked by several other temples, including the Kappe Chennigraya temple, built by Shantala Devi, Vishnuvardhana’s queen. There seems to be several reasons why this temple was built.

In one of the first inscriptions engraved in this temple, Vishnuvardhana says that he has “built it from the wealth which he amassed from the sword”. It is said that the temple was built to celebrate his liberation from the Chalukyas and was a declaration of his sovereign status. That is why he called the deity Vijayanarayana, a name later changed to Chennakesava. Another myth speaks of his conquest of Talakadu from the Cholas, which was said to have inspired the temple construction . Another folk lore speaks of him returning to Hinduism from the Jainism fold while his wife continued to patronise Jainism.

At the entrance of the temple, facing the shrine is the winged figure of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle (mount) folding his palms together. The temple is a classic example of the Hoysala style as it rises from a star-shaped plinth, one of the hallmarks of Hoysala building design.Built out of soapstone, the facade of the temple is filled with intricate sculptures and friezes that includes elephants, lions, horses, episodes from the Indian mythological epics,.

The lowest frieze has a series of 650 charging elephants jostling for space around the walls and each is different from the other. They symbolise stability and strength and are considered the weight lifters of the temple.

Next come the yalis which symbolise courage while the horses above them are for speed. There are panels with floral designs signifying beauty. Above these are panels depicting the epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata.

There are 48 ornate pillars in the temple, the most popular is the Narasimha pillar which is said to have been revolving once on its ball bearings . A small space has been left on it to be sculpted by anyone who has the talent.. The Mohini Pillar is another beautiful piece . .

It is pretty dark in there and the guide highlights the pillars with the spot light . As the light tilts up, we look up at the pillars and are spell bound by the celestial nymphs that adorn them. They are called madanikas, shilabalikas and are exclusive to Belur. It is said that these bracketed figurines are inspired by Queen Shantala Devi and they epitomise the ideal feminine form .

Each pose of the madanika is different from the other and it depicts a mood . While all are amorous, they are not erotic. . They display artistic skill and are depicted as dancers, musicians, drummers or as hunters . There are totally 42 of them, 4 inside the hall on the ornate ceiling and the rest adorn the exterior walls of the temple . Some madanikas are the Darpana Sundari (beauty with mirror), “The lady with the parrot”, “The huntress” .. It is fascinating to see every single madanika and the detail in every carving.

It is said that the madanika or the salabhanjika concept goes back to the Buddhist legend where the symbolism links “the chaste maiden with the sala tree through the rite called dohada, or the fertilisation of plant life through the contact with women. “ However here, it is said to be different and these take the beauty of the temple to a different level.

There are 118 inscriptions in the temple complex, belonging to a period from 12th century to the 18th century which give details regarding the construction , the artists , the grants and endowments given, and the renovations to the temple.

.Another interesting myth relating to the temple is the story of the vanishing sandals. There is a pair of sandals guarded at the temple as it believed to be the Lord Kesava’s sandals. However , the sandals were disappearing regularly . .It was believed that Kesava wears them to visit his consort in the hills. Hence, everyday, the local cobblers created a fresh pair for the deity .

The sun goes down and a group pose for pictures in front of the temple. It is said that Hindu temples were not just places of worship – they were also used as a court to impart justice, a treasure house,an educational institution , a cultural platform to promote the arts and a shelter for people to sleep as well. Belur’s heritage is today housed in one temple complex ..The Chennakesava temple .


  1. Aaarti 4 February, 2008 at 14:53 Reply


    Wow, that temple looks so magnificient and huge… everytime i look at the sculptures and intricate designs, it baffles me to see there were so many amazing craftsman in our country… the attn to detail,beautiful n graceful pillars, all are so amazing…. 🙂

    lovely pics… esp the one with horses, cute..

  2. indicaspecies 4 February, 2008 at 17:43 Reply

    Indeed sheer poetry on the walls as each sculpture is a masterpiece and stories come alive from every stone!

    Interesting and detailed post on the magnificent temple of Channakesava. You have shot fantastic pictures as well. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  3. Charu 4 February, 2008 at 18:26 Reply

    wonderful post – and photographs! my favorite of these is Somnathpur – somehow it feels grander and more elegant, maybe because it is so quiet and away from the usual crowds!

  4. final_transit 4 February, 2008 at 19:52 Reply

    Phew! Lakshmi, that was such a thrilling post. The pictures are awesome, really beautiful carvings and you added information about history of the place and description of the temple which made sense while seeing the pictures. Loved this one 🙂 (who could believe that you had a writers block!)

  5. Nandan Jha 4 February, 2008 at 22:01 Reply

    laxmi – I dont think I was ever good in History (or for that matter, in other subjects as well) but I think we are not taught this in North India. During the same time, we had mahmood trageting all over here, looting Somnath and all that. At the same time, there is this another kingdom which is building temples. Superb.

    Great pics and equally great narrative.

    Hoy Laxmi 🙂

  6. Cuckoo 5 February, 2008 at 07:43 Reply

    Wow !! Awesome pictures with wonderful narration of the history.

    The carvings on the wall are great as in many other temples in India but they look so cared, clean and well maintained unlike majority.

    Great post with ever so great photos. !!

  7. AJEYA RAO 5 February, 2008 at 11:44 Reply

    Belur is one place, i can visit any number of times and will find new things to see, each time…Your pics and post has made me think of another trip there…thanks 🙂

  8. shooting star 5 February, 2008 at 14:03 Reply

    wonderful pictures!!…and a amazing temple..i was spellbound by the intricate carvings!!…the celestial nymphs,pillars,garuda staute…..and u have really put in big effort describing all the varoious aspects ofthe temple….nice read!!!!!

  9. Anonymous 5 February, 2008 at 21:07 Reply

    I will echo Cuckoo’s observation – very clean as if someone dusted them off :)!! And this is sheer torture..seeing all this is there and for one i am travelling like a snail’s pace…yikes 🙁

    these days am sketching, so i did this 1 pose of shiva and boy was it tough…and it sat me thinking how much of precision an artisan must have taken to chisel that carving out….those expression of lion, dancing poses…..amazing…and all that in era when life was not too easy….or was it ??

    tk care ~


  10. Anonymous 6 February, 2008 at 11:36 Reply

    Amazing photos….
    I personally liked the sculpture of Lord Narasimha…

    Keep up the good work…you should think about selling it on

  11. Purnima 6 February, 2008 at 14:16 Reply

    Wonderful photographs and loved to know the history behind it.. I don’t know if the history or the photographs of the intricate patterns on the fantastically carved sculptures were more exciting.. Thanks for the wonderful Post!

  12. Stephanie 6 February, 2008 at 22:04 Reply

    Simply amazing! The detail of the carvings…wow, I am just getting lost in stories. I’ve visited many Mayan ruins in Mexico, but they do not compare in detail.

    thank you for this visit!!

  13. backpakker 6 February, 2008 at 23:08 Reply

    aaarti – In fact the craftsmen have written their names in some of the inscriptions..

    celine – I wish I knew more stories that I can share ..thanks

    charu – welcome to backpakker and thanks for your comment.I like somnathpur too ..and it will be part of the trail as well

    doihavetoreally -thanks..Im glad that you enjoy history

    priyank -I havent done so much research ever ..and belur is such a storehouse of stories..I was having a writers block as I had to write a travelogue for a publication

    dharmabum -Well, this is just one temple..there are so many of them, hope you enjoy them

    cosmic joy – History buff !! true – heritage can be preserved through stories and legends

    nandan – I want a great student either..but I liked mythology, stories and thats how I got interested in the same…to my knowledge the sultanat dynasties targetted south as well ..every south dynasty has built temples..the cholas , pandyas, pallavas, hoysalas, chalukyas..its amazing

    Cuckoo -The govt has finally got its act together..halebid, which is the capital of hoysalas after belur and where there is another beautiful temple was literally in ruins and the tourists and janta had spoilt the place..even sculptures were found damaged..even here , there were perverts who stuck chewing gums on the sculptures..however the ASI and karnataka tourism has taken charge and is now preserving the same

    SK – I went here as a kid and am now going again and I can just say one word-beautiful

    Ajeya- I agree with you..looking forward to your trail as well

    Shooting star – Thanks..I am glad the effort shows..I try to make history interesting

    bend the rulz- Will take a look at your pictures.. I dont know if life was easy then , but I guess they made the most of it 🙂

    Anon -welcome to backpakker and thank do I go abt it ?

    Purnima – thanks ..Im happy that there are so many out there who enjoy history gives me great satisfaction that readers like you appreciate it

    Stephanie-thank you..I love stories too and I think history is best remembered through stories

  14. Kamini 6 February, 2008 at 23:44 Reply

    Thanks for the stunning photographs, and the enjoyable history lesson. Like you, I was put off history for many years because of the way it was taught in school. Wish we had people like you showing us the light!

  15. Reeta Skeeter 7 February, 2008 at 12:37 Reply

    the lure of the stories or the value of the heritage used to get lost in these classes
    And now see where your love for stories is taking you!!
    Isn’t it just great!
    I loved the journey of hoysala along with you girl!
    You rock!
    Such a lovely post!

  16. Alok 10 February, 2008 at 00:22 Reply

    Wow ! Wow ! great photography … it refreshed my memory of that trip, I wonder what – I too have similar angles n views of many snaps but mine were not as cool as yours 🙂

  17. backpakker 12 February, 2008 at 00:05 Reply

    kamini – welcome to backpakker and thank you for your comment..I really think history comes alive when its narrated like a story and sometimes when its possible to go to the location no light..just do my little bit 🙂

    Smita – I think one learns a lot through traveling ..its actually giving reins to one’s imagination …

    Reeta – True..and Im enjoying the journey ..thank you so much

    Nanditha – Please do not apologise..Im glad you enjoyed it

    Secretwishes-welcome to backpakker..thank you

    Alok – Thanks..Ive seen your pics and I think they are awesome 🙂

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *