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Belur Chennakeshava Temple

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Life is a dream
Staff member
Temples in South India have achieved marked excellence recognized universally. The modern world, which places considerable importance on the achievements and benefits of technology, often finds it hard to comprehend the exemplary work that has gone into the making of beautiful temples and monuments by the sweat of the brow and the skill of the hand. Each of these temples has its own illuminating features, transporting the tourist with awe and emotion to the era of its construction.

The origin of the Hoysalas has a legendary connection. The ‘guru’ was with the pupils amongst whom was Sala, a prince. Suddenly the roar of a tiger was heard and every one ran helter-skelter; only Sala stood his ground and tried to protect his ‘guru’, who shouted ‘Hoi, Sala’ (Sala kill). The prince faced the tiger and after a struggle, killed it. In appreciation of his courage, Sala was chosen as the ruler of the kingdom and his dynasty was called the ‘Hoysalas’. Such is the story told by the stone carving of a man fighting a tiger that is to be found at the entrance of the temple of Chennakeshava at Belur.

The Hoysala dynasty reigned between the 11[SUP]th[/SUP] and 13[SUP]th[/SUP] centuries. All the fine arts flourished during that period. They were the most important rulers who contributed to the greatness of this area. They were also great builders of temples and monuments. Unlike the previous rulers, the Hoysalas chose their twin capitals in the very heart of their kingdom, one at Belur and the other at Dwarasamudra, the present Halebidu. The early kings of this dynasty were Jains by faith, but were tolerant to other religions also in their policy.

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Hoysala architecture is a direct descendant of the Chalukyan style. They borrowed ideas freely from both North Indian School and the Dravidian style. The Hoysala style is characterized by star-shaped sanctuaries placed solidly on high platforms, the sides of which correspond to the lines and angels of the ‘Sanctum’. These platforms afford a spacious passage for circumambulation around the whole temples. The outer walls of which have intricately carved figures of gods, goddesses, animals, birds and foliage contained in bands of friezes, and brackets with beautiful feminine figures. The material used in Hoysala temples, is sand-stone or soft green or bluish-black chloritic schist, a very fine grained stone yielding safely to the chisel and superbly suited to the execution of intricate and minute carving. It also had the added quality of getting hardened by exposure to atmosphere.

Other unique characteristic was the inscribing names of sculptors below the idols carved by them and the smooth pillars inside the structures. Among the names preserved are Dasoja, Chavana, Chikka Hampa and Machari. Unfortunately there is no record of the name of the chief architect of these splendid temples. The local legends concerning the chief architect of Belur temple being Jakanachari are little more than myths. It is also very unlikely that any such sculptor with that name really existed.
Of all the Hoysala Kings, the most celebrated one was Vishnuvardhana who reigned from 1113 to 1141 A.D. Inspired by the Srivaishnava Acharya, Sri Ramanuja, it is said that this king built five Vishnu shrines (Pancha Narayan) in his kingdom.

According to tradition, these five shrines are the Kirtinaraya at Talakadu, Cheluva Narayana at Melkote, Vira Narayana at Gadag, Lakshmi Narayana at Tondanur and Vijaya Narayana at Belur. Among them the Belur shrine has been celebrated all over the world as an exquisite work of art.

The two magnificent Hoysala temples of Karnataka that ever remain in the mind of the tourist as the outstanding exponents of the blend of the architect’s power and the sculptor’s chisel are the Chennakeshava temple at Belur and the twin temple of Hoysaleshwara at Helebidu. It is not clear to the historians regarding the nature of inspiration that made Vishnuvardhana build these fine temples. Perhaps the Maha Lakshmi temple at Doddagaddavalli, near Hassan must have provided the inspiration, as this is an adaption by the Chalukyan model with an emphasis on sculptural profusion.

Situated on the banks of river Yagachi, Belur, a prosperous town in Hassan district was the second capital of the Hoysala Empire eight hundred years ago, in addition to the capital at Dwarasamudra. The temple at Belur is noteworthy for its sculptural wealth. It was built and consecrated in 1117 A.D., to commemorate the victory of Vishnuvardhana over the Chola aggressors, whom he drove beyond Kolar. While the main shrine was his conception, his queen Shantala Devicaused the Kappe Chennigaraya shrine to be erected within the same enclosure.

The main entrance adorned with a high tower, leads one into a high walled spacious enclosure, where stands a group of shrines arranged asymmetrically, with the main structure in the centre. The Vishnu temple is dedicated to Chenna Keshava, otherwise known as Vijaya Narayana, is constructed on a high platform about a metre in height. The steps leading up to this are flanked by miniature shrines. There is an elevated basement over this, adorned with a horizontal frieze of elephants. Above are rows of decorative carvings – a scroll motif with figures in every convolution, small figures, mostly female, in ornamented niches, along with intervening carvings of Yakshas, and so on.

The remarkable feature of this temple is the pierced stone screens set between pillars. There are twenty of them in as many different designs. Many of them are sculptures with mythological figures and some decorated with geometric designs. There is a sculpture representing the ‘Durbar’ of Vishnuvardhana, while another show the ‘Durbar’ of king Narasimha I.

The pillars at the sides of each screen have capitals with beautifully sculptured ‘bracket’ figures, mostly female. Two of them represent Durga and three indicate the features of huntresses. They are shown in various postures, dancing or playing musical instruments, dressing or decorating themselves. The most celebrated among them are the forty two ‘Madanika’ figures, known as ‘Salabhanjikas’ or ‘Puttalis’. Each is said to be reflection aspect of Mohini. On the outer walls are large idols of gods and goddesses which evoke admiration. All these are referred to as ‘poetry in stone’.

The sculpture inside the temple is even finer. The main idol of Chennakeshava is very attractive and an exquisite range of Hoysala sculpture. It is a tall figure about three metres in height and stands erect, serene and richly ornamented on a raised platform. Though a male deity, his face is characteristically feminine. The local legend insists that this was deliberate as it was a Belur that Vishnu appeared a Mohini to outwit Bhasmasura. On one side of Keshava is his consort Lakshmi. Carved on the pedestal is Garuda with folded hands.

The ‘Prabhavali’ behind the deity is decorated with the ten incarnations (Dasha Avatharas) of Maha Vishnu. Flanking the doorway are the ‘Dwarapalas’ beautifully carved. Then there is the spacious ‘navaranga’ hall consisting of forty six pillars arranged in colonnades forming two cross aisles intersecting in the middle of the hall. Each pillar is executed with the utmost care and precision by master-craftsmen competing with one another to give their best. The Narasimha pillar in the central hall is particularly noteworthy since the sculptor has carved its capital, shaft and base in a repeating pattern of niches, in each of which is enshrined an image of Narasimha. Further, the pillar is so designed that it can be rotated.

The central bay formed by intersecting colonnades has a dome of the form of a lotus, about three metres in diameter and about two metres in depth, which is covered with intricate designs. The central four pillars are decorated with female figures, and the fineness of these carvings is shown by the fact that the bangles of one of them and the head dress of another are movable.

Apart from the deity of Chennakesava in the central temple, there are several other shrines within the Belur temple complex. The most important one among them is the temple dedicated to Kappe Chennigaray on the left side. It is a two celled shrine having the idols of Kappe Chennigaraya in one and Venugopala in the other. According to legend, it is said that a small frog was found in a cavity near the abdomen of this idol after it was completed. Perhaps, this was the original icon meant to occupy the main shrine. Because the stone employed was found defective with a cavity in the centre, it was abandoned. The present main deity was made out of a stone brought from Baba Budan Hills.

According to an inscription found at the pedestal of the image, Shantala Devi, queen of Vishnuvardhana, got this icon made. Alongside this temple, she built a separate shrine dedicated to Soumya Nayaki, the consort of Vishnu. There is a tower over this shrine. A nobleman from Mysore city added the front portion for this structure. To the west of the main temple is another shrine dedicated to Vira Narayana, another form of Vishnu. The outer wall of this temple has a sculptural profusion with divinities including Vishnu, Shiva, Bhairava, Parvathi and so on. There are minor shrines for Ramanujacharya, Alwars, Vedant Deshikar and Manavala Munigal.

A separate shrine has been built for Goda Devi, also called as Andal of Srivalliputtur in South India. These additional shrines reveal a strong Srivaishnava influence.

The Belur temple has become a by-word in Indian art for decorative sculpture. Not an inch of space is wasted. The entire temple is a planned execution with elaborate ornamentation and fanciful filigree work. The general impression conveyed is that, while the basis of the style is Dravidian, in the hands of the Hoysala sculptor, it becomes a very different thing. What they produced in reality is applied art and sculpture.


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