Road trip across Karnataka – III- Belur and Halebidu – A riot of sculpture !

Continuing our travel through Hassan district, our next destination was Halebidu and Belur, the two crowning jewels of Indian sculpture.

These two temples, built during the Hoysala reign in the 11th and 12th Centuries make you wonder if magic is for real because no human could have chiselled these spectacular temples !

Hoysaleswara Temple, Halebidu

Our first stop in the Hoysala country was at their capital city, Halebidu or Dwarasamudra as it was known once a upon a time when it was a flourishing city. Today, the Hoysaleswara Temple stands as the reminder of its days of glory.


Did you know? There are different architectural styles in Indian temple building. You have the Dravidian, Nagara and Rekha Nagara style, Vesara, Kalinga and so on. Each style has some unique features and when you travel across the country you find that each style is distinct to a particular region.

The Hoysala architectural style has come to known as the Vesara architecture, characterised by their star-shaped temples, zig-zag walls profusely decorated with sculpture.


When you visit these temples, you literally don’t know where to begin, do you wonder at the sculpture or the architecture or the human effort behind it?


It was a cloudy day and we were just learning the basics of clicking pictures on a DSLR and that accounts for the not so great pictures and lighting effect. Even otherwise, we don’t think any camera or any software can capture and enhance the beauty of these temples like the human eye can !

The temples are built on a high platform called the Jagati, which serves as the Pradakshina path to go around the temple. Probably, the idea of Pradakshina was introduced so that people would actually take time to walk around the temple and appreciate the sculptural brilliance.

To the side of the main shrine is the Nandi Mandapa, the Nandi is huge and heavily decorated.


Sculpture is an integral part of Indian temple architecture and every kingdom had its own sculptural signature marks, like for example, the Nandis of Hoysala and Kakatiya sculpture, both almost contemporaries, have their own distinct style. While the Kakatiya Nandi looks more agile and younger, with its fore legs and ears alert for a command, the Hoysala Nandi seems to be relaxing and is slightly more plump ! Whichever temple you visit, you can see these distinct styles.

Before setting out to explore the sculptural richness of the temple, we made a quick visit to the Garbha Griha which houses the Shiva Linga, known as Hoysaleswara, the Lord of Hoysala.

Our amateur photography skills meant we couldn’t capture proper pictures of the dark inner chambers this one is a sample of the extensively sculptured pillared hall.


By now, if you think you’ve had enough of the temple tour, well, we’ve just begun, the real deal is outside on the temple walls – unbelievably intricate, complex and beautiful sculptural treasure of the Hoysalas !

The unique and probably the most mind-blowing feature of the Hoysala sculpture is, unlike the other sculpture styles, their images are miniature but the precision is amazing. The outer walls of the shrines have panels running along the entire stretch and every tiny inch of the panel is filled with sculpture !

There are war scenes and stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata.


Elsewhere, there are stories from the Bhagavatham. Here are the Devas and Asuras churning the ocean of milk with Lord Vishnu holding up the Mandara mountain in his Kurma Avatar.


A short walk around the temple brings you face to face with the angry Ravana lifting the Mount Kailash on his ten heads, just look at the complex sculpture !


The figures on the Kailash mountain are microscopic but if you look closer, each detail is perfect.

Have you seen sculpture that makes you dizzy? Check this !


All that the sculptors had was a chisel and hammer, we will say no more !

How did these temples survive Malik Kafur’s attacks in the 13th Century A.D considering that Halebidu was razed twice during his invasion of South India.

The immortal sculptor !

Jakkannachari, the legendary sculptor is believed to have been the chief architect of the Belur and Halebidu temples. Anybody who follows old Kannada or Telugu movies would be familiar with the films on his life.

Jakkanna dedicated his life to sculpture, left his wife and unborn child and set off on building temples in the Hoysala kingdom. His son, who was born after Jakkanna left home, grew up to a be sculptor himself and met his father at Belur, where he pointed out a flaw in a sculpture. Jakkanna, who did not know that the young man was his son, vowed to cut off his right hand if the flaw was proved. It turned out that there was a toad hiding inside the rock that was sculpted, which made it unfit for sculpting, Jakkanna is believed to have cut off his right hand, before reuniting with his son.

We do not know the truth behind Jakkanna’s story but the Belur temple’s information board lists the famous sculptors who worked on the temple and Jakkanna’s name figures in the list prominently. The story of Belur and Halebidu temples is incomplete without the mention of Amarasilpi Jakkanna, a sculptor whose legend is as immortal as the architectural marvels he is believed to have designed.

Belur Chennakesava Temple

16 kms from Halebidu is Belur, the original capital of Hoysala Empire and home to the Chenna Kesava Temple, contemporary of the Halebidu temple. Both the temples were built in the early 1100s A.D during the reign of the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhan and are almost like twin temples, except that the Belur temple has a huge courtyard, looks more complete with outer walls, Gopurams and all.


Dark clouds gathered as we made our way to the temple, we couldn’t get great pictures again but the heavy clouds seemed to give some special effect to the ancient temple.


Before visiting the main temple, one has to check this free standing pillar, which doesn’t touch the base on one side and still doesn’t topple.


Getting a pillar as tall as this to balance on three sides calls for some serious skills in physics and 800 years ago, somebody seems to have mastered that ! If you hire a guide, you can see how a sheet of paper passes underneath the pillar where it does not touch the platform on which it is mounted. Fascinating structures, these ancient temples are !

The main shrine was closed by the time we reached the place, so we did not have a darshan of Lord Chenna Keshava. In the pillared halls of the Garbha Griha, there is a pillar that could once be rotated, during our very first visit to Belur, 23 years ago, we remember the guide showing us the pillar. This time, without the guide, we couldn’t spot it.

Like the Halebidu temple, even at Belur, it’s sculpture everywhere. While Halebidu’s sculpture brings the Hindu epics and Puranas to life, Belur Chenna Kesava Temple is a dedication to feminine beauty. Every panel has images of the sculptors’ imagination of the epitome of beauty.


Each image is probably slightly bigger than a palm and it is unimaginable how the sculptors got the features and design to perfection. If you observe the sculpture closely, every figure is unique, there is no repetition of the dress, jewellery or pose. It is not just these few images, there are hundreds of them running along the walls of the temple. Here is a cross section:


Leading the graceful women of Belur is this “Darpana Sundari”, the icon of Karnataka !


Here and there, you will come across images of Gods and Goddesses, like the angry Lord Narasimha, killing Hiranyakashyapa.


Interestingly, one can find this sculpture in several other temples in the country, we saw one exact replica in the Simhachalam temple near Vizag, some 1200 kms away ! Amazing to imagine how ideas of art spread from one corner of the country to another !

Now for some more creative sculpture – miniature decorative hangings along the border, creativity at its best !


There is so much to see, you will lose track of time, there is always this feeling that you might have missed something more beautiful than the last one you saw ! After sometime, you end up simply shrugging your shoulders unable to comprehend the magic carved out of stone and the human skill behind it ! We almost reached that state before we decided it was time to leave. We had a long way to go before our destination for the day.

Who were these men? What ignited their imagination? Can we just travel back in time and interview the great sculptors of the Hoysala empire?

A quick tip before we end this – it is always advisable to hire a guide so you don’t miss the must see ones. However, do your little homework because some guides tend to exaggerate or give you the incorrect information, not all of them really know the history.





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Categories: Karnataka | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Road trip across Karnataka – III- Belur and Halebidu – A riot of sculpture !


    Very well said. Hats of to those sculptor Gods. Just returning from Belur. Must visit this place at least once in a lifetime. Thanks for the article.

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