Belur, the quaint little town is set elegantly on the banks of river Yagachi amidst lush surroundings. It was chosen as the capital of the Hoysalas, after the sacking and destruction of their capital at Dwarasamudra (Halebid), by the Delhi Sultans. The Hoysalas ruled this region between 11th and 13th centuries. They were great patrons of art and architecture and built a nimer of magnificent shrines during their 300 years reign. The temples and monuments at Belur are indeed the best Hoysala creations, showcasing their amazing architecture and sculptures in full glory. The Hoysala temples are characterised by typical star shaped ground plan and are usually set on a platform. Today, this small town basking in the warmth of its luxurious greenery and glorious past is regarded as ‘one of the jewels’ of South Indian architecture.
Belur is about 38km from Hassan on the banks of the river Yagachai. The Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana constructed the famous Chennakesava Temple in 1116 to celebrate his victory over the Cholas at Talakad. Dedicated to Lord Krishna, this is the only Hoysala temple still in active worship. The frizes of great delicacy, filigreed pillars and the sculpture work is a feast to the visitor.
The magnificent shrine dedicated to Lord Vijayanarayan, one of the twenty four incarnations of Vishnu, was built to commemorate the victory of Hoysalas over the Cholas in the great battle of Talakkad. Some also believe that it was constructed when Vishnuvardhana adopted Vaishnavism under the influence of the great guru Sri Ramanujacharya. Its construction commenced in 1116AD, at the instance of king Vishnuvardhana, later on his son and grandson completed the work. According to historical records, it took about 103 years to complete this profusely sculpted masterpiece of Hoysala architecture. The huge temple complex enclosed by high walls has a garbha griha (Sanctum sanctorum), a sukhanasi (vestibule), a navaranga mandapa and many smaller shrines, mandapams and other structures.
The magnificent soapstone Temple of Lord Channakeshava (daily sunrise– sunset; free admission), built over a period of 103 years, was commissioned to commemorate the victory of Vishnuvardhana over the Cholas from Tamil Nadu; apparently, it was so admired by Belur’s iconoclastic Muslim invaders that they decided to leave it intact. Built on a star-shaped plan, the temple stands on a raised platform within a courtyard surrounded by an outer wall. After you survey the courtyard, approach the temple by climbing the short flight of steps. Despite its compact scale, the profusion of carved decoration is spectacular, the multicornered shape of the temple allowing maximum space for sculptures of Vishnu and a vast retinue of Hindu images. Covering the flat-roofed building are detailed representations of myriad themes—ranging from erotica to religious mythology, everyday events to episodes from the Ramayana— arranged in bands that wrap the entire exterior in delightful compositions. The temple itself is borne by almost 650 stone elephants. Don’t miss the various bracket figures, which are considered the highlight of Hoysala workmanship. Use a torch to study the temple interior, at the center of which is a pillar adorned with smaller versions of the temple’s 10,000 sculpted images. Belur is a living temple, and a silverplated image of Vishnu within the inner sanctum is still worshipped; puja (prayer) is performed at 9am and 7pm each day, and the inner sanctums are closed between 1 and 3pm and 5 and 6pm.
Both the festival for Art and Culture in January and the 12-day car festival at Chennakeshava Temple in March/April attract many tourists. 3km west of the Hassan-Belur Road in the village of Doddagadavahalli, there is the temple of Mahalakshmi dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi in the Hoysala style. The temple is unique in having chatush kuta, four sanctuaries with the same structure.
The star shaped main sanctum is a homogenous architectural unit set on a raised platform in the centre of a spacious paved courtyard surrounded by subsidiary shrines and colonnades. Virtually every inch of the shrine is intricately carved. The outer walls are adorned with jagati or railed platform sculpted with horizontal rows of friezes with carvings of elephants, simhalatas or lions and scrolls of small female’s figures in ornamental niches and interested here and there by larger vertical images. The lower friezes are not so extensively carved as in other Hosala temples, but the work higher up on the walls is simply outstanding. Singularly beautiful are the 38 freestanding bracket figures angled between the upper walls and the over-hanging eaves around theoutside of the temple and navranga (pillared hall). The bracket is adorned with voluptuous beauties known as Madanikas in various dancing and ritual postures and depicts an amazing variety sculpted forms. The main sanctum enshrines a beautifully ornamented 6ft high image of Chennan Keshava, literally meaning the ‘Beautiful’ Keshava in Kannada language. Other important Hoysala shrines at Belur are Kappe (frog) Chennigaraya Temple and Veera Narayana Temple.