The Hoysala temples & sculptures – An epitome of Indian Architecture

Nowhere else on earth you will find a better example of the proverb “God is in details”

Illustrious achievements in art, architecture, and culture have marked the Hoysala era (1026 CE – 1343 CE). The glorious remains of once immensely powerful empire lay in India, present-day district of Hassan located in Karnataka. Without a doubt, the most remarkable achievement of this era lies in the field of architecture. The vision of the rulers to surpass the Western Chalukyan Empire (973 CE – 1189 CE) provided further impetus for excellence in the architectural field. This competitive spirit between the rival empires benefited architecture so immensely that even today some structures are above human contemplation and demands respect from everyone who happens to be in the presence of these great reminders of the era that have passed.

A brief History of once glorious Hoysala Empire

The rulers of Hoysala started out as native chieftains in the Western Ghats hills. Over time, their wealth started to prosper, and, under Western Chalukyan Emperors, they attained the status of a dominant feudatory within a few decades. Early in the Hoysala dynasty era, the capital of their fledgling empire was moved from the Western Ghats hills to Belur. Vishnuvardhan ‘s military conquests (1108 CE – 1152 CE) against the neighboring Chola Empire (c. 300 BCE – 1279 CE) in 1116 CE mark the first major development in the history of each of these dynasties. A new era started with Vishnuvardhan when he established the temple of Chennakesava (1117 CE) in Belur to commemorate this victory; he also planned to move the capital to Halebidu or Halebid nearly 20 km east.

During the reign of Veera Ballala II (1173 CE-1220 CE), the Hoysalas obtained their political independence in 1192. They quickly became a leading power in Southern India, and over the next century or so they enjoyed political hegemony and economic prosperity. The kingdom at its height consisted of Karnataka of the present day, portions of Tamil Nadu, and Telangana in the southwest. However, sultanate invasions from Delhi and Madurai, beginning in 1311 CE, proved fatal to the then reigning monarch Veera Ballala III (1292 CE – 1343 CE). He finally succumbed in 1343 CE to these repeated assaults.

The beauty of Channakesava Temple

The Hoysala art and architecture was largely influenced by Western Chalukyan architecture. These similarities can be seen in the magnificent Chennakesava Temple (Chenna means beautiful whereas Kesava is another name of Krishna) is a magnificent temple complex depicting all forms of Krishna, sanctified in the 13th century. It was built by the Somanathaan army commander of Hoysala king Narasimha III. The architecture style followed is Hoysala, which is more prevalent in Karnataka. Hoysala architecture saw the best during the 11th to 13th centuries. It is always a surprise how they made such detailed sculptures on Stone including the well-carved pillars.

Channakesava Temple in Belur

These ancient temples and its sculptures are modern remains of more than 100 temples, including the grand Belur and Halebidu temples. This beautiful Channakesava temple is resting in Somnathpura in Karnataka on the banks of the river Kaveri.

Interior pillars are sculpted to perfection

The main Temple is in the center of three symmetrical sanctums depicting the different forms of Vishnu and bounded by a courtyard with pillar corridors with small temples. The uniqueness of temples architecture is detailed and protruding sculptures in the pillars, ceilings, inner and outer walls.

The exquisite ceiling of ChennaKesava Temple, Somnathapura

The temple’s richly sculptured exterior contains statues and iconography and horizontal stonework portraying scenes from everyday life, music, and dance, and narrating scenes from Vishnu ‘s history and his reincarnations, as well as the epics, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. Several of Shiva ‘s images are still used though. Consecrated on holy ground, the temple has been continuously worshipped since its establishment and continues as a pilgrimage spot for the Vaishnavites until today. But by far the most striking feature of this temple is the 38 most wonderfully sculpted figures called salabhanjika or madanika (bracket figures). These are later add-ons (especially during the reins of Veer Ballala II) as per the records and sacred texts.

Ravaged by war, plundering, and looting by different clans, the Hoysala temples are no exception to the brutality of humans. Almost all pillars bare the tell tail signs of intentional damage and the sacred statues tell the same story throughout the Indian subcontinent. Out of the hundred temples, only a few remain. Many International and Indian temples have been compared with these magnificent sanctums of purity like Angkor, Cambodia; Historic City of Ayutthaya, Thailand, Sacred City of Kandy, Sri Lanka, the Great Living Chola Temples, the Khajuraho Group of Monuments, the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram and more. But some of the sculptures are so intricately sculpted that you will be left in complete disbelief.

The Hoysala Kingdom which lasted three centuries contributed immensely to our Indian architecture. It is indeed appalling that only a handful of people know about these fabulous temples.

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