The towns of Belur and Halebidu in Karnataka are popular tourist destinations, attracting thousands of visitors to the remarkable and ornate temples built by the Hoysala dynasty in the 12th century. Ruling most of what is modern-day Karnataka and parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the Hoysalas were patrons of literature, the arts and architecture. Naturally, their temples exhibit extreme skill and finesse.
The seat of the empire was initially Belur and then Halebidu, which is why these two towns corner the spotlight for their temple architecture. But beyond these towns, in villages across south Karanataka, are more than a hundred Hoysala temples. Off the beaten track but not difficult to find, they piece together the story of this mighty Kannadiga empire and are a visual delight.
Rise of the Hoysalas
The 11th century was a period of great prosperity in South India. At the time, the two major powers in the Deccan peninsula were the 25-year-old Chalukya Kingdom headquartered in Kalyani (present-day Basavakalyan in Karnataka), and the 150-year-old Chola Kingdom with its capital in Thanjavur (Tanjore) in present-day Tamil Nadu.
It was during this period that the Hoysalas first emerged, as feudatory chiefs of the Chalukya Empire in the mountains on the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In 1116 CE, the first great Hoysala chief, Bittiga, defeated the Chola governor of Talakad and annexed large parts of the Chola Empire. To celebrate his victory, Bittiga, a follower of the great Vaishnava reformer Ramanuja, had the huge Chennakeshava Temple of Belur built and consecrated in 1117 CE. He was less lucky against the Chalukyas, and by 1123 CE, in spite of his initial successes, he was back at square one, acknowledging the overlordship of the Chalukya ruler.
But the Hoysalas were no longer a small power. They were now a feared military force and to make a political statement, they built another massive temple in a city then called Dwarasamudra (Halebidu), between 1121 and 1160 CE.
These two temples – the Chennakeshava Temple of Belur and the Hoysaleswara Temple of Halebidu – are known today as the finest examples of Hoysala architecture and art. But beyond these two biggest tourist attractions, there are around 100 Hoysala-era temples tucked away in the villages of Karnataka.
Before we embark on a journey to uncover these beauties, a word about the layout of Hoysala temples. The ornately decorated shrines usually follow a simple floor plan. Consisting of multiple parts connected to each other, the simplest temples contain just two parts – a garbhagriha, a sanctum that contains the idol and is usually accessed only by the priest; and a large hall outside the shrine, where devotees gather.
Above the shrine is a large tower or vimana or Shikhara. A smaller tower on top of the hall, in front of the vimana, is called a sukanasi or ‘nose’.
Temples are usually built on a raised plinth known as a jagati, which provides a path to devotees for circumambulation of the temple.
More complex floor plans may consist of a closed hall, an open hall and a covered porch. The interior of the garbhagriha generally contains one, two or three shrines or mantapa, and there may be further minor shrines in each corner. A temple with a single shrine is called ekakuta, one with two shrines is called dwikuta, and so on.
The floor plan may be a square, a staggered square, a star or a combination of all these. This gives the exterior of the temple a large number of recesses which are richly decorated with carvings of deities and scenes from Hindu epics and mythology.
Kedareshwara Temple – Halebidu
As the name suggests, this is a Shaiva temple, a stunning gem located barely a kilometre from the high-profile Hoysaleshwara temple. It follows the usual pattern of Hoysala temples – it has three shrines connected to a central hall via a vestibule and is built on a raised platform or jagati, which provides a pradakshinpatha for devotees.
The temple is larger than usual and the exterior boasts exquisite carvings, second only to its more famous neighbour. But the temple’s superstructure was lost in a restoration attempt more than a century ago. Those who admire figure sculpture can spend hours here, writes Dutch author Gerard Foekema, who has documented Hoysala architecture. Just 1.4 km south of the temple is the religious pond of Hulikere, another marvellous example of Hoysala architecture.
Digambar Jain Temples – Halebidu
The Jain temples of the Hoysala period are considerably plainer than their Hindu counterparts. The Jain temple complex of Halebidu consists of three temples, dedicated to Parshvanatha, Shantinatha, and Adinatha. The two larger temples, of Parshvanatha and Shantinatha, consist of an ardhamandapa or ‘half-hall’ and a mahamandapa or ‘large hall’. The smaller Adinatha temple has a garbhagriha and a hall.
While each temple is rather plain from the outside, they contain beautiful, lathe-turned pillars inside that bear delicate carvings. The roofs too sport beautiful carvings, and the floor of the Shantinatha temple has a mirror-like sheen, which can be quite incredible to look at.
Inside each temple is a large statue of a Jain Tirthankara or spiritual leader. The Parshvanatha and Shantinatha statues are 18 feet tall, while the Adinatha image is smaller. Curiously, there is also an image of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, inside the Adinatha temple.
In front of the Shantinatha temple is a large stone pillar, with what looks like a box on top. This is called a manastambha or ‘column of honour’. On top of the manastambha, there is usually an image of a guardian yaksha. Even in the tremendous heat of Karnataka, these temples remain very cool. These temples are called basadi, a corruption of the word basti, which means ‘settlement’.
Bhairava Temple – Pushpagiri
Pushpagiri is a small, hill town surrounded by farmlands and forests on all sides. The Bhairava Temple is located within a small courtyard. Entry into the courtyard is through a stone gateway which contains carved stone pillars. Unfortunately, there is not much of the historic character of the temple is left as it is an extremely active temple.
The exterior of the Bhairava Temple has been thoroughly modernized, iron railings have been added and the exterior has been painted. Thankfully, the interiors have been left largely untouched. Inside, the temple is small and contains a single pillared hall and a single shrine. The delicate and intricate Hoysala carvings can still be seen on the pillars, in particular around the doorway to the shrine and the ceiling. Bhairava is a fierce manifestation of Lord Shiva, so this is a Shaiva temple.
Veera Narayana Temple – Belavadi
The Veera Narayana Temple of Belavadi is impressive, thanks more to its unusual architecture than its sculptures. Commissioned around 1200 CE by Hoysala king Veera Ballala II, the temple features three shrines, two of which are attached to the lateral sides of a large hall. Thus when one enters, one sees a large hall with two shrines facing each other. Behind this large hall is a smaller hall and behind that is the third shrine.
One of the unique features of the Veera Narayana Temple is that the northern shrine, to the right as one enters, is star-shaped, while the southern one is square-shaped, but their external ornamentation hides this difference. This is one of the only Hoysala temples where access to the roof is possible, through a set of stone steps at the southern end of the hall that connects the northern and southern shrines. From the roof, one gets a closer look at the fine carvings on the shikharas (towers) of the shrines as well as the sukanasi.
Lakshmi Narasimha Temple – Javagal
For most cricket-obsessed Indians, the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the name Javagal is former Indian fast bowler Javagal Srinath. Indeed, this is the village from where his family originally hails, and while Srinath was raised in Mysore, his uncle’s house still exists in the village and villagers will happily point it out.
The Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, as the name suggests, is a Vaishnava temple and the principal deity is Narasimha, the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Vishnu, who is associated in mythology with the destruction of the demon king Hiranyakashyap. Narasimha here is accompanied by his consort, Goddess Lakshmi. The other two shrines of this trikut temple are occupied by two other incarnations of Vishnu, Venugopal (playing the flute) and Sridhara. But only the shrine containing Narasimha has a tower above it.
The Lakshmi Narasimha Temple of Javagal was commissioned around 1250 CE, and as such is an example of the newer kind of Hoysala temples. The external decoration is profuse but of a more relaxed character, when compared to Halebidu. Like all Vaishnava temples, there is no depiction of Shiva anywhere on the shrine but the sculptures do depict scenes from the Ramayana.
Chennakeshava Temple – Arakere
Much plainer compared to most other Hoysala temples, this small shrine is nonetheless beautiful. This is a trikut type Vishnu temple built in the 13th century. The three shrines inside house Vishnu as Chennakeshava in the west, Venugopal in the south and Lakshmi-Narasimha in the north.
There is a single shikhara above the western shrine, which has a sukanasi in front of it. The outside walls have crude representations of various aspects of Vishnu in addition to secular sculptures interspersed with slender, tall pilasters and single-pilaster turrets. To the left of the entrance is a large stone tablet with writing in ancient Kannada containing details of the temple’s construction.
Ishvara Temple – Arasikere
The Ishvara Temple of Arasikere, constructed around 1220 CE, has only ordinary sculptural decorations but when it comes to the floor plan, it is perhaps the most complex and unique of all Hoysala temples. This is a Shaiva temple and has a single shrine containing the lingam representing Lord Shiva, which is topped by a shikhara or tower. The shrine is shaped like a star, but not a star with identical points but three different kinds of star-points.
But what sets the temple apart is the open hall. It looks like a 16-pointed star and one look at it and you immediately know that this is not like any other Hoysala temple you have ever seen. The roof of the open hall is shaped like a dome. Inside are beautiful lathe-turned pillars and all along the edges are stone benches, making it a good place to rest.
Lakshmi Devi Temple – Doddagadduvalli
The Lakshmi Devi Temple of Doddagadduvalli was built in 1113 and is architecturally unique. The temple is located within a walled compound, which has four small shrines, one in each corner. The temple itself has four shrines – three are in a cluster to the south and share a common small hall, while an oblong extension to the hall connects it to the fourth shrine. Each shrine has a shikhara and a sukanasi.
Within the compound, just a few metres to the north-east of the main temple, there is another free-standing shrine. Thus one compound presents a total of nine shrines! Visitors enter the compound through an ornate stone gateway in the eastern wall.
Inside the temple, the largest shrine is dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
Another shrine contains a lingam. But of special interest is the shrine immediately to the left of the entrance. On both sides of the door to this shrine are two frightening looking stone dwarpalas or gatekeepers, with various scary characters peeking out from behind them. Inside the shrine is a black, stone female figure, which is an unusual form of Kali. The free-standing shrine is dedicated to Bhairava, the fierce manifestation of Shiva. Although this is a Shaiva shrine, the nomenclature doesn’t follow the standard system.
Allalanatha Temple – Kondajji
Nothing remains of the Allalanatha Temple of Kondajji, save its remarkable Allalanatha, ie, Vishnu image. This single-shrine temple contains an extremely large and beautiful idol carved out of black stone. The temple had been in ruins for a very long time, with only the sanctum sanctorum intact. In 2017, the whole temple was rebuilt with modern brick and concrete. The idol is about 18 feet tall and made of black stone, bearing a conch, a chakra and a mace.
What is unique is that there is a loft that one can climb to perform the abhisheka from the top.
Lakshmi Narasimha Temple – Haranahalli
Haranahalli has two Hoysala temples – one Shaiva and one Vaishnava – both built around 1235 CE. The Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, as the name suggests, is Vaishnava. The plan of the shrine is fairly straightforward – a raised plinth or jagati with a trikuta or temple with three shrines on top. The principal shrine has a tower and a sukanasi on top and all three shrines are connected to one central hall.
When it comes to external ornamentation, the temple has six frieze panels but large parts of the exterior have been left blank. There are a couple of friezes with horses and elephants that are beautiful, but overall, there is very little ornamentation.
Someshvara Temple – Haranahalli
The Someshvara Temple contains only one shrine on a raised plinth, topped by a shikhara and a sukanasi. While the external decoration here is of finer quality compared to the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, there is a lot of inconsistency. But, compared to the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, which is in regular use and looks well-maintained, the Someshvara Temple looks almost abandoned.
The garden around it is unkempt and the temple looked like it hasn’t been cleaned in years. The tower is richly decorated and if you look very closely, you will find elements worth photographing. The interior of the temple, if you manage to gain entrance, is richly decorated.
Lakshminarayana Temple – Hosaholalu
Somewhat similar in appearance to the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple of Javagal, the Lakshminarayana Temple of Hosaholalu is both incredibly well-preserved and amazingly complete. However, the exterior decoration, though of fine quality, is of a monotonous and repetitive nature, and thanks to a new entrance that was added recently, the original entrance with its flight of steps is lost.
The temple is built on the usual raised plinth and contains three shrines. The central shrine is topped by a shikhara and a sukanasi.
This is a Vaishnava temple and almost all the 120 images on the walls are Vaishnava.
Among them are 24 depicting Vishnu in 24 different positions.
The Ramayana may be found in friezes in the western corner of the southern shrine and the Mahabharata in the northern niche of the central shrine. Inside, the three shrines contain images of Venugopala, Narayana and Lakshminarasimha.
Visiting the Temples
While it is helpful to have someone who speaks Kannada with you when visiting these temples, language is not an insurmountable barrier in Karnataka, and even in remote villages people speak Hindi or English, often both. The majority of these temples are active, and while most of them are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, some are maintained by affluent individuals. If you find a temple shut when you are there, it is usually possible to request a villager to fetch the priest, who will open up the temple for you. To locate the temples, use the following coordinates:
Bhairava Temple, Pushpagiri - 13°11'17.5"N 75°59'31.6"E
Veera Narayana Temple, Belavadi - 13°16'55.1"N 75°59'44.4"E
Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, Javagal - 13°18'03.5"N 76°03'35.7"E
Chennakeshava Temple, Arakere - 13°22'29.6"N 76°07'45.9"E
Ishvara Temple, Arasikere - 13°19'06.0"N 76°15'36.0"E
Kedareshwara Temple, Halebidu - 13°12'31.9"N 75°59'54.7"E
Jain Temples, Halebidu - 13°12'31.3"N 75°59'42.3"E
Lakshmi Devi Temple, Doddagadduvalli - 13°05'45.6"N 76°00'13.8"E
Allalanatha Temple, Kondajji - 13°07'08.0"N 76°03'57.7"E
Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, Haranahalli - 13°14'48.7"N 76°13'25.5"E
Someshwara Temple, Haranahalli - 13°14'50.9"N 76°13'35.3"E
Lakshminarayana Temple, Hosaholalu - 12°38'32.8"N 76°28'43.3"E
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. He is also a history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and a blogger.