Located in Belur in the state of Karnataka, the Chennakeshava Temple is an architectural masterpiece and one of the most beautiful temples in India. With its unique style and features, it is a showcase of Hoysala architecture, which follows the Dravidian tradition with the Mantapa style design. The Mantapa style temples are built with two main parts, sanctum sanctorum and the
The Hoysala temples have more than one
Navaranga – Hoysala Classic Design
Although Navaranga is relatively small, it is unique in many ways and its appearance, interior as well as exterior, is aesthetically pleasing. The layout of the Navaranga shown below highlights its architectural elements.
Note: The diagram is not drawn to scale. The bracket figures are represented by circles and given a number. The sections of the wall are also labeled to indicate their location. For example, S4 is the fourth section on the south side from the main entrance.
The temple is symmetrical about an east-west axis. In other words, the south-side layout is a mirror image of the north side (and vice versa).
As you can see from the diagram, there are three entrances, the main entrance to the temple is on the east side, and a side entrance each on the north and the south. Because of the location of the
Navaranga is a unique element of Hoysala architecture. In Kannada, Nava means nine, and ranga means the stage or sector,
In Hoysala architecture, the main mantapa was built by the navaranga design implemented by the four pillars in the central area of the mantapa dividing the entire space into nine sectors (thus the name navaranga).
Navaranga – Interior
In the Chennakeshava temple, the
The image shows pillars on the northwest side of Navaranga. As you can see from the image, the pillars are not similar. In fact, none of the 48 pillars inside Navaranga are similar except for the four surrounding the dance floor.
The pillars appear to be precisely-cut and polished using sophisticated machinery, such as modern-day lathes. Although they have a lathe-turned appearance, nobody is sure how they were built. Because of their appearance, they are called lathe-turned pillars.
The image shows Mohini, one of Vishnu’s ten avatars, carved on a pillar located near the dance floor inside Navaranga. Unlike most of the sculptures, which were made of soft soapstone (locally known as Balapada Kallu), this sculpture was made of black stone (locally known as Krishna
As you can see from the image, Mohini has a well-proportioned but a slender body. She is standing with a graceful stance with her body slightly curved around the midriff. Her beautiful face has a calm and pleasant facial expression. A crown with an unusually tall cap adorns her head. She is wearing a variety of jewelry, including necklaces, anklets, and armbands. Above her long skirt, which has beautiful patterns, a
Notice the looped thread hanging across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist. This thread, known as
If you look at her toes, you will notice that the second toe is longer than the big toe. In modern medicine, it is considered a deformity and is suffered by 20% of the population. This deformity even has a name, i.e., Morton’s Toe. In ancient India, women with Morton’s Toes were highly sought after for marriage because of the belief that they would make an ideal wife.
This intricately carved pillar is one of the major attractions of the Chennakeshava Temple. It is a testament to the ingenuity of the builders and sculptors of the temple. It is believed that the pillar had a rotating mechanism – something similar to the ball-bearings mechanism – at the bottom and top to enable it to rotate about its own axis.
At the bottom, there is a rectangular pedestal on which the circular end of the pillar rests. People were able to rotate the pillar above the circular end. Above the circular end, there is a rectangular base, above which the pillar becomes circular. This circular space is divided into six horizontal layers, each of which has several miniature shrines carved into it.
Above the horizontal layers, the pillar gradually becomes narrower ending up with two disc-like constructions, and then it evolves into a wider disc. Sitting on top this wider disc is an inverse conical construction with a polygonal slab on the top. Above this is the capital of the pillar.
Navaranga – Exterior
The layout of the Navaranga exterior is step-shaped layout with multiple sections of the wall. As mentioned before, there are three entrances, the main entrance on the east side, south entrance and north entrance. There is no entrance on the west side because of the
The Chennakeshava Temple is built on a star-shaped four feet high platform called Jagati. The floor of the temple is elevated, so the approach to the doorway is through two flights of steps. The first set of steps is from the floor to the platform, and the second is from the platform to the doorway. The flights of steps are flanked by four mini shrines, two on the floor and two on the platform.
The flights of steps are flanked by four mini shrines, two on the floor and two on the platform. The image shows the mini shrine on the ground on the right side of the flight of steps. The door is flanked by two pillars with the sculptural reliefs of dwarapalak
Standing inside this mini-shrine is a beautiful statue of Bhairava, who in Hindu mythology is a fierce form of Shiva created by himself to destroy both the internal and external enemies. His sculptural depictions indicate the fierceness of his physical presence.
As you can see from the image (click to expand it), he is standing on top of a slain demon with a dancing pose. Although he is a
With one of his left hands, Bhairava is carrying a severed-head belonging to Brahma. According to a legend, Brahma used to have five heads, four of which facing the cardinal directions and the fifth head gazing upwards. Shiva cut off the fifth head when he realized Brahma became infatuated with a female goddess he created.
Bhairava’s other hands are holding a variety of objects that include a trishula (trident), Shula (a pointed weapon), damaru (drum-like instrument), and pasha (noose).
Hoyasala Lanchana (Emblem)
Between each shrine on the platform and the doorway, there is a sculpture depicting the Hoysala
According to this inscription, the name Hoysala is a combination of two words, hoy
One day, while Sala is walking with his guru, Sudatta Muni (a Jain sage), a tiger suddenly appears from nowhere and is about to pounce on his guru. To save himself from the tiger, his guru yells, “Hoy Sala” (means Throw Sala). Sala complies and throws the lance that he is holding with his hand at the tiger. He fights the tiger valiantly and ends up killing it, saving his guru’s life.
Sala was a boy at that time and the news of his bravery soon spread, and he became a legend. He used his fame to found a dynasty, which got its name from the words uttered by his guru.
Manmatha and Rathi on the Door Jambs
The doorway leads to the front portion of the temple, i.e., Navaranga. A variety of sculptures and sculptural reliefs adorn the facade of the temple at the main entrance.
As you can see from the image of the facade, the door jambs and the lintel are beautifully decorated. Carved on the bottom part of the left door jamb is Manmatha and the right door jamb is his wife Rathi. Manmatha, who is also known by many names, including Kamadeva, is a son of Vishnu and the Hindu god of love. As you can see from the image on the left, Manmatha is holding a sugarcane bow with his left hand and the floral arrows with his right hand.
Garuda and Narasimha on the Pediment
Carved on the pediment, which is above the door, is a finely-carved relief of Narasimha, one of the avatars of Vishnu, carried by his
The facade of the main entrance has four pillars, two on the left and two on the right of the doorway. Mounted at an angle on these pillars near the top, but just below the eaves are the sculptures, popularly known as the bracket
The space between the pillars is covered by a perforated stone screen, known as
The structure of the southern entrance is similar to the main entrance, but the carvings are different. The lower part of the door jambs have the carvings of Hanuman and Garuda on the left and right side respectively.
There is only one
Just like the southern entrance, the structure of the northern entrance is similar to the main entrance, but the carvings are different. The lower part of the door jambs have the carvings of Jaya and Vijaya, the
There are four sections each between the main entrance and the south and north entrances. Each section has
As you can see from the image, the reclining Vishnu relief is finely carved with great details. Vishnu in this relief is portrayed with four hands and is wearing a beautiful dress and a variety of j
This relief actually depicts the birth of Brahma, the creator of the Universe in Hindu mythology, and this story is based on an ancient Indian text called Vaishnava Purana. If you look closely at the relief, you can see Brahma is attached to a lotus flower that is emerging from Vishnu’s navel. The lotus flower acts as the umbilical cord of Brahma. Because of his role as the primary creator, Vishnu is referred here as Maha Vishnu (Great Vishnu).
Note: There are differing accounts of Brahma’s creation in other Puranas. For example, in Shiva Purana, Shiva created Vishnu and Brahma.
Avatars of Vishnu on a frieze
Just below the Maha Vishnu
The frieze depicts six of the ten avatars of Vishnu. Here is the list from left to right:
- Kurma Avatara – Turtle
- Matsya Avatara – Fish
- Mohini Avatara – Mohini
- Narasimha Avatara – Man – lion
- Varaha Avatara– Wild boar
- Rama Avatara – Rama
One of the amazing features of this temple is the placing of the finely carved figures, popularly known as the bracket figures, atop the pillars on the exterior wall just below the eaves. There are 38 of them, and each of them tells a story. Only a couple of them are goddesses, and the rest are people, mostly women.