Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures

Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Bracket figures mounted on the pillars on the exterior wall surrounding Navaranga

The Belur Chennakeshava Temple, a gem among stones, is an architectural marvel. It showcases the Hoysala architecture with many notable features, including its unique layout, ornate pillars (one of them revolves about its own axis), and most importantly the bracket figures, which are beautifully carved sculptures mounted on the exterior wall at a 45-degree angle just below the eaves.

Navaranga – Hoysala Classic Design

Although the front portion of the temple – popularly known as the Navaranga – is relatively small, it is unique in many ways and aesthetically pleasing. The layout of the Navaranga shown below highlights the location of the bracket figures and the other 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.

Navaranga Layout and the location of the Bracket Figures in the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Navaranga Layout and the location of the Bracket Figures

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 garbhagriha (inner sanctum), there is no entrance on the west side.

Bracket Figures – Hoysala Masterpieces

The exterior wall surrounding the Navaranga has eight sections each on the south (S1 to S8) and north (N1 to N8) sides. On each section, small (height of 2.5 ft on the average) but finely-carved and ornate sculptures are mounted on the brackets just below the eaves of the temple. They are known as bracket figures because they are mounted on brackets.

There are 38 bracket figures on the exterior wall, 18 on the south side and 20 on the north side. Two on the south side are missing from the original 40. There are four bracket figures on the pillars surrounding the dance hall inside Navaranga.

Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Bracket figures mounted on the pillars on the exterior wall surrounding Navaranga
Bracket figures mounted on the pillars on the exterior wall surrounding Navaranga

The bracket figures are inclined such a way that the onlookers can have a good view of them. Each of these figures is standing on a round base mounted on top of a pedestal that is attached to the pillar at the top but just below its capital. The pedestal is carved to look like a lotus flower. Some of the bases have on their sides inscriptions written in Hale Kannada (Old Kannada) script with the information about the sculptor.

Each pillar in the corners pointed outwards has two figures mounted on it perpendicular to each other. Each middle pillar, as well as the pillar in the corner pointing inwards, has just one figure mounted on it.

Most of the bracket figures were made of Balapada Kallu (soft soapstone), which is available in plenty in Karnataka. Balapada Kallu has characteristics that are ideal for sculpting. It is easy to sculpt because of its softness. It lasts long because it gets harder once it is exposed to air.

Balapada Kallu comes with an attractive soft gray color, which is one of the main reasons most bracket figures are made of this stone. However, a few of them made of black stone (locally known as Krishna Shile). As the name suggests, these stones are black, and they are typically used for sculpting gods and goddesses.

Here are some of interesting the bracket figures:

Darpana Sundari

Darpana Sundari - A bracket figure mounted on a pillar at the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
Darpana Sundari – A bracket figure mounted on a pillar at the main entrance

This beautifully carved shilabalike, popularly known as Darpana Sundari, is an iconic figure and one of the most famous sculptures in the world. She is like the Monalisa of the sculpture world. In Kannada, darpana means mirror and sundari means a beautiful lady.

As you can see from the image, Dapana Sundari is holding a mirror and looking at herself in it. She is wearing beautiful jewelry and dress, her elegant stance suggests that she is a dancer, and it appears as though she is looking in the mirror just before the start of a dance performance.

Darpana Sundari - A bracket figure mounted on a pillar at the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
Darpana Sundari – Another view

Notice the three figures at the bottom, two among them, who appeared to be her assistants, are seen handing her some objects – most likely the makeup material. The third one is a mysterious stocky figure carrying a monkey on his left side and holding a bunch of fruits or nuts with his right hand.

Located to the right of Shuka Bhasini, Darpana Sundari is mounted on a pillar that is on the left side of the doorway at the main entrance. She is also one of the four shilabalikes on the facade of this entrance. It is believed that one of these shilabalikes resembles Queen Shantala Devi, who was an accomplished dancer and the wife of King Vishnuvardhana, the builder of the Chennankeshava Temple.

Sukha Bhasini

Shuka Bhasini - Shilabalike talking to per pet parrot
Shuka Bhasini – Shilabalike talking to per pet parrot

This shilabalike, popularly known as Shuka Bhasini, is seen talking to her pet parrot while her three friends/assistants, who are holding what appears to be corncobs, are seen watching her talk. In Kannada, shuka means parrot, and bashini means a lady who is in conversation.

As you can see from the image, the shilabalike has bent body her body to give her a beautiful dancing stance and elegantly held her left hand at the chest level so that the parrot can stand on the back of her palm and look at her. Sukha Basini is also mounted on the pillars located on the main entrance, so she is one of four shilabalikes believed to resemble Queen Shantala Devi.

Naatya Sundari, the Dancing Madanike at the Main Entrance

Dancing Shilabalike (damsel sculpted on stone) mounted on a pillar at the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
Dancing Shilabalike at the main entrance

This beautifully sculpted shilabalike is one of the first bracket figures you see when you enter the Chennakeshava Temple. She is above the doorway on the right side, and the iconic Darpana Sundari is on the left side.

As you can see from the image, she is wearing stylish clothes and jewelry, and her well-proportioned body has a graceful dancing stance. It appears as though she is dancing. Accompanying her are the four musicians at the bottom, two of them are playing the dolu, one is playing the taala, and the other is playing the flute.

She is bracket figure number 38 in the Navaraga layout.

Note: Taala, which looks like a smaller version of hand cymbals, is an Indian musical instrument made of brass typically played while singing devotional music.

Gaana Sundari

Gaana Sundari playing the taala (manjira) - Shilabalike mounted on the rightmost pillage of main entrance facade
Gaana Sundari playing the taala (manjira)

This shilabalike, known as Gaana Sundari (Singing Beauty), is seen singing while playing the taala (notice the bell-like objects in her hands). Unlike the other bracket figures, her mouth is slightly open, indicating that she is singing.

Notice the four figures at the bottom who are seen playing some musical instruments. It appears Gaana Sundari is part of an orchestra, a quintet in which she is the lead singer accompanied by two male musicians playing the dolu, a lady musician playing the taala, and a male musician playing the flute.

Gaana Sundari is mounted on the rightmost of the four pillars on the facade of the temple at the main entrance. Experts believe that she is one of these shilabalikes that resembles Queen Shantala Devi. She is bracket figure number 37 in the Navaraga layout.

Kapi Chasté (Monkey Mishief) – Madanike chasing a Monkey

Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Sculpture of a shilabalike chasing a monkey pulling her dress mounted on a pillar
Shilabalike chasing a monkey pulling her dress

As you can see from the image, a monkey is pulling the dress of a beautiful lady who is trying to chase it with a small tree branch. She appears to be semi-nude, and her facial expression shows annoyance at being harassed by the monkey.

As with the other bracket figures, the background is a finely carved creeper. The base on which the dancer stands has an inscription describing the sculptor – inscribed most likely by the sculptor himself.

Kesha Sundari

Kesha Sundari - Shilabalike styling her long hair
Kesha Sundari – Shilabalike styling her long hair

This madanike, popularly known as Kesha Sundari, is seen holding her long hair while her two lady assistants at the bottom appear to be helping her style her hair. In Kannada, kesha means hair and sundari means a beautiful lady. The two ladies at the bottom are holding some unidentified objects, which most likely are part of the hair-styling kit available in that era.

As with the other bracket figures, the background is a finely carved creeper. The base on which the dancer stands has an inscription describing the sculptor – inscribed most likely by the sculptor himself.

Tribhangi

Tribhangi - A dolu playing shilabalike with the tribhanga dancing pose mounted on a pillar of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
Tribhangi – Dolu playing Natya Sundari with the Tribhanga stance

This shilabalike, popularly known as Tribangi, is performing a complicated dance move, known as Tribhanga, while playing a small dolu, a two-sided drum-like percussion instrument.

The term Tribhanga, which is described in the Natya Shastra (ancient Indian text on dance) and the Shilpa Shastras (ancient Indian texts on crafts), refers to a pose with three bends in the body, typically the knee, waist, and neck. It is a dance move commonly performed in the contemporary Indian classical dances, such as the Odissi, Bharatanatyam, and Kathakali. As you can see from the image, Tribhangi has elegantly curved her body by bending her knee, waist, and neck, to give her a beautiful S-like shape. The sculptor has perfectly captured this dance pose with amazing details.

Betegarthi (Huntress)

Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Betegarthi - A shilabalike mounted on a pillar near the northern entrance
Betegarthi (Huntress) after a successful hunt

The Betegarthi is a huntress, indicated by the bow on her left shoulder and an arrow (only a small piece remains) in her right hand. She seems to have finished a successful hunt, indicated by the lady on the bottom right who is seen carrying on her shoulder a kill, which appears to be a deer, from the hunt.

The lady on the bottom left, who most likely helped in the hunt, is seen carrying a sword-like object. There is a small mysterious figure, most likely a man, with a puzzled facial expression sitting next to this lady.

This bracket figure is finely carved with amazing details. Betegarthi’s majestic stance and facial expression show her pride after a successful hunt. Notice her left toe, which is up slightly as if she is about to move.

This shilabalike is mounted on the right most pillar located at the north entrance of the temple. She is figure number 23 in the Navaranga layout.

Flute Playing Male Musician

Sculpture of a flute playing male musician mounted on a pillar on the south side of Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Flute playing male musician

This beautifully carved bracket figure of a male musician is playing the flute accompanied by two musicians. On the bottom left, a lady musician playing the taala, and on the bottom right, a male musician is playing the flute. He is in a Tribanga stance (bent in three places, knee, waist, and neck).

This bracket figure is mounted on the corner pillar (11) of the fifth section (S5) of the south-side exterior wall.

Kapala Durga

Shilabalike as Durga
Shilabalike as Durga

This shilabalike, who is depicted as Goddess Durga, is seen holding the kapala danda (skull cup attached to a staff) with her left hand and an unidentified object with her right hand. Accompanying her are the two dolu playing male musicians at the bottom.

In Hindu mythology, Durga is a goddess who fights evil forces. As you can see from the image, Durga Shilabalike is wearing a garland of kapalas on her crown symbolizing the liberation of mankind from evil.

The round base on which this shilabalike is standing is on top of a lotus pedestal. The side of the base has an inscription written in the old Kannada script inscribed most likely by the sculptor describing him and his work.

This shilabalike is mounted on the pillar at the junction of section 4 (S4) and 5 (S5) of the exterior wall surrounding Navaranga. She is bracket figure number 9 in the Navaraga layout.

Mango Plucking Madanike

Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Sculpture of a beautiful shilabalike plucking a mango
Shilabalike plucking a mango

As you can see from the image, this beautifully dressed shilabalike with an elegant stance is plucking a mango with her right hand. Unlike many other bracket figures, she neither a dancer nor a singer because of her stance and the lack of accompanying figures, typically placed at the bottom playing instruments. It appears that she is just a beautiful lady collecting fruits.

The base of this bracket figure has an inscription written in Hale Kannada (old Kannada) script, most likely inscribed by the sculptor describing him and his work. The base is mounted on a pedestal carved with three layers of lotus flower petals.

This shilabalike is on a corner pillar at the junction of the 6th and 7th section of the Navaranga exterior wall. She is bracket figure number 16 in the Navaraga layout.

Dolu Playing Male Musician

Belur Chennakeshava Temple -Sculpture of a dolu playing male musician mounted on a pillar
Dolu playing male musician

Like his female counterparts in the bracket figures, he is wearing a lot of jewelry, including large loop earrings, armbands, and necklaces. As for his hair, he has a long ponytail held up behind his head. Because of stance, it appears he is dancing while beating his dolu. As with the other bracket figures, the background is a finely carved creeper.

This male musician is one of the only three male figures among 42 bracket figures in the temple and located on the last pillar on the south side of exterior wall surrounding Navaranga. His is bracket figure number 18 in the Navaraga layout.

Naatya Sundari with a Lizard Chasing a Fly in the Background

Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Sculpture of a dancing shilabalike with a lizard chasing a fly in the background mounted on a pillar at the north entrance
Dancing shilabalike with a lizard chasing a fly in the background



This finely carved shilabalike is dancing accompanied by two musicians at the bottom, one playing a taala and the other playing a dolu. She is unaware of the presence of a lizard behind her chasing a fly on a fruit (most likely a jack fruit).

She is bracket figure number 13 in the Navaranga layout.

Nagna Sundari

Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Nagna Sundari mounted on a pillar at the northern entrance
Nagna Sundari (Nude Beauty) with the scorpion carved on the base of the sculpture

This beautiful shilabalike, popularly known as Nagna Sundari (Nude Beauty), is standing elegantly and holding two ends of her dress as though she is undressing. She appears to look at the scorpion crawling on the side of the base at the bottom. Her facial expression suggests that she is scared. The story behind this shilabalike is anybody’s guess.

According to one story, she got rid of the scorpion found in her dress by undressing herself. Another story suggests that she is a visha kanye (venomous girl) represented by the scorpion.

The legends of visha kanyes appear in many ancient Indian texts, including Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft authored by Chanakya, the Prime Minister of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya. It was believed that visha kanyes were very beautiful, but born with poisonous blood (or other body fluids). They were used to seduce powerful men on the enemy side and kill them with their poison. Nagna Sundari is mounted on the left most of the four pillars on the north entrance. She is figure number 15 in the Navaranga layout.

Dolu Playing Madanike

Belur Chennakeshava Temple -Sculpture of a dolu playing dancer mounted on a pillar on the south side
Dolu playing dancer

This intricately carved narthaki (dancer) with a traditional Indian dancing stance is playing a small dolu. Accompanying her are the two musicians who are also playing the dolu. This shilabalike is mounted on the middle pillar of the fifth section (S5) of the south-side exterior wall. She is figure number 10 in the Navaranga layout.

Related Pages
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Girbagriha outer wall

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