Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga

Main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India

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 mantapa (hall) in front of it. The sanctum sanctorum in Indian temples is known as garbhagriha, a room in which the principal deity of the temple resides.

The Hoysala temples have more than one garbhagrihas. The temple with a single garbhagriha is called the ekakuta temple and with two garbhagrihas is called the dwikuta temple. The Chennakeshava Temple is an ekakuta temple. Its grabhagriha is enclosed by a wall with pillars carved with reliefs of Hindu Trinity and other gods and scenes based on the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata and ancient texts like Puranas. This page is about the second part, i.e., the hall in front of the garbhagriha. It is popularly known as Navaranga because of the style of its design.

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.

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 garbagriha (sanctum sanctorum), there is no entrance on the west side.

Navaranga Design

Navaranga is a unique element of Hoysala architecture. In Kannada, Nava means nine, and ranga means the stage or sector, navaranga means nine sectors. Generally speaking, Navaranga is a mantapa (covered hall) where the people congregate before taking the darshana of the deity near the garbagriha.

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).

The navaranga design has sub-elements that include sabha mantapa and mukha mantapa. The area covered by the sector in the center (i.e., covered by the four middle pillars) is called the sabha mantapa, and the area covered by a side sector that has an entrance is called the muhka mantapa. In architectural terms, sabha mantapa is like a community hall, and the mukha mantapa is like a porch.

Navaranga – Interior

In the Chennakeshava temple, the navaranga design is implemented by the four pillars at the corners of the dance floor located in the middle of the front portion. The rest of the space is filled with many pillars, some of which needed to support the roof of the temple, and the rest are there just for decorative purposes. The beautifully-carved Mohini and Narasimha Pillars are the most famous among them.

Pillars on the northwest side of Navaranga in the Belur Chennakeshava Temple, Karnataka, India
Pillars on the northwest side of Navaranga

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.

Mohini Pillar

Mohini Pillar - Mohini carved on a pillar inside Navaranga
Mohini Pillar – Mohini carved on a pillar inside Navaranga

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 Shile).

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 udiyana (waistband) is wrapped around the waist.

Notice the looped thread hanging across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist. This thread, known as Yajnopavita, is a symbol indicating the person wearing it has mastered Vedas and undergone the Upanayana ceremony. It is typically worn by men, but in this case, it indicates that Mohini is indeed an avatar of Vishnu.

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.

Narasimha Pillar

Narasimha Pillar inside Navaranga of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Narasimha Pillar
Narasimha Pillar inside Navaranga of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Narasimha Pillar – A close up view

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 garbhagriha located on that side. Architecturally, the temple is symmetrical about an east-west axis. In other words, the north-side design is a mirror image of the south side design (and vice-versa). However, no two architectural elements are alike. Between the main entrance and south/north entrance, there are four sections of the walls that are part of the step-shaped design.

Main Entrance

Main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur,

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.

Mini shrines

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 dwarapalakas carved at the bottom. Attached to each pillar is Yali, a mythical creature formed by combining the parts of different animals, and in this case, it is a lion on top of the head of an elephant.

Bhairava inside a mini shrine at the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Bhairava inside a mini shrine at the main entrance

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 digambara (i.e., wearing no clothes), he is wearing a variety of jewelry, including necklaces, anklets, armbands and udiyana (waistband). He is also wearing the yajnopavita, a looped thread sacred to Hindus worn across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist.

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)

Hoysala emblem on the left side of the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Hoysala emblem on the left side of the main entrance
Hoysala emblem on the right-side of the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Hoysala emblem on the right-side of the main entrance

Between each shrine on the platform and the doorway, there is a sculpture depicting the Hoysala lanchana (emblem), which is based on a story that appears on an inscription attributed to King Vishnuvardhana and is about the founding of this dynasty.

According to this inscription, the name Hoysala is a combination of two words, hoy and sala. Hoy in Hale Kannada (old Kannada) means hurl, and Sala is the name of the founder of the Hoysala dynasty. Here is the legend of Sala in brief:

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.

Rathi at the main entrance of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
Rathi at the main entrance
Belur Chennakeshava Temple - Manmatha at the main entrance
Manmatha 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

Relief of Garuda and Narasimha on the pediment of the main entrance to the Belur Chennakeshava Temple, Karnataka, India
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 vahana, Garuda. Enclosing this pediment is a creeper disgorged by the Makaras sitting atop the beautifully crafted pilasters that are standing on either side of the doorway. Vishnu’s vahana, Garuda, is on the roof flanked by two female figures.

Jalandhras

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 figures, because they are attached to the brackets.

Jalandhra and bracket figures on the left section of the main entrance of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple, Karnataka, India
Left section of the main entrance with the jalandhra and bracket figures
Jalandhra and bracket figures on the right section of the main entrance of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple, Karnataka, India
Right section of the main entrance with the jalandhra and bracket figures


The space between the pillars is covered by a perforated stone screen, known as jalandhra. The perforation allows light and air into the mantapa. When the temple was built, Navaranga was an open mantapa, which means there were no jalandhras, but were added later mostly because of security reasons. Not only do the jalandhras provide ventilation and light, but also make the temple aesthetically pleasing due to the beautiful patterns of the perforations and carvings around them. Some of the jalandhras are carved with the themes from the Hindu epics and ancient Indian texts, such as Puranas.

The jalandra on the left section of the main entrance facade has a sculptural relief depicting the court of King Vishnuvardana and the right section has the relief depicting the court of King Vira Ballala.

South Entrance

South entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
South entrance of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple

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 jalandhra, which is on the right side, and it depicts the story of Narasimha, one of the avatars of Vishnu, slaying Hiranyakashipu in a gruesome manner by ripping off his entrails with his bare claws. The left side jalandhra was most-likley destroyed, so it is now closed with stones.

North Entrance

North entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
North entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur

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 dwarapalakas of Vishnu. In this entrance also, there is only one jalandhra, which is on the left side, and the right side window is closed with stones. The jalandhra on this entrance doesn’t have a sculptural relief but has a beautiful pattern of square holes.

Side Section

There are four sections each between the main entrance and the south and north entrances. Each section has jalandhras and bracket figures. Here are some of the important sculptural reliefs and carvings.

Maha Vishnu

Vishnu reclining on Sheshanaga - A beautifully carved relief on a Jalandhra in the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
Vishnu reclining on Sheshanaga

The jalandhra shown in the image is located on the fourth section of the wall from the main entrance. It has several square holes surrounded by carvings that include beautiful patterns, figures from the Hindu epics, and the main sculptural relief, i.e., reclining Vishnu.

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 jewelry all over the body. He is lying down in a relaxed manner on Adishesha, the seven-headed king of serpents, who appears to be floating on an ocean. Vishnu’s facial expression also shows his relaxed mood as his wife Lakshmi massages his left foot.

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 jalandhra, there is a frieze with some avatars of Vishnu.

Avatars of Vishnu carved on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
Avatars of Vishnu carved on a frieze on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple

The frieze depicts six of the ten avatars of Vishnu. Here is the list from left to right:

  1. Kurma Avatara – Turtle
  2. Matsya Avatara – Fish
  3. Mohini Avatara – Mohini
  4. Narasimha Avatara – Man – lion
  5. Varaha Avatara– Wild boar
  6. Rama Avatara – Rama

Bracket Figures

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.

  • Darpana Sundari - A bracket figure mounted on a pillar at the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
  • Shuka Bhasini - Shilabalike talking to her pet parrot
  • Tribhangi - A dolu playing shilabalike with the tribhanga dancing pose mounted on a pillar of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
  • Belur Chennakeshava Temple -Sculpture of a dolu playing dancer mounted on a pillar on the south side
  • Kapala Durga - A bracket figure mounted on the exterior wall of the Chennakeshava Temple, Belur, Karnataka
  • Naatya Sundari, the dancing madanike at the main entrance - A bracket figure mounted on a pillar at the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
  • Madanike chasing a monkey - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Nagna Sundari (Nude Beauty) looking at the scorpian- A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Kesha Sundari - Madanike styling her long hair -A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Madanike hunting a bird - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Mango plucking Madanike - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Tribhangi - A dolu playing shilabalike with the tribhanga pose mounted on a pillar of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
  • Sculpture of a flute playing male musician mounted on a pillar on the south side of Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
  • Dolu playing male musician - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Narthala - Male dancer playing the dolu (drum) - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Darpana Sundari - A bracket figure mounted on a pillar at the main entrance of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
  • Koravanji, the fortune teller - A shilabalike mounted on a pillar on the exterior wall of the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
  • Naatya Sundari - Madanike with a perfect dance pose - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Naatya Sundari - Madanike with a traditional dancing stance - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Madanike holding a betel leaf and pankah (fan) - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Betegarthi (Huntress) - Proud madanike after a successful hunt - A bracket figure mounted on a rightmost pillar on the northern entrance of Belur Chennakeshava Temple, Krnataka, India
  • Goddess Durga - A bracket figure mounterd on the exterior wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Gaana Sundari playing the taala (manjira) - A bracket figure mounterd on the facade of the main entrance of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
  • Bracket figure - Natya Sundari (Dancing Beauty) - Lizard chasing a fly in the background mounted on a pillar at the north entrance of Belur Chennakeshava Temple, Karnataka, India

Related Pages: Bracket Figures, Garbhagriha Outer Wall

Copyright © 2019 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.

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