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India: Medieval Hoysala Archaeology of Belur and Halebid

Of all the different historic sites we visited in India, the Hoysala temple complexes at Belur and Halebid were probably the most jaw-dropping. We'd already seen elegant Islamic tombs and highly decorated mosques in northern Karnataka, serene rock-cut Hindu and Jain cave temples at Badami and a crazy Muslim-Hindu-Buddhist fusion in the 16th century sacred city of Vijayanagara (Hampi), set in stark granite surroundings.

But the Hoysala sites encapsulated my imagined ideas of almost fractal levels of detail in classic Hindu architecture. We visited Belur first, and then Halebid, which was the right order as the second managed to surpass the first in astonishing carving and stonework.

Following are highlights of these two fantastic sites.

The temple complex of Chennakesava at Belur is 12th century. The temple here is not yet classic Hoysala architecture, as typified at Halebid in the intensity of decoration, but it is still incredibly impressive in the amount of carving, and especially the female carvings. The stone used for the temple is a form of schist (soapstone), permitting very fine working and smooth finishes.
The shape of the temple is of a star, with a large platform allowing you to walk around the outside and see the horizontal banded carvings up close.

Temple facade, Belur
  The temple would apparently have originally been open, with the 48 pillars inside the central area (mantapa) being visible from outside on the platform. The pierced stone screens were added several decades after the temple was first built. There probably was also a tower originally on top of the main temple.

The tower-like top of a miniature shrine at one entrance to the main temple.

Side of temple with horizontal friezes, Belur

Small Ganesha shrine on outside of temple, Belur

Temple facade carvings, including madanikas, idealised female figures dancing and playing music. Some are said to be representations of a Hoysala queen, Shantaladevi.

One carving of a dancing idealized female, Belur temple.
Closeup showing beautiful carving of dancer's foot pose and clothing. Belur

Belur temple compund and main gate, in Dravidian style which was added later by the Vijayanagara rulers of Hampi.

Amazing carved Narasimha pillar inside Belur temple, with pigments applied during current use. It's very tall, and supposedly used to rotate on ball bearings. In the background is one of the massive lathed stone pillars.

Idealized female figure, sthamba buttalika, with 'golden ratio' proportions in her face and body, on a pillar inside the main temple, Belur.

Old carved gaming board on the floor of the main temple, Belur, a common sight at many historic and religious sites we visited, showing that they have been living places for centuries.

Temple compound, Belur. We visited on a Saturday when the weekly religious celebration was taking place hence many local visitors as well as tourists.


The Hoysaleswara temple complex at Halebid, only a short drive from Belur, managed to be even more ornate, although it is broadly contemporary. This is obvious from the facade below, showing more figurative elements that that at Belur, but the side panels of the temple were also more heavily worked with taller horizontal friezea of carvings. Large figures of gods and goddesses also features more prominently around the sides of the temple, and the guardians by the main doors were larger and very intricately carved. Over 600 elephants are found on the bottom frieze, all of them supposed to be unique, and certainly the ones I examined were all different.
As at Belur, the original towers like those found at Somnathpura are missing, and the structure was originally open with pierced screens added later.

Temple facade at Halebid, showing guardians by the door.

Horizontal friezes of carving at Halebid main temple. Many parts were damaged when the town was attacked by Islamic conquerers in the 1400s.

Interior of main temple at Halebid. The floor was polished smooth by centuries of bare feet.

Interior ceiling of Halebid temple.

Interior ceiling and  massive pillars, said to have been carved using lathes powered by elephants at Halebid temple.

Sides of Halebid main temple, showing horizontal friezes and large carved gods and goddesses. The temple shape in plan-form is that of a star.

Some of the gods and goddesses above the horizontal carvings on the sides of the temple at Halebid.

Temples carvings at Halebid, showing the incredible detail in even the small images of the freizes.

Detail of horizontal carvings at Halebid temple. Bottom right includes old Kannada script, the name of the artisan who carved that section.

Detail of monkey carvings on exterior of Halebid temple.

Me next to one of the Halebid temple guardians to show the scale.

Detail of Halebid temple guardian, showing the extraordinary intricacy of the carvings.


Mayur A. Shah said…
Good Photography!!!
!ncredible India!!!
Thank you! Lots more to come...

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