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Darpan Sundari and Chennakesava’s abode at Belur Karnataka ( The Chennakesava Temple )

Chennakesava’s abode at Belur
Photographed By Bikash R Das

Jakkanaachari squatted on a stone slab as he applied some finishing touches to his most recent soapstone masterpiece. His students stood around his worktable, watching their master skillfully sign his name at the bottom of the shilabalika sculpture. Jakkanaachari stood up and wiped his sweaty forehead, delighted with his work at the under-construction temple complex of Belur. He gestured a royal guard to book his appointment with the King and Queen to present his sculpture for his majesties’ viewing and approval. 

Meanwhile, King Vishnuvardhana sat in a cream coloured tent at the edge of the Belur temple site. Squinting his eyes, he peered at the half-built temple slowly rising in the horizon, as muffled thuds and clangs of the construction activity echoed in his ears. Seated beside him, Queen Shantala Devi was debating with her Shilpa Shastris about the procurement of soapstone from the nearby quarries. Their conversation was interrupted by a royal guard as he announced the arrival of Jakkanaachari, the chief sculptor, to present the daily progress report. Shantala Devi and Vishnuvardhana smiled at each other and immediately dismissed everyone as they excitedly waited to view one sculptural marvel after another and approve their installment at the Vijayanarayana Temple.

The Chennakesava Temple in Belur, Karnataka
The Chennakesava Temple in Belur, Karnataka 

The ancient land of Karnatadesham or the present-day southern Indian state of Karnataka is the home of innumerable historical legacies of several dynasties that have flowered over time. A treasure trove of mineral resources, biological diversity and geographical distinctiveness, Karnataka naturally was an important territory for any monarchical dynasty that wanted to establish control in the Dravida lands. The 11
th century saw the rise of one of the wealthiest and militarily powerful dynasties in the region, known as the Hoysalas. Their contribution to the rise of urbanism was naturally supported by an explosive zeal in architectural and infrastructural development. The city of Belur is home to one of the most acclaimed Hoysala accomplishment, the Chennakesava temple.
Floor Plan of the Chennakesava Temple, Belur
Floor Plan of the Chennakesava Temple, Belur
The Chennakesava temple is one of the finest examples of the Vesara style of temple-building, a harmonious amalgamation of the northern (Nagara) and southern (Dravida) styles. The Chennakesava temple is essentially a complex of several buildings enclosed within a boundary of pillared pavilions. The temple was commissioned in 1116 AD by King Vishnuvardhana to mark his victory over the Cholas in Talakadu. Although the early Hoysalas were Chalukya feudatories, Vishnuvardhana was the first king to properly formalize the Hoysalas as an independent dynasty. His reign was marked by brilliant military campaigns and wealth accumulation, which were necessary for luxury activities like large scale temple building. Infact he commissioned five Vishnu temples simultaneously that were collectively known as Panchanarayana.



The panchanarayana include Vijayanarayana at Belur, Cheluvanarayana Temple at Melukote, Nambinarayana at Todanur, Veeranarayana at Gadag and Keertinarayana at Talakadu.

King Vishnuvardhana, as depicted in Chennakesava temple. Notice the hairdo, crown, beard and the sword.
King Vishnuvardhana, as depicted in Chennakesava temple. Notice the hairdo, crown, beard and the sword.

The temple was initially known as Vijayanarayana temple (which is also the name mentioned in contemporary inscriptions and on the statue base) but eventually the name ‘handsome Vishnu’, or Chennakesava became prevalent among the masses.



Architecturally speaking the temple entrance faces east and is entered through a large five storey gateway or ‘Gopuram’ which was added later under the rule of Vijayanaga King Krishnadevaraya after the destruction of Malik Kafur’s invasion of Belur. The root words ‘Go’ and ‘puram’ essentially means ‘place as holy as a cow’ and is marked by the depiction of two horns protruding from the top of the tower. The entrance gateway which is larger in height than the temple itself is a classic feature of Dravida temple. The entrance further features the ‘Garudagambha’ or the ‘Dhwajastambha’ which houses the statue of ‘Garuda’, the legendary carrier of Lord Vishnu to whom the temple is dedicated.

The Gopuram Gateway built by Krishnadevaraya and the Garuda stambha
The Gopuram Gateway built by Krishnadevaraya and the Garuda stambha

The temple rests on a high base pedestal of ‘mantapa’ which heavily decorated with intricate carvings, panels and geometric designs that run horizontally across its length. Unlike Nagara temples where the temple tower or ‘shikhara’ is placed atop the main antechamber, the Chennakesava temple has several small idol carrying shikhars that are placed at the entry steps. 

The entrance of the Chennakesava temple. Notice the small shikhar towers on either side, usually placed atop the temple roof
The entrance of the Chennakesava temple. Notice the small shikhar towers on either side, usually placed atop the temple roof

Sectional study of the mantapa shows the lowest level containing miniature sculptures of approx. 664 elephants. The astonishing part about these elephant rows is that not one elephant is similar to other and each is uniquely carved in terms of its posture, position of legs, facial expressions, accessories. Some observes have also noticed ears flapping variously. They symbolically carry the ‘weight’ of the temple which is shaped like a huge chariot or ‘ratha’.

The carved horizontal layers of the mantapa. Notice the elephants at the base followed by fighting warriors, horses, decorative foliage, dancers etc.
The carved horizontal layers of the mantapa. Notice the elephants at the base followed by fighting warriors, horses, decorative foliage, dancers etc.

The upper layers of the mantapa features heavily intricate lace patterns carved in stones, panels of Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vishnu Purana and other popular references from non-religious or secular themes. Basically, the carved beauty of the mantapa cannot be described in words, one actually has to visit to truly admire it’s beauty! However, we see several objects like knives, weapons, jewels, musical instruments that provide a broad overview of the technical developments of the time. The outer sculptures of the temple are divided roughly into two parts, the part closer to the entrance features objects, people and scenes from the real world and appropriately named ‘Jeevatma’ or ‘essence of the living’ and the other part ‘Parmatma’ featuring stories related to the gods and goddeses.


The minute details of the pedastal base of Chennakesava temple, all carved out of soapstone
The minute details of the pedastal base of Chennakesava temple, all carved out of soapstone

Unlike Vijayanagara architecture, the Hoysala Chennakesava temple pedestal base is not square or rectangular but rather is ‘Nakshatra’ or star shaped. While the Chennakesava temple has thirty-two edges (to make it look like a chariot) the one at Halebidu has sixty-four edges! Not only that, unlike the traditional temples where the passage for circumambulation around the main deity is inside the main structure, the Chennakesava has an extended base so devotees can circulate around the main building and not within it. This would also explain the placement of the surprisingly ornate and intricate sculptures outside, so as to offer a nice view while encircling the temple on foot.

The Chennakesava Temple Facade, notice the zig-zag star shaped base mantapa.
The Chennakesava Temple Facade, notice the zig-zag star shaped base mantapa.

There are over ten thousand sculptures in the Chennakesava temple alone. The temple is chemically treated once every ten years to undo the effect of wind and humidity. The temple is carved from a unique material, named soapstone. Quarried from the mines in Karnataka, the soapstone is comparatively softer at the time of its extraction and eventually hardens over time with exposure to atmosphere. This is one of the main reasons why the unbelievably intricate Hoysala styles came into being. Moreover, the temple is ‘assembled’ i.e. no joining material or mortar was used, rather the stones were ‘interlocked’ together. The soapstone also exists in different natural colours like jet black, midnight blue, yellow, brown etc. which would explain the varying shades of the panels (cancels the theory of later additions in different time periods) and the almost metallic sheen of the sculptures.

The Chennakesava exterior. Notice the colour changes in the soapstone and bluish tinges on the left
The Chennakesava exterior. Notice the colour changes in the soapstone and bluish tinges on the left

Coming back to the main entrance, one can see two identical Hoysala emblems placed symmetrically on either side of the doorway. It features the well-known story of the beginning of the Hoysalas, where we see Sala, the first King killing a tiger with a sharpened spear. The term Hoysala comes from the phrase ‘Poy, Sala!’ in Hale Kannada meaning ‘Kill, Sala!’ and is said to be uttered by a sage who ordered Sala to kill the rogue tiger in question. Many differing and highly creative versions of the story exist, but the truth remains that this visual of the origin of their name was chosen as the emblem and was frequently featured in architecture, sculpture, coins and Hoysala flags.

Sala killing the tiger, the Hoysala emblem
Sala killing the tiger, the Hoysala emblem

The top of the temple entrance features one of the most acclaimed Hoysala panels of all times which is known as the Narasimha of the Makara Panel. This profusely delicate carved panel carries the Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu with Garuda down below. Their figures are covered by a canopy of ten small circles carved out of a single creeper, each carrying an even minute image of the ten avatars of Vishnu within it. Not only that the foliage of the creeper comprises of several interwoven leaves that overlap each other thus creating a glorious perception of depth, length and height, all carved out of a SINGLE stone. We’re told that one can literally insert their fingers within these stone gaps which acted as natural ventilation for the temple interior once the gates are closed.



However, the Makar torana actually gets its name from the fantastica creature called ‘makar’ that is featured on the side. The makar comprises of seven different animals namely lion, pig, crocodile, elephant, cow, monkey and peacock; all fused together and depicts an ancient understanding of ‘fusion’ in art.

The Makar Torana. Notice Garuda and Narasimha in the centre, the ten circles in the leafy foliage and the flanking Makars on either side.
The Makar Torana. Notice Garuda and Narasimha in the centre, the ten circles in the leafy foliage and the flanking Makars on either side.

One of the most famous features that contribute heavily in the popularity of the Chennakesava Temple are the ‘Shilabalikas’ literally meaning ‘stone girls’. But a more apt name to them would be ‘madanikas’ since this particular series of sculptures contains male statues too. All through the outer circumference of the temple, forty major sculptures were placed on a tilted angle of 30-40° for easy viewing (considering the height of the structure). These Shilabalikas are attached to the protruding roof of the temple which is incidentally also congruent to the zig zag base of the mantapa. Two shilabalikas were destroyed in the constant series of invasions this temple faced and therefore 38 exist today.

Devotees circumambulating the temple. The Gopuram entrance a later addition in different colour in the background.

The left side of the temple entrance features the most famous shilabalika, termed ‘Darpan Sundari’ or ‘The Mirror beauty’. Darpan Sundari depicts a beautiful woman, aesthetically decked up in jewellery from head to toe and admiring her beauty in a mirror delicately held in her hand by the metal clamp. The Darpan Sundari features the ‘Ajanta’ hairdo (YES! There were proper names for each of the 648 hairstyles depicted in this temple itself), where the circumference of the hair is larger than the face, thereby giving an appearance of a halo. Even today we can easily obseve the same style in Bharatanatyam and Odissi dance forms.  However, this statue carved entirely out of stone is known for the aesthetic understanding of human body. The jewels around her neck and waist seem to be in centrifugal motion as if the Darpan Sundari is twirling! The Darpan Sundari is also the emblem of Karnataka Tourism.

The Darpan Sundari. Notice the mirror in the left hand, maids on the bottom left, jewellery, and foliage on the top. All carved out of soapstone.
The Darpan Sundari. Notice the mirror in the left hand, maids on the bottom left, jewellery, and foliage on the top. All carved out of soapstone.

Moving forward on the temple exterior we come across the panel depicting King Vishnuvardhana himself (carrying a sword) with Queen Shantala Devi on the left and Acharya Ramanuja on the right and surrounded by what could be courtiers or the general public. Acharya Ramanuja is said to be the one who inspired Vishnuvardhana to be a devoted Vaishnavite (follower of Lord Vishnu) under the ongoing Bhakti movement. Raja Vishnuvardhana infact diverted from the early Hoysalas who were essentially Jaina and became a Vaishnavite. However, this didn’t signify a complete departure from Jainism as inscription continue to show donations to Jaina shrines by the King. Moreover, Queen Shantala Devi was described as a devout Jaina who continued to foster Jaina temples and ‘found joy in tales about the pioneers of Jainism. Shantala Devi also singlehandedly financed another Vishnu temple within the same complex. Even the topmost military generals of Vishnuvardhana were devout Jains who constructed several Jaina shrines in individual capacity.

 King Vishnuvardhana panel. notice Queen Shantala Devi on the right and Acharya Ramanuja on the left
King Vishnuvardhana panel. notice Queen Shantala Devi on the right and Acharya Ramanuja on the left

However, some historians have also interpreted Vishnuvardhana’s strong military campaigns against Ganga Kings in Deccan and Cholas in the South as his opposition to their Jaina and Shaivite inclinations respectively. But this seems impossible considering the fact the Chennakesava Temple complex itself houses innumerable Shaiva pantheon sculptures and few Jaina and Bauddha panels too. Not only that, since we have noticed that Vishnuvardhana’s reign was marked by his attempts to establish Hoysalas as an independent dynasty (and not as Chalukya feudatories) his strong reactions to Gangas and Cholas were possibly to establish his strong political suzerainty in the South and nothing more. This presents a by and large harmonious and tolerant relationship between cults and religions.
by Anand Pendse

Anand Pendse is a student of Department of History, Hindu College, University of Delhi.
( @pendse_anand twitter and @sinoperdark on IG )

Part 2 of the Chennakesava Temple Study coming soon! Follow for updates on part two!!

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