The Chennakeshava Temple, also known as the Keshava, Kesava or Vijayanarayana Temple of Belur, is a 12th century Hindu temple in the Hassan district of the state of Karnataka, India. It was commissioned by King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 CE, on the banks of the Yagachi River in Belur, also called Velapura, one of the first capitals of the Hoysala Empire. The temple was built over three generations and took 103 years to complete. It was repeatedly damaged and looted during wars, repeatedly rebuilt and repaired throughout its history. It is located 35 km from Hassan city and about 200 km from Bangalore.
Chennakesava (literally, “handsome Kesava”) is a form of the Hindu god Vishnu. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu and has been an active Hindu temple since its founding. It is reverently described in medieval Hindu texts and remains an important pilgrimage site in Vaishnavism. The temple stands out for its architecture, sculptures, reliefs, friezes as well as for its iconography, inscriptions and history. The temple artwork depicts scenes from secular life in the 12th century, dancers and musicians, as well as a pictorial narration of Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas through numerous friezes. It is a Vaishnava temple that reverently includes many themes from Shaivism and Shaktism, as well as images of a Jina from Jainism and the Buddha from Buddhism. The Chennakeshava Temple is a testament to the artistic, cultural and theological perspectives in 12th century South India and the rule of the Hoysala Empire.
The Belur temple complex along with the nearby Hindu and Jain temples at Halebidu have been proposed to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
The Chennakeshava temple is located in Belur taluk in the Hassan district of the Indian state of Karnataka. It is located about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Hassan. The temple is about 16 kilometers (9.9 miles) from the Halebidu temples. Belur does not have an airport nearby and is located about 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of Bengaluru (IATA code: BLR), about a 3.5 hour drive accessible by a four-lane NH75 highway. Hassan is the closest town near Belur which is connected by a railway network to the main cities of Karnataka.
The Chennakeshava Temple is an active Hindu temple and an important Vaishnava pilgrimage site. It is located on the banks of the Yagachi River (also called the Badari River in historical texts), a tributary of the Hemavati River.
The Hoysala period of South Indian history began around 1000 CE and continued until 1346 CE. In this period, they built around 1,500 temples in 958 centers. Belur is called Beluhur, Velur or Velapura in ancient inscriptions and texts from medieval times. It was the first capital of the Hoysala kings. The city was so esteemed by the Hoysalas that it is known as “earthly Vaikuntha” (the abode of Vishnu) and “dakshina Varanasi” (southern holy city of the Hindus) in later inscriptions.
One of the Hoyasala kings was Vishnuvardhana, who came to power in 1110 CE. He commissioned the Chennakeshava temple dedicated to Vishnu in 1117 CE, a temple considered to be one of the “five foundations” of his legacy. According to Dhaky, a student of Indian temple architecture and history, this temple reflects the growing opulence, political power, deep spiritual dedication to Ramanujacharya’s Sri Vaishnavism, and is his masterpiece. The main temple is called Vijaya-Narayana and the smaller temple next to it built by its queen Santala Devi is called Chennakesava in the inscriptions of her time, but these two temples are now called the Chennakesava temple and the Chennigaraya temple respectively.
The main Chennakeshava temple at Belur was completed and consecrated in 1117 CE, although the complex continued to expand for 100 years. Vishnuvardhana moved the capital from him to Dorasamudra, (also known as Dvarasamudra, now Halebidu), famous for the Hoysaleswara Temple dedicated to Shiva. Construction of it continued until his death in 1140 CE. His legacy was continued by his descendants who completed the Hoysaleswara Temple in 1150 CE, and other temples some 200 kilometers away, such as the Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura in 1258 CE. The Hoysala employed many prominent architects and craftsmen who developed a new architectural tradition, which art historian Adam Hardy calls the Karnata Dravida tradition.
The Hoysala Empire and its capital were invaded, looted, and destroyed in the early 14th century by Malik Kafur, a commander of the Delhi Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khalji. Belur and Halebidu became the target of looting and destruction in 1326 CE by another army from the Delhi Sultanate. The territory was taken by the Vijayanagara Empire. The Hoysala style, claims James C. Harle, came to an end in the mid-14th century, when the King of Hoysala, Veera Ballala III, died in a war with the Muslim sultanate of Madurai followed by his son.
Historians have found 118 inscriptions in the temple complex, dated between 1117 CE and the 18th century, providing a history of the temple, grants given to the Chennakeshava temple for its maintenance and repairs during later times.
- An inscription found on the east wall near the north entrance to the temple’s main mandapa (hall) indicates that Vishnuvardhana commissioned the temple for the god Vijayanarayana in 1117 CE. Some historians have interpreted this inscription to indicate that the Chennakeshava temple was completed in 1117 CE.
- The Chennigaraya Temple was built at the same time as the main temple and was sponsored by the Queen.
- The original temple had no boundary wall. The main mandapa was also open for devotees to view and appreciate the intricate carvings within the temple. For the security of the temple, a high wall was built around the temple, a wooden and brick entrance and doors added by Somayya Danayaka during the rule of Veera Ballala III (1292-1343), as well as the open mandapa covered with screens of perforated stone. The new screens darkened the interior of the temple making it difficult to see the artwork, but allowed enough light for the garbha griya darshana.
- Ballala II in 1175 CE added temple buildings for the kitchen and grain storage in the southeast corner, and a water tank in the northeast corner of the temple.
- Narasimha I of the Hoysala dynasty made grants to the temple for its maintenance and operation.
- The temple was stormed, damaged, and its entrance burned in an assault by a Muslim general Salar and his army working for Muhammed bin Tughlaq (1324-1351).
- The temple was repaired by the Vijayanagara Empire with the patronage of Harihara II (1377-1404). In 1381, they added four granite pillars; in 1387, Malagarasa added a gold-plated kalasa to a new tower above the sanctuary; he added a new seven-story brick gopurum in 1397 replacing the destroyed front door.
- An Andal shrine, the Saumyanayaki shrine, the dipa-stambha at the entrance, the Rama and Narasimha shrines were added during the era of the Vijayanagara Empire.
- The Vijayanagara Empire sponsored the addition of smaller shrines dedicated to the goddesses and the Naganayakana mandapa within the temple complex. These were built by collecting the war ruins from other demolished temples in the Belur area and reusing them.
- The main temple had a shikara (superstructure tower) but now it is missing and the temple appears flat. The original tower, the inscriptions suggest, was made from a combination of wood, brick, and mortar. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times.
- The temple facilities were again damaged after the destruction of the Vijayanagara Empire by a coalition of sultanates. The first repairs were made in 1709, followed by additions in 1717 and 1736. The temple was repaired in 1774 by a Hyder Ali official during a period when Hyder Ali was the de facto ruler on behalf of the Wadiyar dynasty.
- At the end of the 19th century, the tower that collapsed over the sanctuary was removed to save the lower levels and was never replaced. In 1935, parts of the temple were cleaned and restored with funding from the Mysore government and grants from the Wadiyar dynasty. The Chennigaraya Shrine was rebuilt, new images of Ramanuja and Garuda were added along with many other facility improvements and repairs to the complex. These repairs were inscribed in stone for a historical record, just like the earlier inscriptions.
The Chennakeshava complex at Belur consists of a 443.5-foot by 396-foot courtyard with various Hindu temples and minor shrines within a walled enclosure. The complex is entered from the east through a Gopuram added during the Vijayanagar empire era repairs. The temples and monuments that are within the walled enclosure are:
- Chennakesava Temple, also called Kesava Temple, is the main temple. It is in the middle of the complex, facing east, in front of the gopuram. Including improvements added later, it measures 178 feet by 156 feet. The temple stands on a wide platform terrace about 3 feet high. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu in the form of Kesava.
- South of the Kesava Temple is the Kappe Chennigaraya Temple which measures 124 feet by 105 feet. It has two shrines inside, one dedicated to Venugopala and the other to Chennigaraya (Chennakeshava’s local popular name, Vishnu). The temple is called Kappe Chennigaraya because, according to a local legend, a Kappe (frog) was once found near its navel. This smaller temple was built by the queen at the same time as the main temple, and is believed to be a similar smaller version.
- A stone slab with a couple standing side by side in a namaste posture under a canopy. The monument is damaged.
- To the west of the Kesava temple is the Viranarayana temple which measures 70 feet by 56 feet. It is a small but complete temple with a navaranga (room of nine squares) and a garbha griya (shrine) with 59 large reliefs on the outer walls. These reliefs are dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Bhairava (angry Shiva), Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati and others. Some panels depict the story of Bhima from the Mahabharata. The temple also dates from the 12th century.
- To the southwest of the Kesava temple there is a small Somyanayaki temple (form of the goddess Lakshmi), which also dates from the 12th century. However, the temple was later expanded and improved. This temple is notable in that local tradition holds that its tower is a miniature version of the main tower that once towered over the main Kesava temple.
- The Andal Temple, also called the Ranganayaki Shrine, is located northwest of the Kesava Temple. Its outer wall is decorated with works of art such as elephants and nature. It also displays 31 large images of deities from the Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism. It also has intricately carved Venugopala, Mohini, and Lakshmi, as well as friezes showing legends in the Puranas.
- The complex has several small shrines. To the east of the Kappe-Chennigaraya temple are shrines to Narasimha, Rama, Jiyar and Alvars of Bhakti movement fame. To the east of the Andal temple are shrines to Krishna and Vaishnavism scholars Desikar, Bhashyakara and Ramanuja of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta fame. At the base of the Alvars shrines there are friezes showing stories from the Ramayana. Some of these shrines were added later because few of these scholars, like Desikar, lived after the 12th century.
- In the temple complex there are two main sthambha (pillars). The pillar facing the main temple, the Garuda (eagle) sthambha was erected in the Vijayanagar period, while the pillar on the right, the Deepa sthambha (pillar with a lamp) dates from the Hoysala period. Near the Viranarayana temple there is a mandapa where temple vehicles and ratha from the annual procession have traditionally been stored. It is called vahana mandapa. The complex also has a kalyana-mandapa in the southeast corner for ceremonies. It was added in the 17th century.
- A barn to store food reserves is located in the northwestern corner of the complex. There is a smaller north gate to the complex, near which is a community kitchen or pakasale built in the 13th century. A stepped water tank, called kalyani or Vasudeva-sarovara in the inscriptions, stands in the northeast corner with two stone elephants on its side.
The temple has an ekakuta vimana (single shrine) design measuring 10.5 m by 10.5 m in size. It combines elements of North Indian Nagara and South Indian Karnata style architecture. The temple sits on a wide, open platform designed to be a circumambulatory path around the sanctuary. The temple and platform had no walls and the platform surrounded an open blanket, following the outline of the temple. A visitor would have been able to see the ornate pillars of the open blanket from the platform. Later stone walls and partitions were added, creating a closed lobby and blanket, providing security but creating too much darkness to appreciate the works of art inside. The vestibule connects the circumambulatory platform to the mandapa. There are complex and abundant works of art both outside and inside the temple.
The temple has a simple plan of Hoysala and has a shrine. The building material used in the Chennakesava temple is chlorite schist, better known as soapstone. It is smooth when pulled out and allows artists to carve details more easily. Over time, the material hardens. This Hoysala temple, according to the art critic and historian Settar, displayed the western Chalukyan artists and their tradition that originally developed in Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal. It is simpler than the later Hoysala temples (including the Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu and the Keshava temple at Somanathapura).
The temple is built on a jagati (literally, “worldly”), a symbolic worldly platform with ample walking space to bypass (pradakshina-patha). There is a flight of steps leading to the jagati and another flight of steps to the mantapa. The jagati gives the devotee the opportunity to do a pradakshina around the temple before entering. The jagati carefully follows the staggered square design of the blanket and the star shape of the shrine.
The visitor sees numerous works of art during the bypass of the temple on the jagati platform in horizontal bands. The lower band is of elephants with different expressions, as symbolic supporters of the entire structure. On top is an empty cape, followed by cornice work with a periodical lion face. Above it is another band of parchment and then a cornice band, except at the back of the temple where a row of horsemen is depicted in various riding positions.
The fifth sculpted band is of small figurines, mostly women with various expressions facing the viewer, while periodically the band includes Yakshas looking into the temple. This cape also features numerous dancers and musicians, as well as professionals with their tools. The upper band has pilasters between some of which are carved secular figures of mostly women and couples. A band of nature and vines wraps the temple above the band of pilasters, with scenes from the epic of the Ramayana included in this band. On this layer are scenes of common life that represent kama, artha and dharma. Couples in courtship, eroticism and sexual scenes are included here, followed by couples with children, economic and festive activities. Towards the north outer wall, friezes with scenes from the Mahabharata are depicted.
Above these bands is a later construction that added 10 windows and perforated stone screens on the north side and 10 on the south side of the temple. Later artists recorded scenes from the Purana in ten of these later additions, and the other ten have geometric floral designs. Perforated character displays show:
- Hoysala court scene, with the king, queen, officers, assistants and two gurus with their students.
- Kesava with Hanuman and Garuda,
- the dwarf Vamana, the legend of Bali and Trivikrama,
- the legend Prahlada, Hiranyakashipu, and Narasimha (notable for the Thenkalai namam style Urdhava pundra symbols on Prahlada’s forehead),
- the legend of Krishna Kaliyamardana, Shiva in Nandi with Ganesha and Kartikeya,
- Yoga-Narasimha with Hanuman and Garuda,
- the legend of Krishna killing Kamsa,
- Hanuman and Garuda fighting over the legend of Shiva’s linga.
On the perforated screens, on the capitals of the supporting pillars, there are figures of madanakai (Salabhanjika). There were originally 40 madanakai, of which 38 have survived damaged or in good shape. Two of them are Durga, three hunters (with bow), others are dancers in Natya Shastra abhinaya mudra (performance posture), musicians, women wearing or making up, a woman with a pet parrot, men making music. Most of these madanakai figures are also carved into miniatures on the sixth band of the outer wall around the pradakshina patha.
The wall also features 80 large reliefs around the temple. Of these 32 are from Vishnu, 9 from his avatars (Narasimha, Varaha, Vamana, Ranganatha, Balarama); 4 of Shiva in various forms including Nataraja (with or without Parvati); 2 of Bhairava (Shiva); Harihara 2 (half Shiva, half Vishnu); 4 of Surya (god of the sun); 5 by Durga and Mahishasuramardini; 1 from Kama and Rati; 1 of Ganesha, Brahma, Saraswati, Garuda and Chandra. Other important reliefs are those of Arjuna shooting an arrow to win over Draupadi; Ravana raising the Kailasha; Daksha, Bali and Sukracharya.
Some of the statues present exceptional details. For example, a madanakai figure is shown with the canopy of a fruit tree, where a small fly is shown sitting on the fruit and near a lizard preparing to jump on the fly. In another, an eagle is shown attacking a sarabha, which in turn attacks a lion, which in turn pounces on an elephant, which in turn is grabbing a snake, which in turn is shown in the act of swallow a rat – a show that includes a brooding sage. In these images, secular life is shown, like an artist drawing a drawing or musicians lost in his music. A notable image is the 12th century depiction of Rudra-vina and a Lasya dance pose. Also included is the image of a Jina from Jainism.
The outer wall on the side of the eastern entrance to the interior of the temple shows Bhairava and Durga. The outer wall on the south entrance side of the temple shows Tandavesvara and Brahmani. The outer sides of the north entrance to the temple show Vishnu and Mahishasuramardini.
The Chennakesava temple has three entrances and its portals have decorated sculptures called dvarapalaka (gatekeepers) on each side. The central hall (navaranga) was originally open on all sides except the west where the sanctuary is, but all sides were later closed with perforated partitions. This significantly reduced the amount of light and the intricate artwork is difficult to appreciate without secondary light. The artwork begins at the entrance to the three entrances to the room. Each one leads to elevated terraces on both sides. The hall has carved pillars with a large vaulted ceiling in the center. The mandapa has 60 “bays” (compartments).
Pillars and roof
The Navaranga room has 48 pillars. All except the central four are carved in a unique way. The central four are later additions, added in 1381 CE during the era of the Vijayanagara Empire, to support the internal structure of a damaged temple. The pillars are of 3 sizes. Two pillars stand out in particular. One is the so-called Narasimha pillar, which is carved with miniature figures from top to bottom, like a tiny bull (kadale basava). Local legend says that this pillar was once able to rotate due to how it was supported, but it can no longer be rotated. The other pillar is the Mohini pillar. In addition to the female avatar of Vishnu, the pillar has 8 bands of carvings, including those of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, then ten avatars of Vishnu, the deities of 8 directions, mythical animals with the body of a lion but the face of another life wild. . The 4 central pillars stand out for having been carved by hand while the others were turned.
In the center of the room is a large open plaza, above which is a vaulted ceiling about 10 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. At the top is a lotus bud with Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva carved on it. At the bottom of the dome there is a series of friezes with the story of the Ramayana. On the capitals of the four pillars there are madanikas (Salabhanjika). One depicts Saraswati dancing, the Hindu god of knowledge, arts, and music. The others are regular dancers, but with different expressions. One is combing her hair, the other in a Natya pose, and the fourth has a parrot sitting on her hand. The stone jewelry for the head and neck are freely mounted and can be moved. The bracelets are also mobile. The ceiling design follows Hindu texts and is a modified utksipta style with images placed in concentric rings.
Other reliefs within the room include large images of avatars of Vishnu, friezes from the Vedic and Puranic stories, and more scenes from the Ramayana.
The temple had a tower, which was repeatedly damaged and destroyed, rebuilt and restored. In the restorations of the 19th century, the temple was left without a tower. According to Foekema, the tower when it existed would have been of the Bhumija style when it existed and not the regular star-shaped tower that followed the shape of the vimana. The Bhumija Towers, which are intact in the miniature shrines at the entrance to the hall, are actually a kind of nagara tower (North India), curvilinear in shape, a rather uncommon tower shape in purely Dravidian architecture .