Belur and Halebid
These two towns in Hassan district of Karnataka are 16 kilometres apart, yet both these names are invariably mentioned together when it comes to tourism in that state. Belur and Halebid (Halebidu, mostly) present such wonders of temple architecture in India that is a unique example of the grandeur of a vibrant culture of the Hoysala dynasty. Two famous ancient temples, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are situated there.
The Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
Chennakeshava means ‘beautiful Keshava’. This temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Construction of the temple was commissioned (to commemorate some victories in battlefields) in 1117 CE and it took 103 years to complete. They say the temple had a tower (Vimana) which was dismantled sometime in 1879 keeping in view safety of the structure. There is an example of part destruction of the famous Black Pagoda (The Sun Temple) at Konark in Orissa which got severely damaged owing to an unstable highrise top. Now the Chennakeshava temple is flat roofed.
There are approximately ten thousand sculptures and figures adorning every inch of the temple walls. Most of the sculpted figures are three dimensional and done completely without any patch of roughness anywhere on them. Tales from Hindu mythology are beautifully carved. There are various gods and goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon as are scenes of wars, dancing, hunting and daily chores of life. Then there are celestial dancers, courtesans, musicians and monkeys and other animals decorating the exteriors of the temple. This one is a live temple, worshiping is still in practice inside the temple.
What remarkably stands out is the filigree work done on granite. One wonders at the skill of the artisans and sculptors who so patiently carved out very minute details with so much of intricacy and finery. It must have taken at least three generations of artisans and sculptors to complete the mammoth task of carving out the stone figures. Wonder how over so many years they could have synchronised it so well and smoothly conducted the construction work according to the lay out plan.
It is a star shaped foundation plan with raised platform. A frieze panel, up to approximately four feet height, with figures of elephants, tigers, boars and other weird animals and creatures runs all along the base.
The Devadasi tradition had been constantly followed in India wherein the temple women practised customary singing and dancing in most of the prominent temples. Here too. This temple continued with practice of dancing girls till recent past. However, presently the practice stands abandoned.
Halebid / Halebidu means old capital. The Hoysalas abandoned their capital in favour of Belur after it was twice ransacked in 1311 and 1327 by the Sultans of Delhi. There is a history of vandalism by Muslim rulers and examples galore. Whether the destruction they carried out was a result of religious fundamentalism or jealousy and hatred arising out of incompetence can’t be said conclusively but the fact remains that Muslim rulers invaded rival kingdoms and razed to the ground monuments, temples and other structures of grandeur. Hampi (the erstwhile Vijayanagra, not far from here) is the one blatant evidence of such a savagery.
This temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is in fact two shrines done on the one platform. The guide was telling me that there were twenty thousand figures in those twin structures. This temple also took 100 years to complete. The sculpted work is at par with that of Belur. In fact, life size statues of the Dwarpalas (door keepers) are awesome and surpass those at Belur.Particularly the life size figures of the Dwarpalas in black granite present the exquisite artisanship of those times. The filigree work is as exquisite as at Belur. The ornaments and dresses done to very fine details present a mesmerising three dimensional visual delight. The same masterpieces of the frieze panels adorn this temple too. However, there are no bracket figures in this temple and this is not a functional temple. There are two halls (mandapas) each with a huge statue of Nandi – the bull Shiva rode.
Make Hassan your base and keep one full day at your disposal. There are very good hotels and transportation available. The hotel can arrange you a car (Rs 1000) for a trip to both these destinations. However, the best mode of transportation is the Karnataka State Road Transport buses that ply in plenty. Catch a bus to Belur (40 Km, Rs 30) and enjoy the lush green countryside for about 45 – 50 minutes before disembarking at the bus stand barely 250 metres from the Chennakeshava temple. The guide would charge you Rs 200 for about 40 – 45 minutes of parroting. Photography is not prohibited and you can make liberal use of your equipment.
Stay there till 12 or 1 pm and post lunch catch a bus to Halebid (17 km, Rs 15, 25 minutes). The temple is just opposite the bus stand. Here also the guide will charge you Rs 200. Photograph extensively. There is a museum in the lawns of the temple. Entry fee is Rs 5 only but you can’t take photographs even in the open ground where about 30 sculpted figures are on display. They have a good collection of artwork in stone.
Catch a bus to Hassan (32 Km, Rs 25) and you are left with enough time to take rest and plan for your time ahead.
Winter, commonly, is the best season (Oct – Feb) to visit any place in the southern part of India. However, I went there in August 2011 and at that time weather was just excellent for travelling.