Chennakeshava Temple: A 900-year-old Hoysala marvel in soapstone

Chennakeshava Temple: A 900-year-old Hoysala marvel in soapstone 

Chennakeshava Temple: A 900-year-old Hoysala marvel in stone belur karnataka 30stades

Belur, once the capital of the powerful Hoysala rulers, is renowned for the stunning Chennakeshava Temple (also called Vijaya Narayana Temple). The temple complex in Belur in the Hassan district of present-day Karnataka was built by Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana to commemorate his victory over the Cholas in 1116 AD.

The 12th-century Chennakeshava temple has been on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites for several years. 

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Along with the Chennakeshava temple, the union government has proposed the Somanathapura temple in Mysuru district and Hoysaleshwara temples in Halebid as India’s nominations for the UNESCO World Heritage list for 2022-23. A site visit for technical evaluation is proposed in September or October 2022 and India’s dossier will be taken up for consideration in July or August 2023.

The Chennakeshava temple is one of the finest examples of Hoysala workmanship. The temple is built using soapstone which is soft and suitable for intricate carvings. The workmanship and skill in the carvings are breathtaking.

Situated on the banks of the Yagachi River, the majestic temple is believed to have been constructed by father-son duo Dasoja and Chavana.

Also See: Maluti: Jharkhand’s 17th-century terracotta temples built by royal women to outdo each other

The grand temple complex was built over three generations and took 103 years to complete. 

The temple was destroyed by the Muslim invaders who attacked the Hoysala kingdom. Malik Kafur, a commander of Alauddin Khilji, demolished the temple in 1311 and in 1326, Mohammed Bin Tughlak brought down the remaining structures. Some parts of the temple were restored by later rulers.

Garuda, the carrier of Lord Vishnu, at the entrance of Chennakeshava Temple. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Garuda, the carrier of Lord Vishnu, at the entrance of Chennakeshava Temple. Pic: Flickr

Though a Vaishnava temple, the complex has many sculptures taken from Shaivism, Shaktism, Jainism and Buddhism. 

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The structure is built in the Vijayanagar style and has a Prakara with a Gopura. At the entrance, there is a towering Gopura and a magnificent sculpture of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s carrier.

The structure stands on a platform and its outer walls are adorned with exquisite artwork depicting stories from religious texts such as the Mahabharat, Ramayana and the Puranas. The lower parts of the walls have carvings of charging elephants and horses.

Lower part of the walls with carvings of elephants and horses. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Lower part of the walls with carvings of elephants and horses. Pic: Flickr

The temple has an interesting sculpture, called the anti-gravity pillar which is carved out of a single rock and stands on its weight. People can actually swipe a piece of paper across it.

The temples of Kappe Chennigaraya, Soumyanayaki, Andal and other Vaishnava deities surround this main temple. There are many well-crafted sculptures in the temple complex. Among them are the Gajasurasamhara (a sculpture of Lord Shiva), a sculpture of Ravana and a sculpture of Durga killing Mahishasura.

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Lord Vishnu with Goddess Lakshmi (left) at the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Lord Vishnu with Goddess Lakshmi (left) at the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur. Pic: Flickr

Inside the temple, the sanctum has a magnificent 3.7 m tall image of Lord Vijaya Narayana in black stone. The doorway has elegantly carved dwarapalakas (gatekeepers). The sanctum is star-shaped and the zigzag walls make the carved figures of Lord Vishnu look different throughout the day due to the play of light.

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The temple has 48 pillars, all uniquely carved and decorated.

The pillars have some of the finest artwork. The lathe-turned pillars are highly polished and have intricate carvings. The four central pillars were made by hand and depict madanikas or celestial damsels. There are more than 80 madanika sculptures in different poses such as dancing, hunting, standing under trees and so on. 

The 12th-century temple has 48 intricately carved pillars. Pic: Flickr 30stades
The 12th-century temple has 48 intricately carved pillars. Pic: Flickr

There are four bracket figures on the ceiling which are believed to be inspired by the beauty of Shantaladevi, the queen of King Vishnuvardhana. Shantaladevi is also thought to be the model for one of the sculptures – Darpana Sundari (lady with the mirror). More pictures from the temple here:

Sculpture of Darpana Sundari (the lady with mirror). Pic: Flickr 30stades
Sculpture of Darpana Sundari (the lady with mirror). Pic: Flickr
Dwarpalakas Jai and Vijay outside the sanctum at Chennakeshava Temple. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
Dwarpalakas Jai and Vijay outside the sanctum at Chennakeshava Temple. Pic: Wikipedia

Also See: In pictures: Morena’s Chausath Yogini temple that inspired the Indian Parliament’s design

The temple was built over 103 years and three generations. Pic: Flickr 30stades
The temple was built over 103 years and three generations. Pic: Flickr
Anti-gravity pillar at Chennakeshava Temple. It does not touch the ground and stands on its own. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Anti-gravity pillar at Chennakeshava Temple. It does not touch the ground and stands on its own. Pic: Flickr

Also Read: Poetry in stone: 1000-year-old magnificent Modhera Sun temple in Gujarat

The temple complex has many sculptures taken from Shaivism, Shaktism, Jainism and Buddhism. Pic: Flickr 30stades
The temple complex has many sculptures taken from Shaivism, Shaktism, Jainism and Buddhism. Pic: Flickr 
Built using soapstone, the temple is under consideration for being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pic: Flickr
Built using soapstone, the temple is on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Pic: Flickr

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