The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas of Karnataka are a group of temples that are a mixture of intricate interiors and appealing exteriors from the Hoysala dynasty.
India recently got its 42nd UNESCO World Heritage Site in September 2023 and it was one of the most pious groups of complexes from Karnataka. The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas are a prime example of Hoysala-style temple complexes that are still intact preserving the heritage and culture of the Kannadiga community - Hoysala. These structures date back to the 12th to 13th centuries when the Hoysala empire was in power in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent.
What makes this indispensable structure stand out are the three beautifully carved temples of Channakeshava, Hoysalevara, and Keshava. All three structures are situated in separate locations and were strategically built by the Hoysalas. The temples are located in the former capital cities of Belur and Halebidu of the Hoysala dynasty.
Channakeshava Temple in Belur
The oldest of the three, Channakeshva Temple is in the initial capital of Belur District. It derives its name from Channakesava - one of the avatars (forms) of Lord Vishnu as this temple is dedicated to him. The shrine stands as a testament to Nagara and Dravidian styles of architecture from 116 AD. Commissioned by the then-ruler king Vishnuvardhan, it is believed to have been completed in a span of 103 years. The prolonged phase reflects in the complexity of the structure which inspired designs of traditional temple jewellery in South India. The intricate carvings on the exteriors of the temple and the scenic drawings from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata are worth embracing. The walls even have carvings of the mudras of Bharatanatyam along with mythological figures like nymphs and apsaras.
Hoysalevara Temple in Halebidu
This one’s dedicated to the Mahadev - Lord Vishu. It is believed to have been constructed in the 12th century, almost a century later to the Channakeshava Temple. Since King Vishnuvardhana Hoysaleshwara was a Shiva devotee, he is credited with building this shrine along with the donations from merchants and wealthy citizens of Dwarasamudra. While the intricacies of the temple in Belur are praised, this temple in Halebidu district is well-known for more than 240 wall sculptures, running along the outer wall. Along with the figurines in the exteriors, the large Nandi right in front of the temple is also a striking structure on its own.
The Keshava Temple in Somnathapura
A few kilometers away from the Hoysaleshwara temple stands another temple in Somnathapura in the Mysuru district of Karnataka devoted to Lord Krishna, built in 1268 AD. The most beautiful part of this shrine was the three idols dedicated to the forms of Krishna - Janardhana, Keshava, and Venugopala, which are now unfortunately missing or damaged. Built on a raised platform with an outer Pradakshina pathway by King Somanatha Dandanayaka during the regime of Narasimha II, this temple is no longer used for worship but is still open for visitors to witness its astonishing friezes depicting scenes from the epics, figures of elephants, and battle scenes with cavalry. Whenever you visit these temples, do not forget to read the inscriptions and boards on the walls that speak about the history of the structures.
These structures have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to the hyper-real sculptures and stone carvings that adorn the entire architectural surface, circumambulatory platforms, large-scale sculptural galleries, multi-tiered friezes, and sculptures depicting the Sala legend—the believed founder of the Hoysala dynasty. While the shrines draw inspiration from the Dravidian style of southern India, they also exhibit strong influences from the Bhumija mode, commonly used in Central India, the Nagara traditions of northern and western India, and the Karntata-Dravida modes favored by the Kalyani Chalukyas. This amalgamation makes them a comprehensive representation of Indian architecture.