On a weekend trip from Bengaluru, exploring the famous temples of Belur and Halebidu could be most convenient and interesting for the history and architecture buffs.
A scenic drive from Bengaluru, down National Highway-75 takes you to Belur. The place has earned the moniker of ‘Dakshina Varanasi’ or South Banaras for its famed South Indian temple architecture. It once served as the capital of the mighty Hoysala Empire, but the dusty town today reveals little of the past glories.
Belur’s star attraction is the 12th-century Chenna Kesava temple. It was commissioned by King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 CE, arguably to celebrate a war victory over the Cholas. The temple took 103 years and three generations to build. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, it continues to be an active Hindu temple to this date.
Crossing past the Gopuram, ornately sculpted gatehouse tower, and stepping inside, the size and scale of the architecture sank in. A number of small shrines dot the complex and the centrepiece, literally and figuratively, is the Chenna Kesava temple, facing the East and mounted on a three feet high star shaped platform.
The shrines surrounding it are the Kappe Channigraya temple, Sowmyanayaki temple and the Ranganayaki temple. Approaching the Chenna Kesava temple, the exquisite horizontal panels running across the exterior walls catch visitors’ attention! The lower bands display sculpted armies of men and animals, female figurines in various poses and human figures- their expressions captured in painstaking detail. Up next are scenes from the Hindu epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. And on the topmost panels, are scenes from daily life – arguably the most fascinating, a reflection of the cultural ethos and values of the time. Latticed stone windows carved in the upper walls are a masterclass in symmetry. The pillars supporting the outer walls are no less breath-taking. They are a celebration of the grace and beauty of the female form. Goddess Durga, women hunters, dancers in mudras, women musicians – all carved out with exceptional skill.
Stepping into the central hall, our eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness inside. The shiny black soapstone adds sheen to the interior carvings. A number of visitors had their phone torchlights on, craning their necks up to take in the scale and splendour. There are 48 pillars in total, each with its unique detailing.
Inside the large hall, the four ornamental pillars hand carved with bands of motifs, deities, dancing figurines, animals carved across the height, are worth most admiration.
At the behest of King Vishnuvardhana, the Hoysala kingdom shifted its capital from Belur to Halebidu in the 12th century. Once known as ‘Dwarasamudra’, Halebidu served as the capital for 150 years. The main attraction here is the Hoysaleswara Temple. Interestingly, both Chenna Keshava and Hoysaleswara temples were architected by the same person – Jakkanna Acharya. While Hoysaleswara temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the architectural elements are common – panels, pillars and latticed screens. The complex is more beautiful though, with the structures set in beautifully landscaped lawns.
Road map: Take NH 75 from Bengaluru and cross Nelamangala – Kunigal – Channarayapattan – Hassan – Belur – Halebidu.
Extend your trip: You can plan your stay at a coffee plantation resort at Chikmagalur. Another option is to visit the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. River Tern Lodge is a recommended stay option.