10 marvels of the Chennakesava Temple at Belur

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Karnataka | 48

Belur , the erstwhile capital of the Hoysala kingdom, is a popular, & yet not so popular tourist destination in Karnataka. Along with its twin city, Halebid, Belur attracts a lot of visitors from Bengaluru. Currently, it is being proposed as a UNESCO world heritage site for its amazing 10th Century temples. 

Chennakesava Temple, Belur Image Credits: Senthil Prabhu, via Flickr under CC by NC 2.0

The beautiful Chennakesava temple in Belur is a testament to the amazing artistry of the Dravidians. I have been to the Chennakesava temple at least twice and each time, it completely mesmerized me with its amazing sculptures and intricate artistic galore . 

Gopuram at Chennakesava temple, Belur

Chenna means beautiful while Kesava refers to Lord Vishnu. Thus, the name – Handsome Vishnu – that should give you a clue of the deity to whom this temple is dedicated to. It is said that it took over 100 years for the temple to be finished. A task started by King Vishnuvardhana and completed by his grandson. 

The entire facade of the temple is carved, no space has been left blank and within the temple is a complete different story. The temple is so gorgeous and full of wonders that it is difficult to stay calm and not feel frenzied about where to look and what to admire. Given that I had this feeling, I am going to make it easy for you by putting together my list of 10 marvels of the Chennakesava Temple in Belur. So here goes – 

1) Pushkarni

Stepwell or Pushkarni at Chennakesava temple, Belur

Stepwell or Pushkarni

This is right near the main entrance. In the olden days, it was used for various temple rituals including the customary bath before offering prayers. When here, note the perfectly carved elephants on the sides of the entrance and the small shrines at two corners. 

2) Gravity Pillar or Lampost

Gravity Pillar at Chennakesava temple, Belur

Mounted on a star-shaped platform is a huge 42m high pillar or lamp post. This is right in the middle of the temple courtyard and the most amazing thing about this is – the pillar stands on its own! It does not have a foundation below it and since, it stands erect on its own weight, it is called as the gravity pillar. The star-shaped platform on which is stands, is a typical design of the Hoysala dynasty. The entire Chennakesava temple is build in a star-shaped manner.

3) Outer walls

Animal carvings along the walls of Chennakesava temple, Belur

Along the outer walls of the main temple, you will see rows of carvings of various animals, scenes of Mahabharata and Ramayana and dancing damsels. Each carving is perfect and has a certain symbolism. The elephants at the base reflect strength, while the lions above them were a symbol of courage. Right above them you will see rows of horses, which I suppose, stood for speed. As per the guide, there are around 600 plus elephants carved along the outer row.  Amazing, right?

4) Miniature Shrines

Miniature Shrines at Chennakesava Temple, Belur

Near the entrances and around the temple walls, you will find several miniature shrines. It is said that these served as prototypes for the actual shrines to be built. The miniatures themselves are so intricately carved, that they do not look as model but actual mini temples. Kind of reminded me of the prototypes that I saw at the Vittala temple in Hampi

5) Lintels over the entrances

Lintel showing Lord Vishnu as Narasimha

Right above the various entrances of the temple are beautiful ornate horizontal pieces of art like the one in the picture above. Each entrance has a different one. This one here is that of Lord Vishnu as Narasimha while another one has Lord Vishnu with his wife Lakshmi.  

6) Hoysala emblem

Hoysala Emblem at Chennakesava Temple, Belur        

Now this one is interesting and something that I almost missed in the frenzy of looking at various other works of art. It is quite huge but the significance of it is best understood if someone explains it. This is where a guide came in handy. The picture above is a symbol or crest of Hoysala. Hoy means strike while Sala refers to the name of a forefather of this dynasty who saved a saint from a lion by striking him dead. Hence, the symbolism of this sculpture and the crest of the kingdom.

7) Madanikas

Darpan Sundari at Belur Chennakesava Temple  

Now these are some of my favorite pieces. At regular intervals at the temple, you will notice several dancing nymphs carved onto brackets on the wall. The madanikas or nymphs are said to have been modeled after the beautiful Queen Shantala, wife of King Vishnuvardhana. The most popular amongst these is the Darpan Sundari (Girl looking into the mirror). 

Madanika talking to parrot - at Chennakesava Temple, Belur

These madanikas depict some form of dance, musical instrument or grooming. Another popular one is a lady with the parrot and the huntress. The temple is said to have over 40 such sculptures. It is sad to see some of them have been vandalized by robbers and other kingdoms. However, despite the same, they look amazing.

8) Ceiling within the temple

Ceiling  in Chennakesvara temple, Belur

Till now we were loitering around the outsides of the temple. Once you enter the main temple, things get a lot different. The inside of the temple is quite dark and yet the black interiors gleam with the reflection of the little light that is there. Remember to look up and spot this ornate circle in the ceiling. Owing to the lack of light, was not able to capture the center well – but if you can manage to spot, there is a prominent carving of Lord Vishnu as Narasimha right in the center.

9) Narasimha Pillar

Ceiling  in Chennakesvara temple, Belur

Once you enter the temple, the one thing that will amaze you are the numerous pillars of various designs. Despite the fact that there is little light within the temple, these pillars actually glisten as if they were made of metal. A point to note here is that the entire temple is made using “soap stone” and not metal. 

Most popular and intrinsic in terms of art, is the Narasimha Pillar. Easily identifiable with the red vermilion marks made by the devotees, this pillar is covered with miniature figures all over. It is said that the pillar has ball bearings on the top and could be rotated in its hey-days. 

10) Mohini and Vishnu Statues

Mohini Pillar

I have saved my favorite for the last – the Mohini Pillar which has this amazing statue of Mohini – the female avataar of Lord Vishnu carved on it. The fine details and the glisten of the soap stone with the warm light of the diyas around totally enhance the beauty of this pillar.

Vishnu Pillar

The Vishnu pillar is equally amazing. Both these pillars are on either sides of the inner sanctum and cannot be missed. 

Besides these 10 high points in the temple, you are sure to find many others that would enthrall you. Here is one bonus one 🙂

Varaha incarnation of Vishnu on Chennakesava temple, Belur

The Chennakesava temple in Belur is truly a mesmerizing experience. I am sure once you are here, you will feel like a kid in a candy store, wondering where to go next. So if you are heading to the Southern part of India, make sure you keep aside some time for this amazing Chennakesava temple in Belur, near Bangalore.

Getting to Belur:

  • Bengaluru is the closest airport to Belur
  • Distance from Bengaluru is around 222 kms and it takes around 3 – 3.5 hours by road to reach Belur. There are plenty of taxis and private cabs available for the same. The road conditions till Belur are pretty good.
  • One can use railways to get to Hassan and then, opt for a taxi to take you to Belur which is around an hour from Hassan. (38 kms)
  • There are frequent bus services from Bangalore, Mysore, Hassan and Mangalore to Belur

Travel Tips:

  • October to April are good months to travel to Belur as the weather is fairly cool and enjoyable.
  • Being a Hindu temple, there are a few dos and donts. You can access these tips here.
  • There are very few places to stay in Belur. I would recommend staying in Hassan or Chikmagalur, if one would like to do an overnight. Else, one can cover this place as a day trip from Bengaluru.


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