Located in Belur, about 137 miles west of Bangalore in Karnataka, India, the Chennakeshava Temple is an architectural masterpiece and engineering marvel. Dedicated to Vishnu, it is one of the most beautiful temples in India, and with its unique style and features, it stands out from all the rest. Built by the Hoysalas in the 12th century, it is a shining example of their ingenuity and engineering skills.
Architecturally classified as a Mantapa style temple – a subclass under the southern Dravida style – the Belur Chennakeshava Temple consists of two main parts, garbhagriha and mantapa. Note that in Indian temples, the mantapa is a covered hall, and the garbhagriha (translated as womb chamber) is its inner sanctum, i.e., the chamber in which the principal deity of the temple resides. The Mantapa style temples can have more than one garbhagrihas. The Chennakeshava Temple has a single garbhagriha, and such temples with a single garbhagriha are known as ekakuta temples.
This page is about the mantapa in front of the , popularly known as the Navaranga because of the style of its design.
Check the following pages for information on other parts of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple:
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Garbhagriha Outer Wall
Navaranga – Hoysala classic design
Although the Navaranga is relatively small, it is unique in many ways and its appearance, interior as well as exterior, is aesthetically pleasing. The layout of the Navaranga shown below highlights its architectural elements.
Note: The diagram is not drawn to scale. The bracket figures are represented by circles and given a number. The sections of the wall are also labeled to indicate their location. For example, S4 is the fourth section on the south side from the main entrance.
The temple is symmetrical about an east-west axis. In other words, the south-side layout is a mirror image of the north side (and vice versa).
As you can see from the diagram, there are three entrances, the main entrance to the temple is on the east side, and a side entrance each on the north and the south. There is no entrance on the west side because of the location of the garbhagriha.
Navaranga is a unique element of Hoysala architecture. In Kannada, nava means nine, and ranga means stage or sector,
The Navaranga design is based on a simple geometrical principle of dividing a rectangular area into nine rectangular blocks by throwing a 3 x 3 grid over it. In Indian mythology, cosmic space has eight directions, four cardinal and four inter-cardinal. The blocks placed in eight different directions around the central block of the Navaranga symbolizes cosmic space as experienced by a human being. The builders of this temple tried to capture this concept in stone.
A mantapa built using the Navarnaga design has pillars at the corners of the central section of the 3 x 3 grid and a roof above those pillars to cover the entire space. There can be pillars at the corners of the rest of the sections to support that roof.
The Navaranga design has sub-elements that include sabhamantapa and mukhamantapa. The area covered by the central section (i.e., enclosed by the four middle pillars) is called the sabhamantapa and is typically the largest. The area covered by the sections facing the entrance is called the muhkamantapa. In architectural terms, the sabhamantapa is like a community hall, and the mukhamantapa is like a porch. In the Belur Chennakeshava Temple, the sabhamantapa is also the dance hall.
In the Chennakeshava Temple, the central section of the Navaranga is the dance floor, situated in the middle of the hall and enclosed by four pillars at its corners. Besides these four, there are other pillars, 48 in all, inside the Navaranga. Some support the roof, and others are there just for decorative purposes. These pillars have smoothly-cut circular grooves and are partly covered with artwork of beautiful patterns.
The image shows the pillars on the northwest side of the Navaranga. As you can see, each one is different in design. In fact, none of the 48 pillars inside the Navaranga are similar, except for the four at the corners of the dance floor.
These pillars are precisely cut, smooth and polished, and it appears as though they were made using sophisticated machinery, such as modern-day lathes. Because of their appearance, they are called lathe-turned pillars, although nobody is sure how they were built.
Among all the pillars in the Navaranga, the Mohini and Narasimha pillars are highly ornate and the most popular with the visitors.
This sculptural relief depicts Mohini, a female avatar of Vishnu, carved into a pillar located near the dance floor. This stunningly beautiful and intricately carved sculpture was made of black stone (locally known as Krishna Shile), unlike most of the sculptural reliefs, which were made of soft soapstone (locally known as Balapada Kallu).
Note: Moha means Infatuation or crush. Mohini means a seductress.
According to Hindu mythology, Mohini is a by-product of the Samudra Manthana (Churning of the Ocean of Milk), which was a collaborative effort by devas (demigods) and asuras (demons) to produce amrita, the nectar of immortality. Once the churning produced amrita, asuras cleverly stole all of it. When Vishnu realized that asuras have amrita, he appeared as a beautiful young woman, a femme fatale, who enticed asuras and successfully grabbed amrita back from them and gave it to the devas.
As you can see from the image, Mohini has a slender and well-proportioned body. She is standing with a graceful stance, with her body slightly curved around the midriff. Her beautiful face has a calm and pleasant facial expression. A crown with an unusually tall cap adorns her head. She is wearing a variety of jewelry, including necklaces, anklets, and armbands. Above her long skirt, which has beautiful patterns, an udiyana (waistband) is wrapped around the waist.
Notice the looped thread hanging across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist. It is known as yajnopavita and is a symbol that indicates that the person wearing it – typically a man – has mastered the Vedas and undergone the Upanayana ceremony. Mohini wearing the yajnopavita does symbolize that she is indeed an avatar of Vishnu, generally depicted as a man.
If you look at Mohini’s toes, you will notice that her second toe is longer than the big toe. In modern medicine, it is considered a deformity, suffered by 20% of the population. This deformity even has a name, i.e., Morton’s Toe. In ancient India, a woman with Morton’s Toes is highly sought after for marriage because of the belief that she would make an ideal wife.
This intricately carved pillar is one of the major attractions of the Chennakeshava Temple. It is a testament to the ingenuity of the builders and sculptors of the temple. It is believed that this pillar had a rotating mechanism – like having ball-bearings at the bottom and top – to enable it to rotate about its own axis.
At the bottom, there is a rectangular pedestal on which the circular end of the pillar rests. People were able to rotate the pillar above the circular end. Above the circular end, there is a rectangular base, above which the pillar becomes circular. This circular space is divided into six horizontal layers, each of which has several miniature shrines carved into it.
Above the horizontal layers, the pillar gradually becomes narrower, ending up with two disc-like constructions, and then it evolves into a wide disc. Sitting on top of the wide disc is an inverse conical construction with a polygonal slab on the top. Above this is the capital of the pillar.
The entire pillar space is covered with fine filigree work. The base has reliefs depicting episodes, such as Samudra Manthana, Ravana shaking Mount Kailash, described in ancient Hindu texts and epics. A variety of deities are carved inside and around the miniature shrines.
Highly ornate exterior
The outline of the Navaranga exterior is step-shaped and consists of multiple sections. As mentioned before, there are three entrances, the main entrance on the east side, the south entrance, and the north entrance. There is no entrance on the west side because of the garbhagriha located on that side. Architecturally, the temple is symmetrical about an east-west axis. In other words, the north-side design is a mirror image of the south-side design (and vice-versa). However, no two architectural elements are alike. Between the main entrance and the south/north entrance, there are four sections of walls.
Main entrance – Grand and magnificent
As you can see, the richly decorated facade with perfect symmetry is a delightful sight to watch. The structure faces east and is symmetrical about the east-west axis, although carvings are different on either side.
The Chennakeshava Temple stands on Jagati, a star-shaped four-foot-high platform with an extended terrace surrounding the temple. This terrace acts as the pradakshinpatha, the path on which visitors walk in the clockwise direction to perform circumambulation.
The temple floor is at a higher level than Jagati, so the approach to the door at the main entrance is through two staircases. The first staircase leads to Jagati from the courtyard, and the second to the doorway from Jagati. These staircases are flanked by four mini shrines, two on the courtyard floor and two on the Jagati terrace.
The image below shows one of the mini shrines, i.e., one to the right of the staircase in the courtyard. Flanking the door are the two pillars with the sculptural reliefs of dwarapalakas carved in the lower half. Attached to each of these pillars is Yali, a mythical creature formed by combining the parts of different animals. As you can see, it is a lion on top of the head of an elephant in this case.
Standing inside this mini-shrine is a beautiful statue of Bhairava, who in Hindu mythology is a fierce form of Shiva created by himself to destroy both the internal and external enemies. His sculptural depictions indicate the fierceness of his physical presence.
As you can see from the image, he is standing on top of a slain demon with a dancing pose. Although he is a (i.e., wearing no clothes), he is wearing a variety of jewelry, including necklaces, anklets, armbands an (waistband). He is also wearing the , a looped thread sacred to Hindus worn across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist.
With one of his left hands, Bhairava is carrying a severed-head belonging to Brahma. According to a legend, Brahma used to have five heads, four of which facing the cardinal directions and the fifth head gazing upwards. Shiva cut off the fifth head when he realized Brahma became infatuated with a female goddess he created.
Bhairava’s other hands are holding a variety of objects that include a trishula (trident), Shula (a pointed weapon), damaru (drum-like instrument), and pasha (noose).
Hoyasala lanchana (emblem)
Mounted between the shrines and the facade are the sculptures depicting a young man killing the tiger with a lance. See the images below. Both these sculptures are at the end of the flight of steps leading to the main door and placed at an angle to enable visitors to get a good view of them as they enter.
These sculptures represent the lanchana (emblem) of the Hoysala dynasty that ruled most of Karnataka from the 11th to 14th century and is based on a story about the founding of this dynasty, which appears on an inscription attributed to King Vishnuvardhana. Per this inscription, Hoysala is a combination of Hoy and Sala. Hoy in Halegannada (Old Kannada) means hurl, and Sala is the name of the founder of the Hoysala dynasty.
Here is the legend of Sala in brief:
While Sala was walking with his guru, a Jain sage named Sudatta Muni, a tiger suddenly appeared from nowhere and was about to pounce on his guru. To save his life, his guru yelled “Hoy Sala” at Sala, who was holding a lance at that time. Sala complied immediately by hurling the lance at the tiger and then killing it after a fierce fight, thus saving his guru’s life.
Sala was a boy at the time of this incident, and the news of his bravery soon spread, and he became a legend. He used his fame to found a dynasty, which got its name from the words uttered by his guru.
The narrative sculptures shown above capture the essence of the Hoysala legend. However, the animal appears to be a lion rather than a tiger. The north and south side entrances to the temple also have sculptures depicting Hoysala emblems near the doors.
Manmatha and Rathi on the door jambs
The door at the entrance opens into the Navaranga. A variety of sculptures and sculptural reliefs adorn the facade of the temple at the main entrance.
As you can see from the image of the facade, the door jambs and the lintel are beautifully decorated. Carved on the bottom part of the left door jamb is Manmatha and the right door jamb is his wife Rathi. Manmatha, who is also known by many names, including Kamadeva, is a son of Vishnu and the Hindu god of love.
As you can see from the image, Manmatha is standing elegantly with the Tribhanga (bent in three places) stance, holding a sugarcane bow with his left hand and the floral arrows with his right hand. He is wearing a variety of jewelry, including necklaces, anklets, armbands, and udiyana (waistband).
Rathi is also wearing a variety of fine jewelry, including necklaces, anklets, armbands, and udiyana (waistband), and standing elegantly with the Tribhanga stance.
Garuda and Narasimha on the pediment
Carved on the pediment, which is above the door, is a finely-carved relief of Narasimha, the fourth avatar of Vishnu, carried by his , Garuda, a mythical eagle-like bird with human body. Enclosing this pediment is a creeper disgorged by the Makaras sitting atop the beautifully crafted pilasters that are standing on either side of the doorway. Garuda is also on the roof, flanked by two female figures.
Jālandharas- Perforated stone windows
Known as the jālandhara, the perforated stone window is a unique element of the Dravida style architecture and is a common feature in Chalukya and Hoysala temples. The perforations allow light and air into the mantapa (covered hall). When the temple was built, the Navaranga was an open mantapa, which means there were no jālandharas. King Veera Ballala II (1173 – 1220 CE), a grandson of King Vishnuvardhana, was responsible for covering the Navaranga windows with the jālandharas, likely for security reasons.
The facade of the main entrance has four pillars, two on the left and two on the right of the door. As you can see from the images below, the jālandharas occupy the space between the pillars. Not only do the jālandharas provide ventilation and light, but also make the temple aesthetically pleasing due to the beautiful patterns of the perforations and the carvings around them. Some of the jālandharas are carved with the themes from the Hindu epics and ancient Indian texts, such as the Puranas.
The jālandhara on the left section of the main entrance facade has a sculptural relief depicting the court of King Vishnuvardana and the right section has the relief depicting the court of King Vira Ballala II.
As you can see from the image, the diamond-shaped perforations are at the top and bottom of the window. Carved between the perforations are the beautiful sculptural reliefs depicting three distinct themes. The top-level relief depicts Narasimha, the fourth avatar of Vishnu. The reliefs of kneeling Garuda are at the ends. The middle-level relief depicts the āsthāna (royal court) of Vishnuvardhana (1108 – 1152 CE), one of the great kings of the Hoysala dynasty and the builder of this temple. The bottom level has lions carved in between the perforations.
Mounted at an angle on the pillars are the two bracket figures, Nātya Sundari and Gāna Sundari. Check the Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures page for a list and descriptions of the bracket figures in the temple.
This jālandhara is on the right side of the facade. It also has the diamond-shaped perforations and the carvings between the perforations depict three distinct themes. The top-level relief depicts Vishnu standing with his consort Lakshmi, and Hanuman and Garuda are at the ends. The middle-level relief likely depicts the āsthāna (royal court) of King Veera Ballala II (1173 – 1220 CE), a grandson of King Vishnuvardhana and one of the great kings of the Hoysala dynasty. The bottom level has lions carved in between the perforations.
The structure of the southern entrance is similar to the main entrance, but the carvings are different. The lower part of the door jambs have the carvings of Hanuman and Garuda on the left and right side respectively.
There is only one , which is on the right side, and it depicts the story of Narasimha, one of the avatars of Vishnu, slaying Hiranyakashipu in a gruesome manner by ripping off his entrails with his bare claws. The left side was most destroyed, so it is now closed with stones.
Just like the southern entrance, the structure of the northern entrance is similar to the main entrance, but the carvings are different. The lower part of the door jambs have the carvings of Jaya and Vijaya, the of Vishnu. In this entrance also, there is only one , which is on the left side, and the right side window is closed with stones. The on this entrance doesn’t have a sculptural relief but has a beautiful pattern of square holes.
The exterior wall surrounding the Navaranga has four lateral sections between the main facade and the south entrance. Likewise, there are four lateral sections between the main facade and the north entrance because of the east-west symmetry.
Separated by pillars, the consecutive lateral sections are at right angles to each other. In addition to the end pillars, there is a pillar in the middle of these lateral sections. Mounted on these pillars just below the eaves are the bracket figures. The jālandharas occupy space between two pillars.
Here are some of the noteworthy sculptural reliefs and carving on the jālandharas:
The shown in the image is located on the fouth section of the wall from the main entrance. It has several square holes surrounded by carvings that include beautiful patterns, figures from the Hindu epics, and the main sculptural relief, i.e., reclining Vishnu.
As you can see from the image, the reclining Vishnu relief is finely carved with great details. Vishnu in this relief is portrayed with four hands and is wearing a beautiful dress and a variety of j all over the body. He is lying down in a relaxed manner on Adishesha, the seven-headed king of serpents, who appears to be floating on an ocean. Vishnu’s facial expression also shows his relaxed mood as his wife Lakshmi massages his left foot.
This relief actually depicts the birth of Brahma, the creator of the Universe in Hindu mythology, and is based on an ancient Indian text called Vaishnava Purana. If you look closely at the relief, you can see Brahma is attached to a lotus flower that is emerging from Vishnu’s navel. The lotus flower acts as the umbilical cord of Brahma. Because of his role as the primary creator, Vishnu is referred here as Maha Vishnu (Great Vishnu).
Note: There are differing accounts of Brahma’s creation in other Puranas. For example, in Shiva Purana, Shiva created Vishnu and Brahma.
Avatars of Vishnu on a frieze
Just below the Maha Vishnu , there is a frieze with some avatars of Vishnu.
The frieze depicts six of the ten avatars of Vishnu. Here is the list from left to right:
- Kurma Avatara – Turtle
- Matsya Avatara – Fish
- Mohini Avatara – Mohini
- Narasimha Avatara – Man – lion
- Varaha Avatara– Wild boar
- Rama Avatara – Rama
Check the Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals page for a list and a detailed explanation of the ten avatars of Vishnu.
One of the amazing features of this temple is the placing of the finely carved figures, popularly known as the bracket figures, atop the pillars on the exterior wall just below the eaves. There are 38 of them, and each of them tells a story. Only a couple of them are goddesses, and the rest are people, mostly women.
Read more about the bracket figures in the Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures page.
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple
— Bracket Figures, Navaranga, Garbhagriha Outer Wall
– Kappe Chennigaraya Shrine
– Somanathapura Keshava Temple
Badami Chalukya Temples
– Badami, Cave – 1, Cave – 2, Cave – 3, Cave – 4
– Durga Temple at Aihole
– Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals
Khmer Temples in Cambodia
– Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs, Banteay Srei, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Bayon
Monuments in Indonesia
– Prambanan Temples, Prambanan Bas-Reliefs
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