The Belur Chennakeshava Temple, a gem among stones, is an architectural marvel. It showcases the Hoysala architecture with many notable features, including its unique layout, ornate pillars (one of them revolves about its own axis), and most importantly, the bracket figures, the beautifully carved sculptures mounted on the exterior wall at an angle just below the eaves.
Note: This page is about the bracket figures. Check the Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga page for the images and detailed explanation of the architectural elements inside and outside the Navaranga.
Navaranga – Hoysala Clasic Design
Although the front portion of the temple – popularly known as Navaranga – is relatively small, it is unique in many ways and aesthetically pleasing. The layout of the Navaranga shown below highlights the location of the bracket figures and the other 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. Because of the location of the garbagriha (inner sanctum), there is no entrance on the west side.
Bracket Figures – Hoysala M
The exterior wall surrounding the Navaranga has eight sections each on the south (S1 to S8) and north (N1 to N8) sides. On each section, small (height of 2.5 ft on the average) but finely-carved and ornate sculptures are mounted on the brackets just below the eaves of the temple. They known as bracket figures because they are mounted on brackets.
There are 38 bracket figures on the exterior wall, 18 on the south side and 20 on the north side. Two on the south side are missing from the original 40. There are four bracket figures on the pillars surrounding the dance hall inside the Navaranga.
The bracket figures are inclined in such a way that the onlookers can have a good view of them. Each figure is standing on a disc-like base mounted on top of a pedestal that is attached to a pillar slightly below its capital. The pedestal is carved to look like a lotus flower. Engraved into the sides of some of these bases are the inscriptions, written in Halegannada (Old Kannada), with information about the sculptor.
Each pillar in the outward-pointing corner has two figures mounted at right angles to each other. Each middle pillar, as well as the pillar in the inward-pointing corner, has just one figure.
Most of the bracket figures were made of Balapada Kallu, a type of soft soapstone with characteristics ideal for sculpting and is available in plenty in Karnataka. It is soft, so it is easier to sculpt. Once the stone is exposed to air, it gets hard, so the sculpture lasts longer. Balapada Kallu comes with an attractive soft gray color, which is one of the main reasons most bracket figures are made of this stone. However, a few of them use Krishna Shilé, a type of black stone. As the name suggests, these stones are black and are typically used for sculpting gods and goddesses.
Here are some of the noteworthy bracket figures:
Popularly known as Darpana Sundari, this beautifully carved shilābālike is an iconic figure and one of the most famous sculptures in the world. She is like Monalisa of the sculpture world. In Kannada, darpana means mirror, and sundari means beautiful lady.
As you can see from the image, Darpana Sundari, wearing a stylish dress and fine jewelry, is holding a mirror and looking at herself. Her elegant stance suggests that she is a dancer. It appears as though she is looking into the mirror just before the start of a dance performance.
Notice the three small figures at the bottom. Two of them are handing over some objects, likely the makeup material, to Darpana Sundari. The third one is a mysterious stocky figure carrying a monkey on his left side and holding a bunch of fruits or nuts with his right hand.
Located to the right of Shuka Bhasini, Darpana Sundari is mounted on a pillar on the left side of the door at the main entrance. She is also one of the four shilābālikes on the facade of this entrance. Experts believe that one of these shilābālikes resembles Pattada Rani Shantala Devi, an accomplished dancer and the queen consort of King Vishnuvardana, the builder of the Chennakeshava Temple.
In the Navaraga Layout, Darpana Sundari is figure number 1.
Sukha Bhasini – Madanike talking to her pet parrot
Popularly known as Shuka Bhashini, this madanike appears to be talking to her pet parrot while her three friends/assistants, who are holding what appears to be corn cobs, are watching her talk. In Kannada, shuka means parrot, and bhashini means lady who talks.
As you can see from the image, the Shuka Bhashini has gracefully bent her body to give her an elegant stance and held her left hand precisely at the chest level so that the parrot can stand on the back of her palm and look at her.
Nātya Sundari – Dancing madanike
This beautifully sculpted madanike, popularly known as Nātya Sundari, is one of the first bracket figures you see when you enter the Chennakeshava Temple. She is above the doorway on the right side, and the iconic Darpana Sundari is on the left side.
As you can see from the image, Nātya Sundari has a well-proportioned body covered with stylish clothes and jewelry. She has a graceful dancing stance, and it appears as though she is dancing with an Indian classical dance move. Accompanying her at the bottom are the four musicians playing different musical instruments. As you can see, two on the left are beating the dolu, one on the right is playing the tāla, and the other playing the flute.
Gāna Sundari – Singing beauty
This madanike, popularly known as Gāna Sundari (Singing Beauty), is seen singing and playing the tāla (notice the bell-like objects in her hands). Unlike the other bracket figures, her mouth is slightly open, indicating that she is singing.
As you can see from the image, her well-proportioned body is gracefully bent to give her an elegant stance. She is wearing stylish clothes and finely crafted jewelry all over her body.
Notice the four figures at the bottom; They are playing some musical instruments. It appears Gāna Sundari is part of an orchestra, a quintet in which she is the lead singer accompanied by two male musicians playing the dolu, a lady musician playing the tāla, and a male musician playing the flute.
She is bracket figure number 37 in the
Kapi Chasté (Monkey ) – Madanike chasing a monkey
As you can see from the image, a monkey is pulling the dress of a beautiful lady who is trying to chase it with a small tree branch. She appears to be semi-nude, and her facial expression shows annoyance at being harassed by the monkey.
As with the other bracket figures, the background is a finely carved creeper. The base on which the dancer stands has an inscription describing the sculptor – inscribed most likely by the sculptor himself.
This madanike is figure number 5, i.e., mounted on a pillar on the third section (S3) of the exterior wall.
Kesha Sundari – Madanike styling her long hair
Popularly known as Kesha Sundari, this gorgeous madanike is styling her long hair, helped by two lady assistants at the bottom, who are holding objects that are likely part of the hair-styling kit available in that era. Note: In Kannada, kesha means hair, and sundari means beautiful lady.
As you can see, Kesha Sundari and her accomplices are standing on a disc-like base mounted on a lotus pedestal. Engraved into this base is an inscription, written in the Halegannada (Old Kannada), likely inscribed by the sculptor to describe himself and his work.
In the Navaranga Layout, Kesha Sundari is figure number 7, i.e., mounted on the corner pillar located at the junction of the third and fourth sections of the south exterior wall.
As you can see, Tribhangi has elegantly curved her body by bending her knee, waist, and neck to give her a beautiful S-like shape. The sculptor has captured this dance pose perfectly with great details.
This exquisitely carved sculpture captures the details of a complicated dance move, known as Tribhanga, commonly performed in the Indian classical dances, such as the Odissi, Bharatanātyam, and Kathakali. Described in the Nātya Shāstra (ancient Indian text on dance) and Shilpa Shāstras (ancient Indian texts on crafts), Tribhanga refers to a pose with three bends in the body (typically, knee, waist, and neck). Because of this dance move, the popular name for this stunningly beautiful sculpture is Tribhangi.
Tribhangi is dancing while playing on the davane, held gracefully above her head. She is beating the drum-head with her right hand while holding the davane steady with the left. As part of the dance move, she has bent and twisted her well-proportioned body and gracefully lifted her left leg. As you can see, this move is difficult to perform, and capturing it perfectly in stone requires extraordinary sculpting skills.
Davane Playing Madanike
As you can see from the image, this exquisitely carved madanike appeared to be dancing while playing on the davane, hung by a thin rope from her left shoulder (part of the rope is missing). Using a curved stick, she is beating the drum-head with her right hand while holding the davane steady by inserting her left hand inside the net formed by the strings connecting the drum-heads.
Accompanying this madanike are the two male musicians, each beating a dolu, also a two-sided drum-like instrument, but played with hands. All these sculptures are standing on a disc-like base mounted on a lotus pedestal. Engraved into this base is an inscription, written in Halegannada (Old Kannada), likely inscribed by the sculptor to describe himself and his work.
This madanike is mounted on the middle pillar of the fifth section (S5) of the south-side exterior wall. She is figure number 10 in the Navaranga Layout.
Nātya Sundari with a Lizard Chasing a Fly in the Background
As you can see, this beautiful madanike, popularly known as Nātya Sundari, is dancing with an Indian classical dance move, accompanied by two musicians at the bottom, one playing the tāla and the other beating the dolu. She is unaware of a lizard behind her chasing a fly on a fruit (likely a jack fruit).
Nātya Sundari and her accomplices are on a disc-like base, mounted on a pedestal carved with three layers of lotus flower petals.
Betegārthi (Huntress) – Proud madanike after a successful hunt
TThis madanike is a Betegārthi (a huntress), shown by the bow on her left shoulder and an arrow (only a small piece remains) in her right hand. She seems to have finished a successful hunt, indicated by the kill, what appears to be a deer, carried by the lady, standing at the bottom right, on her shoulder.
The lady on the bottom left, who likely helped the hunt, is seen carrying a sword-like object. Sitting next to this lady is a small mysterious figure, most likely a man, with a puzzled facial expression.
This bracket figure is finely carved with amazing details. Betegārthi’s majestic stance and facial expression show her pride after a successful hunt. Notice her left toe, which is up slightly as if she is about to move.
Betegārthi is mounted on the pillar located at the north entrance of the temple. She is figure number 23 in the Navaranga Layout.
This shilābālike, depicted as Goddess Durga, is seen holding the kapāla danda (skull cup attached to a staff) with her left hand and an unidentified object with her right hand. Accompanying her are the two playing male musicians at the bottom.
In Hindu mythology, Durga is a goddess who fights evil forces. As you can see from the image, Durga is wearing a garland of kapālas on her crown, symbolizing the liberation of mankind from evil.
The round base on which this shilābālike is standing is on top of a lotus pedestal. The side of the base has an inscription written in the old Kannada script inscribed most likely by the sculptor describing him and his work.
This shilābālike is mounted on the pillar at the junction of section 4 (S4) and 5 (S5) of the exterior wall. She is bracket figure number 9 in the Navaranga Layout.
Mango Plucking Madanike
Standing with an elegant pose, this beautifully carved madanike is plucking a fruit – what appears to be a mango – with her right hand. Her stance suggests that she neither a dancer nor a singer, rather a beautiful lady collecting fruits. Notice that her left hand is missing, which she likely used to hold a basket to collect fruits. The marks of broken stones at the bottom suggest that two small figures existed on either side of the original sculpture, just like in many other bracket figures.
As you can see, this madanike is on a disc-like base mounted on a pedestal carved with three layers of lotus flower petals. Engraved into this base is an inscription, written in the Halegannada (Old Kannada), likely inscribed by the sculptor to describe himself and his work.
This madanike is on a corner pillar at the junction of the 6th and 7th section of the exterior wall. She is bracket figure number 16 in the Navaranga Layout.
This beautiful madanike, popularly known as Nagna Sundari (Nude Beauty), is holding the ends of her dress as though she is undressing. She is scantily clad but covered with a lot of jewelry, including necklaces, bracelets, armbands, and anklets.
Standing with an elegant stance on a disc-like base mounted on top of a lotus pedestal, Nagna Sundari is looking intensely at the scorpion crawling on the side of the base. Her facial expression suggests that she is amused or scared.
The story behind this madanike is anybody’s guess. According to one story, Nagna Sundari is shaking off the scorpion found in the dress. Another one suggests that she is a visha kanye (venomous girl), indicated by the presence of the scorpion, a poisonous creature.
The legends of visha kanyes appear in many ancient Indian texts, including Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft authored by Chanakya, the Prime Minister of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya. According to the legend, visha kanyes were beautiful women born with poisonous blood (or other bodily fluids). They were capable of seducing powerful men and killing them with their poison.
Flute Playing Male Musician
This is one of the most beautifully carved sculptures among the 42 bracket figures in the temple. It depicts a flute-playing male musician standing with the Tribanga pose (bent in three places, knee, waist, and neck), typically performed in the traditional Indian dances like the Odissi, Bharatanātyam, and Kathakali. Accompanying him are the two musicians, a lady musician is playing the tāla on the bottom left, and a male musician is playing the flute on the bottom right.
As you can see, all the figures are standing on a disc-like base, mounted on a lotus pedestal. Engraved into this base is an inscription, written in the Halegannada (Old Kannada), likely inscribed by the sculptor to describe himself and his work.
This bracket figure is mounted on the corner pillar (11) of the fifth section (S5) of the south-side exterior wall.
Davane Playing Male Musician
This beautifully carved sculpture depicts a male musician playing the davane, a two-sided drum-like instrument played with a stick that is curved at the end. As you can see, he is beating the drum-head with his right hand while holding the davane steady with his left hand. Accompanying him at the bottom are the two male musicians, each playing a dolu, also a two-sided drum-like instrument played with hands.
As you can see from the image, the male musician is sporting a mustache (upward-pointing handlebar style) and a beard (neatly-trimmed boxed style), which is probably a reflection of men’s fashion in those days. As for his hair, he has a long ponytail held up behind his head. Like his female counterparts in the bracket figures, he is wearing stylistic jewelry, including large loop earrings, armbands, and necklaces. Because of his stance, it appears that he is dancing as he beats the davane. As with the other bracket figures, the background is covered with a finely carved creeper.
This male musician is one of the three male figures among the 42 bracket figures in the temple and located on the last pillar on the south side of the exterior wall. This is bracket figure number 18 in the Navaranga Layout.
Note 1: Tāla – An Indian musical instrument made of brass, typically played while singing devotional music. It looks like a smaller version of hand cymbals.
Note 2: Dolu – A two-sided drum-like instrument played with hands.
Note 3: Davane – A two-sided drum-like instrument played with a stick that is curved at the end.
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – 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
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