Located 137 miles west of Bangalore in southern India, the Belur Chennakeshava Temple is a magnificent temple dedicated to Vishnu. King Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala dynasty commissioned the temple in 1167 CE to commemorate his victory over the Cholas at Talakadu.
Architecturally classified as the Mantapa style temple – a subclass under the southern Dravida style – the Belur Chennakeshava Temple consists of two main parts, garbhagriha and mantapa. The garbhagriha is the inner sanctum where the principal deity of the temple resides. The mantapa, popularly known as the Navaranga, is a covered hall in front of the garbhagriha.
This page describes the exterior wall surrounding the garbhagriha. To read about other parts of the temple, check the following pages:
Unlike the wall surrounding the , which has a step-like outline, the outline of the wall around (inner sanctum) is jagged with a random pattern. The shape of this outline is symmetrical about the east-west axis, i.e., the south side outline is a mirror image of the north side, and vice-versa. The wall structure is also symmetrical about the east-west axis. However, no carvings on the north and south side are alike. The outline of the roof also has the same shape and is symmetrical about the east-west axis.
Attached to the outer wall are the massive pillars carved with sculptural reliefs of gods and goddesses and other deities. The carvings do not appear to be in any particular order or following any storyline.
Because the temple is dedicated to Vishnu, the majority of the reliefs are related to Vishnu and his avatars. Shiva and his consort Durga appear in many reliefs, most of which depict the story of their incarnations. Brahma, on the other hand, appears only in one pillar. The other deities include Manmatha (Vishnu’s son) and his consort Rathi and Ganesha (Shiva’s son). There is also a relief depicting Ravana shaking Mount Kailash.
South side wall
The orientation of is wall changes from east-west to north-south. For the sake of simplicity, the description of the wall is divided into the following four sections: 1. East section 2. Middle section 3. Southwest Section 4. Rear Section
The carving is much denser on the southern side of the wall than the northern side, and the south side has more variety of sculptural reliefs.
This is where the wall around the garbhagriha starts and is connected to the Navaranga wall. The wall is oriented along the north-south direction and is flatter compared to the other sections. As you can see, there are six beautifully carved sculptural reliefs with Vishnu as the theme.
The relief on the rightmost pillar depicts Lakshmi Narayana, i.e., Vishnu sitting with his consort Lakshmi on his lap. Below them is his vehicle Garuda in the kneeling position with folded hands. The relief to the right of Lakshmi Narayana is Vishnu portrayed with four hands carrying his signature objects, Gada, Chakra, Shanka, and Padma. The relief on the pillar next to it depicts Harihara, i.e., Vishnu and Shiva fused into a single entity with Vishnu’s features on his right side and Shiva’s on the left. Carved on the Vishnu’s side is his vehicle Garuda, and on the Shiva’s side is his vehicle Nandi the bull.
The rest of the reliefs carved with the standard iconography of Vishnu.
This section of the wall is oriented along the east-west direction. On the right side, it is attached to the east section. On the left side, it is attached to the wall of the chariot-like shrine.
The middle part of the square pillars and the wall in between the pillars are carved with sculptural reliefs. There is a round pillar that has no carvings except for a small figure at the bottom. The reliefs on the wall to the left and right of this pillar are related to Shiva. The relief on the right side depicts Shiva slaying Andakasura and the relief on the left side depicts Kali, an incarnation of Shiva’s consort Parvati.
The relief on the squarish pillar portrays Vishnu with four hands, each carrying his signature objects. Another Vishnu relief is carved on the wall to its left. The next square pillar on the left has two sides, each of which has reliefs of some unknown deities. The relief on the corner pillar attached to the shrine depicts Ravana shaking Mount Kailash, where Shiva is resting with his consort Parvati.
This is the section between the south shrine and the west shrine and the most interesting one from the sculptural reliefs point of view.
Brahma, the creator
In Hindu mythology, Brahma, the God responsible for the creation, is one of the Trimurti (Hindu Trinity). The depictions of Brahma with standard iconography show him with four heads, each facing a cardinal direction and four arms.
As you can see from the image, Brahma has three heads (the assumption is that the fourth head [facing east] is not visible) and four arms, two on each side. Brahma, with his two right hands, is holding a spoon (used for pouring ghee into the yagna pyre and japamāla (prayer beads), and with his two left hands, a kamandala (water jug) and a book (Vedas).
Carved on the bottom right is Brahma’s vāhana (vehicle) Hamsa (Swan), and on the bottom left are the two unidentified figures.
Although Brahma is the creator in Hindu mythology, he is not worshiped as widely as Vishnu or Shiva. There are very few temples dedicated to Brahma in the world. The Brahma Temple in Prambanan (in Yogyakarta, Indonesia) is one of the few temples dedicated to Brahma. The other well-known Brahma Temple is in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India.
There are several legends why Brahma is not worshiped. According to one legend, his consort Savitri, who was angered by Brahma’s extreme lust, cursed him not to be worshiped anywhere in the world except in Pushkar. In another legend, Shiva cursed Brahma because he lied to him and Vishnu about their creation.
Narasimhavatara, the fourth avatar of Vishnu
The Narasimhavatara relief is carved on a pillar attached to the exterior wall surrounding the . This pillar is located on the south side of the temple between the south and west two-storied shrines.
In this avatar, Vishnu has the torso of a man and face and claws of a lion. He adopted this body to kill an asura named Hiranyakashipu, who wanted to take revenge on Vishnu for killing his brother Hiranyaksha in his previous avatar, i.e., Varahavatara. Here is the story of Narasimhavatara in brief:
To exact revenge for his brother’s death, Hiranyakashipu performs an intense (austerity and meditation) to please Brahma from whom he expects to obtain a vara (boon) that would give him special powers and make him immortal. Pleased with Hiranyakashipu, Brahma asks him what he wants. When Brahma realizes that he wants to become immortal, Brahma refuses his request but suggests that he can request other varas. Hiranyakashipu then cleverly asks Brahma that he must not be killed by a man or animal or by any weapons. Brahma accedes to this request and endows him with the vara he asked. With the superpowers he gained from the vara, Hiranyakashipu assumes the godly status and starts tormenting Vishnu’s devotees, including his own son Prahlada. To solve this problem, Vishnu cleverly transforms himself as Narasimha (lion-man) and kills Hiranyakashipu in a gruesome manner by ripping off his entrails with his bare claws.
The relief depicts Vishnu with the lion head and human torso having multiple hands with claws. With the body of Hiranyakashipu lying on his lap, Vishnu is seen ripping the entrails of Hiranyakashipu with his claws.
Slaying of Gajasura
The relief shown in the image depicts Gajasurasamhara, which means the slaying of a demon named Gajasura. In Sanskrit, gaja means elephant, asura means demon, and samhara means slaying.
The Gajasura story is described in two ancient Indian texts, Kurma Purana and Varaha Purana. Here is the story in brief:
Gajasura wants to take revenge for the slaying of his father Mahishausura by Shiva’s consort Durga. To fulfill his wish, he goes the Himalayas and performs . Brahma pleased with his , gives a vara (boon), which makes him very powerful. With this boon, he thinks he is invincible and starts tormenting people of Kashi (present-day Varanasi, India). When they complain to Shiva, he confronts Gajasura, and after a prolonged fight, he kills Gajasura with his (trident).
As you can see from the image, Shiva with a dancing pose is standing on an elephant head and with his numerous hands carrying a variety of objects that include (trident), (sharp knife), kapala danda (staff with a skullcup), ghanta (bell), and (drum-like musical instrument). Shiva ( attendants of Shiva) are on the bottom left. Several musicians are playing the (drum) near the head of the elephant.
Bhairava – Fierce form of Shiva
In Hindu mythology, Bhairava 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, Bhairava is standing with a fearsome stance. Although he is a digambara (i.e., wearing no clothes), he is wearing a variety of jewelry, including necklaces, anklets, armbands and udiyana (waistband). He is also wearing the yajnopavita, a looped thread sacred to Hindus worn across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist.
He is wearing a crown made of a garland of kapalas (skull cups), and another set of kapalas is hanging from one of his necklaces. Surrounding is legs are two coiled nagas (serpents) with one visible head.
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 (trident), Shula (a pointed weapon), (drum-like instrument), and pasha (noose). All in all, it is a fearsome sight.
The image shows the west side of the temple surrounding the garbhagriha (inner sanctum). As you can see from the image, there is a two-storied mini-shrine at the center.
The star-shaped roof is supported by pillars on the right and left of this mini shrine with sculptural reliefs. The temple is built on a platform named Jagati, which is also star-shaped. There is a small shrine built on the floor exactly at the center.
North side wall
The north side wall is similar to the south side, but has less denser carvings.
As you can see from the image, a statue of Vishnu is standing inside the inner sanctum. Each story of this shrine has a balcony with beautifully decorated balustrades. The water from the shrine drops into a small tank made of stone. A small statue of Ganesha, Shiva’s son the head of an elephant, is placed below the second-floor balcony.
Notice the three layers of beautifully carved frieze below the first floor. The bottom layer is a row of elephants, the middle layer is a row of lions with some men fighting them, and the top layer is a row of people riding horses. It is interesting to note that no two carvings in a row are alike.
The shrine is flanked by two squarish pillars. The left pillar has a relief of Vishnu and the right pillar depicts Shiva slaying Andakasura.
The section of the wall shown in the image is on the north side of the temple and is oriented in the east-west direction. On the right side, it is attached to the wall of the chariot-like shrine.
The square pillar standing on the right side exposes the front and left sides.The front side relief depicts Vishnu, and the left side depicts Bhairava, who is an incarnation of Shiva. The relief on the mid-section of the square pillar standing next to it depicts the story of Varahavatara, (i.e., Vishnu’s incarnation as a wild boar). The wall between these two square pillars has the relief of Vishnu. Standing to the right of the Varahavatara pillar is a tall round pillar with no reliefs carved on its midsection.
The relief on the wall between the Varahavatara and this round pillar replicates a bracket figure that depicts a lady trying to chase a monkey that is trying to pull her dress. The relief on the wall to the right of the round pillar depicts a beautiful lady holding a flower with the right hand and the head of a child with the left hand. There is another child on her left side. This wall is then attached to a section that is part of the Navaranga.
Varahavatara, the third avatar of Vishnu
Varaha is the third of the ten avatars of Vishnu. Varaha in Sanskrit means wild boar. In this avatar, he assumes the form of a wild boar and rescues Bhudevi (Mother Earth) from an evil demon named Hiranyaksha, who was tormenting her.
As you can see from the image, Vishnu as Varaha is lifting Bhudevi with his tusks while Hiranyaksha lay dying on the ground killed by Vishnu.
The story of Varahavatara is a popular theme in both Chalukya and Hoysala temples. Both the Chennakeshava and the Hoysalesvara temples have several reliefs carved on their walls. The Badami caves also have numerous carvings of Varahavatara.
Monolithic pillar at the corner
This massive monolithic pillar is standing at the junction of the Navaranga and garbhagriha (inner sanctum) on the north side of the exterior wall. There is a similar pillar at the corresponding location on the south side.
As you can see, the exterior wall of the temple is attached to this pillar. The wall on the left surrounds the Navaranga, and the wall on the right surrounds the garbhagriha.
This precisely-cut pillar is highly ornate, with two female figures carved at the bottom and many layers of star-like patterns stacked on top. It appears as though grooves in the middle are machine-made because of their smoothness and precision.
As you can see, there are six reliefs, three of which depict Vishnu with standard iconography. In middle of the wall is the relief depicting Manmatha his consort Rathi. Manmatha, who is known by many names, including Kamadeva, is a son of Vishnu and the Hindu god of love and desire. As you can see from the image, Manmatha is holding a sugarcane bow with his left hand and the floral arrows with his right hand.
On the right, there are two female figures, similar to the ones in the Bracket Figures. The second female figure from the right – likely depicts a huntress – appears to be damaged and defaced.
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga
– 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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