A set of three Hoysala temples in Karnataka, separated by 200km, have given India its 42nd Unesco World Heritage Site
Just outside Hassan, which sits almost in the middle of southern Karnataka, undulating plains begin to incline into the Western Ghats. This is the heart of Karnataka’s malenadu (mountainous region), fed by several small and big rivers. One of these is Yagachi, a major tributary of the Hemavathy river; it rises from the Baba Budan hills and joins the Hemavathy near Gorur. On the way, it passes through Belur, a nondescript town except for the spectacular Channakeshava temple built by the mighty Hoysalas, who ruled between the 10th-14th centuries.
After years of lobbying, research and documentation, this, along with the Hoysalesvara temple in Halebidu and the Keshava temple in Somanathapura, were awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status on 18 September under the title Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas.
About an hour’s drive to the north-west of Hassan, whizzing through little hamlets, lush green paddies and swaying coconut trees, is Belur. Much of the little town, once the thriving capital of the Hoysalas, appears to have arranged itself to cater to the thousands of tourists who visit the Channakeshava temple. The Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana began building it in the early 12th century to commemorate victory over the Cholas; according to legend, it took 103 years and three generations to complete the architectural marvel. Veera Ballala II finished the project started by his grandfather.
It’s a marvel all right. The sprawling temple complex, built in black soapstone that is extremely amenable to intricate carving, has a stellate plan and rests on a raised plinth. The most arresting feature of the central Channakeshava temple, dedicated to Vishnu, is the towering ornamental gopuram and the winged figure of Garuda, Vishnu’s carrier. The carved façade has friezes of marching elephants, battlefields, mythological figures, musicians and dancers, decorative motifs at the base, as well as scenes from the two epics, Ramayan and Mahabharat.
There are the 38 iconic bracket figures that depict madanikas, or celestial nymphs, especially that of the darpanasundari, or lady with a mirror, with intricate carvings showcasing their jewellery and coiffure. Inside, the lathe-turned pillars are equally stunning. The main deity is a 6ft image of Sri Keshava with four hands, and there is an intricately carved prabhavali, the decorated arch behind the statue. There are many adjacent temples and figures.
The courtyard of the Channakeshava temple, Belur.
Some 15km to Belur’s east is its twin, Halebidu, originally known as Dwarasamudra, the second capital of the Hoysalas. Central to Halebidu is the magnificent temple complex with Hindu and Jain shrines, with the Hoysalesvara temple at its heart, dating to the early 12th century. It is bigger and better planned than the Belur temple but incomplete, though it has been 105 years in the making.
Experts say the temple is a true reflection of the Indian sculptural tradition. It is set on a twin star-shaped base, typical of the Hoysala style of temple architecture. It is carved with figures of Hindu deities, sages, animals, birds, and portrayals of life in the time of the Hoysala kings. The façade is filled with carved elephants, lions, a battlefield with horsemen, mythical animals and peacocks. But the most striking are elaborately sculpted scenes of dance and music performances.
The third angle of the Hoysala golden triangle—the Keshava temple at Somanathapura—is separated from Belur-Halebidu by almost 200km and is located on the banks of the Cauvery, close to Mysuru. Built in the mid-13th century, by a Hoysala chieftain who named the village after himself, the temple is dedicated to Vishnu and follows the star-shaped design and exquisite carvings of the other two temples. However, it has three arresting pyramidal towers, or vimanas. Inside, the ornate pillared hall and exquisitely carved 16 different ceilings are mesmerising. Though the central deity, Keshava, is missing, the Krishna and Janardana statues in adjacent shrines are eye-catching.
Taking all three together, Unesco notes in its citation: “This serial property encompasses the three most representative examples of Hoysala-style temple complexes in southern India, dating from the 12th to 13th centuries. The Hoysala style was created through careful selection of contemporary temple features and those from the past to create a different identity from neighbouring kingdoms. The shrines are characterised by hyper-real sculptures and stone carvings that cover the entire architectural surface, a circumambulatory platform, a large-scale sculptural gallery, a multi-tiered frieze, and sculptures of the Sala legend. The excellence of the sculptural art underpins the artistic achievement of these temple complexes, which represent a significant stage in the historical development of Hindu temple architecture.”
Aravind Chandramohan, co-convenor of the Bengaluru chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), which did much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes, explains why the listing by Unesco is significant.“The listing enhances the prestige and results in more awareness among the general public. Greater awareness will help in protection and conservation of these architectural marvels. The local economy will get a boost because of the increase in tourism activities.”
Intach prepared the Nomination Dossier submitted to Unesco in 2019. It comprises two main parts—the main dossier, which provides the “justification for the Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) through research, documentation and comparative analysis”, and the Site Management Plan, which “gives the framework on how the sites will be protected, the boundaries, the committees and an action plan”.
The Intach team worked on these aspects for over two years, visiting more than 40 Hoysala temples. Then began the process of elimination: The first shortlist had 20 temples, which was reduced to 11, and finally narrowed to three. The final document was ready in January 2021 but it took over a year and considerable lobbying for it to become India’s official entry in early 2022. In September last year, experts of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a global NGO associated with Unesco, visited the sites. The nomination was announced at the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 18 September.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.