Divine India

The Hoysala: Belur and Halebid
  |  Gorp.com

The Hoysala dynasty ruled in the southern Deccan from about 1006 to about 1346. Originally from the hills northwest of Dorasamudra (modern Halebid), which became their capital about 1060, they were part of the mix of warring Hindu families that made southern Indian history so colorful. In fact, they were for a long time vassals of the Chalukyas, at least until one of their more accomplished leaders, Bittiga (also known as Vishnuvardhana) set a separate course for his people. The outstanding temples of their two great cities, Belur and Halebid, were built during his tenure. The decline of the Hoysala reign saw the rise of the Vijayanagar kingdom.

Like many of the rulers of the times, Bittiga and his Hoysala successors were religiously tolerant and adventurous in their artistic expressions of faith. Under the Hoysala, the mixing and matching of iconic figures associated with different Hindu sects and Jainism was common and architectural innovation rose to new heights. Also, whereas early Hoysala temples followed in the footsteps of their Chalukyan lords, by the time Bittiga was in power, Hoysala (also called Karnatic) architecture and sculpture were unique and especially ornate and intricate.

Hoysalan temples are characterized by multiple, small, raised (but squat) structures plastered with a dizzying abundance of decorations. This design is organized into horizontal strips of floral and animal motifs, or divine figures, separated from one another by deep grooves and hollows. It is understood from these carvings that Hoysalan art, music and dance, was quite advanced.


The central attraction at Belur is the Channekeshava Temple, the last of the three surviving Hoysala temples that still functions as such. Most of the best decoration is on the inside, although there are plenty of friezes covering the outer walls. The other two Hoysala temples are Channigaraya and Viranarayana. Both here and at Halebid, it is worth getting guides for the temples; they either know enough to be valuable or have enough funny quips about each statue to make the temples memorable.


This Hoysalan capital city, situated alongside a large 9th-century artificial lake known as Dvarasamudra, was legendary for its wealth and splendor. Halebid was originally protected by an imposing stone wall and moat, traces of which still exist. This was no protection against the 14th-century Muslim raids, after which the city declined.

The height of Hoysalan Karnatic art and architecture survives in the form of the double-shrine Hoysaleshvara Temple at Halebid. The subtly and skill behind the architecture is sometimes overlooked amidst the profusion of carving, but the general sense of high-level accomplishment is more than evident. Built in 1121, about 10 years after the temples at Belur, laborers worked at the stone for 80 years and it was still never completed. Every inch of this temple inside and out is blanketed in a dizzying and endless display of gods, people, animals and plants. There are illustrations of parables and tales about war, hunting, music, dance, agriculture, and, of course, sex. It's a unique feast for the eyes that should not be missed.

In addition to the Hoysaleshvara temple, there are the equally ornate Kedareswara Temple, built about a century later, a number of Jain monuments, and numerous badly decayed ruins and undeveloped areas in need of excavation.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »