Hoysala architecture has evolved under the reign of Hoysala rulers. In the Western Ghats, local chieftains were the Hoysala rulers. Over time, their fortunes changed, and within a few decades, they had attained the rank of a powerful feudatory under the Western Chalukyan Emperors. The Hoysala dynasty’s new dominion’s capital was transferred from the Western Ghats to Belur. 

In 1116 CE, the military conquests of Vishnuvardhan (1108 CE – 1152 CE) against the Chola Empire (c. 300 BCE – 1279 CE) marked the first significant development in the dynasty’s history. Vishnuvardhan ushered in a new period by constructing the Chennakesava temple in Belur (1117 CE) to commemorate the victory.

During the ruling period of Veera Ballala II (1173 CE – 1220 CE), the Hoysalas obtained political independence in 1192. They rapidly rose to prominence in Southern India, and for the next century or so, they enjoyed territorial superiority and economic prosperity. The empire comprised present-day Karnataka, parts of Tamil Nadu, and south-western Telangana at its peak. 

However, from 1311 CE onwards, sultanate invasions from Delhi and Madurai proved fatal to Veera Ballala III reigning king (1292 CE – 1343 CE). In 1343 CE, he ultimately succumbed to these repeated assaults.

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Characteristics of Hoysala Architecture 

Hoysala architecture is a building style that evolved between the 11th and 14th centuries in southern Karnataka under the Hoysala Empire’s rule. Hoysala temples are often referred to as hybrid or vesara temple style because their distinctive design tends to be somewhere between Dravida and Nagara temple styles.

Instead of a modest inner chamber with a pillared hall, the Hoysala temples have several shrines arranged around a central pillared hall in the form of an intricately-designed star. The most distinguishing characteristic of these temples of Hoysala architecture is that they become exceedingly complex, with so many projecting angles arising from the previously simple square temple, that the plan of these temples begins to resemble a star and is thus referred to as a stellate-plan.

The temple craftsmen were able to carve their sculptures intricately because they were made of soapstone, a relatively soft stone. These sculptures can be seen, for example, in the gods’ jewellery that adorns the temple walls.

Their highly original star-like ground-plans and the profusion of decorative carvings set them apart from other medieval temples. Both open and closed mandapas can be found in Hoysala architecture. Hoysala temples have circular pillars in their mandapas. Each pillar has four sculpted figures on the top brackets. The mandapa’s ceilings are ornate, with mythological figures and floral designs.

The vimana in Hoysala temples is notable for being simple on the inside though lavishly decorated on the outside. One or more shrines can be located in most Hoysala temples. According to the shrines, temples are graded as ekakuta (one shrine), dvikuta (two shrines). On the uppermost part of the temple tower, the Hoysala temples have a lovely vase-shaped water pot. 

The predecessors of the Hoysalas, the Nolamaba (late eighth – 11th century) and Western Ganga (350 CE – 1000 CE) dynasties, built both Hindu and Jain temples influenced by Tamil heritage. The Western Chalukyas’ (Kalyani) decoration inspired Hoysala decorative elements and employed their craftsmen. The pillar image known as “Sthambha buttalikas” in Hoysala architecture displays Chola and Chalukya influences. 

Mohini’s image in one of the pillars in Chennakeshava temple’s mandapa holds a firm idea of Chola impressionism in Hoysala art. The pillars’ top and surface were both embellished by Hoysala craftsmen, while Chalukya artists kept the top plain and only ornamented the surface.

The finest example of Hoysala Architecture is Chennakeshava temple, Hoysaleshwara Temple and Keshava temple. 

Chennakeshava temple, Belur

Chennakeshava temple is an ekakuta, or single-shrine temple of Hoysala architecture. The shikhara has sadly been lost to the ravages of time. An enshrined portrait of Krishna can be found in the garbha griha (Chenna means beautiful, whereas Kesava is another name of Krishna). 

The entire temple, which was designed on a grand scale, follows the Hoysala architectural pattern. It is oriented east-west and is centered on a jagati. The hall has 60 bays and a 10-meter-long shrine on each side. There are 38 beautifully sculpted figures known as salabhanjika or madanika underneath the mandapa’s eave cornice (outdoor ritual hall) (bracket figures). These were later additions, as evidenced by their location and inscriptions (initially during the rule of Veer Ballala II). 

The same year, the Queen of Vishnuvardhan, Shantala, consecrated Kappechennigaraya at the southern end of this temple. A sub shrine with the image of Venugopal is situated next to the main shrine. 

The stellate plan is used here, but the temple is less ornate. Viranarayan, a temple to the west of Chennakesava, is situated in the same compound. It is an ekakuta, or Vaishnava temple, founded in the 12th century CE. It is constructed on jagati and follows the basic pattern of a garbha griha and an antarala leading to the mandapa. This temple is unique in that it lacks the narrative friezes that abound in Chennakesava.

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Hoysaleshwara Temple, Halebidu

The temple features unique carvings and a design that includes two shrines, one for the King and one for the Queen. The two garbha-grihas (sanctum sanctorum) are connected by a mandapa (porch) in this dvikuta (temple with two shrines) Shaiva temple, creating a wide-open hall. The name Shantaleshwara comes from the fact that one shrine is dedicated to King Vishnuvardhan and the other to his Queen Shantala. 

It was primarily founded under the patronage of wealthy local merchants and aristocrats in 1121 CE. The twin temple has four entrances; each flanked on either side by miniature vimanas. On the same jagati, there are two additional shrines, one for Nandi (bull) and the other for Surya (sun). Thousands of figures represent scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana on the walls. It was designed in soapstone and reflected Hoysala architecture. 

The temple’s exterior walls are decorated with intricate carvings, and it has been called an excellent example of Hindu architecture. The temple has four entrance porches, with the main shrine facing east. Within the temple, there are beautiful sculptures and paintings. At the temple’s entrance, there is a statue of Ganesha dancing. The temple contains over 240 images; no other temple has as many sculptures. 

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Keshava Temple, Somanathapura 

Somanatha, a commander of the Hoysala Army, founded the Keshava Temple in Somanathapura. This general had recently founded Somanathapura, a small town named after him. Enjoying the favour of his overlord, Hoysala King Narasimha III, he demanded permission and money to begin the project of constructing the magnificent temple. 

The building was begun with the King’s permission. The temple’s building was finished and consecrated in 1268 AD. These details can be found in an Old Kannada inscription on a stone slab in the temple. The Keshava temple is located on a raised platform with a Pradakshina pathway leading to it. With three shrines and Vimanas, the temple has a fantastic layout. 

Beautiful friezes depicting scenes from epics, elephant figures, and battle scenes depicting cavalry adorn the walls. Carvings of different deities occupy the portion above this.  Each row has a different design, and the stellar plan creates many corners and niches that provide different canvases for the sculptor. This temple is a Trikuta temple since it has three shrines and three Vimanas. 

The temple is the most ornate and flawless example of Hoysala architecture. The image of Vishnu as Kesava can be found in the western sanctum. The image of Venugopala is on the southern side, while Janardana is on the northern side.

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The Hoysala Empire’s crown jewels, Belur and Halebidu, were once twin towns. They now draw a lot of well-deserved attention from visitors, academics, and devotees from all over the country and the world. Also today, most of the shrines Hoysala architecture are open for regular worship. 

Despite the irreversible losses incurred by time and mercenary human powers, the magnificence of these structures and the piety that went into their creation continue to inspire respect in the silent beholder to this day. 

Tamrin Afroz
Author

Tamrin Afroz is an architecture student who loves traveling, painting, journaling, and experimenting with new ideas. She aspires to uphold local culture, tradition, and craftsmanship within the community, to conserve tangible and intangible heritage. Apart from architecture, she is an activist working on social issues and promoting girls' leadership roles.

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