Belur & Somnathpura, Karnataka
The Chennakeshava Temples are a trio of temples constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries under the auspices of the Hoysala kings in Southern India. All three honor Chennakeshava, a form of the deity Vishnu, and are among the best preserved and awe-inspiring temples in Karnataka. Of the three, two are considered among the best (and most popular) temples in the south: the Keshava Temple in Somnathpura, and the Chennakeshava Temple at Belur.
The Hoysala Empire was the dominant kingdom of Southern India in the late Middle Ages, and its rulers were passionate temple builders. The architectural legacy of Hoysala can be found everywhere in the lower half of the Subcontinent. In particular, there were many devotees of the deity Vishnu, and temples to Vishnu became especially prevalent during this period. Scores of temples to Vishnu built by the Hoysala rulers can be found all over Southern India.
The Chennakesava Temple at Belur is the oldest and largest of these. Belur was an early capital of the Hoysala Kingdom, and the city was built up accordingly. Its construction was sponsored by King Vishnuvardhana in the early 12th century. According to some stories, the temple was built to commemorate a military victory (it is unsure which one). Another theory indicates that it was built to honor the king’s conversion to Hinduism. Most agree that the temple’s construction was an announcement to other nearby kingdoms that the Hoysala were a force to be reckoned with.
Many other temples followed. Of these, arguably the next most important was the Chennakesava Temple (also known as the Keshava Temple) at Somnathpura. This one was built in the second half of the 13th century when the Hoysala Empire reached its height. With immense funds at the disposal of the builders, this temple was among the most magnificent ever constructed by the Hoysala, and remains to this day the finest surviving example of their architecture.
By the 14th century the Hoysala Empire had eroded in the face of other Hindu realms as well as Muslim raiders from the north. When the kingdom finally fell, many of its major cities were heavily ransacked. In Belur, the Chennakesava Temple is the only major architectural survivor of the Hoysala period. Somnathpur survived somewhat better. Together with the Chennakesava Temple at Mosale they form a popular mini-pilgrimage route in Karnataka state.
The Chennakesava Temple at Belur is simply massive. It is a sculpture lover’s paradise, even by Indian standards. Accounts indicate that the temple’s sculptors toiled on the temple for over half a century (the work was never finished). Of particular interest is the herd of over six hundred full sized elephant sculptures which support the structure, and countless tiny sculptures of dancers worked with an unparalleled level of detail and skill. The inner sanctum features a silver-plated statue of Vishnu which remains the center of worship to this day.
The Kesheva Temple at Somnathapura is perhaps smaller and less imposing than its sibling at Belur, but its artistic detail is generally considered to be even better. Interestingly, a part of this temple’s design is due to an earthquake that struck during its construction, leaving parts of it off kilter and slightly unaligned (it was left this way as the builders thought this to be a warning from the gods against the temple’s perfection).
The Chennakesava Temple is located in the center of modern Belur, approximately 1050 miles south of New Delhi. It is open daily from 8:00am-8:30pm. There is no cost of admission. The Kesheva Temple of Somnathpura and its surrounding gardens dominate the entire southwestern corner of the town, approximately 120 miles southeast of Belur. It is open daily from 9:00am-5:30pm. The cost of admission is Rs25. Web: www.karnatakatourism.org (official tourism website of Karnataka).
The third of the three Chennakeshava Temples is locate in the city of Mosale, and is known as the Nageshvara Temple.