Hoysala temples are best defined by intricate soapstone carvings, star-shaped shrines, roomy passages, and idols that exhibit sculptural genius. In a matter of great pride for India, three of Karnataka’s Hoysala temples have officially been recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The list includes the Chennakeshava temple in Belur, the Hoysaleshwara temple in Halebidu, and the Keshava temple of Somnathpur.
The momentous announcement was made during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, on September 18, 2023. Not only will this feat open the doors to global recognition, but will also bolster international tourism. The nominations of these temples were entered under the title ‘The Sacred Ensembles of Hoysalas’, and continue to be preserved by the Archeological Survey of India.
What are Hoysala temples?
Memoirs from the 11th to 14th centuries CE, the Hoysala temples are located in Karnataka. Predominantly, these temples feature Shiva and Vishnu deities in several forms and avatars (incarnations). What makes them stand out is the ornate carving on soft soapstone, which adorns the Hoysala temple pillars and walls leading to the Sanctorum. From deep fluting carving techniques to decorative motifs, almost every surface of these temples is embellished. Mantapa — the main space where devotees offer prayers — is often preceded by a grand entryway with an ornamented overhead arch. Inside, the ceiling is supported by several pillars that form bays, thereby elevating the architectural appeal of the prayer hall.
Another feature of the Hoysala temples is the Vimana — the most sacred shrine which houses the image of the presiding deity. On the outside, the Vimana is decorated with a star or square-shaped dome. The inside, however, is plain. The stone carvings throughout these temples depict everyday sceneries like horses, musicians, dancers and singers, instrumentalists, and countless rows of animals where no two look alike. Additionally, Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata have been carved into the stone in a clockwise fashion.
Hoysala temples in India
The Hoysala era was a revolutionary period of development for South Indian architecture, art, and religion. Today, about 100 temples uphold the legacy of the Hoysala empire in Karnataka, and several others are mentioned in inscriptions. Below, we round up the 3 Hoysala temples that have joined the coveted list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Chennakeshava temple
This Hoysala temple at Belur was built by King Vishnuvardhana to commemorate his victory over the Cholas in 1116 CE. At the entrance of this star-shaped temple, devotees are greeted by a splendid sculpture of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s carrier.
The main sanctum houses a 3.7 m tall image of Lord Vijaya Narayana, crafted using black stone. The temple features numerous pillars that are profusely decorated with carvings. While no two pillars at this temple are alike, make sure to catch a glimpse of the surreal Mohini pillar. This temple took 103 years to complete and should be on every architecture and history enthusiast’s radar.
How to reach:
By air: Mangaluru International Airport is the nearest airport, 159 km away.
By train: Hasana Junction is the nearest railway station, 40 km away.
The Keshava temple
Located in Somanathpur, the Keshava temple was constructed by General Somnath of the Holyasa army. Completed in 1268 CE, the spectacular temple has 3 shrines and Vimanas.
The walls are bedecked with informative yet intricate friezes of scenes from Hindu epics, elephants, and battle sequences, among others.
How to reach:
By air: Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru is the nearest airport, 174 km away.
By train: Mysore Rail Head is the nearest railway station, 34 km away.
The Hoysaleshwara temple
One of the largest Shiva temples erected by the Hoysalas, the Hoysaleshwara temple is a sight to behold. Built on a star-shaped base, immaculately polished lathe-turned-pillars welcome devotees into this twin-shrined temple.
Whether it is Indian epics engraved into the walls, an ornate sculpture of Nandi, or a 2 m tall image of Surya, this temple will truly capture your imagination. This temple is located in Halebidu and was completed in 1121 CE.
How to reach:
By air: Mysuru Airport is the nearest airport, 156 km away.
By train: Banavara Railway Station is the nearest railway station, 27 km away.
Main and Feature Image Credit: Ms Sarah Welch, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Where are the Hoysala temples located?
The Hoysala temples are located in Karnataka, India.
Are there guided tours available at the Hoysala temples?
Yes, guided tours are available for the 3 Hoysala temples recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
What is unique about the architecture of Hoysala temples?
The primary building stone of most Hoysala temples is soapstone (chloritic schist). This soft stone allows intricate carving and moulding. The carvings embellish almost every surface of the temples with depictions of Hindu epics, celestial beings, deities, animals, etc. Hoysala temples are usually star or staggered square in shape, where the main prayer space i.e. Mantapa is built on elevation.
Which are the most famous Hoysala temples that tourists should visit?
Recently, 3 of the Hoysala temples were added to the coveted list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include Chennakeshava temple, Hoysaleshwara temple, and Keshava temple. These temples exhibit stellar craftsmanship and are worth a visit.
Are there accommodations and dining options near the Hoysala temples?
Yes, there are hotels and restaurants near the 3 Hoysala temples recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.