The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysala

The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysala

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The Hoysala Empire was a Southern Indian empire that existed between the 10 th and 14 th centuries A.D. This empire ruled over much of the present day state of Karnataka. Initially, the capital of the Hoysala Empire was located at Belur, but was later moved to Halebidu. One of the great legacies of the Hoysalas is their contribution to the development of several creative fields as well as humanistic and spiritual thought. This can perhaps best be seen in the temples that were left behind by this once great empire.

During the reign, the Hoysalas built over 1500 temples throughout their empire. Today, however, only a little over a hundred of these monuments survive. As the Hoysalas promoted religious tolerance, both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects of Hinduism were supported by the court. Furthermore, Jainism was also recognised by the Hoysala rulers. As a result, temples were built not only for the Hindus, but also for the Jains. These temples are said to be more than mere places of ritual worship. They were meant to be expressions of spiritual purpose and vehicles of spiritual practice and attainment, as the temples were also a place where people could gather and take part in cultural programmes. 

Stone Chariot at Vittala Temple - Hoysala

Stone Chariot at Vittala Temple displays the magnificence of the Hoysala architecture. Photo source .

The Hoysala temples are also significant for their distinct architectural features. For instance, the architecture of the Hoysalas is a hybrid of the nagara style of temple architecture from northern India and the Dravidian style from the south of the country. Thus, the Hoysala temples were built on platforms and had a star-shaped plan. The artistic achievement of the Hoysalas is also marked by the intricate decorations that cover the exterior walls of numerous temples. These stone sculptures and carvings are full of both religious and cultural iconography, and include depictions of deities, dance and music, hunting, the daily life of the peoples, and scenes from three of Hinduism’s greatest literary works – the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bhagavatham.    

A section from the world famous hoysala architecture in India

A section from the world famous hoysala architecture in India. Source: BigStockPhoto

The towns were planned on a cosmic diagram with the streets in four cardinal directions and the main temple at the center of town at the intersection of the axes. There were also temples at the ends of the four cardinal streets. The temple complex had  rathabeedi or ‘chariot streets’ around the temple complex for ceremonial processions relating to the circumambulation of the deities on enormous chariots.

At the first capital of the Hoysalas, Belur is the Chennakeshava Temple Complex. This is situated at the centre of the old walled town on the banks of the Yagachi River. Although it was dedicated to the god Vishnu, the Chennakeshava Temple also has some representations of Shiva, which is evidence of the Hoysalas’ principle of religious tolerance. Interestingly, worship at this temple, which began when it was established in the 13 th century A.D. (construction commenced in A.D. 1117, but was only completed after 103 years), is still going on today. Another interesting fact about the Chennakeshava Temple Complex is that 118 stone inscriptions covering the period from A.D. 1117 to the 18 th century have been found there. These inscriptions provide us with fascinating details about the artists who were employed, grants made to the temple, and the renovations that were done.

Carvings of worshippers at Hampi

Carvings of worshippers lined up along a wall at Hampi. Source: BigStockPhoto

As the Hoysala Empire grew, its capital was moved from Belur to Halebidu, which was far bigger and grander than its predecessor. Yet, this city was attacked numerous times by invaders from Northern India, who finally succeeded in sacking the capital in A.D. 1310. This resulted in the destruction of the main temple in the centre of the city as well as numerous other smaller temples, shrines and palace buildings. Nevertheless, some temples survived the brutality of the invaders. One of these remaining temples is the Hoysaleshwara Temple. This temple was built in A.D. 1121 during the reign of King Vishnuvardhana Hoysalas, and was dedicated to Shiva. While it was the kings who usually sponsored the grandest temples in Southern India, this one was dedicated by the wealthy citizens and merchants of Halebidu. Furthermore, the artwork and sculpture decorating this building is said to be more sophisticated than any other Hoysala temple. Thus, in this temple, one is able to see the blending of the sacred and spiritual, commerce and wealth, and artistic achievement.    


I've had the privilege of visiting both Belur and Halebid temples. Photo's don't do justice to those carvings. You'll see that they are all separate panels. Joined like a lego set.

Meaning each main god and the surrounding supporting gods of say 3 feet x 2 feet size were created and then joined together. My thinking is that they had some sort of production line of carver's who just hammered out these panels day and night.

In one or two hard to notice corners, you'll see some walls don't meet at the right spot. A couple of panels were bigger than needed. So these are sort of tucked away behind. Half of it is visible. I'm sure the final builders didn't have the heart to saw a panel. So it's preserved in full.

It's hard to imagine a team of stone masons creating this structure in-situ. It would take them a couple of lifetimes.

What I'm unable to figure out is how they carved small figures. I saw ones of 4-6 inches tall with intricate designs and in totality.

By totality, I mean,the stone was chipped away behind it too. Its not like a kid's clay stamping mold. You understand? It's like a 3D casting just lightly attached to a backing stone in a couple of spots.

If I have to guess, they had some type of lost wax molding process for stone. Yeah I know stone has never been cast like bronze. That is why I'm not an archeologist. :)

But why not? Lava is molten stone isn't it?

That stone is soapstone. It is soft and there are video's on you-tube of carvers in Mahablipuram. But, but no. They are only making it like a rubber stamp. These are like a sliced statue.

The ones here are eerily human like. With emotions and stuff.

I have been to both the sites referred in this article. The temples of Hampi belong to Vijaynagar dynasty. Other monuments i.e Hoysaleshwar temple and Chennakesava are of Hoysala dynasty..

the ancient sculpture and architecture amazes me always.

rbflooringinstall's picture

Those are some of the most beautiful carvings i'v ever seen.

Peace and Love,


the detail amazes me, how can anyone do that? so intricate and delicate and so much precision, especially with the differences in technology and tools from 1117 AD to today...

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