I’m greeted by a monkey with a toothy grin, and a voluptuous nymph with rolling bangles that seem to clink. We’re looking at stone carvings in the Chennakesava temple in Belur, Karnataka. My guide is all too familiar with the awe-struck expressions assumed by most visitors to the shrine and urges me on to the next sculpture. I’m glad that he is bubbling over with trivia, but wish that he would pause to let me absorb the intricate workmanship at this first stop on the Hoysala temple trail.
These temples are among the 1,500 shrines and monuments erected by the Hoysala kings starting from the 12th century. They’re the result of an intense period of rivalry between various dynasties in the Deccan from the 10th to the 14th century. The rulers used temple art to advertise their power. Once the Hoysalas wrested control of the Karnataka region from the Chalukyas, they lost no time in pursuing their love for the arts and developing a distinctive style of temple architecture. Today, however, only 92 Hoysala shrines remain.
To really admire the sandstone etchings, you need more than patience—you need a thread and a mirror. No torches are allowed inside the temples, so guides carry small mirrors that reflect sunlight into dark corners. The thread helps highlight the minute detailing of the carvings, say teeth or bangles. They’re crafted so finely, a strand of string runs easily between the features.
The temple trail that goes via the twin towns of Belur and Halebid in Hassan district over two days, is perfect for travellers from Bengaluru craving a short heritage fix. Because of its reasonably good accommodation options, Hassan is the ideal base for exploring the sites.
The star-shaped Chennakesava temple in Belur (38 km/ 50 minutes northwest of Hassan) is the most majestic example of Hoysala grandeur. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple was built in the Vijayanagara period, but several important additions were made during the Hoysala rule. Hundreds of sculptors laboured for 103 years and produced 4,000 exquisite slate stone carvings. Episodes from the epics unfold on every crevice of the walls. Visitors can also see the emblem of the Hoysala empire: the young Sala (who also lends his name to the empire) slaying a lion. Keep your eyes peeled for the sculpture of the darpana sundari (the lady with a mirror), one of the many madanikas, or celestial women figures.
When you’ve had your fill of the sculptures, look out for the deepasthambham, a monolithic lamp tower that stands 50 feet tall, but doesn’t have a foundation, and rests on a flat, raised base. Similar architectural marvels are strewn across the temple complex (daily 7.30 a.m.-1p.m., 3-7.30 p.m.).
To enter the Hoysaleswara temple in Halebid (41 km/50 minutes from Hassan), you have to manoeuvre past a crowd of postcard and curio sellers at the gate. The temple stands at the far end of a manicured lawn. If, like me, you’ve visited Chennakesava first, it will be easier to compare the two structures. This one is a Shiva temple, and is aesthetically and architecturally similar to the one at Belur—except, it’s more elaborate, possibly because Halebid was capital of the Hoysala Empire in the 12th century. Tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are carved into the walls here, along with depictions of the mythological Makara, the part-terrestrial, part-aquatic animal. But the most unique aspect of this place is the basadis, or Jain shrines, that lie just outside the complex. This is possibly a throwback to Hoysala premier Vishnuvardhana, who ruled during the early decades of the 12th century, and was a follower of Jainism before he became a Vaishnavite (daily sunrise-sunset, but 8 a.m.-5p.m. is the best time to visit).
From Halebid, there are three temples that visitors can stop by. A 12-km drive north through verdant countryside will take you to the village of Mosale. The workmanship at the Nageshwara-Chennakesava temple here is less intricate, but the ambience is tranquil, allowing you to soak in the enormity of the stone marvels: animals, celestial beings, and deities (daily sunrise-sunset).
Another hidden gem is the Veera Narayana temple in Belavadi, around 12 km towards Chikmagalur. More than 100 soapstone pillars greet you in the main hall, before your eyes adjust to the three dark shrines of Vishnu in the form of Narayana, Venugopala, and Yoganarsimha. According to legend, Bhima killed the demon Bakasura at the site— although Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh also stakes a claim to this famous slaying. If you are lucky, you will run into the area’s only English-speaking priest, who is enthusiastic about talking to the few visitors that make it here (daily sunrise-sunset).
Since it isn’t on the popular Belur-Halebid circuit, travellers often tend to skip the Keshava temple at Somanathapura (139 km/3 hours southeast of Hassan), off the Bengaluru-Mysore highway. Built in 1268 under the patronage of Narsimha III, the temple bears the trademark architectural flourishes of the period, but is less crowded than other shrines in the area (daily 8.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; entry ₹5, ₹100 for foreigners).
There are several hotels and resorts in Hassan. The Ashhok Hassan offers plush rooms and excellent service, compared to other city hotels. The hotel’s Shantala Bar & restaurant serves south Indian as well as continental fare (P.B. No.121, B.M. Road, Hassan; 08172- 268731; www.hassanashok.com; doubles from ₹4,720).
Hoysala Village Resort is a time-tested option. The cottages are adorned with Indian motifs, and the hotel has a swimming pool, an Ayurvedic massage centre, and an in-house restaurant with an extensive menu of Chinese and Indian dishes (Unit Hoysala Village Resort, Survey No. 357, Handinkere Village, Belur Road, Hassan; 08172-256764; hoysalavillageresorts.com; doubles from ₹8,900).
Appeared in the February 2014 issue as “Chronicles in Stone”.
Hassan is 185 km/4 hours west from Bengaluru on NH48. Belur lies 38 km/50 minutes northwest of Hassan, while Halebid is 41 km/50 minutes north of Hassan.
Air The nearest airport is Bengaluru, and taxis to Hassan are frequent. A standard AC taxi will charge approximately ₹3,900 for a round trip.
Rail The Karwar-Yesvantpur Express and the Mangalore Express connect Bangalore and Hassan. The other option is to get off at Mangalore (174 km/3.5 hours) or Mysore (120 km/2.5 hours), both of which are connected to Hassan by bus.
Road The Karnataka State Transport Corporation runs a frequent bus service between Bengaluru and Hassan (approximate fare ₹330).
Halebid and Belur are connected by local buses to Hassan. The best way to get around is by hiring a taxi (approximately ₹1,200 for a round trip from Hassan).
The temperatures around Hassan remain warm for most of the year. The best time to visit is between October and February, when temperatures rest at a comfortable 26-30°C, and you can escape the harsh sun. The rains begin around April and peak in July. Visiting the temples then is not advised.