Belur and Halebid are at a distance of 16km from each other. Typically people visit both the temples together. After visiting Halebid, when we reached Belur, there was a longish queue at the entrance with little or no social distancing at all. We were now worried that we may have to share the space with a lot more people than we did at Halebid (none, in fact, except for the guide). To add to it, the light drizzle was slowly developing into a stronger downpour and we decided to give it a miss. After spending two glorious nights at a resort in Sakleshpur and a visit to an interesting fort, on the way back to Bangalore, we decided to give Belur another chance and we were lucky this time.
Belur is beautiful on the inside, the guide at Halebid was 100% correct!
While Halebid with its two sanctums is dedicated to Lord Shiva, Belur, has one sanctum sanctorum dedicated to Lord Chennakeshava (beautiful Keshava, a name Lord Vishnu goes by). The temple was built under the aegis of the greatest of Hoysala kings, Vishnuvardhana as a tribute to the Gods having won a battle against the Chola Kings. The temple where worship takes place to this day has a pleasing statue of the god covered in silver that is visually easily overpowered by the pillars and statues that adorn the mantapa (the area in front of the sanctum).
The pillars and figures of dancers striking various poses beats the ones in Halebid and Somanathpur. The attention to detail given to every whorl, twirl, pose, and every aspect of design is mind boggling. The jewellery that adorns the dancers can be pure inspiration for the next necklace or bangle or anklet that you want your family jeweller to design for you 😉
There are 42 pillars, some are multi-sided, some others are smooth lathe turned pillars with unique designs. The most famous of these pillars go by the names ‘Narasimha Pillar’ and ‘Mohini Pillar’. Idols are carved out intricately on the the Narasimha Pillar, without leaving an inch of space. The tour guide told us that the pillar would rotate on ball bearings that have since been damaged and that the pillar does not rotate anymore. The pillar may have got its name because of a carving of Ugra Narasimha (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) or because the pillar was commissioned by the Hoysala King Narasimha I. The Mohini Pillar, besides being as intricate as the Narasimha Pillar also has a statue of Mohini, the only female avatar of Lord Vishnu. She is perhaps one of the most beautifully and proportionately carved female figures.
Just like in Halebid, here too the slightly raised circular platform in front of the deity was Shantaladevi’s dancing stage. On the four pillars around this platform, where the top of the pillar meets the beam, are statues of dancers. These ‘bracket figures’ are placed at an angle of 45 degrees and are a specialty of this temple. There are 38 such bracket figures on the outer walls of the temple taking the total of all the bracket figured to 42! These figures strike various poses – you have the lady playing an instrument, a lady singing, a lady talking to her parrot, a lady adjusting her toe ring and so on and so forth.
Another beautiful feature that should not be missed is the octagonal central dome called ‘Bhuvaneshwari’ that is 10′ wide and 6′ in depth with a central suspended pendant with a sculpture of Narasimha slaying Hiranyakashipu.
There is more to see in the large temple compound. Once you enter the temple through the main entrance, do take a look at the marvelous gopura (entrance tower). The guide told us that this gopura which was destroyed during invasions was restored by the Vijayanagar Kings (who ruled here after the Hoysalas).
Chariots and carriages that are used in the annual temple festival is housed in a little shed. The guide sounded very sad that the festival didn’t take place this year, a rare break from tradition, all thanks to the COVID 19 pandemic that has stormed into our lives and hit us like a tsunami. If you look closely, you can spot figures of a peacock, an elephant and a horse.
Also in the courtyard and almost in front of this chariot shed in a very tall ‘gravity defying’ pillar, a ‘deepa sthambha’ (a lamp pillar), again an addition from the Vijayanagar Period. It is ‘gravity defying’ because it is placed freely and not fixed to the star shaped platform it stands on! The pillar is 32 feet in height. It starts as a 4 sided pillar with a width of 21/2 feet at the base, becomes a 8-sided pillar one third of the way up and a 16-sided pillar, the last third of its height with a width of 11/2 feet at the top. If you look closely at one side of the square base of the pillar you can see a small gap between the base of the pillar and the platform it stands on.
There is a swing pavilion that is typically used during festivals where deities are placed on the swing and worshipped. There is even a hall if you wish to conduct say a wedding ceremony.
There are smaller yet pretty temples in the courtyard. They were all locked, so I assume they were closed to visitors.
The Kappe Chennigaraya Temple is dedicated to the same diety as the main temple – Lord Chennakeshava, built on the request of King Vishnuvardhana’s wife, queen Shantaladevi. In Kannada, ‘Kappe’ means frog. There is a story that needs to be narrated to understand why a temple would be called ‘frog beautiful-keshava temple’. While the main architect and renowned sculptor of that time, Jakanacharya was working on the idol of the deity, he was confronted by a young man named Dakana who claimed that the idol was defective. Jakanacharya the expert and top class architect could not accept this claim made by a young man. He was so confident about his expertise and knowledge that he made a rash promise to chop his right hand if Dakana was proven right. As per the test, the ‘defective’ idol was smeared with sandal paste. The paste dried all over except in a small area. When that spot was broken open, a frog jumped out! Jakanacharya chopped his arm off, a new idol was created and the temple got its name. In the end, they found out that Dakana was none other than Jakanacharya’s son whom he had never seen or met since moving to Belur.
The Soumyanayaki and Ranganayaki Temples were built by the Vijayanagar Kings. These two ladies are believed to be the wives of Lord Chennakeshava. Ranganayaki is also known as Andal. The outer sides of the Ranganayaki temple are covered in beautiful panels.
The Veeranarayana temple is another beautiful little shrine with scenes from the Mahabharatha on its walls.
There is a long corridor on one side of the courtyard that today houses odds and ends – inscriptions, statues, hero stones and such others that were found literally lying scattered in the area. In one corner of the courtyard you will find the temple pond (kalyani). There is even a quaint little well that you cannot miss!