A Brief History of the Breathtaking Belur Chennakeshava Temple

The 900-year old Belur Chennakeshava Temple is one of the greatest treasure-houses of Indian art, architecture and sculpture, all of which was accomplished by the motivation of Sanatana piety. This essay narrates its splendid history since inception up to our own time.
A Brief History of the Breathtaking Belur Chennakeshava Temple

From a cynical perspective, the study of history is a fascination for tragedy. Nowhere is this more pronounced than a real-life visit to great historical sites. Such visits are akin to witnessing a demon’s yawn that separates what we read in books and what is.

In recent years, the Hassan district has emerged as one of the significant political and economic centres of Karnataka. Belur, lying just a half hour’s drive from Hassan is today remembered only for its historical importance. Those who haven’t heard its name will simply zip past it on the highway leading to Chickmagalur. By all accounts, it is a ramshackle town.

Hoysala Vishnuvardhana: An Architect of Piety

Nine hundred years ago, Belur or Velapuri was a thriving political centre and one of India’s cultural capitals. It was also the capital of the mighty Hoysala Empire, the last great Hindu Empire of South India, which bore the seed of Vijayanagara in its womb.

Its greatest monarch, Bittideva or Vishnuvardhana, holds the credit for shedding the vassalhood of the Chalukyas and founding an independent Hoysala Empire. Later, in a decisive battle, he worsted the Chola viceroy at Talakadu and stamped his unquestionable suzerainty over a substantial part of South India. Vishnuvardhana marked this splendid victory by building the main temple of Viranarayana Swami at Belur, a fact that inscriptions record. The magnificent Murti consecrated in its sanctum sanctorum is deservedly called Chennakeshava (Beautiful Keshava). Indeed, the Belur Temple is better known as the Chennakeshava Temple to this day. So enduring was its impact that people in that region are named after this deity variously as Chennakeshava, Chennayya, Chennigappa, etc. However, tradition holds that Vishnuvardhana built the temple in token of converting to the Sri Vaishnava tradition under the auspices of Ramanujacharya.

A Brief History of the Breathtaking Belur Chennakeshava Temple
The Hebbale Inscription: An Unremembered Miniature of Hoysala Service to Sanatana Dharma

Ever since, the artistic grandeur of this temple has been attracting enormous crowds of devotees, tourists and visitors from across the world. It continues to exert a magnetic influence over students and connoisseurs of art who gape in utter fascination at the magnificence of the structures, the charm of the sculptures, the variety of its ornamental details and the minute and delicate carvings of the pillars and panels, the doorways and ceilings. The successive friezes, layered one upon another, depict a series of decorative motifs, birds, animals, dancers, all full of vigorous life, with a baffling variety of expressions and movements.

The ASI’s monograph is a collector’s item which gives an exhaustive description of the temple, its architecture and sculptures, with impressive photographs and drawings.

Art begets the artist. So powerful and so profoundly impactful is the Chennakeshava Temple that DVG was stirred to write a collection of verses titled Antahpurageete, a lyrical exploration of the artistic nuances of its sculptures. He has suggested the Raga and Tala for each song which is associated with a specific sculpture. For over half a century, these songs have been performed on umpteen occasions and classical dance performances have been woven around them. In his own characteristic fashion, DVG has immortalized the Chennakeshava Temple and it has immortalized him.

Historical, architectural and specialized studies of the Temple structures show that Vishnuvardhana built only the star-shaped garbhagriha, the sukanasi and the navaranga. The huge niches, friezes and sculptures on the outside, the beautifully-designed inner pillars and ceilings, including the three doorways, were carved during his time. The garbhagriha was surmounted by a high, star-shaped tower of brick and mortar supported by wood-work and plated with gold-lacquered copper sheets. Standing on a high platform on the top of an elevated ground, the Temple has a commanding presence, sucking you into its embrace the moment you see it.

The beautiful Chennakeshava Murti was consecrated in the garbhagriha in 1117 CE.

A Brief History of the Breathtaking Belur Chennakeshava Temple
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The lasting contribution of Santaladevi, Vishnuvardhana’s queen, cannot be emphasized enough. She built the Chennigaraya temple along the lines of the main temple. It is likewise, a marvel by itself and bears her votive inscription: to mark the fulfilment of her sacred vow. The classic Kannada novel, Shanthala tells her story in quite an extraordinary fashion.

Indeed, the Temple became an epoch in and by itself. Every ruler who came after Vishnuvardhana paid special reverence to it and took great care to maintain it.

The first was Narasimha I, Vishnuvardhana’s son and successor who made generous grants for its maintenance and the regular conduct of worship. A “Durbar” scene located to the north of the navaranga doorway indicates that he might have made substantial improvements to the temple.

A Sculpture at Belur Chennakeshava Temple
A Sculpture at Belur Chennakeshava TempleWikipedia

The next king Ballala II, constructed a charming pond called Vasudevatirtha to the north-east of the temple in 1176 CE. Then, in 1180, he built a storehouse in the north-west corner of the compound. The navaranga pavilion of the main temple was open on all sides and was covered with perforated screens. The three entrances were fitted with massive wooden doors.

The next period in the grand history of the Chennakeshava Temple occurs in the reign of the last Hoysala Emperor, the ill-fated Vira Ballala III. One of his commanding officers named Somayya Dannayaka rebuilt the central tower with brick and wood. Somayya Dannayaka would go on to play a prominent role in the founding of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Terror and tragedy visited Belur after more than a century when the marauding Tughlak army invaded south India. A fanatical general named Gangu Salar of Kalburgi laid siege to the temple and burnt its gateway. Gangu Salar eventually revolted against the Tughlak rule and founded the Bahamani dynasty, according to some accounts.

The Vijayanagara Epoch

The Vijayanagar emperors who succeeded the Hoysalas showed the same reverence to the Chennakeshava Temple. Indeed, it was the foundational and state policy of the Vijayanagara rulers to preserve all that was good and beautiful, inherited from the past. In 1381 CE, Kampana, a military officer of Harihara II, built four granite pillars to support the cracked roof stones in the sukanasi of the main temple. In 1387 CE, Malagarasa, another officer, replaced the broken kalasa with a golden one. In 1397 CE, Gunda, a general under Harihara II, built the seven-storied gopura in place of the old mahadvara (main door) which had been burnt down by Gangu Salar.

Successive kings of Vijayanagara added more structures: the Saumyanayaki shrine, a large mantapa on the west and the Andal shrine came up behind the main temple. A major chunk of the navaranga of the Chennigaraya temple was rebuilt during the Vijayanagara period. Other structures were built in the temple compound including the dipa-stambha, the uyyale-mantapa (swing) the yaga-shala and the Narasimha and Sri Rama shrines.

Naganayaka, an officer under Saluva Narasimha constructed a large mantapa right in front of the main temple, eponymously known as Naganayakana Mantapa.

With the ascendance of the Tuluva dynasty, Chennakeshava became their Family Deity. As a consequence, the Temple received a renewed fillip.

After the extinction of the Vijayangara Empire, their former feudatories, the Nayakas too, showed the same devotion to the Temple.

The Mysore Wadiyar Era

In the next major historical epoch, the Mysore Wadiyars extended the same patronage and devotion to Belur, roughly beginning in the 18th century. A small kalyana mantapa on the northern side of the temple was built in 1709. Another mantapa, and a small pond were added in 1717. In 1736, Venkata, a vassal of Krishnaraja II renovated the tower of the main temple.

A Brief History of the Breathtaking Belur Chennakeshava Temple
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However, the downfall of the Chennakeshava Temple really began with the British acquisition of Mysore. In the 1880s, the vimana of the Temple became so ruined that it had to be dismantled to save the main temple from collapsing. The courtyard now resembled an overcrowded architectural melee littered with ugly and dilapidated structures.

Things remained in this state of shocking apathy until the Archaeological Department stepped in, in 1929 to save it from total destruction. After sustained deliberations, the Mysore Government set up the Belur Temple Renovation Committee in 1935. When it announced that the Chennakeshava Temple would undergo a thorough overhaul, overwhelming support poured in from the public. The Belur citizenry offered construction and other materials for free.

The departments of Archaeology, Muzrai, PWD, and Electricity went beyond the call of employment. Officials at all levels gave their supervision, offered their skills and talent with little extra cost. The Mysore Government liberally funded the sacred endeavor.

Dr. M.H. Krishna describes the happy outcome with passionate feeling:

Thanks to the generosity of His late Highness Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV and His Highness Sri Jayachamaraja Wadiyar Bahadur—may His dynasty endure for ever—THE LABOURS OF THE RENOVATION COMMITTEE HAVE BEEN REWARDED BY THE PRESERVATION OF ONE OF THE GREATEST TREASURE-HOUSES OF INDIAN ART. THE TEMPLE HAS BEEN RESTORED AS NEARLY AS POSSIBLE TO ITS ORIGINAL FORM. In commemoration of the work carried out during the enlightened rule of His late Highness Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV and as a mark of His Highness’ devotion to the deity and personal conservation of the temple, a statue in bronze of His late Highness was prepared at the Chamarajendra Technical Institute, Mysore. It is now consecrated and installed at the temple along with the metallic statue which is traditionally identified with Vishnuvardhana, the builder of the temple.

Unfortunately, the Belur Chennakeshava Temple, like other monuments built on the strength and edifice of Sanatana piety, has today been degraded to the status of a tourist attraction.

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