On my way to Chennakeshava temple in Bellur, a 32 km drive from Hassan, I was intrigued by the word ‘Chennakeshava’.Our local guide informed us that Chenna means beautiful and Keshava is one of the names of Lord Vishnu in Kannada. Lord Vishnu’s idol is in the temple is supposed to be the most beautiful.
Chennakeshava temple was built by Hoysala King Vishnuvardhan to commemorate his victory over the Cholas in 12th century, at the peak of the golden period for art and architecture. Apparently, the construction took 103 years and his grandson Veer Vallala II finally completed it.
Entering the temple complex was like getting into a time machine and getting transported to the 12th century. The complex is made of soft soapstone that hardens like steel on exposure to the elements. The first thing to strike me was a 100 feet tall magnificent tower in a huge courtyard. The main shrine is in the center and smaller shrines surround it – forming a star. Right in the middle is a 48 feet tall Gravity Pillar placed on a star-shaped platform. It’s an architectural marvel as it is a single stone standing on its own weight, without a foundation.
The temple itself is placed on a star-shaped platform called ‘Jagati’, which makes the shrine stand out. You can take a walk around the temple on this platform and take a closer look at the elaborate carvings.
What looks like horizontal stripes from far are actually strips of intricately carved repetitive floral patterns and motifs of lions, elephants, horses and an imaginary animal- Makara. On top of these rows are placed vertical large images of beautifully proportionate ladies playing various musical instruments- epitome of feminine charm and grace. The statues are heavily ornamented and so intricate that you can see every bead in their ornament and every petal in the garlands they wear.
There are depictions of Gods and Goddesses as well. Ravan lifting Mount Kailash, Lord Surya in his chariot, Narasimha tearing apart Hirannyakashyapa, Goddess Mahishasurmardini, Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva with his consort, Goddess Parvati sitting in his lap.
No two women have the same face or hairstyle. Not one inch of the façade is left uncarved. The beauty is spellbinding, almost too much to take in.
As you complete the pradakshina (perambulation) around the temple and get to the main entrance of the temple. It is decorated with two Dwarpals (guards), one on each side, both exquisitely carved. This main entrance bears the Hoysala crest- a warrior killing the lion with his bare hands. The top of the heavily carved main entrance door is sculpted with 24 forms of Lord Vishnu.
As you walk in, you are greeted by a large hall (Navrang Mandapa) with huge polished pillars. Each pillar is unique with a different design and shape. The four pillars in the center are especially beautiful and are called Shantala Devi, Gandharva Balika, A woman wringing her hair. The last statue named ‘A lady with a parrot in her hand’, has bangles on her wrist that actually move! Astonishing intricacy.
In the Garbha stands 6 feet tall idol of Lord Vishnu, with four hands. The upper hands hold a Chakra and Shankh and lower ones a mace and a lotus. Consorts Bhudevi and Shridevi are on either side.
It is the only operational temple with pujas performed every morning and evening for the last 887 years. One leaves the temple with a feeling of awe and pride for such a rich reservoir of delicacy and perfection of work and the splendor of Hoysala Dynasty.