Harshini Vakkalanka immerses herself in the outer and inner beauty of the temples at Belur and Halebidu

That Indian history is fascinating and goes far back in time is a given. Some of the only tangible evidence we have is its architecture, which my history textbooks in school seemed to be quite elaborate about.

It is no surprise, therefore, that places such as Khajuraho, Badami, Ajantha and Ellora are up there on my bucket list of places to visit. Then one day, when nostalgia and opportunity took me on a long drive through Hassan district, a stopover at Belur and Halebidu (they were on my list as well) was inevitable and a great joy.

The first stop was Halebidu. A slightly rickety drive (we got off the highway) later, my companion and I reached the town. The stone temple towered majestically to our right. The next day was pleasant and cloudy. We stepped out in the late morning sunlight. We hired ourselves a guide, as without one it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking.

The guide begins by saying that the complex has two temples built in the early 12th Century in the names of the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana and his queen Shantala. Built with soapstone that is soft when freshly unearthed, the temple took 190 years to build and still remains incomplete. Halebidu literally means ruined city and was the capital of the Hoysalas.

The outer wall features running lines of intricately-carved elephants, horses, floral motifs, scenes from mythology and dancers. Though every elephant looks the same, we are told each pachyderm assumes a different posture.

The stone blocks, the guide explains, are kept in place by an interlocking system. But some of the other architectural mechanics, like the way the hollows in the ornamentation were made, or how the stones were polished to reflect like mirrors, remain a mystery.

The sculptures are a rich tapestry of Indian mythology, showcasing scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana. Halebidu, the guide said is known for outer beauty, evident in the exquisitely-detailed sculptures. Attention has been paid to even accessories and facial expressions.

If Halebidu is known for “outer beauty”, the guide said, Belur is known for its “inner beauty”. Located over 16 km away from Halebidu, Belur is best known for the Chennakeshava or handsome Vishnu temple. The temple is known to reflect elements of Dravidian culture, especially through the arch or the gopuram.

The temple has a large courtyard with a square table-like seating structure running along all four sides of the compound. The style is similar to Halebidu, complete with the dancing platform placed in front of the deity. Here too, sculptures of dancers decorate the inner walls of the temple. There are other smaller complexes inside the temple featuring the deities Soumyanayaki and Ranganayaki. The main complex is situated in the centre of a wide courtyard, offering an unimpeded view of the edifice from the seating area.

The Belur temple too was built in the 12th Century under the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana and supposedly took a century to complete. There is a large crowd here, possibly because the temple is still functional as a place of worship. We take our time, heading straight for the central complex and then working our way around the temple. Here too it is better to take a guide.

Finally we sit down to enjoy the light evening breeze and the testimony of our heritage.

Getting there

Belur is about 224 km from Bangalore while Halebidu is located 16 km from Belur. Both places are en route to Chikmanglur, allowing for a slight diversion. Driving is the best option.

Where to stay

Belur and Halebidu are only a day’s journey from Bangalore. It might be better to stay at Chikmagalur and drive down to the spots around the town (including Sringeri, Horanasu, Kudremukh).

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