Hoysala architecture

From New World Encyclopedia
Profile of a Hoysala temple at Somanathapura

Hoysala architecture (Kannada: ಹೊಯ್ಸಳ ವಾಸ್ತುಶಿಲ್ಪ) indicates the distinctive building style developed under the rule of the Hoysala Empire in the region known today as Karnataka, India, between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Hoysala influence stood at its peak in the thirteenth century, when it dominated the Southern Deccan Plateau region. Large and small temples built during that era remain as examples of the Hoysala architectural style, including the Chennakesava Temple at Belur, the Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu, and the Kesava Temple at Somanathapura. Other examples of fine Hoysala craftsmanship include the temples at Belavadi, Amrithapura, Hosaholalu and Nuggehalli. Study of the Hoysala architectural style has revealed a negligible Indo-Aryan influence while the impact of Southern Indian style has been more distinct.[1]

The vigorous temple building activity of the Hoysala Empire arose from the social, cultural and political events of the period. The stylistic transformation of the Karnata temple building tradition reflected religious trends popularized by the Vaishnava and Virashaiva philosophers as well as the growing military prowess of the Hoysala kings who desired to surpass their Western Chalukya overlords in artistic achievement. Temples built prior to Hoysala independence in the mid-twelfth century reflect significant Western Chalukya influences, while later temples retain some features salient to Chalukyan art but have additional inventive decoration and ornamentation, features unique to Hoysala artisans. About one hundred temples have survived in present-day Karnataka state, mostly in the Malnad (hill) districts, the native home of the Hoysala kings.

As popular tourist destinations in Karnataka, Hoysala temples offer an excellent opportunity for pilgrims and students of architecture to examine medieval Hindu architecture in the Karnata Dravida tradition. That tradition began in the seventh century under the patronage of the Chalukya dynasty of Badami, developed further under the Western Chalukyas of Basavakalyan in the eleventh century and finally transformed into an independent style by the twelfth century during the reign of the Hoysalas. Medieval Kannada language inscriptions displayed prominently at temple locations give details of the temples and offer valuable information about the history of the Hoysala dynasty.

Temple deities

Main article: Hoysala Empire
Vishnu with Lakshmi (Lakshminarayana) at Halebidu
Shiva, Parvati, Nandi at Halebidu

Hinduism combines secular and sacred beliefs, rituals, daily practices, and traditions that has evolved over the course of more than two thousand years and embodies complex symbolism combining the natural world with philosophy. Hindu temples began as simple shrines housing a deity and by the time of the Hoysalas had evolved into impressive edifices of worship and transcendence of the daily world. Hoysala temples embraced many traditions of Hinduism and encouraged pilgrims of different Hindu devotional movements.

The Hoysalas usually dedicated their temples to Lord Shiva or to Lord Vishnu (two of the major Hindu gods) but they occasionally chose a different deity. Shiva followers call themselves Shaivas or Lingayats while the Vishnu followers call themselves Vaishnavas. While King Vishnuvardhana and his descendants declared themselves Vaishnava,[1] records show that the Hoysalas maintained religious harmony by building as many temples dedicated to Shiva as they did to Vishnu.[2] Most of those temples have secular features with broad themes depicted in their sculptures. That appears in the famous Chennakeshava temple at Belur dedicated to Vishnu and in the Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu dedicated to Shiva. The Keshava temple at Somanathapura uses unique ornamentation, strictly Vaishnavan.

Generally Vaishnava temples have been dedicated to Keshava (or Chennakeshava meaning Beautiful Vishnu) while a small number glorify Lakshminarayana and Lakshminarasimha (Narayana and Narasimha, both Vishnu bodily manifestations of the god or avatars) with Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu, seated at his feet. Temples dedicated to Vishnu always take the name of the deity. The Shaiva temples have a Shiva linga, symbol of fertility and the universal symbol of Shiva, in the shrine. The names of Shiva temples can end with the suffix eshwara meaning Lord of. The name Hoysaleswara for instance means Lord of Hoysala. The temple can also be named after a devotee who commissioned the construction of the temple, an example being the Bucesvara temple at Koravangala named after a devotee Buci.[2] The horizontal rows of exquisitely detailed, intricately carved images of Gods, Goddesses and their attendants on the temple outer wall panels represent the most striking sculptural decorations.

The Doddagaddavalli Lakshmi Devi temple (Goddess of wealth) provides an exception as it deifies neither Vishnu nor Shiva. The defeat of the Jain Western Ganga Dynasty (of present day south Karnataka) by the Cholas in early eleventh century, and the rising numbers of followers of Vaishnava Hinduism and Virashaivism in the twelfth century, mirrored a decreased interest in Jainism.[1] Two notable locations of Jain worship in the Hoysala territory glorified Shravanabelagola and Kambadahalli. The Hoysalas built Jain temples to satisfy the needs of its Jain population, a few of which have survived in Halebidu containing icons of Jain tirthankaras. They constructed stepped wells called Pushkarni or Kalyani, the ornate tank at Hulikere being an example. The tank has twelve minor shrines containing Hindu deities.[2]

Hoysala stepped temple tank (Kalyani) at Hulikere, Karnataka

The two main deities found in Hoysala temple sculpture include Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu in their various forms and avatars (incarnations). Shiva usually stands with four arms holding a trident and a small drum among other emblems that symbolize objects worshipped independently.[2] Any male icon portrayed in that way represents Shiva although a female icon may sometimes be portrayed with these attributes as Shiva’s consort, Parvathi. Various depictions of Lord Shiva show him in action, such as slaying a demon or dancing on the head of an elephant. His consort, Parvati, or Nandi the bull often accompany him. He may be represented as Bhairava, another of Shiva’s many manifestations.

Vishnu takes the form of a male icon depicted holding certain objects such as a conch (symbol of eternal, heavenly space) and a wheel (eternal time and destructive power). His consort, Lakshmi occasionally holds those objects. In all the depictions Vishnu holds four objects: a conch, a wheel, a lotus and a mace. Those can be held in any of the icon’s hands, making possible 24 different forms of Vishnu, each with a unique name.<[2] Apart from those, Vishnu may appear in any of his ten avataras (bodily manifestations) which include Vishnu sitting on Anantha (celestial snake and keeper of life energy), with Lakshmi seated on his lap (Lakshminarayana), with the head of a lion disemboweling a demon on his lap (Lakshminarasimha), with head of a boar walking over a demon (Varaha), in the Krishna avatar (as Venugopala or the cow herder playing the Venu (flute}, dancing on the head of the snake Kaliya, lifting a hill such as Govardhana), with his feet over head of a small figure (Vamana), with Lakshmi seated on Garuda, and the eagle (stealing the parijata tree).

Temple complex

See also: Chennakesava Temple , Hoysaleswara temple , and Chennakesava Temple at Somanathapura

Temple profile—staggered square plan mantapa at Balligavi
Symmetrical architecture on jagati at Somanathapura

A Hindu temple serves as a place of contact between the gods or deities and man. The centre or sanctum sanctorum (garbhagriha), where the image of the deity resides, constitutes the focus of a temple, so temple architecture moves the devotee from outside to the garbhagriha through ambulatory passageways for circumambulation and halls or chambers (mantapas) that become increasingly sacred while approaching the deity. Hoysala temples have distinct parts that merge to form a unified organic whole, in contrast to the temples of Tamil country where different parts of a temple stand independently.[2] Although superficially unique, Hoysala temples resemble each other structurally. Characterized by a complex profusion of sculpture decorating all the temple parts chiseled of soft soapstone (chloritic schist), a good material for intricate carving characterizes the temple complex. Executed mostly by local craftsmen, the temples exhibit architectural features that distinguish them from other temple architectures of South India.[1]

Most Hoysala temples have a plain covered entrance porch supported by lathe turned (circular or bell-shaped) pillars sometimes carved with deep fluting and moulded with decorative motifs. The temples may be built upon a platform raised by about a metre called “jagati.” The jagati, apart from giving a raised look to the temple, serves as a Pradakshinapatha for circumambulation around the temple as the garbagriha (inner sanctum) lacks such a feature.[1] Such temples will have an additional set of steps leading to an open mantapa (open hall) with parapet walls. The Keshava Temple at Somanathapura offers a good example of that style. The jagati, constructed in unity with the rest of the temple,[2] follows a star-shape design and the walls of the temple follow a zig-zag pattern, a Hoysala innovation.[3] A pair of small shrines, each with a deity and a miniature tower directly facing the entrance, occasionally adorn either side of steps of the Jagati, repeated for all entrances leading to the Jagati. Devotees first complete a ritual circumambulation on the jagati starting from the main entrance by walking in a clockwise direction (towards the left) before entering the mantapa, following the sculptural clockwise-sequenced reliefs (sequence of epic scenes) on the outside temple walls depicting the Hindu epics. Temples without a jagati have steps flanked by elephant balustrades (parapets) that lead to the mantapa from ground level. The Bucesvara temple in Korvangla, Hassan District provides an example of a temple without the raised platform. In temples with two shrines (dvikuta), the vimanas (shrine or cella) may be placed either next to each other or on opposite sides. The Hoysaleswara shrine and Shantaleswara shrine in the Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu offer examples. [2] The Lakshmidevi temple at Doddagaddavalli has a minor shrine at each of the four corners of the walled temple complex in addition to five major shrines.

Architectural elements


Ornate lintel over mantapa entrance

The mantapa serves as prayer halls. The entrance to the mantapa normally has a highly ornate overhead lintel called a makaratorana (makara, an imaginary beast and torana, an overhead decoration).[1] The open mantapa, serving the purpose of an outer hall (outer mantapa), constitutes a regular feature in larger Hoysala temples leading to an inner small closed mantapa and the shrine(s). The open mantapas have seating areas made of stone with the mantapa’s parapet wall acting as a back rest. The seats may follow the same staggered square shape of the parapet wall. The open mantapa represents the largest part of the temple, supporting larger congregations of people. Numerous pillars support the ceiling creating many square or rectangular compartments in the hall, called "bays." The shape of the open mantapa appears in staggered-square form, in the style used in most Hoysala temples; also called “cross-in-square” style, although a rectangular shape.[2] Even the smallest open mantapa has 13 bays. The walls have parapets that have half pillars supporting the outer ends of the roof which allow plenty of light making all the sculptural details visible. The mantapa ceiling generally displays ornate sculptures, both mythological and floral. The ceiling consists of deep and dome shaped surfaces that contain sculptural depictions of banana bud motifs and other such decorations. The Amritheswara temple in Chikmagalur district has 48 domes in the mahamantapa (great open hall).

Open Mantapa with shining, lathe-turned pillars at Amrithapura

Small temples consist of only a closed mantapa (enclosed with walls extending all the way to the ceiling) and the shrine. The closed mantapa, well decorated inside and out, larger than the vestibule connecting the shrine and the mantapa, has four lathe turned pillars to support the ceiling which may be deeply domed. The four pillars divide the hall into nine bays. The nine bays result in nine finely decorated ceilings. The four pillars and nine bays of a closed mantapa serves as a norm in Hoysala temples.[2] Pierced stone latticework screens placed between pillars to filter the light marks a characteristic Hoysala stylistic element.

A porch adorns the entrance to a closed mantapa consisting of an awning supported by two half pillars (engaged columns) and two parapets all richly decorated. The closed mantapa connects to the shrine(s) by a vestibule, a square area that also connects the shrines. Its outer walls bare fine decorations but the small vestibule, makes this a less conspicuous part of the temple. The vestibule also has a short tower called the sukanasi or “nose” because it looks like an extension of the main tower[2] with the Hoysala emblem mounted. In Belur and Halebidu, those sculptures have large proportions, placed at all doorways.

The outer and inner mantapa (open and closed) have circular lathe turned pillars, a common feature of Western Chalukya-Hoysala temples,[1] they have four brackets at the top. Over each bracket stands sculptured figure(s) called salabhanjika or madanika. The pillars may also exhibit fine ornamental carvings on the surface with all pillars unique. The Hoysalas may have encouraged different groups of artists to execute pillars and those groups may have been in competition to produce unique pillars.[4] That marks the difference of Hoysala art from the work of their early overlords, the Western Chalukyas, who added sculptural details to the circular pillar base and left the top plain. The lathe turned pillars have 16, 32 or 64 points; some take a bell shape and have properties that reflect light. The Parsvanatha Basadi at Halebidu provides a good example.[3] The monolith shaft of the pillar stands on a square base with beautifully sculptured figures adorning the top.


Star shaped Vimana at Somanathapura

The vimana, also called the cella, contains the most sacred shrine wherein resides the image of the presiding deity. A tower, quite different outside than inside, often tops the vimana. Inside, the vimana appears plain and square whereas outside, it has profuse decorations, taking either a star shape or staggered square or a combination of those designs, creating many projections and recesses that seem to multiply as lighting falls on it. Each projection and recess has a complete rhythmic and repetitive decorative articulation, comprised of blocks and mouldings, obscuring the tower profile. Depending on the number of shrines (and hence number of towers), the temples classify as ekakuta (one), dvikuta (two), trikuta (three), chatushkuta (four) and panchakuta (five). Most Hoysala temples belong to the ekakuta, dvikuta or trikuta classifications. Sometimes a trikuta may have less than three towers as only the central shrine has a tower.[2] In temples with multiple shrines, all essential parts duplicate to provide symmetry and balance. A temple’s minor shrine usually has its own tower. In some cases, a temple trikuta has only one tower over the main shrine (in the middle), so the terminology trikuta may be inaccurate. Smaller shrines attached to the outer walls and facing outward from a larger vimana form a common feature.

The highest point of the temple (kalasa) has the shape of a beautiful water pot and stands on top of the tower. That portion of the vimana often crumbles from age, artisans replacing with a metallic pinnacle. Below the kalasa, a large, highly sculptured structure resembling a dome made from large stones, looking like a helmet, stands.[2] It may be 2 m by 2 m in size and follows the shape of the shrine. Below that structure domed roofs sit in a square plan, all of them much smaller and crowned with small kalasas. Mixed with other small roofs of different shapes, they have ornate decorates. The tower of the shrine usually has three or four tiers of rows of decorative roofs while the tower on top of the sukanasi has one less tier, making the tower look like an extension of the main tower (“nose”). One decorated roof tier runs on top of the wall of a closed mantapa above the heavy eaves of an open mantapa and above the porches.

Outer wall panel with six horizontal mouldings at Somanathapura

Below the superstructure of the vimana, temple “eaves” sit under the projecting roof overhanging the wall[2] project half a meter from the wall. Below the eaves two different decorative schemes may be found, depending on whether a temple had been built in the early or the later period of the empire. In the early temples built prior to the thirteenth century, sits one eave and below that stand decorative miniature towers. A panel of Hindu deities and their attendants sits below those towers followed by a set of five different mouldings forming the base of the wall.

In the later temples a second eave runs about a metre below the upper eaves with decorative miniature towers placed between them. The wall images of gods sit below the lower eaves followed by six different mouldings of equal size, broadly termed horizontal treatment. The six mouldings at the base divide in two sections. Going from the very base of the wall, the first horizontal layer contains a procession of elephants, above which stand horsemen and then a band of foliage. The second horizontal section has depictions of the Hindu epics and puranic scenes executed with detail. Above that, two friezes of yalis (or makara, an imaginary beast) and hamsas (swans) appear. The vimana (tower) divides into three horizontal sections, even more ornate than the walls. Art critic Percy Brown calls that one of the distinguishing features of Hoysala art.[1]


Sthamba buttalika, Chola influence in Hoysala art at Belur
Madanika bracket at Belur

Hoysala artists have won fame for their sculptural detail, whether in the depiction of the Hindu epics, Yali (mythical creature), deities, Kirthimukha (Gargoyle), eroticism or aspects of daily life. Their medium, the soft chlorite schist, enabled a virtuoso carving style. Their workmanship shows an attention paid to precise detail. Every aspect down to a fingernail or toenail has been created perfectly.

Salabhanjika, a common form of Hoysala sculpture, represents an old Indian tradition going back to Buddhist sculpture. Sala refers to the Sala tree and bhanjika the chaste maiden. In the Hoysala idiom, madanika figures constitute decorative objects put at an angle on the outer walls of the temple near the roof so worshipers who circumambulate the temple could view them. They served the purpose of bracket figures to pillars inside the mantapa. Artists sculpted those madanika as seemingly engaged in artistic skills such as music (holding musical instruments) and dance. Kirthimukhas (demon faces) adorn the towers of vimana in some temples. Sometimes the artists left behind their signature on the sculpture they created.

The sthamba buttalikas refer to pillar images that show traces of Chola art in the Chalukyan touches. Some of the artists working for the Hoysalas may have been from Chola country, a result of the expansion of the empire into Tamil speaking regions of Southern India. The image of mohini on one of the pillars in the mantapa (closed hall) of the Chennakeshava temple represents a fine example of Chola art.

Wall panels present general life themes such as the act of reining horses, the type of stirrup used, the depiction of dancers, musicians, instrumentalists, rows of animals such as lions and elephants (with each animals unique). The Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebidu presents perhaps the best depiction the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in temple art. The epic frieze constitutes the most exciting feature of their sculptures.[2]

The Hoysala artist handled erotica with discretion. They avoided exhibitionism, carving erotic themes into recesses and niches, generally miniature in form making them inconspicuous. Those erotic representations associate with the Shakta practice. The temple doorway displays heavily engraved ornamentation called Makaratorana (makara or imaginary beast) and each side of the doorway exhibits sculptured Salabanjika (maidens).

Apart from those sculptures, entire sequences from the Hindu epics (commonly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) have been sculptured in a clockwise direction starting at the main entrance.[2] The right to left sequence follows the same direction taken by the devotees in their ritual circumambulation as they wind inward toward the inner sanctum. Depictions from mythology such as the epic hero Arjuna shooting fish, the elephant-headed God Ganesha, the Sun God Surya, the weather and war god Indra, and Brahma with Sarasvati commonly appear. Also Durgafrequently appear in the temples, with several arms holding weapons given to her by other Gods, in the act of killing a water buffalo (a demon in a buffalo’s form) and Harihara (a fusion Shiva and Vishnu) holding a conch, wheel and trident. The artisan signed many of those friezes, the first known instance of signed art work in India.[5]


Kirthi Mukha decoration (demon faces) on tower at Amrithapura

Surveys in modern times have indicated that the Hoysalas built 1500 structures of which about a hundred temples have survived to date. They built 1500 temples in 958 centers, according to historical records, between 1000–1346 C.E. The Hoysala style represents an offshoot of the Western Chalukya style popularised in the tenth century – eleventh century time period. Distinctively Dravidian, Hoysala architecture qualifies as an independent style owing to its unique features. While the Hoysalas introduced innovative features into their architecture they also borrowed features from the earlier great builders of Karnata like the Kadambas, Western Chalukyas. Those features included the use of chloritic schist or Soapstone as basic building material, pierced stone window screens resoundingly popular in Hoysala temples, and the vimana which follows a star shaped pattern. All those features proved popular with their early overlords, the Western Chalukyas. Other features included the stepped style of vimana tower called the Kadamba Shikhara inherited from the Kadambas. The Kadamba Shikhara or Shikhara, a prominent feature of Kadamba architecture, takes a pyramid shape, rising in steps without any decoration and has a stupika or kalasha on the top.[1] Hoysala sculptors engrained in their craftsmanship knowledge of the effect of light and shade on carved walls which they used to maximum effect in their sculptures in the numerous projections and recesses. The Hoysala sculpture in all its richness presents a challenge to photographers. Art historians compare the artistic skill of the Hoysalas on stone to the finesse of an ivory worker or a goldsmith. The abundance of jewelry worn by the sculpted figures, the variety of hairstyles and head dresses depicted gives a fair idea of the social life styles of the Hoysala times.[4]

Notable craftsmen

Elephant balustrades in Bucesvara temple without jagati at Korvangla

The Hoysalas had the services of great architects and sculptors, some names standing out in their history. While medieval Indian artists preferred to remain anonymous, Hoysala artists signed their works, which has given researchers fascinating details of their lives, family, and guild. Apart from the architects and sculptors, people of other guilds such as goldsmiths, ivory carvers, carpenters, silversmiths also contributed to the completion of temples. The artists came from diverse geographical backgrounds, including famous locals. Prolific architects included Amarashilpi Jakanachari, a native of Kaidala in Tumkur district, who also built temples for the Western Chalukyas. Ruvari Malithamma built the Kesava temple at Somanathapura and worked on 40 other monuments, including the Amriteshwara temple at Amritapura. Malithamma specialized in ornamentation, and his works span six decades. He typically signed his sculptures in shorthand as Malli or simply Ma. Dasoja and his son Chavana from Balligavi worked as the architects for Chennakesava Temple at Belur, Kedaroja performed as the chief architect of the Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu.[1] Their influence appears in other temples built by the Hoysalas as well. Names of other locals found in inscriptions include Maridamma, Baicoja, Caudaya, Nanjaya and Bama,[4] Malloja, Nadoja, Siddoja, Masanithamma, Chameya and Rameya. Artists from Tamil country included Pallavachari and Cholavachari.

Notable Temples

Famous Hoysala temples (1113-1268)
Deity Location Year King
Amriteshwara Amritapura 1196 Veera Ballala II
Chennakeshava Aralaguppe 1250 Vira Someshwara
Ishvara Arsikere 1220 Veera Ballala II
Mallikarjuna Basaralu 1234 Vira Narasimha II
Chennakesava Belur 1117 Vishnuvardhana
Viranarayana Belavadi 1200 Veera Ballala II
Lakshmidevi Doddagaddavalli 1113 Vishnuvardhana
Hoysaleshvara Halebidu 1120 Vishnuvardhana
Someshvara Haranhalli 1235 Vira Someshwara
Lakshminarasimha Haranhalli 1235 Vira Someshwara
Lakshminarayana Hosaholalu 1250 Vira Someshwara
Lakshminarasimha Javagallu 1250 Vira Someshwara
Bucheshvara Koravangala 1173 Veera Ballala II
Nageshvara Mosale 1200 Veera Ballala II
Chennakeshava Mosale 1200 Veera Ballala II
Lakshminarasimha Nuggehalli 1246 Vira Someshwara
Keshava Somanathapura 1268 Narasimha III
Kadamba shikara (tower) with Kalasa (pinnacle) on top at Doddagaddavalli
Chennakeshava Temple at Aralaguppe, Karnataka


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Suryanath U. Kamath, A Concise History of Karnataka from pre-historic times to the present (Total Kannada, 2018, ASIN B08B5CKPBJ).
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 Gerard A. Foekema, Complete Guide To Hoysala Temples (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1996, ISBN 8170173450).
  3. 3.0 3.1 History of Karnataka Our Karnataka. Retrieved March 18, 2023.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, From Prehistoric times to fall of Vijayanagar (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002 (original 1955), ISBN 0195606868).
  5. Binda Thapar, Surat Kumar Manto, and Suparna Bhalla, Introduction to Indian Architecture (Singapore: Periplus Editions, 2005, ISBN 0794600115).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Foekema, Gerard. A Complete Guide to Hoysala Temples. Abhinav, 1996. ISBN 8170173450
  • Kamath, Suryanath U. A Concise History of Karnataka from pre-historic times to the present. Total Kannada, 2018. ASIN B08B5CKPBJ
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. A History of South India, From Prehistoric times to fall of Vijayanagar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002 (original 1955). ISBN 0195606868
  • Thapar, Binda, Surat Kumar Manto, and Suparna Bhalla. Introduction to Indian Architecture. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 2005. ISBN 0794600115

External links

All links retrieved March 18, 2023.


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