Chennakesava, also known as the Vijayanarayana temple of Belur is a masterpiece of the Hoysala times. The monument was built in order to celebrate the auspicious victory in 1117A.D. It was built by the Hoysala king in Belur himself but wanted a style that was foreign to the land. This is evident because if we see the other temples that were commissioned by rich people and rich officials, they are completely different to Chennakesava Temple. The temple is large and lavish, with the founder’s grandson embellishing the temple later in the 12th century.
It stands in a compound with other smaller temples inside and hosts a pond too.
The temple has a shrine, an open hall, and a platform. The shrine is abnormal in the sense that it is larger than the usual shrines. It’s pedestal measures 10 by 10 meters, which is much much greater than the normal 5 by 5 meters.
The architectural style is Nalgara, but today, it is difficult to see that because its tower has been lost along the time. There is an open hall which only had a parapet. But later, magnificent screens and further details have been added to the hall.
The jagati is crucial to the design too as it follows the outlines of the shrines and adds unity to the remaining elevation. Three flight steps add dignity to the entrance, and a circumambulation is an important form of worship inside the temple.
Considering the time and place, Chennakesava is unique. But if we look at the northern side of Karnataka and northern India, it is not that new. The stellate plans were already the foundation in these places. But, the star found in this temple is different from others as the other contains the 16pointed uninterrupted star. The plan is a rather square, which includes the projections that form the corners, each side with five different projections. The intermediate projections are rotated through 22.5 degrees. The difference from the full star is that the central projections are orthogonal, and not rotated. The north Indian styles host interrupted 32 pointed stellate plans with 11.25 degrees of rotation.
The nalgara design itself is unique to the region. The tower is the most striking feature of the place but is now gone. That used to be a curvilinear outline with the central vertical band and four columns of miniature Nalgara Aikharas per side. The style of the tower was known to be Bumija. But the design today shows that it had existed some times in the past. The articulation of the wall shows the Nalgara design, which gives the place a different character if compared to Dravida design.
The decoration of the walls was also something new to the time. They had a row of large images. In other temples in those times and places, the walls were covered with niche images, with only a few large images of gods. But this temple has large sculptural images, which also is a source of attraction. There are around 80 such large images. They include Shiva dancing on a demon (Andhakasura), a dancing Kali, a seated Ganesha, a pair of Lord Vishnu in his Vamana avatar with his umbrella, Ravana shaking Mt Kailash, Durga slaying a buffalo demon (Mahishasura Mardini), striking Brahma, Varaha avatar of Vishnu. These are all in the southern corner. In the western corner, there are two striking images: one of Vishnu slaying king Hiranayakasipu (Narasimha avatar) and another with Shiva slaying the elephant demon. The other walls are less impressive and show less disparity.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. However, one may find several depictions of several Hindu gods. The sculpture is not yet Hoysala style, but rather shows similarities towards the contemporary temples in the extreme north of Karnataka and in adjacent Maharashtra.
The hall is very very large and is embellished with lots of details. Before, it was open without full walls and had only a parapet wall with a roof resting on pillars. The plan is of a stepped diamond, which is common to open halls, rather than a square one. The wall is more than two meters high. There is a slanting seat-back with mythological scenes engraved.
Elaborate screens are found above the seat-back, which were added around 12th century. This makes the interior dark and mysterious. The most notable one is that of the bracket figures (mandanakai) found at the top of the pillar between the screens. There are about 40 of these sculptures, each so delicate and seems very delicate that doesn’t feel possible. Most of the brackets have been signed by the artists themselves.
There are three entrances into the hall, each with two flight step, one to the platform, and one to the level of the hall. There are small shrines in each step. The doors are embellished too and show different avatars of Vishnu. An arch also springs from the mouth of two water monsters.
Before, the interior looked bright with sunlight entering through different locations, but with screens now, the temple is rather dark, yet mysterious. It can host hundreds of people and dancing performances are also organized in the hall here.
The pillars of the halls depict what the Hoysala king wanted to achieve with the building – to achieve something that surpassed everything else. One is even decorated with a life-sized scripture. The central pillars, four in numbers, are heavy with large specimens of ornate lathe-turned bell pillars. They have been built with great technical intricacies. The domed ceiling is probably the most decorated ceilings in all India.
The sanctum hosts a square vestibule (antarala) and a square holy cella (garbhagiha), with two door guardians guarding the entrance. There is also a cult-image of Vishnu in the cella, an incredibly large one with the clockwise wheel, a lotus, and a conch. They represent the form Kesava. Chenna means god, respectful in Kannada, Karnataka’s official language.