Karnataka’s Hoysala Temples: India’s 42nd UNESCO Heritage Site



On Monday, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the World Heritage Committee meeting was underway. A brief declaration- ‘The Draft Decision 45 COM 8B.38 is adopted’ made the chests of all Indians swell with joy. This declaration was the one that recognised Hoysala temples in three sites- Beluru, Halebidu and Somanthapur as a part of the world renown list of UNESCO world heritage sites. The declaration opens up the prospects of world-wide recognition and careful preservation to ensure the sites last for generations to witness their splendour.

The Process of World Heritage Site Tag

The quest to get these beautiful Hoysala architectural sites recognised began in 2014, when the government of Karnataka nominated these sites to a tentative list of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. This original shortlist contained a list of twenty temples, which was successively whittled down, first to eleven and then to just three- three of the temples which were most likely to satisfy UNESCO’s criteria for recognition. Later, in 2019, the Karnataka state government’s department of archaeology assigned the Bengaluru chapter of INTACH with the lofty job of preparing the nomination dossier for ‘the sacred ensembles of the Hoysalas’. It was INTACH that put in three years of hard work and whittled down the possible list of heritage sites to just three. 

Legacy of Hoysalas

Hoysala – Priyadarshi Chaudhuri via Flickr

The Hoysalas were a Kannadiga dynasty between the tenth and fourteenth century CE, ruling parts of nearly all of the Southern states today, including almost the entirety of Karnataka, parts of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. The Hoysalas, one of the most prominent Kannadiga dynasties in history, emerged as a prominent power after the first king, Vishnuvardhana defeated the great Cholas. Later on, his grandson defeated the Chalukyas, freeing them from their centuries old yoke of domination. After establishing a sovereign kingdom, Vishnuvardhana expanded their territories and consolidated their rule. The dynasty’s capital was initially located in Belur and later shifted to Halebidu, both of which became centres of artistic excellence under Hoysala patronage. 

The Hoysalas faced numerous conflicts with neighbouring powers, including the Chalukyas and the Yadavas. They also faced invasions from the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century, which ultimately led to their decline and the disintegration of their empire.

The dynasty fostered a vibrant literary and cultural environment. The court of the Hoysala kings attracted scholars, poets, and artists, leading to the development of Kannada literature. The prominent poet Harihara, who authored the famous “Gadugina Bharata,” flourished during this period. They were also patrons of other forms of artistic expression, including architecture, and left behind magnificent temples of great cultural and artistic significance. The Chennakesava temple at Belur, the Kesava temple at Somnathpur and the Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu, are three of the many magnificent symbols of architecture that the Hoysalas have left behind.

The Chennakeshava Temple Belur

Image – Wikimedia

The Chennakesava temple in Belur was commissioned by Vishnuvardhana, one of the great builders of the Hoysala dynasty in 1117 AD. The main temple was completed quickly, but the temple complex was expanded for over a century. The temple is of great architectural significance and is known for its mix of North Indian Nagara style and south Indian Karnata style architecture. The main temple is built on a platform meant for circumambulation of the temple, during which the temple’s spectacular sculptures are fully on display. The profuse, intricate sculptures can be viewed in their full splendour in the large sculptural gallery that the temple hosts.

The temple complex also hosts many individual temples dedicated to different deities, built in the same style. These include the Viranaranya temple, the Lakshmi temple and the Andal temple in addition to the two sthambhas or pillars within the temple complex. All of these temples are covered in intricate, precious sculptures, some incorporating elements like delicate meshes, resembling filigree, sculpted out of stone.

The Hoysaleswara Temple, Halebidu


The Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu is primarily dedicated to Lord Shiva, with separate main temples each for ‘Hoysaleswara’ and ‘Shantaleshwara’(his queen, Shantala Devi). Its construction began in the eleventh century AD, and continued for three hundred years. The Hoysaleshwara temple is one of the lesser preserved of Hoysala temples because it was destroyed and fell into ruins after it was sacked by the Delhi sultanate under Alauddin Khilji.

The sanctum sanctorum of the two main temples house Shiva Lingas. To the east of the main temples are two shrines dedicated to Nandi, the devout vahana of Shiva. The walls of the temple contain a number of ornate friezes depicting multiple themes including episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Bhagavat purana. They also incorporate multiple themes including horses, birds, lions, plants and a variety of other humans and beasts. According to Shadakshari Shettar, a renown Indian scholar and professor on Indian history and art forms, not one of the many lions in a two hundred metre stretch are the same- such is the attention to detail. There is delicate filigree-like work carved in stone, ornately carved amongst multiple elements in the temple.

The Kesava Temple, Somnathpura


The Kesava temple at Somnathpura is also a great example of Hoysala architecture.It was built in the thirteenth century by Somanatha Dhandanayaka, a general of the Hoysala king, Narasimha III. Similar to the Chennakesava temple in Belur, the Kesava temple is characterised by its ornate sculptural friezes around the path of circumambulation, depicting the stories of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavat Purana. The Garbhagriha tower walls are covered in carvings of multiple Hindu Gods, including Tandava Ganesha, Dancing Saraswati, Keshava, Venugopala, Janardana, Krishna, Vishnu, Indra, Varuna, Yama, Vasudeva, Yoganarayana, the dashavataras, dancing Lakshmi in various forms, Brahma with and without beard, Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu), Surya, Durga as Mahishasuramardini and dancing Vishnu. Every small section of the temple is an artistic marvel displaying the prowess of artisans at the time.


UNESCO has, previously, come under fire before because World Heritage sites were, and still are, primarily concentrated in Europe. The future however, looks bright because India is opening up avenues for tourism and showcasing its architectural and artistic prowess, pushing for World Heritage site status for many other monuments of great significance. This is the beginning of a new chapter, when many beautiful Indian monuments showcasing our rich culture and heritage are recognised and admired worldwide.

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