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Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysala

Date of Submission: 15/04/2014
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Ref.: 5898

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Ensembles at Belur, Karnataka           13°09’46.29” N, 75°51’38.41” E

Ensembles at Halebid, Karnataka       13°12’45.43” N, 75°59’39.62” E

The Hoysala era is one that contributed enormously to the development of several creative fields as well as spiritual and humanistic thought. During their reign, the Hoysalas built more than 1500 temples all across their empire of which only a little over 100 survive today. Art historians recognize the exceptionally intricate sculptural artistry of the Chennakeshava temple at Belur and the Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebid to be among the masterpieces of South Asian art making the name of Hoysala synonymous with artistic achievement.

In addition to supporting both Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects of Hinduism, the Hoysala rulers gave court recognition and status to Jainism, a religion that prescribes a path of non-violence and self-control as paths to spiritual liberation and emphasizes the equality of all beings. They were not only inclusive of the plural religious following but the sacred ensembles were important agents in the development of the spiritual beliefs of Vaishanavism, Shaivism, and Jainism through interpretations in sculpture, poetry, music, classical dance, and Kannada literature.

The sacred ensembles of the Hoysalas were far beyond temples for worship. They were extraordinary expressions of spiritual purpose and vehicles of spiritual practice and attainment. Set in the foothills of the hilly and forested terrain of the Western Ghats on sites of enduring sanctity, the sacred ensembles included grand and small Hindu temples designed on ancient treatises, Jaina temples, numerous secondary structures, intricate sculpture and iconography, temple dances and music, lakes and tanks, town planning with the sacred elements, and a relationship to the natural environment that was both material and symbolic.

The most remarkable architectural achievement of the Hoysala is the numerous intricately carved stone temples in star shaped plans. The architecture of the Hoysalas is a hybrid of the nagara style of temple architecture of north India and the dravidian style from the South. The temples were built on platforms and had a star shaped plan. A navaranga was usually included as a place for people to gather and participate in cultural programs such as music and dance performances, story-telling from mythology, and religious discourses. Visual elements such as a gently curving bell shaped chajja, and lathe turned stone pillars with circular rings carved on them are typical stylistic elements of Hoysala architecture. Rich sculptural decoration is a mark of the highest artistic achievement of the Hoysalas. The exterior walls of the numerous temples were intricately decorated with stone sculptures and carving. These sculptures are rich with religious and cultural iconography depicting gods and goddesses, wars and victories, dance and music, hunting, games, processions, and the dress, jewelry, and daily life of people and scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bhagavatham. The temples were built of a soft chlorite-schist stone quarried nearby that was especially soft when first quarried and hardened on contact with air. Other smaller temples, shrines, and mantapa dot the town. Mantapa that are pavilions or pillared halls of all sizes are a typical feature and occurred with temples and without.

Kalyani or stepped wells are commonly found in the Hoysala sacred ensembles. These wells served as an important source of water and were an important architectural structure. The lakes were places for bathing and ritual cleansing, worship, meditation, and water management for the agricultural areas surrounding the temple and town. Open Mantapas, present around the water bodies, provided shelter to visitors. A pushkarani or well was often located within the temple premises and a tank or lake adjacent to the temple.

The towns were planned on a cosmic diagram with main axes in the cardinal directions and the main temple at the center of town at the intersection of the axes. The temple complex had rathabeedi or wide streets for processions and circumambulation of the deities on enormous chariots. The town surrounded by a fort wall and moat as a defense mechanism. The typical settlement pattern consisted of a fortified area called kotte, and a commercial centre called pete. The kotte was on a slightly more elevated land and was made of mud and stone. Historians believe that typically, a dry moat or ditch surrounded the fort wall. The main temple was located in the middle of the fortified kotte on an elevated platform. The towns had grand entrance gateways in the four cardinal directions. Residential streets were narrow with an irregular grid. Outside the fort wall and around the lake were stretches of fields. A main street led from the temple to the pete forming the central spine of the town. The sacred ensembles of the Hoysalas at Belur and Halebid are the finest, most exquisite, and most representative examples of the artistic genius and cultural accomplishments of the Hoysalas remaining today.

Sacred Enesemble of the Hoysala at Belur

Belur was the first capital city of the Hoysalas. The Chennakeshava temple complex was at the center of the old walled town located on the banks of the Yagachi River. The complex itself was walled in a rectangular campus with four rectilinear streets around it for ritual circumambulation of the deity. Construction of the temple commenced in 1117 AD and took a 103 years to complete. A total of 118 stone inscriptions have been recovered from the temple complex covering a period from 1117 to 18th century, giving details of the artists employed, grants made to the temple and renovations done.

The Chennakeshava temple was devoted to Vishnu. The richly sculptured exterior of the temple includes sculptures and iconography and horizontal friezes that depict scenes from daily life, music, and dance, and narrate scenes from the life of Vishnu and his reincarnations and the epics, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. However, some of the representations of Shiva are also included. Consecrated on a sacred site, the temple has remained continuously worshipped since its establishment and remains until today as a site of pilgrimage for Vaishnavites.

The layout of the town represents the cosmic diagram with walled kotte, the streets in four cardinal directions, the temples of anjaneya at the gates at the ends of these four cardinal streets, the rathabeedi or chariot streets around the temple, and the remains of the defensive wall and moat. Chariot festivals with processions around the temple complex and festivals centered on the Vishnusamudhra lake have continued to this day. Monuments of the Shankareshwara temple complex, devoted to Shiva were located on the bank of the lake to the north of the fortified town, the Kalasadakere.

Sacred Ensembles of Halebid

At the zenith of the Hoysala empire, the capital was shifted from Belur to Halebid that was then known as Dorasamudhra. Far bigger and grander than Belur, the city served as the capital for nearly three centuries. However, the fort was attacked numerous times by invaders from North India who finally succeed in pillaging the city in 1310. The main temple at the center, various other smaller temples ad shrines and palace buildings were all destroyed making it the ‘ruined city’ or Halebid. Despite all the destruction, some temples and structures of unparalleled beauty still remain.

The Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebidu is the most exemplary architectural ensemble of the Hoysalas extant today. Built in 1121CE during the reign of the Hoysala King, Vishnuvardhana Hoysaleshwara. The temple, dedicated to Shiva, was sponsored and built by wealthy citizens and merchants of Dorasamudra. While rulers have typically sponsored the grandest temples in southern India, the merchants of the city dedicated the Hoysaleshwara temple. The intertwining of the sacred and spiritual attainment with commerce and artistic achievement was most clearly evidenced in the Hoysaleshwara temple. More sculpturally and artistically sophisticated than any other Hoysala temple, the Hoysaleshwara temple is most well-known for the more than 240 wall sculptures that run all along the outer wall. Bands of intricately carved friezes run along the exterior wall expressing aspirational spiritual qualities, symbolism, and mythology.

Halebid has a walled complex containing of three Jaina basadi (temples) of the Hoysala period as well as a stepped well. The basadi are located in close proximity to the Dorasamudhra lake. The Parshvanatha Basadi, the Adinatha Basadi, and the Shanthinatha Basadi are three Jaina shrines containing tall idols of the Jaina deities. The Parshvanatha Basadi, as the largest of them also has niches for idols of the 24 thirthankaras or saints of Jainism.

The Kedareshwara temple is another exquisitely carved temple dedicated to Shiva that is close to the Jaina basadi complex and with a temple pond adjacent to it. Other somewhat more modest temples of the Hoysala period that are made of similar architectural elements, material, and style dot Halebid including the Ranganathaswamy  temple, the Huccheshwara temple and the recently excavated remains of the Nagareshwara temple complex in addition to smaller shrines dedicated to Anjaneya and Ganesha. Dorasamudhra was built with defensive fortifications. The walls had 5 gateways in addition to the 4 main ones in the cardinal directions. Excavation has revealed the remains of an inner fortification protected the royal palace, offices, and women’s quarters.

Numerous tanks, wells, and ponds, are in and around the town and lakes just outside. The largest lake close to the Hoysaleshwara temple is the Dorasamudhra lake. Mantapa of various types are extant around the Dorasamudhra lake. Hulikere, located on the southern side of the town is a kalyani (stepped well) of exceptional beauty. Richly carved and decorated with numerous miniature shrines, the stone well is most outstanding example of Hoysala water structures extant today that combine artistry and hydrology with the sacred.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The ‘Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysala’ represents the pinnacle of artistic and cultural accomplishments of the Hoysala Empire that reigned from the 11th to the 14th Centuries CE largely in present day Karnataka in southern India. The properties also represent a cultural value and respect for the pluralistic spiritual beliefs of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Jainism and contributed to their development. The sacred and the spiritual intersected with ordinary people and daily lives in numerous ways.

Criterion (ii): The sacred ensembles of the Hoysala exhibit an interchange of human values in two kinds of syncretism unique to this region of the world.

First, in a region where Vaishnavism (sects of Hinduism who worshipped Vishnu) and Shaivism (sects of Hinduism who worshipped Shiva) were divided and often in conflict and where followers of each sect competed for power, the Hoysala ensembles bridged differences with an overt position of plurality in their built form that recognized and respected both. Further, they recognized Jainism, an entirely separate religion, on par with Hinduism. This syncretism in the architectural and spatial elements is testimony to the emphasis on an elevated level of spiritual attainment beyond rituals and material practices that was inclusive of all these different beliefs. Second, the architectural style of the Hoysala temples, followed the dravidian style of southern India, also incorporated elements from the North Indian nagara style of temple architecture. This was a unique effort at integrating nagara and dravidian style of temple architecture to create syncretic new forms.

Criterion (iii): The sacred ensembles of the Hoysalas bear unique testimony to the extraordinary artistic achievements, architectural skill, and cultural contributions of the Hoysala period. The exquisite intricacy of the stone sculpture and carvings on the Hoysala temples exteriors with attention to detail of ornamentation, clothing, and dynamic movement of human and animal figures are above and beyond any other. These poetic interpretations in stone of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bhagavatham was made possible in part by the soft chlorite-schist stone and in part by the intertwining of art with spirituality.

At a time when temples were rectangular based on ancient treatises, the Hoysala temples were temples were unique in their star-shaped plans, complex forms, and raised platforms. Their formal geometry and unparalleled in the artistry of their sculptural details have earned them recognition as outstanding masterpieces of South Asian art. Characteristic architectural elements such as the lathe turned stone pillars, the curved and corbelled vimana or towers over the shrines that combined the nagara and dravidian architectural styles, and the bell shaped cornices are significant innovations in the development of temple architecture.

Sacredness and spirituality were integrated into a variety of spheres: from the location of the towns on sacred sites nestled in the foothills of the hilly and forested terrains of the Western Ghats, to the water bodies, and the layout of the city based privileging a cosmic diagram. The sculpture and iconography of all the structures valorized the deities and expressed the spiritual beliefs while providing visitors yet another vehicle for spiritual elevation.

Criterion (vi): Belur has remained continuously inhabited as a town since the 12th century and worship has been

continuous at a majority of the shrines and temples and at the lakes and ponds. The Chennakeshava temple in Belur remains an important pilgrimage center for for Vaishnavites. Halebid lost most of its inhabitants at the time of the city’s destruction in the 14th century and worship at the main temple had ceased for a period of time and revived in recent years. However, the smaller temples and shrines have remained in continuous use.

Literature too flourished in this period and the Kannada language developed (spoken today by 60 million people). The environment of religious plurality and the close intermingling of spirituality and art made integrated religious and literary writings. Jaina scholars in this period wrote extensively on Jainism and Veershaiva writers, devotees of Shiva, wrote important expositions on Shaivism.Important  treatises on Kannada grammar, poetry, natural sciences, and mathematics, were written during the period. The development of the Bhakti movement (spiritual liberation through devotion) in Kannada saw their beginnings under the Hoysala. Numerous Hoysala epigraphs written in Kannada poetry rather than prose are found in the region.

Bharatnatyam, an important classical temple dance form of India that continues to this day, developed substantially during the Hoysala period. The friezes, sculptures, and brackets on the exterior of the main temples in Belur and Halebid depict female forms in a variety of dance positions, an invaluable resource to dancers to this day. The integration of the navaranga or a performance pavilion adjacent to the main temple hall is an important evidence of this support for the temple dance form of Bharatnatyam.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The two components of the serial nomination, the sacred ensembles of Belur and Halebid, and their various elements largely preserve their original forms and designs. Conservation works for the maintemples monuments have been carried out since the Vijayanagara period (14th century) and for the last hundred years by the Archaeological Survey of India. The sacred ensembles at Belur maintain a high level of integrity in their physical form, and inter-connections of the various elements as identified in their cultural values. At Halebid the physical form and design are very well preserved for several of the most important elements of the ensembles, however, following the destruction of the city in the 14th century, some of the aspects of the layout of the city and the interconnections between the elements are not as visible. The walled fortifications are identifiable by their remains in both Belur and Halebid but are not fully intact. The vimana or towers over the main shrines of the main temples at both Belur and Halebid, are not of their original height as some part of the top fell in the intervening centuries. The collapsed vimana were never rebuilt and were not believed to have been tall or imposing even in the original. The moat in Belur is intact. The main temples at Belur and Halebid are under the Archaeological Survey of India and scrupulously preserved. The properties and elements continue their original functions and retain their original location and context.

Comparison with other similar properties

Comparison with similar properties in India already on the World Heritage List include the Great Living Chola Temples, the Group of Monuments at Hampi, the Khajuraho Group of Monuments, the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, Group of Monuments at Pattadakal, Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya, and the Sun Temple, Konarak. Also comparable is the Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam and the Meenakshi temple at Madurai. Comparable sites internationally include Angkor, Cambodia; Historic City of Ayutthaya, Thailand; Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, Japan; Gyeongju Historic Areas, South Korea; Sacred City of Kandy, Sri Lanka; and the Shrines and Temples of Nikko, Japan.

In comparison, first, the sacred ensembles of the Hoysala are far more than temples for worship as expressions and vehicles of spirituality. The Mahabodhi Complex, the City of Kandy, Angkor, Gyeongju, Nikko, Srirangam, Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Konarak, and the Chola temples were all intended for the worship by a single religious following or honored a single god. The sacred elements of the ensembles have also played a significant role in the development of classical dance and Kannada literature. Third, the relationship between built and natural elements; monuments and secondary structures; the sacred setting, `as well as the layout of the town are all important in the expression of the spiritual purpose of the sacred ensembles and also in their serving as vehicles for spiritual attainment.