Now a sleepy hamlet, Belur was the capital of the Hoysala kings at the height of their reign. The magnificent soapstone Temple of Lord Channakeshava (free admission; daily sunrise-sunset), built over a period of 103 years, was commissioned to commemorate the victory of Vishnuvardhana over the Cholas from Tamil Nadu; apparently, it was so admired by Belur's iconoclastic Muslim invaders that they decided to leave it intact.
Built on a star-shaped plan, the temple stands on a raised platform within a courtyard surrounded by an outer wall. After you survey the courtyard, approach the temple by climbing the short flight of steps. Despite its compact scale, the profusion of carved decoration is spectacular, the multicornered shape of the temple allowing maximum space for sculptures of Vishnu and a vast retinue of Hindu images. Covering the flat-roofed building are detailed representations of myriad themes -- ranging from erotica to religious mythology, everyday events to episodes from the Ramayana -- arranged in bands that wrap the entire exterior in delightful compositions. The temple itself is borne by almost 650 stone elephants. Don't miss the various bracket figures, which are considered the highlight of Hoysala workmanship. Use a torch to study the temple interior, at the center of which is a pillar adorned with smaller versions of the temple's 10,000 sculpted images. Belur is a living temple, and a silver-plated image of Vishnu within the inner sanctum is still worshiped; puja (prayer) is performed at 9am and 7pm each day, and the inner sanctums are closed between 1 and 3pm and 5 and 6pm.
Once known as Dwara Samudra, "the gateway to the sea," Halebid usurped Belur's position as the Hoysalan capital in the 12th century. Unfortunately, when the Muslim invaders arrived, Halebid failed to escape their wrath. Appropriately, its current name means "old city," as it consists of only a dusty road and some well-crafted temples amid a lush landscape with the Western Ghats as a distant backdrop. Exquisitely sculpted Hoysalesvara Temple (free admission; shoe-check Rs 10; sunrise-sunset) is the largest of the Hoysala temples. Hoysalesvara actually consists of two distinct temples resting upon a star-shaped platform, both dedicated to Shiva. It has more complex and detailed carvings than those at Belur. You can discover the 20,000-odd sculptures in and around the temple on your own, or enlist the services of a guide (who will approach you as you arrive at the monument; expect to pay around Rs 200, but do include a tip). You can visit the on-site Archaeological Museum (Rs 2; Sat-Thurs 10am-5pm) to see more stone statues of Hindu gods, gathered from Halebid and its immediate environs. If you want more of the same, without the touristy vibe, head for Kedareshvara Temple, 300m (984 ft.) away and marked by its serene location.
Also in Halebid are several Jain Bastis that allude to the religious tolerance of the Hoysala kings, who extended patronage to other faiths. Although lacking the immense carved decoration of the Hindu monuments, Parswanathasamy Temple (free admission; daily sunrise-sunset) enjoys a lovely lakeside location.
For members of the peace-loving, nonviolent Jain faith, this is one of the oldest and most important pilgrimage centers, famous for its colossal 18m (59-ft.) statue of Lord Gomateswara, said to be the tallest monolithic statue on earth, and reached by climbing the 635 steps that lead to the hill's summit. Naked and imposing, the statue is a symbolic representation of worldly renunciation.
Commissioned in A.D. 981, the Statue of Gomateswara is a representation of Bahubali. Son of the first Jain Tirthankara Adinatha, Bahubali renounced his kingdom and sought enlightenment by standing naked and motionless for an entire year while contemplating the meaning of life. Seen in detail on the legs of the statue, the creepers and plants twisting their way up his body are symbolic of his motionless mission of spiritual discovery. A special celebration (Mahamastakabhisheka, or the Great Annointing) is held here every 12 years, when the giant monolith is bathed with bucketfuls of milk and honey. The next ceremony takes place in 2018.
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